Friday, October 23, 2015

The Last of Us: Left Behind (Spoilers)

The Last of Us: Left Behind is a compelling and tragic companion to The Last of Us. It juxtaposes a glimpse at Ellie’s life as a (relatively) normal teenager with her future life as a hardened survivor adept at killing. The portion of Left Behind detailing what happens to Ellie shortly after Joel becomes incapacitated at the University of Eastern Colorado is just as tense and compelling as the core Last of Us experience, with some new twists thrown in such as having situations that mix human enemies with infected. It’s possible that this action-heavy side of Left Behind was added as an afterthought, in order to have some traditional action gameplay to break up the more relaxed and nonconventional Ellie and Riley sections, but it’s just as possible that having both was the plan all along because the two end up working really well together. The most interesting (and freshest) part of Left Behind, however, is  undoubtedly the side that details the last days of Ellie and her best friend, Riley’s relationship as they explore an abandoned shopping mall together. Here, we get a terrific and emotional piece of story-telling that not only gives more depth to Ellie’s character, but that is also just a commendable short story in its own right. Indeed, if The Last of Us proper did not exist and this part of Left Behind was completely standalone, it would be a fantastic and moving little vignette just on its own merits.

The mechanics of Left Behind are interesting because Ellie and Riley engage in nonviolent games together, like throwing bricks at cars and having a stealthy water gun fight, that are a playful mirror image of the brutal actions that Ellie performs in the future. Both sides of the game take place in a mall, so it’s very clear what the developers were going for and it’s very effective. Seeing Ellie as a (again, “relatively”) normal teenager hanging out with her best friend makes it all the more tragic how much of an efficient killer the world (and Joel) ends up making her. Most of the little scenes in Left Behind, like the two girls playing around with rubber Halloween masks and laughing about how people used to buy stuff like that, are charming in their own way, but two in particular stood out to me. The first is when Ellie and Riley ride the carousel. The whole process of walking over and getting on the carousel, Riley turning it on, Ellie riding it, and Riley joining in just before the machine stops being completely in-game and controlled by me made me reflect on how magical a video game experience can be. That may sound silly to you, but something about the perfectly-timed music, spinning the camera around to see Ellie’s excited facial expressions, and looking at the slowly spinning scenery as the carousel made its rotations perfectly put me in her shoes, strengthened my attachment to her as a character, and illustrated just how amazing something like this would be to a kid in a hellish world like The Last of Us’s. It struck a chord with me, and I teared up a little during the moment.

The second scene that stood out to me is the arcade one. At one point fairly early on in The Last of Us, Ellie and Joel happen upon a small record store with an arcade machine sitting in one corner of it. In an optional conversation, Ellie tells Joel that she played the game with her friend in the past and proceeds to describe it a bit. I was puzzled by this scene, because I questioned Ellie doing something as normal as playing a video game with a friend in the world that she was born into. Left Behind gives glorious context to that small throwaway conversation and it’s brilliant. Ellie and Riley come across that same arcade machine and seeing that it’s broken, Ellie expresses disappointment because she wanted to play the game. Riley casually tells her that “she can” and tells her to close her eyes. What follows is a surprisingly simple and brilliant sequence. The entire scene is just a close-up of Ellie’s face with her eyes closed. Riley starts describing the game and, Ellie’s hands on the arcade machine’s controls, she tries to imagine it. At first she is skeptical and so am I. But soon the borders of the screen begin to dim and I’m imagining Riley’s narrative of the game right along with Ellie. The imaginary game soon begins to bleed into reality as traditional fighting game health bars appear at the top of the screen and we begin to hear sound effects from the battle taking place in Ellie’s mind. As Riley describes each moment of the battle in detail, the player presses buttons according to prompts that appear on the screen. Whether you fail or succeed, the battle continues. Soon I’m wildly mashing buttons and by the end I’m totally into it. I want to win the imaginary fight just as much as Ellie. Similar to the carousel scene, this moment accomplishes so much with so little and simply and effectively puts me into Ellie’s shoes, making me feel like a kid playing a video game for the first time. It perfectly illustrates the importance of imagination and escapism, especially in a bleak world like Ellie and Riley’s. It also strengthens the bond between Ellie and Riley and demonstrates what a cool friend Riley is.

