Super Mario Maker, at its core, is so simple an idea that it's both amazing Nintendo hasn't done it before and astonishing that they executed it so well. As its name implies, it's not so much a game as it is a tool with which you can make your own Super Mario Bros. levels. It's simple enough that anyone can pick it up yet powerful enough that it can create masterpieces.
Like the original Super Mario Bros. itself, Super Mario Maker is the best in its class. Other games have given users the ability to create their own levels and other content, but never before has it been done this well.
It's also something that couldn't exist on any console except the Wii U, thanks to the touch screen on the system's signature GamePad controller. Creating levels is as simple as drawing with the stylus. If you've ever sketched out even the most simple 2D platformer level on a piece of paper then chances are you can recreate it with ease in Super Mario Maker.
The game's mastery of teaching you its tools is evident from the second you boot it up. The first thing you see is a level that should be extremely familiar to old school video game players, as it's a twist on 1-1 -- the iconic first stage in the original Super Mario Bros. But the level is unfinished and impossible to create, so you're tasking with adding in the missing elements.
Step by step and bit by bit, you're handed keys to more tools with which to create more complex stages. Super Mario Maker doles out its functionality over time, making sure that you know how to place basic blocks and hide mushrooms and coins inside them before it lets you loose with things like Yoshi eggs, Hammer Bros. and Chain Chomps.
Before long you'll unlock the ability to make underwater stages. You'll unlock the ability to make games in four different Mario Bros. styles that you can swap between on the fly (the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros., each of which has its own physics and play style). You'll unlock pipes and clouds and power-ups and familiar enemies and so much more that will fill Nintendo fans with immense nostalgia.
(When reviewing the game over the course of a month, new content was given to me each day over the course of nine days. Reports online, however, suggest that Nintendo has modified this with a recent patch so that new tools are now delivered much more quickly.)
The slow incline is nice for anybody new to the concept of game design (though it could be frustrating for anyone who wants every option unlocked from the start), but remarkably intuitive user interface is welcoming even when it presents a lot of options. Every creative function is handled in new yet logical ways, provided you know the rules of how Mario games work.
For example, say you want your level to have extra large goomba enemies. If you've ever played a Mario game then you probably know that mushrooms make Mario bigger when he collects them. So how might you make a goomba bigger? Just drag a mushroom onto it.
You can also subvert many of those old Mario ideas. Want to make a cannon shoot coins instead of bullets? Go for it. Want to give a fire flower wings? Have at it. This really is your sandbox to play in.
This isn't the kind of design that you would find in professional game design software, but it's perfect for a mainstream player. It democratizes the act of creation to the point that just about anybody can pick up Super Mario Maker and start making levels.
And that Nintendo charm is present throughout the entire experience. Every block you lay is accompanied by musical notes that are in tune with the classic Mario music present in the background, every bit of animation and art is charming and aesthetically pleasing and every in-game function is easy to find and use.
But let's say you're not a huge fan of creating your own levels. If you want to simply play new Super Mario Bros. stages that others have created, you can do that extremely easily as well.
There are a variety of stages built into Super Mario Maker, many of which are designed specifically to show off crazy ways you can use individual elements. They're fun to play through, and some will give you a serious challenge, but they also don't feel like a complete package the same way a true Mario sequel would.
However, if all you want is an endless supply of Mario levels from creators around the world, Super Mario Maker will give that to you easily.
By hopping into what they call Course World you can search the Internet for popular stages, stages created by friends and more. If you just want to be served level after random level, you can also choose the 100-Mario challenge, which will throw levels at you one after another, giving you 100 lives to get through all of them.
"100 lives?" you ask? "That seems like more than enough." It could be, depending on the levels you play. But don't get too comfortable. Even early on, creators have proven that they can make incredibly challenging levels, some of which are downright diabolical. Every level has to be beatable before it can be uploaded to Nintendo's servers, but that doesn't mean it has to be easy.
There's also nothing stopping a player from creating a level with the sole purpose of toying with people.
As enamored as I am with Super Mario Maker's creation tools, it's the online functionality that has me extremely excited about the game. For several week's before the game's retail release my download options have been severely limited. Fellow reviewers have created some pretty cool stuff (including more than one attempt at making a Metroid-style game in the Mario framework), but I know that the game will really shine when it's in the hands of far more people.
Super Mario Maker is nothing short of brilliant. It makes a lofty promise -- offering to fulfill the dream of many a child who grew up with an NES -- and delivers on it with style. It makes it easy for anybody to make Mario, and playing in other people's imaginations is a blast.