When I was younger, I always had a pretty crazy imagination. As a kid, I’d set up action figures and lego blocks to make all these far-out structures and situations and play out some kind of conflict between the Ninja Turtles and various forms of Batman (Cyborg Batman was particularly badass). I’d craft all sorts of things in Mario Paint, like stamps that resembled the gun pickups from Doom or stupid animations and music that, in hindsight, didn’t make much sense. Plus, before I ever wanted to become an entomologist, or a zoologist for that matter, my desire was to get into illustration. I used to draw almost daily, and I remember being incredibly amazed at the concept art found in Metroid Prime, which flung my interest towards concept art.
That never happened, but the takeaway here is I used to be very creative and imaginative. I still am, to an extent, but I don’t draw anymore because there just isn’t time for it in my life right now…and sadly enough, I can’t see that changing anytime soon.
When I was about 8 or 9, my parents purchased our first computer. It was a Compaq Presario with 133 Mhz of unstoppable processing power and a whopping 0.98 gigabytes of hard drive space! It also came with a number of cool games from a company called Sierra, which I’m sure a lot of you retro gamers are familiar with. These games included King’s Quest VII (in which you don’t play as a king at any point whatsoever), Lode Runner: The Legend Returns, and The Incredible Toon Machine…a sort of spin-off of Sierra’s popular Incredible Machine series. I later got a copy of Descent II for Christmas, but until I became more familiar with computer gaming in general, these 3 titles were my source of PC goodness at home.
The interesting thing here is that two out of three of those games had level creation modes. In The Incredible Toon Machine, you could craft your own Rube Goldberg devices and give people the tools they needed to make them run properly and achieve a goal. This actually took up quite a bit of my time while playing the game, despite the fact that my friends never really checked them out. The same could be said for Lode Runner: TLR, a puzzle-platform title in which you progress level by level, completing each stage by collecting all the gold in it, while using a lot of unique tools to navigate the areas and dodge crazed enemies known as Mad Monks that literally ripped you apart when they got a hold of you. The stage creator in it was fun and easy to use, so I made sure to create a few when I got the chance even though it was usually only me that wound up playing them.
Later on, I tried my hand at some Descent II stage creation, but didn’t find it all that fun despite being pretty straightforward. Years later, during my second year of university, I managed to use DoomBuilder (a powerful and relatively simple Doom level creator) to make a Doom II stage, using a modified engine known as ZDoom. ZDoom allowed a lot of neat effects and additional tricks, but I did my best to keep things still in the realm of classic Doom map possibilities. It was to be the first in a line of maps that told a story taking place after Doom 64, and would eventually tie all the major iD Software franchises (Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein at the time) together into an interwoven plot. It was partially inspired by Metroid Prime in that you could ‘scan’ objects and terminals in the stage to gain bits of story, but 90% of them were optional. Unfortunately, I burned out making the first stage and realized I would never have time to make the rest if I wanted to pass my university courses…but it was fun and quite educational while it lasted! The file is actually still available for download, and you can snag it HERE if you want to check it out! (Just make sure you have ZDoom and Doom II first, since it needs those resources)
Despite all of these fun times with stage creation throughout my life, later on my interest in such things began to decrease. I stopped creating things as much as I used to, and ‘creative’ titles such as Minecraft, Terraria, or other such things were lost on me. While these games likely would have occupied a great amount of my time when I was younger, I’m sure, I just haven’t been able to get into them at all lately.
So, when Nintendo announced that they were releasing a brand new title known as Mario Maker (later to be renamed Super Mario Maker), my attitude was extremely ‘meh’. I have always loved the Super Mario Bros. series, and platformers in general, so you’d suppose that I’d jump at the thought of creating my own stages and playing all of the insane creations supplied by the millions of other users out there in the vast world. I didn’t, though…and I’m still not quite sure why.
Every time I’d see a trailer or new piece of information, I’d think ‘That’s cool, but I’d rather just play a professionally-made Mario game with good difficulty ramping and clever level layouts instead of creating my own.’ When I’d watch videos of people making stages, I’d think to myself ‘Yeah, but you know that 85% of the user-generated content is going to be trash’ (SPOILER: THIS IS TRUE). I just didn’t want to get the game at all, initially. The more things they showed, the higher my interest became, but it still wasn’t enough to make me drop the money for a copy when it came out. I was completely on the fence, even after hearing so many positive things about the game and seeing the amazing review scores it was racking up after release. Some people have suggested that it’s because I don’t have a soul. (They might be right.)
Anyway, that all being said, and despite my uncertainty about the title…my amazing girlfriend bought me a copy for my birthday! I unwrapped that sucker and put the disc in my Wii U, and was immediately greeted by a Mario Paint reference right before the title screen in the form of a fly swatter hitting a fly, a clear nod to the Gnat Attack sub-game found in the Super Nintendo title. The charm begins.