But Left Behind is also just a well-told teen romance. There’s no hamming it up and nothing feels forced or unnatural. This aspect of the game was unfortunately long spoiled for me, and I admit I was kind of waiting for it to happen, but the brief kiss shared between Ellie and Riley came at the perfect time and felt totally authentic. In that moment, when Ellie finally honestly told Riley “Don’t go” and Riley threw her firefly pendant to the ground, just for a second I desperately wanted the two to just stay together, keep having fun together and try to live the most normal life they can possibly have together in their broken world. I didn’t want Ellie to meet Joel and become his replacement daughter, or do all those horrible things later on down the road in the name of survival; I just wanted her and Riley to keep dancing in that department store. But, of course, this is The Last of Us, so that was never going to happen.

Thus the ending of Left Behind is truly tragic, in more ways than one. Even knowing that Ellie was immune, Left Behind’s short running time had effectively put me in the shoes of an Ellie before she knew that, and I had tears in my eyes seeing her anguish at being in such an unimaginably horrible situation with the friend she had just declared her love for. I saw the moment that Ellie describes to Joel in the final moments of The Last of Us play out in front of me, and the gut-wrenching tragedy of Ellie losing Riley and later so many others while she lived on came full circle. But thinking of those final moments of The Last of Us, and of the person Ellie became and where she found herself, the shattered tender moment shared with Riley in the mall becomes even more significant. In a moment of passion, Joel once berated Ellie for not knowing what loss is. Hardly.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Three Big Problems with Super Mario Maker

As I stated in my last post, I love Super Mario Maker. I’ve had a ton of fun imagining and creating new worlds for Mario to explore myself, and tons of other brilliant individuals have dreamed up fabulous creations I never thought would be possible in this game. It’s a blast to create and play and perhaps most importantly of all, it’s easy to use. I have bountiful praise for the game, but…

It has some problems. Three glaring ones in my opinion. Now, there are a lot of things Nintendo could add to the game via DLC and updates, and sure, plenty of other elements from the Super Mario series have been left out. I could go on and on about how I’d love to see slopes be here, other power-ups, new music, new level themes, etc. etc. There are also a lot of element combinations that I wish would work in the game, but don’t. But in all honesty, I think what the package has right now is pretty great; I’ve managed to find quite a lot of versatility with the available material myself, other people have already been creating truly inspiring things with what’s here, and there’s also still so much more potential just with what the game currently offers. The three big problems I want to address are not so much about adding more stuff, but are what I feel to be glaring issues that detract from the experience in a very notable way. It’s frustrating when such a beautiful thing as Super Mario Maker is held back by just a handful of glaring issues that could possibly be remedied. So enough preamble; here are three big problems I have with Super Mario Maker, in order from least problematic to most:

3.) No Checkpoints

There is nothing more frustrating than making my way through a really special level that someone created, only to make a stupid mistake three quarters of the way through it and have to restart all the way back at the beginning. Some levels benefit from having no checkpoints. One might want to make a highly difficult trial and error level meant to be learned and practiced that delivers high satisfaction when one finally conquers it all in one go. But other levels that aren’t going for high difficulty, but merely invite players to explore and experience them at their own pace suffer greatly from the lack of checkpoints. It kills my enthusiasm for a great level of this kind when I have to start back at the beginning and speed through the earlier bits to get back to where I had died. From a creator’s perspective, the levels I tend to mostly make myself are meant to be thematic adventures that tell a story of sorts. Sometimes, I wouldn’t mind adding some amount of difficulty, but adding any difficulty at all is a risk because I often don’t want players to have to redo the whole thing (or worse, just give up when they die). With this in mind, I’ve had to either pepper my levels with a sizable amount of power-ups or otherwise pay extra careful attention to their position and number. The lack of checkpoints is such a glaring omission and I can’t imagine that it’s simply an oversight. There has to either be a technical limitation at work here (I can’t think of one, but then again I’m not a programmer) or it was fully possible but a conscious decision was made to not have them. If it’s the latter, then it is an astoundingly poor decision.

