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.

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