Super Mario Maker marks Nintendo video game icon's 30th birthday

It’s been 30 years since Super Mario Bros. helped revitalize an industry many thought dead in the 1980s. Now Nintendo is handing the tools to its fans with Super Mario Maker, a game that lets you create your own levels.

1985's Super Mario Bros. launched modern gaming era, critic says

Super Mario Maker gives players the tools to make Mario game levels on their own, in celebration of the series's 30th anniversary. (Nintendo)

It's been 30 years since Super Mario Bros., captivated audiences with his intuitive controls and physics-defying jumps on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and helped revitalize an industry many thought dead.

Since dragging the video games business out of the crash of 1983, the humble mustachioed plumber has appeared in more than 200 video games, selling more than 262 million copies worldwide.

"That was the game that launched the modern era of gaming, in a lot of ways," video game site Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann told CBC News.

"It was a cultural touchstone in a lot of ways that I think you have a lot of people that are now of a certain age that played that game then. It was very formative for, I think, a lot of people that are making games today."

To celebrate the plumber's pearl anniversary, Nintendo is releasing Super Mario Maker on its Wii U home console today, which allows players to create levels of their own and unleash their creations online for everyone to play.

New players are given a fairly simple set of tools to make their first levels, such as the question blocks and Koopa enemies you see in Super Mario Bros.' first level, World 1-1.

As you spend time arranging them into a level using the Wii U's tablet-like GamePad controller, more options become available, easing players into getting comfortable with a small selection of creation tools at a time.

Players are encouraged to subvert their expectations of what a typical Mario game can look like, including filling the screen with an excessive amount of items and enemies. (Nintendo)

Turning players into creators

"I wish Mario Maker was coming out today so that I could bring it to my class," game designer and instructor Benjamin Rivers said Thursday.

Rivers, who teaches conceptual game design at OCAD University in Toronto, says Super Mario Maker presents a unique opportunity to use the lessons players might have been unconsciously learning about level design and put them into practice.

"You can't just slap some stuff on a screen and expect people to have a good time. There's a huge amount of psychology and design thinking that goes into every piece of interactive design," he said.

"I think anyone who wants to learn any kind of game design needs to understand, regardless of the mechanics or anything like that, the psychology of getting people to understand how to use your game, right from the get-go, without any verbal or text cues."

That imperative isn't lost on Nintendo, which has been running course-building workshops on its Twitch channel leading up to launch day. And Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto sat down with Eurogamer to explain how he designed World 1-1 to teach a new player how to tackle the rest of the game's increasingly difficult challenges.

"Once the player realizes what they need to do, it becomes their game," Miyamoto said. Visual cues nudge the player to move to the right, jump on an enemy Goomba to progress, and encounter the Super Mushroom power-up in short order.

Gamers can play, rate and download levels made by other creators around the world. (Nintendo)

Break all the rules

Part of the charm of Super Mario Maker, and what makes it an odd game in the Mario canon, is that it allows players to break all of the rules longtime players have learned about Mario games.

The level creator's interface is straight-forward enough, allowing you to drag and drop elements on to a blank play field. Newcomers will probably start by dropping question mark blocks and Koopa enemies in familiar configurations, but the options allow you to do subvert decades-old expectations.

Want a question block to spit out an enemy instead of a power-up? Go ahead. Want to load cannons with golden coins instead of angry, sentient Bullet Bills? That works, too.

Before long you'll be able to add decidedly un-Mario-like flourishes including a giant disco ball descending from the sky and whoopee cushion-like gag sound effects.

The interface manages to retain Nintendo's signature playfulness as well. Dropping items on to each other or shaking them with the stylus can change their properties or transform them into something else.

Scanning one of Nintendo's amiibo figures unlocks that character in Super Mario Maker, such as The Legend of Zelda's Link, shown here. (Nintendo)

Minecraft killer?

The move to user-generated content has been credited to the rise of games such as Minecraft, the digital Lego set that has sold millions of copies since its debut in 2009.

Some have called Super Mario Maker a "Minecraft killer" or Nintendo's attempt to cash in on the trend.

Others say it's not that simple.

"Nintendo's always been kind of a black box, where it's almost impossible to figure out what they're thinking at any given time," said Andre Segers, founder of the YouTube channel GameXplain. "They seem largely immune to market trends, but that's been changing in the last few years."

Indeed, Nintendo only recently announced a move into the mobile market. Yesterday it announced Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game for iPhone and Android devices.

Others will note that Super Mario level-creator tools have been around for years – just not legally. A hacked version of 1990's Super Mario World, known as Kaizo Mario World, has been used by intrepid designers to create sadistically difficult levels since 2007.

If Nintendo wasn't aware of these hacked versions when they first became popular, they certainly have now. Just this week several videos of hacked levels, including one called the "hardest Super Mario World level ever" were pulled from YouTube, with Nintendo citing copyright infringement.