2.) The Level Sharing System

So, I already covered my sorrows as a Mario course designer in my previous post, where I tried to get across some of my frustrations with the game’s course sharing system, so check that post out for the “introduction” to this problem. I’d like to elaborate a bit further here and also provide some potential solutions. In addition to talented creators going unnoticed, I think many of them were at a disadvantage to begin with if they didn’t upload a course immediately after the game released, or if they didn’t somehow attain a copy early. Many of the top creators and top levels are from reviewers and other people who got the game early and therefore were at an extreme advantage from the get go. I’ve heard that the servers that critics experienced the game on are different than the servers the public currently use, but at the same it certainly seems like a great number of people either somehow got the game a few days early with the current servers or had levels ready to upload immediately that they had previously created and saved. Since these creators had their levels on the server right at go, they had no problem raking in the stars and being able to upload as many levels as they desired from day one. If these creators made an “automatic level” or “remake level”, it wouldn’t really matter if it was really great or not, it was bound to get a lot of stars and plays because it was the only thing available. And since these creators received so much popularity early on, they got on the charts and stayed there because most people naturally look at the levels with the most stars first, and then these levels receive even more stars and so on. I find this to be unfair to people who got a later foot in the door and whose levels are massively overshadowed by the people already at the forefront of the star ranking page, since many people will simply only play the highest-ranked levels, or other levels by those same creators. I suppose this was natural, and I’m not sure how it could be helped, but it just seems unfair to me. Many of these early popular courses are good, but some also just seemed to get ahead of the curve and in retrospect pale in comparison to what people are managing to do with the game now. It’s not really fair to creators who pour their soul into a level and it simply gets ignored because they didn’t have it uploaded at midnight when the game launched.

Mainly, however, I find the search options and organization of Course World (where all uploaded levels go to live and die) very lacking. There are only three main categories for searching for courses, and I’m still unsure of how the “Featured” courses column even works. There’s a sizable amount of courses in these three lists, but they’re only a small taste of the vast universe of courses out there. You can sort courses in these three categories by regional and global and difficulty, but how about some actual, detailed filtering options? Like searching for courses by game style or level template? How about highlighting a handful of courses each day or each week or something, courses that aren’t getting mega numbers but are gaining some traction and could use a boost? Plenty of outlets online are doing this kind of thing, and Nintendo recently started doing this themselves on Mario Maker’s official website, but it would be really great if there was something like this built into the actual game. Also, while you can look at a list of top-ranked creators and your own followed creators, there's no option to simply look up a creator by name, which would also be appreciated.

There’s a lot more that could be done here and clearly more needs to be done because people like me and thousands of others just aren’t getting noticed or played, and therefore are held back by the strict upload limitation and devious star system. While on the subject, it would also be great if the star requirements for uploading more levels was less strict. Look, obviously I think my levels are pretty decent, but even if you disagree, I mean I’m not making total crap here. I’ve poured over 150 hours into the game over the course of a month. I think I can safely say my levels were at least made with effort. It’s just very frustrating that I paid $60 for this game and have given it so much of my time, yet there’s still Nanny Nintendo wagging their finger at me and telling me I can only upload 20 courses.

1.) Asset Limits

Originally, this was number two and the sharing system was number one, but the more I played the game and the more and more I had to sigh and scale back or limit my levels in some way because of the seemingly arbitrary limits on how many given elements can be placed in a course, the more I realized that this is easily my biggest problem with the game. This was the aspect I was worried about the most before the game released, about whether or not there would be an “object limit” to courses (I was thinking of the “weight limit” in the Super Smash Bros. series stage creators and praying something like that wouldn’t be here) so naturally my heart sank the first time I placed a block and heard that “Nope, no more!” buzzer sound. While I was certainly disappointed, at first I didn’t think it was that big of a deal as it still seemed like I could place a hefty amount of objects before the game yelled at me, but the more effort and ambition I put into my levels, the more frequently it happened, and this is when I began to get sad. The bigger I dreamed, the more my dreams were stifled. At this point, I’ve had to scale back or limit almost all of my levels in some way and I’ve reached the object limit, in both the main and sub-area, on almost every level I’ve created. This game just doesn’t seem to be designed for the type of levels I want to create, which is levels with a visual consistency and that are large in scope and theme. I’m not saying that limitations of any kind are universally a bad thing; I’ve had a ton of fun working with the limited palette of elements the game provides to see how I can, for example, make a car, a toilet, and a detailed haunted village. I’ve also had fun seeing how other people get around these limitations as well and being inspired by what they’ve managed to achieve. But there should be no limits on the amount of assets you can use in a level creator, or if there is a limit, it should be so generous that one never needs to realistically worry about it. This kind of limitation stifles creativity, plain and simple.

