Super Mario Maker for 3DS review

I have had, shall we say, a tempestuous relationship with Super Mario Maker for 3DS.

In the very beginning, I desperately wanted a portable counterpart to the Wii U version; I even bugged producer Takashi Tezuka about it. After playing the final game, however, I came to appreciate the fact that it presents the single greatest case for the Wii U game pad ever created. While a 3DS version would be OK, I realized, it doesn't make sense to undermine the 3DS's shining moment by releasing a compromised adaptation of that game.

Nintendo went ahead and announced a 3DS port regardless, though, and I experienced a flicker of excitement. That brief candle went out a few days later when they revealed the 3DS version would lack what was by far the most compelling element of the Wii U game: The ability to share level creations online. Instead, the 3DS version limits players to downloading "recommended" courses from Nintendo and swapping their portable creations via Street Pass. I seem to recall Nintendo has said this has to do with technical limitations — the 3DS's more modest processor and RAM making it incapable of juggling some of the more elaborate creations the Wii U game could produce — but whatever the reason, it really seems to undercut the basic appeal of the game. Creating levels is all well and good, but as anyone who farted around with level-creation modes in old NES games with no save or network features knows, the joy of creation comes in sharing.

So it was with something akin to dread or resentment that I dove into what would surely prove to be a compromised, ill-considered 3DS overhaul of my favorite game from 2015. Much to my surprise, now that I've played it, my feelings for this adaptation have swung back over to "enthusiasm." With Super Mario Maker for 3DS, Nintendo has put together, without question, its finest console-to-handle conversion ever.

Let there be no question, though: The loss of proper sharing features sucks. It does, in fact, undercut much of what makes Super Mario Maker such an incredible and addictive creative venture. In practice, it proves to be a downright baffling omission; you can download a seemingly endless array of community-created stages, so why has Nintendo removed the upload option? Also, annoyingly, the download feature gives you stages at random; this version lacks the search functions of its console sibling, which is pretty pitiful considering how limited those were in the first place. Instead, you're limited to sharing single levels via Street Pass — assuming you can find anyone in the Year of our Lord 2016 who still carries a 3DS with them to Street Pass.

This omission cannot be overlooked. It is a huge black mark against this version of the game; regardless of whether it actually does have to do with technical limitations or simply emerged from Nintendo's compulsive nanny-state urges, it greatly diminishes the longevity and appeal of the concept of a portable Super Mario Maker... something that should have been awesome.

Now, here's the real surprise: Super Mario Maker for 3DS manages to be an essential purchase regardless of this infuriating exclusion.

A big part of my lack of enthusiasm for this port comes from Nintendo's spotty history of converting Wii U games to 3DS over the past few years. It hasn't happened often, but the handful of precedents for this adaptation have done little to inspire confidence. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS did that game no favors, and in fact its limitations crimped the Wii U game by forcing the exclusion of popular characters. And Hyrule Warriors Legends was, to quote my own review, a "neat party trick," but it definitely wasn't the optimal way to experience the game.

Thankfully, you'll find no such slipshod conversion here. For starters, Super Mario Maker's underpinning — that is, classic bitmap-based 2D Mario platforming — makes for a natural fit with the 3DS hardware. I mean, Nintendo recently released a New 3DS model bundled with the original Super Mario World, because the two work together so perfectly, and the 3DS has already had its own New Super Mario Bros. entry. It only makes sense.

The real question has to do with the trimmings. Sure, 2D Mario challenges play wonderfully on the 3DS, but what about the process of creating 2D Mario challenges? The touch-driven editing interface, so luxurious on the chunky Wii U game pad, have to work on the 3DS's lower-resolution screens — or rather, screen. The smaller, DS-resolution touch-enabled bottom screen. Not only does this provide players with a far more cramped physical space, it also means you have nearly 90% fewer pixels to work with. By all rights, it should be a disaster.

Somehow, though, Nintendo has made it work. It should be physically impossible for Mario Maker to work under such constraints, but the editing interface scales down neatly... though you'll probably want to avoid playing on a standard-sized 3DS for an optimum experience. (Disregard my previous buyer's advice; XL is the way to go for this game.) You'll find some smart interface choices here, such as the ability to roll back individual tool panels to reveal portions of the editing space.

