This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Super Mario Maker.

Transcript Edit

So here, presumably, is how the conversation went down: 

"Hi, kids!" 

"Hi, uncle who works at Nintendo!" 

"Do you like Mario?"

"Sure do!"

"Have you ever wanted to make your own Mario levels and play a theoretically infinite number of community-created ones?"

"More than wanted to, Uncle Nintendo! Fan-created ROM hacks and tribute games have existed almost as long as the games themselves."

"We know! And now you can take them all away and smash them to pieces with a cease-and-desist letter on the end of a two-by-four, 'cos now you can do pretty much the same thing with Super Mario Maker. It's considerably less versatile and creatively fulfilling, but here is the good part: it makes us a hell of a lot more money. Say thank you." 

"Thank you, Uncle Nintendo."

"Now I think we both know you have better ways of showing gratitude than that, kids."

But then, this is Nintendo's pattern, isn't it? They did the same thing with Let's Play videos. "You know that thing the fans do out of love for our product? That's ours now. And we're gonna turn the screws until all that love turns into money because goodwill is nice and all, but it's not gonna wax the Lamborghini."

Still, they're not running a fucking charity, guys; someone has to pay for all those unsold Luigi amiibos. But I still find it alarming how quickly the Mario franchise has devolved ever since it peaked with Mario Galaxy. It ran back to 2D with the increasingly ironically-named New Super Mario Brothers series. And despite a brief attempt to patch up the thing they had with 3D gameplay in the make-or-break second honeymoon that was Super Mario 3D World, the divorce has been finalized and Mario has now devolved to the point where they can't even be arsed to design levels for it anymore. 

And whatever Super Mario Maker's individual merits, you can't deny that this is something you only do when there's bugger-all left that can be done with the franchise. Very rarely is the colour-it-yourself Jurassic World activity book considered as big a release as the original film. And that's what Super Mario Maker is: it's a great, big, brightly-coloured smile through clenched teeth and a cheerful cry of, "Well, if you're so clever, you fucking do it."

If Nintendo's scheme was to make us appreciate the stranglehold they have on their intellectual property by showing us the landslide of soiled nappies that results when they loosen their grip for a second, then it almost worked. But the level editor they provided isn't that flexible, so it's more like an asshole dad batting his nine-year-old's pitch into next door's garden and very slowly going for the home run. "Oh, couldn't you make a level as good as us with precisely the same parameters we had about twenty years ago? Better leave it to the grown-ups then."  

Perhaps I could make something more impressive if the building mode started with more assets unlocked than two kinds of Stickle Bricks and a baby harp seal. I know when you're selling a creativity tool to a general audience that could get distracted by an ant spunking into a tin bath on the other side of a house, you don't wanna throw shit like path-finding AI at them in lesson one. But if you trust us with a Goomba, one might assume we could muddle our way through jumpy fish as well. This isn't about player training though, is it? Only through time and repeated sessions does more stuff unlock, not unlike with Splatoon's two-levels-at-a-time thing. I guess paying money isn't enough of a pledge of loyalty for Nintendo anymore, and the technology doesn't yet support ritualistic fingertip removal

I do wish we could've been permitted a bit more creativity with the cosmetics. Maybe I want to do a fiery lava level with a sunny, green meadow in the background, as some kind of David Lynch-style visual metaphor for the rot behind society's innocent facade. Furthermore, cosmetic trees and rocks and shit seem to get added randomly without our input. And it would have been nice to be able to consciously put down a weeping willow to represent the jet of spunk coming out of the big willy I made out of bouncy music-note blocks. But I suppose if it's creative fulfillment you're after, you just make your own game from scratch or write a book or bite the tip of your finger open and scrawl patterns all over the walls of your cell in your own blood. Look at me, everyone, it took me four paragraphs to draw the conclusion that Super Mario Maker is just for making Mario levels. You can make them based on Super Mario Brothers 1 and 3 on the NES, Super Mario World on the SNES or New Super Mario Brothers of no fixed abode. Here's a brief summary of the crucial differences between those four seminal titles: [pause] That was it. It's just cosmetic, really, and that makes me come over all introspective:

Mario went to a Land, a World, a Galaxy; he's golfed, karted, partied and, erm, sharted. We even had him teach you typing once, 'cause when you hear his faintly racist Italian gibberish, you quite naturally think that here's a guy that needs to share the secret of his communication skills. And now you can see how far his journey took him: to exactly the same fucking place he started, just with volumetric lighting and more than one background colour. 

But enough philosophy, let's get back to drawing cocks with blocks. Fun though it is to force an entire legion of Koopa Troopas to march in the form of the word 'minge', the creativity toy is a two-way street. A double penetration if you will. And without players it's just 'minge' marching into the void. But playing Super Mario Maker is not what I'd call fulfilling. Obviously, I immediately looked to the highest-rated user levels of all time because Yahtzee fucking Croshaw won't be fobbed off with any old tat. But most of the top five were novelty levels where you don't move and just get shunted to the exit through an elaborate Heath Robinson machine like a turd in the Birmingham canal system. 

You see, relying on the public for game-selling content is always inevitably like relying on a Super Soaker full of raw sewage to paint your living room. And the general audience likes novelty more than they like their ability to fucking breathe in and out. A novelty level may distract if viewed as a five-minute YouTube video on the day that all other forms of entertainment inexplicably caught fire, but it's not what I disinfected the largely unused Wii U controller for. 

So I turned to random levels, most of which fall into one of three categories: 

  • a level with ten million of something, 
  • the kind of obnoxious difficulty a Roald Dahl villain would come up with,
  • or ten million of something being obnoxiously difficult.

Maybe you could stick to entering level codes from your mates, an experience reminiscent of all that Wii Friend Code bullshit, in that it brings to gaming all the rip-snorting fun of ordering plane tickets online. Perhaps we should stick to novelty levels after all, since that's what Super Mario Maker is: a novelty. Hope you liked 2D Mario platformers while they lasted, 'cause now we've stripped them down to their guts and thrown all the bits out to the crowd. Maybe you can extract one more fleeting laugh from them by sticking them out through your trouser zippers and yelling, "Look everyone, I've caught gonorrhea!" 

Addenda Edit

  • Temperamental artist type: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • Rest assured I did my research on this one: the Luigi amiibo is at time of writing fetching the lowest price on eBay
  • Fake it 'til you make it
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