Want to play gimmick levels, auto run levels, slight variations on 1-1, and hilariously difficult levels with poor game design? You can find those anywhere in the brand-new Wii U game. It’s flooded with them.
I’ve seen blame cast on the players, but the game’s interface is partially to blame, as is the fact that, as a society we’re just not all good at making games. Not yet, anyway.
The criticism of Mario Maker’s amateur level-creators is easy to find. I’ve seen it all over message boards and social media.
Just today, The Washington Post published a piece titled “’Super Mario Maker’ is an engine for circulating horrible new ‘Mario’ levels.” The author, Michael Thomsen, says that the game is “a tool for the mass production of cultural refuse, single-use distractions that fail to replicate the spirit of the original.”
There is a futile egotism to “Super Mario Maker,” a piece of software that caters to delusory belief that enthusiasm and creativity are interchangeable, that being a fan of something can, if practiced with enough care, create an equivalent of the work to which one’s fandom is fixated.
There are indeed plenty of awful creations in Mario Maker, many of which do not embody the spirit of the original Mario games. I said as much in my review weeks ago. I argued that this rawness was a part of the charm, and if I want classic Mario levels, I have a pretty good selection of already-existing games I can turn to.
The real issue, which Thomsen misses, is that the game does not do a good enough job of highlighting worthwhile levels.
Mario Maker isn’t a worse game simply because all these shitty levels exist. That would be like saying YouTube is garbage just because it’s full of amateur videos that nobody wants to see. The ONLY reason YouTube is good is because of its accessibility; having an unspeakably large pool of videos has only worked in its favor. Because it’s so easy to upload and share videos on that service, more people feel compelled to make YouTube videos, which in turn increases the chances of having quality videos on the service. YouTube’s sea of subpar content has not gotten in the way of my using YouTube for hours every single day. Similarly, the fact that so many people are making levels Mario Maker is great, regardless of the quality of the levels in question.
As I said in my piece about the most popular levels last week, Mario Maker’s current system makes it so that the popular levels only become more popular. Less than 24 hours in, the levels highlighted in Course World became more or less locked-in. I know them by heart now. Sure, the “Featured” tab cycles through a wider selection of levels than the “Starred” tab, but after spending some time refreshing its options, it became clear to me that it also selects from a specific, limited pool. The “Up and Coming” tab feels similarly useless. I’ve had to resort to readers emailing me their levels, and crawling around forums such as Reddit and neoGAF to sniff out what’s worth playing—because there ARE plenty of fantastic levels. Mario Maker just sucks at showing them to you.
Mario Maker needs better sorting tools. The addition of a specific section for automatic levels could do wonders, for example. We don’t need to get rid of that sort of level—people love them! But levels that play themselves aren’t the only things that Mario purists want to play, and for them it’s pretty irritating to see these types of levels inundate the most visible portions of Mario Maker.
A more robust system for curators might also be a good solution. Right now, I can follow creators and find out what courses they have starred, but it’s not enough. In the same way Steam automatically highlights other people’s game recommendations, I would love it if Mario Maker gave us way to make specialized feeds that we build ourselves. It would still take work on our part—we need to figure out who has good taste, or be willing to sort through levels ourselves to provide that service for other people—but I shouldn’t have to go into a sub-menu to find out what courses my favorite creators in Mario Maker like. Recommendations from other players should be its own section.
Tags could also be great, since “quality” alone is pretty subjective. What I find awesome may not do anything for you. If I had a means of sorting levels through descriptions or tags, I could easily guide myself to the specific kind of levels that I actually like. I’d probably gravitate toward things like “novelty” or perhaps “scary.” You might like “Kaizo” or “Don’t Press Anything.” Who knows.
I haven’t knocked the quality of the game’s user-made levels to shame the Mario Maker community or anything. Frankly, I think that so long as other people are having fun, it doesn’t matter how “good” uploaded Mario Maker levels are. Like I said in my review, the spirit of play cannot always be wrangled or parceled for consumption. But there’s a wider issue that Mario Maker highlights, too. Game design literacy is pretty abysmal,and we see the results of that in game-creation platforms like these. People have more practice taking photos and short movies with their phones than they do making games. Art terms for other media are more familiar to the average person. If I approached a stranger on the street and start talking about stuff like THE MAGIC CIRCLE or flow, I would expect to get funny looks. I’d be more confident talking to them about camera pans or good framing, even if they have no plans on making a film or taking up professional photography.
That’s because there are widely-available tools that make those mediums accessible: anyone can pick up a point-and-shoot or a camcorder and start making things right away. Some schools even teach kids about film and photography tools from an early age.
Game design is pretty esoteric by comparison. For many people, Mario Maker likely be the first step toward achieving the same kind of knowledge proficiency in games. It may be a lot of people’s first camcorder, as it were. But it’ll likely take a while to get there. I do have confidence that we’ll get there, eventually. Perhaps some day we’ll even see big-shot game designers who credit their career to Mario Maker’s existence.
A few years ago, I would have resigned myself to the idea that this is just how Mario Maker is going to be, forever and ever amen. Not in 2015. Nowadays, Nintendo actually patches their games to have significant tweaks. Splatoon and Smash Bros. are very different games in September 2015 than they were when they were originally released, and they continue to be living, breathing games. Perhaps the same thing will happen to Mario Maker. We might have a ton of levels that other people don’t want to play right now, but a few tweaks to the game’s interface from Nintendo could help with that.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.