Ideally, courses themselves could be bigger, more than one sub-area could be created, there would be the option to turn off the time limit completely (consider that my unofficial fourth biggest problem with the game, by the way), etc., but I could get over all that if I could just place as many objects as I wanted in the amount of space they’ve given me. This extends to being able to have as many warp pipes as I want, warp doors as I want, enemies as I want, etc. It’d also be nice to be able to make a warp pipe that can transport Mario to the same level instead of a sub-level or conversely a warp door that can warp to a sub-level instead of just the same level. But maybe these latter requests are getting too ambitious. If so, fine, I can even live with these limitations, but I can’t get over the limit on the amount of placeable blocks and enemies/other assets. If you haven’t gotten deep into level creation in Mario Maker, it’s likely you have no idea what I’m going on about here or at least why it’s such a big deal, but I’m guessing those that have put a fair amount of ambition into creating levels know exactly what I’m talking about. Like with checkpoints, I find it hard to believe that there’s a technical limitation at work here on a modern HD console like the Wii U, and so assuming there isn’t one and the developers really did just arbitrarily make these limitations, that’s just asinine. This game’s tagline should be “If you can dream it, you can make it”, but right now at least, that’s hardly the case.

So those are my three big problems with the otherwise terrific Super Mario Maker. I’ve still managed to get a large amount of satisfaction out of both creating and playing levels despite these big drawbacks, but it would be wonderful if some or all of these issues were addressed in future patches and updates. If that were to happen, this game would truly begin to live up to its full potential and achieve true greatness.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Super Mario Maker Has an Important Lesson to Teach: Being a Game Developer Sucks

…or “A Diary of my Bittersweet Adventures with Super Mario Maker

Ben Kuchera over at Polygon wrote an article shortly before Super Mario Maker released about how the game teaches one the anguish of being an indie developer. If you read Ben’s article, this post is going to seem slightly familiar; I don’t mean to copy his piece, but rather give my own spin on an idea that I think rings very true. I’d also like to broaden the thought a bit from indie developers to simply all developers. Yes, beneath its inviting and nostalgic exterior, Super Mario Maker has an important lesson for those who really sink their teeth into the level creation side of it: being a game developer must really be the pits.

Now, this is something I already knew, but it’s something that I’ve now, in some small, disconnected way, experienced for myself. I picked up Super Mario Maker the afternoon of its US release day, and holding the copy in my hands after I got into my car, I felt a kind of childlike glee. I couldn’t wait to dive into this robust world of imagination and start building and playing levels. I fiddled around with the level creation tool a bit and then hit up “Course World”, where everyone’s levels go after they upload them for the world to see. Already, there was a plethora of levels and several ones were already hugely popular (I knew this by the amount of “stars” they had acquired from players). Having just got the game, I was only allowed to upload ten levels myself until I earned more stars and therefore unlocked medals which would allow me to increase my max upload limit (up to 100 levels after acquiring all 10 medals). I wasn’t too intimidated by this. After all, the levels I’d played already had thousands of stars and creators seemed to already have achieved the ability to upload the max number of levels in just a day, and while their levels were good, they were nothing earth-shattering and I could already feel dozens of ideas forming in my head that would surely be a hit. It shouldn’t be too hard to rake in the stars as long as I shared creative and inspired levels, which of course was my plan.