Functionally, Super Mario Maker offers all the same editing features and interface concepts on 3DS as on Wii U, including the Mario Paint-like visual icons and metaphors. You'll find that any stage-creation experience you've picked up on Wii U carries over neatly here, and making good levels turns out to be like riding a bike. It took me a while to get up to speed on making competent stages with the original release of this game, but I jumped right in and turned out a couple of perfectly solid stages straight away here. (I'd share them so you could try them yourself, but, well....)

However, while the fundamental concept here remains true to the console release, Nintendo has completely overhauled everything surrounding it. This is no quick port, it's a comprehensive reinvention of the Mario Maker concept and how its ideas are presented.

At first, I found the change somewhat off-putting. I loved how the Wii U game started up for a first-time player: You could play directly from the title screen, but after scrolling forward a couple of screen you'd run out of stage, and the game would gently walk you through the process of putting together design elements so you could reach the goal. It was remarkably transparent and hands-off, allowing the intuitive nature of Mario games and the excellent editing tool set to do the heavy lifting for you.

The 3DS version doesn't do that. Instead, it goes directly into talky, didactic Nintendo mode. The game opens with a massive number of chatty tutorials featuring point-by-point instructions and tons of padding in the form of banter between design consultant Mary O. and a pigeon named Yamamura. You can drop out of the tutorials after completing a few and move over to the main editing mode, but the seamless, learn-as-you-play approach of the original has been discarded entirely. I'd be curious to know the reasoning behind the change — focus-testing? Concern that 3DS skews toward a younger audience? Nintendo's general lack of faith that players are smart enough to figure out things on their own?

In any case, the new tutorials (while incredibly verbose) offer some pretty valuable advice. Much of it involves concepts that we had to intuit through experience before (as demonstrated in my Mario Maker video series): Principles like "use coins to guide players" and "you can make dickish levels but people will probably enjoy your stages more if you are tough but fair." I can't help but suspect Nintendo decided to spell these concepts out explicitly after sampling thousands of stages featuring an utter lack of design sense or mercy, but in any case you can learn a lot from the tutorial if you don't mind sitting through an awful lot of filler dialogue about edamame.

Oh, and then there are two other big revisions. One, the method by which you unlock new tools for edit mode has changed. Whereas in the Wii U game you earned additional stage elements for placement by committing time to the edit mode over the course of several days, here that's no longer the case. You begin the game with quite a few more objects from the outset, and you earn more not by sinking time into stage design but rather by completing the Mario Challenge mode.

The Challenge mode is "other big revision" number two. The original Mario Maker included a handful of pre-made stages that you could explore to get some ideas for your own stage designs. On 3DS, however, you have a massive Super Mario Bros. campaign to play through: A full 100 stages, spread across more than a dozen worlds! And unlike the Wii U stages, these are proper Mario levels, with a gently elevating difficulty curve and a greater emphasis on smart and clever level design than on gimmicks. Which isn't to say they lack gimmicks; simply that what gimmicks you come across exist for the sake of presenting fun and interesting platforming challenges in the disciplined style of a proper Mario game.

On top of that, each stage contains two special objectives for which you're awarded the medals that were handed out for meeting community objectives in the Wii U game. These range from challenging (collecting all coins or completing the level under special conditions) to insanely difficult (complete a stage without pressing left). You're given a basic objective when you initially play a stage, and the advanced objective appears once you've fulfilled that first condition.

Needless to say, 100 stages crammed with devious challenges represents an enormous amount of replay value. But it's clear that Super Mario Maker for 3DS is meant to fill a different niche than the Wii U game. The console, obviously, is intended to be played with a permanent internet connection, whereas a portable system can't be assured constant or consistent online access. So, Nintendo has overhauled the experience to be more self-contained, to present more to do while traveling or otherwise stranded in a world without internet. Is this enough to compensate for the game's lack of proper community sharing and search features? Not exactly, but as compromises go, "an absolutely massive Mario campaign" is hard to beat.

Honestly, there's enough original material here to warrant a purchase for Mario fans, even if they completely ignore the level-creation aspect of the package. Super Mario Maker for 3DS can't entirely replace the Wii U version, and the absence of sharing features definitely chafes. But Nintendo has rebuilt this (admittedly lesser) adaptation of one of its most brilliant creations in such a way that you may not even mind. If nothing else, there's one heck of a classic Mario campaign included here. I could learn to live with that kind of overcompensation.

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