Reviewing Mario Maker & User Generated Content

How would you go about reviewing a game like Super Mario Maker?

That’s tricky. Ordinarily for reviews of games, I’d say that user generated content is off-limits, because you’re ostensibly supposed to be reviewing the content of the developer, not the users, because user content can be variable depending on the userbase. However Mario Maker brings that contradiction to the forefront because there’s almost nothing but user generated content. The thing is, Mario Maker technically isn’t a game, it’s a tool for making games, or rather, making levels for a game. The ontology gets a little weird there. Should we consider each level its own game? Should we consider there an abstract generic “Mario Maker” game of which there are many user generated levels, each an instance of this concept of a mario maker game? We can definitely say that the 10-man mario challenge, and the 100-man mario challenge are games within the broader mario maker software. 10-man uses pre-made levels that Nintendo themselves created specifically for you, so if you wanted to evaluate the game of Mario Maker entirely from the perspective of developer generated content only, you could evaluate these pre-set levels and nothing else, and you might end up with a fairly poor opinion of Mario Maker. They’re not very impressive levels. If you wanted to evaluate 100-man, then that gets extremely variable. It’s possible to make tons and tons of different types of levels in mario maker, from auto levels, to kaizo levels, to puzzle levels, to troll levels, to creative themed levels, to more general mario-style levels. That and unlike say Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, Mario is a game that is heavily defined by its level design. There isn’t a generalized set of options you always have access to and enemies don’t have a wide set of options they exercise against you, your options are very heavily defined by what’s present in the level and the interaction of various level elements.

A lot of Journalists tried to review Mario Maker like they would another game, but included user-made levels, coming to the conclusion that very few people would successfully make levels that were as good as traditional Mario levels, so the game was bad. From the outset, this seemed to me to be the wrong way to judge the game. It seemed obvious to me that the game was a toolset, not really a game. Shouldn’t Mario Maker be judged by its competency at bringing a set of tools to users for the creation of levels instead of being judged by the highly random circumstances of 100-man? That doesn’t really fit in the game review paradigm though, that would be like reviewing photoshop more than a specific painting, and the journalist approach to reviewing mario maker was akin to scrolling through the newest posts on deviantart. You’re gonna get a few good things, and a lot of crap. Does this mean photoshop is a bad art program? Obviously not, it’s a world class art program and general image manipulation program, but game reviews aren’t tool reviews, so the traditional review model doesn’t really make any sense in the context of a tool like mario maker.

So how does Mario Maker stack up as a level editor for generic mario? I’d say it’s very robust, but lacks somewhat in functionality, and doesn’t have the best UI overall, like shaking objects to modify them is really clunky, as is stuffing objects inside of other objects. Still, even if the UX isn’t the best, it provides a large number of functions, giving you all the tools you’d need to place elements, copy them, move multiple elements, etc. In an analogy to photoshop, photoshop has a generally really good user interface, but you can see that the tools are good at certain things and bad at others. Photoshop is very good at image manipulation, but it’s weaker at things like painting or sketching compared to programs like Corel Painter or Autodesk Sketchbook, which in constrast aren’t as good at general image manipulation and effects. And all of these programs aren’t as good at generating weird/random imagery as say Alchemy They each have unique toolsets that operate within the same possibility space, but makes producing certain types of products a lot easier than others.

But beyond that, unlike photoshop, where the only limitations are every possible image that can be depicted, Mario Maker has unique limitations within the possibility space of all the possible combinations of level elements you can use, and all the possible interactions between those elements. These kind of form the generic game of “Mario Maker” that each level can be argued to be an instance of. Between all of them, can they form the basis of interesting/deep gameplay? Some levels certainly make a case for that, but that’s a really tricky thing to evaluate for reviewers on release day! (or hell, pre-release!) It’s like trying to review Street Fighter 2 the day it comes out, or from a location test. The game has a tremendous possibility for making unique levels that people are still discovering to this day. We can get a pretty good guess of how a fighting game will turn out from a location test these days, because we know what to look for, but doing that without the context of the entire fighting game genre before it is really tricky. To fairly review Mario Maker in this sense, you gotta see how it plays out, let the meta settle.

The other thing is, Mario Maker imposes certain limitations on what it’s possible to create. You can’t totally do the same thing as original mario levels, because Mario Maker levels are limited in length, because your editing capabilities are limited in some respects. You can only place certain items in blocks. You can only autoscroll at certain speeds. You need to stick with the camera behavior they defined. You can only have a maximum of 500 seconds per level, and for an individual level, you cannot define how many lives the player has. Lives only have an effect within the context of 100-man challenges. You can make multiple levels, but cannot link them by any common thread the same way as regular mario levels. If you want to compare to traditional ROMhacking tools, there’s a lot of things you can do in Mario Maker that you can’t do in those, but also a lot of things you can do in those that cannot be done in Mario Maker. Mario Maker stepped it up and created a lot of interactions between elements that didn’t exist in the original games, as well as introducing new elements that exist entirely to facilitate interactions with the other ones.

Do good levels exist in Mario Maker? Yes, absolutely. There’s tons of great levels in Mario Maker that I’ve personally played or I’ve seen other people play. However it took a long time to get to this place, and if you want to play those levels, you’ll need to rely on communities outside the game to help you find those levels (And you’ll need to follow the right level creators in Mario Maker itself, discovery and curation options inside MM are really terrible, as are your bookmarking options).

Is Mario Maker a good game? Can we give mario maker a rating out of 10? I don’t think that’s something that you can conventionally do. I’d give the levels pre-packaged in the game maybe a 5/10 or 6/10, but I don’t think you can give a whole community of level creators a score. At best you could review individual levels, but that’s its own thing with its own rules and standards. I think this falls outside the purview of traditional game reviews and all I can say is, there’s good things to find there for those who seek.

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