Making some Mario
The first couple of levels I uploaded were basic and nothing to speak of really; I didn’t bother putting much effort into them because I didn’t have all of the game’s creation elements unlocked yet through the game’s annoying but oh so Nintendo “delivery system”, where the Course Maker is slowly expanded over the course of several days (or hours, if you know how to effectively cheat the system, which I recommend doing). As I unlocked more and more elements to play around with, I soon began to feel inspiration strike and I began to naturally get an idea as soon as I began to lay some blocks down. The first course I uploaded that I actually thought was worth a damn (not too many damns, mind, but at least one), I shared with some pride, this time actually somewhat pleased with my creation. I looked forward to seeing how it would be received. As of this writing, “Magikoopa’s Platform Keep” (I’ll share some of my course IDs at the bottom of this article if you’re interested) has a meager 131 plays and 5 stars. For the longest time, it didn’t get any stars at all. Ok, so in retrospect, that course wasn’t that great. I still didn’t have all the course-making elements at that point, and it’s still a largely basic level. It didn’t take too long to make, so I wasn’t too discouraged. The next course I made I spent a lot more time on and put even more effort into, but the one after that is where I really went overboard. I’d finally unlocked every tool and spent a combined twelve hours over the course of two days to build “The Grand Koopaship”, a massive flying airship designed with a meticulous attention to detail to resemble an actual ship. I paid special attention to the aesthetics of the ship and agonized over the placement of power-ups and how difficult each section should be. This thing has a cargo bay, bunks, a bathroom, a mess hall, a bridge, an engine room and finally the captain’s quarters, where a showdown with Bowser occurs before a fast escape out the back of the ship to the goal. It’s not a perfect course by any means, but I poured my heart into the thing and I think it turned out pretty nifty. It’s currently one of my most popular courses with 412 plays and 23 stars, which doesn’t seem too bad, but compare that to “Don’t press anything” (ID: AA64-0000-000F-7D4C) by creator Niramou, one of the first (or possibly the first, at least uploaded to the released game's servers) hugely popular Rube Goldberg-style “automatic” courses (in which you, um, don’t press anything to reach the goal), which currently has 1,676,474 plays and 104,848 stars. Yeah, my “Grand Koopaship’s” numbers suddenly seem pretty pathetic, huh?

So at this point you may be thinking: “Wah, wah, so you made some courses that no one likes and are salty about it?” (unless, of course, you own Mario Maker, are invested in creating courses, and are not part of the Star Ranking category elite, in which case there’s a good chance you’re already nodding your head along in sympathy to everything I’m saying), which is of course true, but I’m also working towards a point…sort of. So in order to better illustrate that point, I’ll stop talking about myself for the moment and concentrate on someone else, a maker by the name of “Ricky”. I know of Ricky from a YouTube Let’s Play group he is a part of known as “Adamant Ditto” (their Kirby Let’s Plays are really fun; check em’ out). Ricky made a course known as “Super Smash Labyrinth” (ID: 099D-0000-003A-EB5F), an ambitious and clever idea that allows the player to choose one of twelve pathways, each one beginning with a  transformation into a character from the original Super Smash Bros. via one of Mario Maker’s sprite-changing mystery mushrooms, with each pathway themed around the particular character one chooses. I can’t fathom that a course based on such a popular series and one that is such a well-executed idea would have anything less than top status in the charts. Last time I checked, it has a respectable 1,548 plays and 127 stars…but isn’t exactly “Don’t press anything” numbers. This gives me pause. It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, Mario Maker’s sharing system might be a load of total bollocks. And there are several other fantastic creators and courses I’ve come across, sadly not getting the recognition they deserve. Ricky has proven himself a maker to keep an eye on, with several other inspired courses including a spooky “Haunted Hotel” level (ID: 9C6B-0000-0043-BF08), another excellently done horror-themed level known as “Mirror Manor” (ID: 1992-0000-0072-2F13), an “RPG Adventure!” (ID: A5C3-0000-0091-03A0), and a lot more, but he still has yet to reach the max upload limit of 100 courses (last I checked he is capped at 50 uploads), and the fact that such a clearly worthy creator should be limited in any way is just crap.

Perusing Course World
And that’s what it all comes down to: that upload limit. I wouldn’t care nearly as much about stars and what’s popular and all this if it wasn’t for the fact that Nintendo has cruelly tied the amount of courses one can upload to the amount of stars they receive. This is a good idea on paper, requiring players to put effort into their creations if they want to keep sharing them, but it all falls apart when makers like Ricky and so many others are pulling more than their share of weight and are still faced with restrictions. The star requirements for each milestone are extremely strict as well; it takes 50 stars to just being able to increase the upload limit from ten levels to twenty levels and it only gets worse from there, requiring 150 stars to get to thirty levels, then 300 stars to reach a 40 level limit, and on and on until 5,000 stars nets you the maximum upload limit of 100 levels. This creates another issue; here I am with all these level ideas in my head that I want to do…but I’m hesitant to put a ton of effort into them if I might not be able to upload them and share them with the world. Therefore, I’m faced with a dilemma: make what I want to make or bite my tongue and try to make something that I think will be super popular and get a lot of stars in a short amount of time (in other words, make a level where you don’t have to press anything or a level with a mystery mushroom costume that’s a remake of a level from another game).

