Mario Maker is fast approaching and I can feel the need to create swelling in the collective unconscious. The glorious content machine will roll out level after level and we will never go hungry again as we consume every perfect morsel.
Until that day of reckoning is upon us, here's a few under-appreciate and/or lesser-known level editors that have been helping players thirsty for more flex their creative muscles for the last couple decades.
Excitebike might actually be the Nintendo series with the longest history of player-created content. Remember the main menu for the NES version? Remember that track editor that never saved your creations despite it having a clearly labeled 'SAVE' option? Not having a battery backup meant that Excitebike relied on a peripheral for saving that never actually came out in North America, so if you were planning on bringing your cart to a friends house to try out your punishingly difficult stage you were out of luck.
Luckily there's a couple relatively recent releases that have reintroduced functional track editors. Excitebike World Rally on the Wii Shop Channel and 3D Classics Excitebike for 3DS both have editor similar to the one on the NES. Don't expect anything as robust as F Zero X Expansion Kit; this is Excitebike after all. World Rally does let you fine tune the slope and angle of the environmental pieces but you're still working with the usual Excitebike standards: small bump, bigger bump, ramp, and friends. But if you just want the original NES experience the Virtual Console release of Excitebike was given a functional saving system.
Back in my day we played games through a link cable. In the snow. And that's the way we liked it. Especially when it was army vs. army in a custom made Advance Wars map. Like ExciteBike, it's not one of the more robust editors on this list, but what it did for multiplayer was an absolute joy. Each game built upon the feature in wholly predictable ways but it was a welcome addition that is tragically useless in the Wii U Virtual Console release due to it's lack of multiplayer functionality. Like Mario Kart DS, Advance Wars is another Virtual Console game that would have benefitted greatly from just a bit more effort. It's also odd that Advance Wars' sister series Fire Emblem, also by Intelligent Systems, has never implemented a map editor considering it's a series that still exists in today's market.
Whoops, this one's cheating a bit. While Animal Crossing may not have a 'level editor' per say, it does have an incredibly versatile pattern editor that can be used in an infinite number of ways. Each Animal Crossing title has built on the system, but as of New Leaf on 3DS it's possible to fully customize clothing patterns, create billboards and signage, design wallpaper and flooring, and more. It's even possible to completely re-tile your town using intricate pathways to make roads, parking lots, gardens, or even recreate tilesets from 8- and 16- bit games. A quick look at the work some people have done on blogs devoted to New Leaf shows just how far the simple pattern editor can be taken to make wholly unique towns.
On top of all that, New Leaf lets you trade and share designs using the simple QR system making experimentation with other people's patterns incredibly easy.
Probably the trickiest one on this list to get a hold of, F Zero X Expansion Kit was only available on the Japan-only N64 DD peripheral. Regarded as one of the, if not THE, best games for the short-lived system, Expansion Kit also featured a 3D course creation tool that basically gave the player access to all the tools the developers themselves used when making tracks.
Track components can be tweaked in every direction, almost to fault. Constantly making corkscrews that accidentally hurl your racer into the empty void because of a slight miscalculation in slope really makes you appreciate the series' level designers. Luckily Expansion Kit allows you to immediately test your work-in-progress with the click of a button and return to the editing screen to make minor adjustments.
Expansion Kit certainly doesn't hold the same kind of regard for user interface as Mario Maker. Menus are very utilitarian compared to even Mario Paint's playful and instructive UI elements. It's very much a development tool as opposed to a game.
Like Animal Crossing, it's possible to find some pockets of communities that still enjoy making tracks to be shared with others. Unfortunately that's all I can speak on the matter due to it's reliance on ROMs and emulators. Google is your friend.
I promise this wasn't meant to be a specifically Nintendo-centric list, it just ended up that way. Our final entry - and my personal favourite - has some Nintendo lineage but emerged on the PSP. With a bit of a thud.
Mega Man Powered Up's relative lack of success only stings more as time goes on. Meant to be the beginning of the Powered Up series that would remake the classic NES games, Powered Up was a bold choice for a series that at the time was losing some of it's focus. It's very kid-friendly art direction didn't help it's case either, being a PSP exclusive. It's hard to imagine Powered Up fitting into Sony's marketing approach at the time.
Tragic then that Powered Up is the only Mega Man game to feature a fully-featured level editor. All the classic blocks, enemies and environmental hazards from the original Mega Man are right there to be bent to your robot-killing will. What made it exciting to come back to was that more pieces were unlocked as progress was made in the main game, a feature not dissimilar to Mario Maker's timed unlock system.
Toss in the ability to lay as all of the original robot masters, Proto Man, and even Roll, and you've got a Mega Man game that should have seen far more success than it ever did.
What separates Mario Maker from the games on this list is that it is explicitly about creation as opposed to using an editor as a bonus feature. If people are still making Animal Crossing and F Zero and Advance Wars content today then who's to say that Mario Maker won't keep people busy for years and years to come? We'll find out soon but in the meantime, why not revisit something old and see what sort of inspiration it gives you.