Super Mario Maker does everything you want it to: provide a tool to easily create levels. What sets it apart the attention to detail and it's uncanny ability to provoke experimentation. Mileage will vary with the courses created by other players but it's simple enough to follow creators that you enjoy and sort through the chaff to find well-made stages. It's the perfect way to celebrate the anniversary of the game that has kept 2D platforming relevant for the last 30 years. And you can play as Blathers from Animal Crossing. Super cute.
+Warranted nostalgia bombs around every corner
+Dozens and dozens of costumes to unlock
+Each aspect flows naturally into the next and inspire creation at every turn
+ Justifies the Gamepad
-Plenty of power-ups, items, enemies and mechanics from the four games that aren't represented... yet?
-Large amount of user-created content is intimidatingly vast and not always great
There is a Rubbermaid bin sitting in storage at my parent's house. In that Rubbermaid container is a sketchbook from the age of four where I drew dozens and dozens of Mario levels. Sure, most of them had Earthworm Jim or dinosaurs or Sonic in them, but I've been flexing the muscles used for level creation for just as long as I've been playing games. I invented power-ups and bosses and storylines and enemies and I told myself someday that I would send these designs into Nintendo and they'd hire me, and I'd make video games and Mario and I would be best friends, and we'd go over to Sonic's house and make things cool between SEGA and Nintendo.
The state of games in 2015 has made a couple of these things irrelevant but playing Super Mario Maker still brings those feeling of creation and discovery and invention bubbling to the surface. It is intangible and an entirely subjective notion, but Super Mario Maker might very well be the most powerful feeling of nostalgia I've ever experienced. What makes it so special is that this feeling isn't superficial; it's not references for the sake of references or winks and nudges saying 'Hey, remember this thing? Hashtag eighties kids, am I right?' Everything about Super Mario Maker, including it's throwback presentation, is meant to inspire. The iconography, the sound design, the UI itself, the means by which you access other user created levels, and of course the graphics; it all provides a gentle push for the player so they can fully realize those design documents from their grade school notebooks. And then some.
To simply call Super Mario Maker a Mario-themed level editor would be a gross understatement. Excitebike has a level editor. Mega Man Powered Up has a level editor. Mario Maker is a teacher. Every aspect of the creation tool is designed to delight you and inspire further experimentation. Simply laying a tile adds a tiny piece of the melody to whatever background music applies to the kind of stage you're making. You might find yourself adding components to your stage-in-progress just to hear a tune play and from that you might find that you've created a foundational structure to base your level on. Every action leads to another in such an organic way that it's impossible to not create something interesting given even a short amount of time.
You're not necessarily given unlimited freedom though. There are still a number of restrictions in place that can limit your stage design. Most of these are reasonable but a number of them feel like things that may be added through patches or DLC down the road.
Stages can't be grouped together when distributed online so there's no chance of making a custom World to present to the masses - expect each experience to be relatively bite-sized when compared to the structure of any of the four main Mario games that Maker is based off of. Stages also can't exceed a maximum horizontal length, which is fair enough. Vertically however you're only given two screens in height. I found this particularly problematic when trying to recreate some of my favourite Mega Man levels.
None of these ruin the experience and are relatively trivial compared to the rest of the features at your disposal; shortening or lengthening time limits, auto-scrolling, and sub-areas all make sure that you're never forced into creating a by-the-numbers, walk-right-to-reach-the-goal platformer.
But speaking of Mega Man; costume unlocks and, by extension, amiibo support are here in full swing. Mystery Mushrooms in the Super Mario Bros. skin allow Mario to become a surprisingly huge variety of characters from other games. Scanning an amiibo will let you play specifically as that character or you can just use a Mystery Mushroom from the menu that will turn Mario into any of the characters that you've unlocked at random. Expect to see not just main characters from the Smash Bros. roster, but a huge array of supporting characters from games like Star Fox, Animal Crossing, and even some surprising variations on 8-bit Mario.
For people without access to amiibo these can be unlocked by playing through the 100-Mario Challenge - a gauntlet of 8 to 16 levels made by the community with a set stock of 100 lives. It's unclear to me at this time how these levels are chosen but expect even the best players to be challenged in Expert mode. Those 100 lives start to dwindle quickly.
Once I played through 100 Mario Challenge I was overwhelmed by what to do next; use the inspiration I got from playing other people's levels to refine and rebuild my own, play through more challenges to unlock more costumes, or seek out more stages by the creators I experienced during 100 Mario Challenge.
The latter is made incredibly easy by a simple 'follow' system. I'd favourite and follow stages that I enjoyed playing and then have a feed that filled up with stages made by the same people. Curating your feed is incredibly simple and you can also provide direct feedback on someone's designs through Miiverse as well as by leaving comments that other players can see in the levels themselves. Warn other players about oncoming threats or berate the level creator for being an obvious sadist.
There's also a 'recommended stages' banner that will scroll by showing you levels similar to the one you just played that helps keep players on a steady marathon of levels they're inclined to enjoy.
Ultimately it's too early to say how much of the user-created content is going to be great and how easily that quality content will be able to find, but so far it seems like Nintendo has crafted an intuitive system.
Which is really what Super Mario Maker is all about; intuitive UI that engages players and rewards experimentation and exploration. It's a game within a game within a game-maker that gives you a steady stream of exciting new tools to use, new levels to play and just enough surprises to keep things fresh for a very, very long time. Who knows what kind of support we'll see after it's release but even in the state that it's in now, slight restrictions included, it's easily a must-have for those of us who have been dreaming of game design since before we knew what game design was, and anyone looking for a masterfully crafted design tool based on the series that has defined video games for the last 30 years.
Now go find that old sketchbook and see if any of those levels were any good. Or better yet, make them good and let your 8 year old self finally share them with the world.