I tried to get around this by making an automatic course, but one with a unique spin on the formula and one that I could be proud of. I decided my creation would not just be a bunch of random nonsense floating in the sky (which can certainly be entertaining if done well), but it would have context and somewhat of a story behind it. I started with the theme of Mario being trapped in some elaborate machine and through the process of creating it, the idea evolved with some inspiration from the Portal series. I designed the course to have two “endings” of sorts: one where a player can choose to not press anything and let the machine take its course; here they would still hit the goal at the end, but Mario would also go flying into a sawblade afterwards, implying that just going with the flow will result in Mario meeting his doom. But, and here’s the Portal-esque part, if players cleverly observe their surroundings, they can escape the machine and discover hidden areas outside of it, such as the observation room where the machine’s operators are watching Mario go through it, and another path that leads to the core of the machine, a hidden boss fight, and finally the true exit out of the machine. I spent hours and hours fine-tuning this course, paying special attention to how it looked and operated, and I kept adding more and more details until finally I felt it was ready. Here was a creation, I thought, that would meet the popular demand for the automatic course, but innovate and put a new twist on it. After uploading it, I wasn’t able to play the game until two days later and I was eager to see how what I felt was my finest creation yet had been received…

The Mushroomatic Machine
…it had 5 plays and 0 stars. In a word, I was crushed. It was simply devastating to have something I worked so hard on and had such high hopes for get such a poor reception, or indeed, not even really be noticed at all. As time went on, it only got worse, because more and more people played it, but none of them starred it. Why didn’t they like it? I thought. Was it not exciting enough? Did they discover the hidden secrets? Did they strive to get to the “good ending”? I had agonized over the name of the course, trying to find something in the small number of characters available that would be both catchy but also capture the intricate nature of the level. Advertising is the most important aspect to consider when uploading a course if you want it to be played. All you have to recommend your course is a name, the zoomed out picture of your course’s layout (or at least part of it) and a second close-up picture of a particular section of your course that you can choose. If these things aren’t eye-catching, people will just pass you up. As of this moment, “The Mushroomatic Machine-2 Exits” as I called it, has a paltry 78 plays and 2 stars. Most people finished it; they just didn’t seem to care for it. I have no idea why, none of them left comments and all I have is a couple of red “Xs” on the zoomed-out picture of the course to show me where people lost lives. This feature doesn’t help much, by the way, especially when it doesn’t show where people died in the course’s “sub-area” (the second part of a level accessed by going down pipes), where most of some of my levels take place. Another thing to take into consideration is that many simply don’t know what “stars” are, or how important they are to level creators. Many people bought Super Mario Maker to partake in the playing side of things and not the creation side, and considering the game never explicitly tells the player about the starring system anywhere except in notifications that randomly pop up on the screen from time to time, it’s easy to consider the fact that many people may have enjoyed my levels, but just don’t think to star them or don’t know what starring is. I also can’t help but wonder about how helpful it would be if I was able to make a brief description of my levels in addition to their title. If I had been able to do this, I could have gotten across what I felt made my machine course unique, not to mention give some context for my other courses as well.

At this point, I had a nine-world (four courses per world) Mario adventure planned out in my head that I wanted to build in Super Mario Maker (well, not just in my head, as I outlined the whole damn thing with pen and paper). That was what I really wanted to start making, but with nine courses already uploaded out of the ten course limit that I was struggling to break through and the stars very slowly coming in, even after a handful of levels I spent hours of effort making, I didn’t want to start making that game when I wouldn’t be able to upload (and keep uploaded) the whole thing. So I had one final idea. One final crazy idea that would surely get some stars and “fund” my game. I would make a “remake” level, the other popular surefire thing. But if I was going to do this, I was going to make something I would enjoy doing, that I would be passionate about, and that would be a fun challenge to undertake…

So I decided I would recreate Clock Town from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in Super Mario Maker, Stock Pot Inn included.

