Reviewing Mario Maker feels weird.
This whole article going to feel navel gaze-y and self reflective, but I feel like that's something of the point of Mario Maker. When we review things here at Built to Play, we use a binary scale: is it worth your time, or isn't it? There are other factors than time, sure, money comes to mind obviously, and the effort it would take to obtain something, but we feel like any piece of art can only have its monetary value set by the person looking to purchase it, so we just try to give your the information to make that decision for yourself.
But Mario Maker isn't a piece or art. There's a debate of whether or not games should be reviewed as consumer products, and while we think they shouldn't, that's sort of what Mario Maker is. It's a tool. A wonderfully designed, clever toy full of cute surprises and fantastic Easter eggs, but at he end of the day, it's a tool to make Mario levels. It's very good at that, but the question on my mind is whether or not its $60+ worth of good at that.
Mario Maker is more than just a level creator. I can't remember who made this tweet, but someone on twitter said that in a perfect world, every game would have a Mario Maker. It's a brilliant piece of educational software on the core tenets of platformer design, on the vocabulary of game design, even on the conceptualization of fun.
Initially, press copies of the games were set to unlock a new set of level design tools every day for nine days. Day one gave you enough tools to make 1-1, day two would let you craft 1-2, and so on and so forth. It seems annoying to have to unlock things like that at first, but that limitation breeds creativity. You learn the ins and outs of the few pieces you're given, then how to make them work in new and interesting ways with the other tools you unlock. That system has been patched out of the game, which is more consumer friendly, but does sort of distract from how useful Mario Maker is as a teaching tool.
Mario Maker teaches you how to be a smart designer, with built in feedback tools that show you where players die in a level, and the comments they leave after the win, or suffer their hundreth death from the awful kaizo trap you've created. It teaches you how to be a more careful designer, with dozens of sample levels that show off the weird things you can do, along with the more intricate interactions between level parts that may have never shown up together in one Mario game.
I spent most of my time with Mario Maker trying to make a simple, connected four-level world built around just one mechanic: jumping. Every level was themed around moving between platforms, and was designed to give players a grounding in exactly how Mario's jumps worked. My brother, on the other hand, attempted to throw as many level parts into one stage as he could, creating a roller-coaster-esque fire bar gauntlet you had to approach from on top of various moving platforms. Levels I found online ranged from careful and meticulous, to strange and over complicated, to single-room challenges designed around one interaction. It's flexible, it's clever, and it's loaded with great Easter eggs (try putting every different enemy in a clown car, it's great).
But, it's something that's been available for years. Mario Maker is certainly a cut above SMBX in terms of complexity, accessibility and ease of use, but fundamentally, they're very similar. At its best, Mario Maker feels like the Photoshop to SMBX's MS Paint. An essential upgrade for those who would care, but for a specific audience. It's an amazing upgrade though, filled with personality and guidance and flexibility that SMBX couldn't have ever dreamed of. Sharing levels is wonderful, finding levels is simple, and despite some glaring omissions (the inability to upload level replays to YouTube feels like an obvious feature that is strangely absent), Mario Maker beats pretty much everything that SMBX has had for years.
When you place a block down in Mario Maker, the music sings "block" to the tune of the level music. When you use an Amiibo costume, the death noises change to match the game the character is from. Sometimes, when you hit a mushroom, Mario turns into a terrifying, lanky monstrosity officially named "Weird Mario". Mario Maker is, at its heart, a tool for making Mario levels. But beyond that, it's a wonderful tribute to the weirdness and creativity that's always been inherent to the series. Maybe it doesn't feel big enough to be the 30th anniversary celebration game, but in a way, that in itself feels oddly appropriate.
Verdict: Thumbs Up
This game is worth your time. It's interesting, it does something new, or it feels like it's special in a way we maybe haven't seen before. Any way it stands, we feel like you should play this game if you can.
NOTE: Stay tuned to Built to Play for an audio review that will include Arman's reaction to Daniel's sad attempts at level design.