When, in 1985, Nintendo’s in-house genius Shigeru Miyamoto unleashed Super Mario Bros on the nascent world of gaming, he could scarcely have imagined that it would act as the definitive blueprint for one of the games world’s most enduring genres: the 2D side-scrolling platformer. Still less that, over 30 years later, he would be able to let any old gamer emulate his development process (albeit with vastly superior tools than the ones he had in 1985), while melding the most venerable gameplay with a truly 21st-century gaming phenomenon. But that’s what Super Mario Maker does: by giving gamers the means to create their own Super Mario courses, it enters the realms of user-generated content alongside the stunningly successful likes of Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet.

Super Mario Maker gently eases you into your quest to become the new Miyamoto, with a half-built course that you must jazz up simply by painting new elements on the screen of the Wii U’s Gamepad, using the stylus. You can add various blocks, either vanilla or containing power-ups and rewards, enemies such as goombas, trampolines, pipes and so on. Then, using the so-called Coursebot, you can name your creation (the game carefully explains that an interesting name can attract a much bigger audience) and publish it for all to play. Although, sensibly, you aren’t allowed to publish it until you’ve completed a play-through – it’s dead easy to make courses that are physically impossible to negotiate.

At first, there’s plenty of potential for embarrassment, when you realise that perhaps your level-design skills aren’t quite yet on a par with those of Miyamoto, and what you’ve posted for others to play is not going to change the face of gaming at a stroke. But Coursebot, mercifully, lets you delete your juvenilia, and as you persist, you will undergo a number of small realisations about what constitutes a good side-scrolling 2D platform level.

You will, however, have to demonstrate a certain amount of persistence when you start playing Super Mario Maker. That’s because, rather than giving you the full palette of course-design elements right away, it starts you off with a very limited set, then drip-feeds a daily selection of new ones, after monitoring how much time you’ve spent playing the game. This is somewhat frustrating: a walk-before-you-can-run approach is all well and good but, from the off, you can download vast amounts of courses that others have created, full of exotic elements like doors, Boos, lava and platforms that move along carefully delineated paths, but you can’t properly edit those levels until you’ve played Super Mario Maker long enough to have acquired those elements.

Super Mario Maker screenshot
After three decades of Mario games, Nintendo is inviting players to create their own levels in the bouncy plumber’s homeland. Photograph: AP

Still, that approach does at least focus you on the basics of designing Super Mario levels, which can only be a good thing. And cute touches abound. You can re-skin your mini-masterpieces at the touch of an icon – initially, you’re given the classic Super Mario Bros art-style, along with that of New Super Mario Bros U, but there are countless others to acquire, taking you through some of the more obscure historical iterations of the game. Every art style has an underground variation, so you can instantly make sub-levels, accessible via pipes. Underwater and boss levels are possible, and hooking up amiibos gives you exotic, non-standard Mario power-ups. The fact that, unlike Miyamoto himself, Super Mario Maker owners are free from the tyranny of having to make coherent, structured games means that there’s already an awful lot of wild and inventive experimentation on show. Although you are still encouraged to make whole worlds, consisting of groups of four levels.

Once you’ve played Super Mario Maker enough to unlock everything (a process that takes the best part of a week), something of a step-change occurs, and you can get busy busting the Mario conventions that have stood for three decades. But if your skills do prove a tad deficient, Super Mario Maker still has plenty to offer. Course World is a giant repository of user-generated levels, and you can opt to take the 100 Mario Challenge, which picks sets of eight courses and gives you 100 lives with which to reach the end – not as generous as it may sound, since difficulty levels tend towards the fearsome. A 10 Mario Challenge offers a similar experience, but with tightly selected levels that showcase some of the more outlandish forms of gameplay that Super Mario Maker supports, and are designed to get your creative juices running. Plus you can dive into any random level in Course World that sounds appealing, or sample anything made by particular individuals who have impressed you.

Once you overcome the initial frustration engendered by Super Mario Maker’s refusal to give you all its tools at once, it provides a wondrously moreish experience that will enthral a generation of tinkerers. Much as a generation of young teens has been enthralled by Minecraft. And as anything you create in Super Mario Maker will appeal to people older than 15, as well as plenty who are younger, it offers a great progression for Minecrafters who have honed their design skills, yet are starting to feel like one-trick ponies. If it throws up a whole new generation of Miyamotos, it will go down as one of the most significant games in history.

Viewed purely as a game, it’s a curiosity, lacking appeal to those who demand instant action. But it is surely destined to become known as a cult-classic, and it will be interesting to see if it fuels a spike in Wii U sales.

This article titled “Super Mario Maker review – a designable Mario for the Minecraft generation” was written by Steve Boxer, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 15th September 2015 06.00 UTC

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