Rather than direct you right into the game menus, Super Mario Maker gets you to play a mockery stage that you can’t complete, as there’s an insurmountable pit right before the flagpole…so it asks you to ‘repair’ the level so that it’s actually functional. In this quick tutorial, you learn how to construct blocks, place power-ups inside of ‘?’ boxes, and set enemies up in ridiculous fashions. It’s all incredibly simple and straightforward, so making your ideal stage is a piece of fuckin’ cake!
The first thing I did after this tutorial was fire up the course selection to try out some user-made stages…but in all honesty, I quickly went back to the level design component and started crafting my First Stage (the actual name of it). I scanned my amiibos in to get mystery mushrooms that transform Mario into various characters, which marks the first time I’ve used my amiibos since I’ve purchased them. Of course, the first question block I created had to have a mushroom that turns you into Mega Man, despite the stage not being Mega Man inspired at all.
Soon enough I was crafting pipes with giant piranha plants in them with the ability to spew fire, attaching wings to stationary blocks to allow them to float about, and scattering coins around the stage to reward players for entering tricky situations or to guide them through the level. The great thing about Super Mario Maker is that you can start and stop playing at any point in your stage to make sure each part is doable, so it’s very easy to test your creation piece by piece. It’s good to do this, actually, since you HAVE to be able to clear the entire stage in order to upload it, which is a great basic quality control method, in my opinion.
Perhaps one of the most charming things in the game is the noise you hear when you place an object. The background music as you create stages is a slightly-altered version of the stage theme, so if you’re making a Ground-type stage in Super Mario Bros., you’ll constantly be listening to a version of the musical number we all know and love. When you place something down, though…let’s say a Goomba, you hear an auto-tuned voice say ‘Goomba’ that fits the notes of the music! I have found myself placing objects to the beat of the background tunes more often than not, because having the player sort of ‘make’ the music as they create their stage is incredibly hilarious and addictive.
Then, before I knew it, I was done my stage and an hour had flown by without even noticing. I was having so much damn fun just experimenting and figuring out level layout plans that I was completely sucked in. By creating the stage, I had done enough work to unlock a new set of critters and structures to be used the next day, and eventually became able to make underwater stages, ghost houses, and airships. The Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World layouts also eventually became usable, which also made me yearn for a Super Mario Bros. 2 tileset. The point here, though, is that I was creating enough content to access these features…once I started creating something, I couldn’t stop working on it and figuring out the design, because it’s so damn FUN!
It’s this process of fun creation that really gets you into the main draw of the title, and keeps you invested to the point where you start to think of more advanced level design. For example, I made a perfect recreation of the first level of Contra for the NES. It has Koopa Troopas carrying Rocky Wrenches, which act as Mario-height soldiers that fire projectiles. Fire flowers float by on wings, which makes them act in the exact same way as the weapon pods in Contra. The bridges explode by the use of short-fuse Bob-Ombs, and at the end of the stage, you blast Bob-Ombs with fireballs to bring Bowser to the bottom of a stone tower where you can easily hit him directly, which acts as the ‘base’ boss from the original game. Oh, all the enemies have specialized sound effects attached to them as well, so when you kill them they let out a bloodcurdling scream…because why the fuck not!
Anyway, my point is that despite being uncertain about Super Mario Maker and how much I would actually use the stage creator built into it, it has been an absolute blast thanks to simple but powerful stage editing functions. It brings me back to those times when I used to toil away at Lode Runner and The Incredible Toon Machine to craft my own experiences simply by placing objects on the screen and watching them interact, ensuring that the result was exactly what I wanted. I get to create stages for a franchise that I’ve loved to play for decades that function just as they feel like they should, and at the same time I can experience shared levels from all around the globe. It takes some sifting and research to find the good ones, but the good ones are GOOD! Super Mario Maker won me over so damn quickly the moment I got my hands on it, it’s not even funny.
If you’re unsure about the title, be sure to at least try it out. I was probably about as ‘meh’ as somebody can get about it, but once I actually got to try the stage creation component, I dug right in and could not stop playing. I fire it up every day, at least to play some of the stages people have come out with, and although a lot of my Wii U time is spent playing Smash Bros. (because I am obsessed), Super Mario Maker is an excellent addition to my collection and should absolutely not be overlooked, even by those that are the most skeptical.
P.S. If you want to check out my stages, look up these course codes in Super Mario Maker:
First Stage: 85E6-0000-006C-E2C9
Perilous Pond: F48F-0000-0078-B98D
Hall of Flame: B910-0000-007B-0578
U.S.S. Gauntlet: BE71-0000-0082-D192
Super Contra World: E23D-0000-0093-3582
They are tough, but definitely beatable! You can do it!