Preview events offer brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.

Mario Maker
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Wii U
Release date: 2015


“I love making levels filled with Hammer Brothers,” the Nintendo representative said as I got myself acquainted with Mario Maker. That bone-chilling confession was all it took for me to realize what Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. level creator really is: a deceptively delightful tool for satiating our inner sadist.

A pair of plain old Hammer Brothers is bad enough when you happen to run across them in Super Mario Bros. They hop around and throw their hammers in those stupid arcs, at just the right times and trajectories to keep you pinned down. In Mario Maker, if you’re so inclined, you can fill the screen with them. You can give them wings and stuff them inside pipes, so they come crawling out to the surprise of some poor sap.

In the Mario Maker demo, a fresh level begins as a barren solid-brick road that stretches from below Mario’s feet to the level-capping flagpole. Using the Wii U gamepad’s touchscreen, you can drag around all manner of famous Mario stuff—coins, goombas, piranha plants, etc.—and place them in the level. Then, at the touch of a button, you take control of Mario and try to reach the exit while your crime against level design springs to life.


The game isn’t forcing anyone to make ludicrously hard levels filled with hopping piranha plant towers. It’s little more than a sort of nostalgia sandbox, taking a widely beloved framework—the trappings of a Mario game—and allowing us to pull it apart, reassemble it, and see it in a whole new way. One of Nintendo’s sample levels at the show, for example, stars a giant bouncing goomba pyramid. Right above Mario’s starting point is a series of ascending platforms that can take you up and over the writhing death mass. But what would happen if you just jumped in from above? You could bounce around on those goombas until they were all gone and you had built up a dozen 1-ups. That’s easier said then done, of course, but there was a thrill to experimenting with something so odd within the confines of something so familiar and comforting.

That said, during the act of creation, the mind seems to jump toward building torturous Mario gauntlets. Right now, Mario Maker is little more than a Nintendo-built tool for creating Mario ROM hacks, the fan-made Mario games constructed with a little computer magic and all the objects and characters from one of Nintendo’s games. The Mario Maker interface itself is very similar to existing Mario editing tools like Lunar Magic—a popular program for making your own games based on Super Mario World—with a strip of icons across the top of the screen, each representing an object or enemy you can drag into the level. Many of the most famous ROM hacks, like Kaizo Mario World, are absurdly cruel exercises that push Mario levels to their absolute most extreme, with every jump and timed dash past an enemy demanding perfection.


The editing interface of Lunar Magic

There’s no reason why you wouldn’t be able to create something similarly exhausting in Mario Maker. Nintendo even included the perfect tool for building infuriating obstacles: a jump trajectory recorder. Whenever you hit “play” and start working your way through a level, the game records your movements, and when you go back into the edit mode, a trail of ghost Marios let you know where you’ve been. You can use this to measure Mario’s jump and help create gaps that require perfect timing to cross—or if you’re real rotten, impassable gaps that are just slightly too wide for Mario’s leap.

The opportunities for wickedness are vast and tantalizing, but what Mario Maker will become remains to be seen. There’s the implication of more to come—for example, you can currently switch on the fly between the original Mario Bros. pixel art and the New Super Mario Bros. 3D art, but Nintendo’s website specifies that this feature exists “in the E3 version.” Maybe there will be a puzzle-like single-player mode that has you altering nigh unbeatable levels to get through them. And well-curated online level sharing is a must. With some more development, Mario Maker could be a phenomenal platform for experimental nostalgia trips. As of now, it’s little more than a tiny demo and a potentially brilliant idea that stands to be released in some form next year.