Four days and many hours later, I felt that I had pulled this feat off, at least as best as I could within the limitations of the game. In the end, it was a fun challenge, and also one that drained me. After my last big course failed “financially”, I tried not to get my hopes up too much, but surely…

Just over twenty four hours after uploading it, my Clock Town recreation had 13 plays and 3 stars. Not a bad turnaround compared to how slowly my other courses acquired stars, but still not exactly big money (last I checked it’s my most starred course with 24 stars at least). But hey, I finally hit fifty stars at this point and could now upload up to a meager twenty courses. That’s just great, but now all I could think about was how long of a road it was going to be to reach 150 stars and the thirty course limit, which still wouldn’t be enough to hold my ambitious nine-world adventure (which I eventually thought of a tenth bonus world for…aren’t I the dreamer?). Even after uploading six more courses (including one of the worlds from my planned game) following Clock Town, I still have yet to reach 150 stars and to date still only have just a little over 100.

Clock Town's clock in Super Mario Maker
I want to be clear about something: outside of a handful of very notable problems I feel the game has (which I’ll talk about more in a follow-up post, including some suggested remedies for my problems with the level sharing system), I love Super Mario Maker. The game is a childhood dream of mine come true and I’m happy it exists. It even reignited a creative side of me that I’ve been keeping dormant lately, which I can’t be more grateful for. With that said, my experience creating and uploading courses in Super Mario Maker has been completely demoralizing. Melodramatic? Sure. But I create what I feel is my best course yet, and one that I am sure will be popular, and no one cares or notices. I spend hours and days and weeks pouring my heart and soul into a creation I truly believe in, but no one is buying. I spend so much time arduously testing and re-testing, tweaking and re-tweaking, only to discover one possibly large problem I missed after uploading my level and to fret about whether it will break the whole thing for people. In the end, I can’t imagine making a whole video game, something I spend years putting my life into, only to have someone finish it overnight and nitpick about a bunch of stuff wrong with it. In the end, people are only buying the stuff that’s already popular, the stuff with the good review scores (stars) and the most sales (plays), whether that camp is full of several similar ideas or not (just to be clear: I don’t mean to say that the mega popular courses are bad, in fact most of them are pretty awesome and there’s some really inspired ideas in there, just that there’s so much more out there just as awesome that is getting ignored). Worst of all, perhaps, is when you see that someone else had your same idea, and that their version of it is getting a ton of attention while yours rots in the back alleys of the Course World server (this hasn’t really happened to me personally, but it’s definitely a possibility, and I’ve seen others execute ideas that I still have in my head, or two different versions of the same idea, one much more noticed than another, regardless of quality). I gave in, just a bit, and tried to make something that would appeal to the masses, but still something I can be proud of, and all to fund the stuff that I really want to be making. And my attempts to cash in this way fell on their face too. And yet I’m still dreaming of all the great worlds I want to put in my full Mario game, and getting more ideas every day. In the end, I’ve had a blast creating levels because of the passion I have for creation and the joy it brings me, even though I know few will likely appreciate or even play my stuff. Being a Mario level creator has its rewards, and I’m sure being a game developer does as well, but it’s also pretty shitty and I, for one, am totally burnt out on Mario making right now.

My conclusion with all this? Right before Super Mario Maker’s release in the US, I played through The Last of Us for the first time, and I wrote about how I thought it was an unrelentingly stressful and bleak experience that was almost difficult to play (and also a great experience I highly recommend for the record). After finishing it, I was greatly looking forward to relaxing with some colorful Nintendo fun in Super Mario Maker, but found instead an experience even more emotionally devastating. Game developers, you have my sympathy and infinite respect.

For those interested, here are a few of my course IDs, including the ones I mentioned in this piece (if you want to check out all sixteen of the courses I currently have uploaded, than simply check out my profile in the game):

Magikoopa’s Platform Keep: 5D6F-0000-0031-2F1D

The Grand Koopaship: 0662-0000-0040-5BFD

The Mushroomatic Machine-2 Exits: 1E81-0000-0049-6843

Zelda: Majora’s Mask-Clock Town: 4AAB-0000-0062-DC60

4-1: The Lost Village: 7464-0000-009C-8759