Super Mario Maker lets you make, save, and share your own Super Mario Bros. levels. The tools used to make those levels are intuitive and effective, though the level sharing and sorting options used to find levels online could be better.
I mean, I could stop right there, because either that sounds like the one of the best things Nintendo could have ever created or not. If the above moves you, you should own Super Mario Maker. If you shrugged at the concept, then... well, look, you're wrong, but that's OK. I can respect that.
Originally I thought I just wanted the exact same sort of options available to the original creators of levels for Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U. I wanted left-to-right scrolling levels that, depending on the game in question, either let you scroll the screen back to the left or it didn't. Nintendo plays fast and loose when it comes to duplicating the experiences of the original games in exacting detail, but the flexibility ends up working out in the game's favor because it opens up a lot of really interesting possibilities. You have options that the original developers didn't, so if you want to make a Bullet Bill launcher that shoots mushrooms instead of missiles, you totally can. If you want to hang a pipe up top and have it spit out super-sized goombas, you can do that. If you want make a billion different levels all based around Kuribo's Shoe, you can absolutely do that. I don't mean to say that Super Mario Maker is limitless, but the versatility granted to you by the game's toolset is astounding.
But that toolset starts out with a whole lot of limits on it. Upon first boot, the game will serve you up one rack of objects to place in a level, letting you create a pretty standard above ground Super Mario Bros. level. After fiddling with the tools for awhile, you'll get a notification that the next set of tools will be delivered the following day. At that point, you'll unlock more objects and options to play with. On one level, this is smart because it prevents you from getting overwhelmed by the full set of options, allowing you to ramp up and get more comfortable with the editor before you're turned loose. On the other, you are almost definitely smart enough to handle a quicker unlocking process for those tools. If you're in that camp, I might recommend playing around with the Wii U's system clock to unlock things a little more quickly. Worked for me, but maybe there's some downside to this that I didn't notice in my time with the game.
It doesn't take much time to wrap your mind around the editing tools because most of them are extremely straightforward. You'll plop objects down into a tile-based grid, and you can hit the select button at any time to test out any part of your level immediately. This lets you rapidly iterate on your level until every part of it feels just as you'd like it to feel. You can swap to a different background at any time or even change games completely, which gives you different gameplay options. Super Mario 3 has the raccoon tail and run meter, World has the cape, New lets you butt stomp and wall jump, and the original Super Mario Bros. has Amiibo support.
I've always felt that Nintendo widely misunderstood the appeal of the whole "toys that also work with your video games" concept. Amiibos have always seem incredibly limited--most games only support a tiny portion of the overall catalog and most of the things they unlocked weren't worth the trip. Super Mario Maker ends up being a nice, but non-vital use of Nintendo's intensely popular figurines. The game supports a wide variety of them in the form of "costumes," which replace Mario with a different little sprite. So you can make Mario look like Link, if you like. Or the Wii Fit Trainer. Or just about any other Amiibo we had laying around the office. It'd be nice if Nintendo kept updating Super Mario Maker to make it the sort of Amiibo lingua franca that worked with everything, but maybe that's a bit much to ask. While in a costume, Mario is effectively treated as "Super" Mario. If you get hit, you lose the costume and become tiny Mario again. While in costume, you can push up on the D-pad to get a little animation (Link raises the Triforce above his head) and some characters get different sounds for jumping or the little musical fanfare that plays when you complete a level. Even Toad, who will normally show up at the end of a string of levels to let you know that the princess has been moved to some other castle, will have something a little different to say if you show up in costume. It's a clever little feature. Also, in case you're like me and don't want to insert a ton of Amiibo into your life, you can unlock a lot of costumes by simply finishing the game's 100 Mario mode over and over again.
The 100 Mario Challenge is the game's primary method of playing created levels. You'll choose a difficulty and then the game will just serve up random user-created levels. You'll have 100 lives to finish the group of levels. You can also choose different difficulties, with a hard mode unlocking after you beat normal once. The game seems to determine difficulty as a factor of number of times played versus number of times finished, so when you play on hard, you're probably getting levels that a lot of other users bailed on. Speaking of which, if you're faced with something too diabolical (or unfair) to complete, you can hold down select for a few seconds and the game will serve up a new level. The game also has a 10 Mario Challenge, which is used to serve up sample levels that ship as a part of the package. These levels seem to be in place primarily to show you what's possible with the editing tools and give you some new ideas. It's effective.
Super Mario Maker is so close to being everything you'd want out of a Super Mario level editor that the parts of it that need improvement kind of stick out. Better level filtering would be great, for example. You can follow creators and find popular levels and all that, but there's no text-based search or way to tag levels as a specific type. So you can't immediately go find all the "auto-play" levels that people are making. And you can't limit the levels the game serves you up to remove the New Super Mario Bros. tileset from the rotation completely. Or focus specifically on SMB1 levels. Sharing your level outside of the game requires you to copy down a 16-character code and post that online. Some advanced search options would really go a long way to making the game a little more friendly to explore.
The game also restricts you to making single levels, as opposed to allowing the creation of entire worlds or games. Having one level connect to the next would be positively huge. It'd also let lives and coins mean what they meant in the original games. Since each level is out there on its own, waiting to be randomly mashed up against some other creator's levels in the 100 Mario Challenge, each one has to start you in the same state, as Small Mario. 1UP mushrooms also lose some of their original meaning in Super Mario Maker. They're capped to prevent you from earning more than three in one level, and you can't go over the starting amount of lives (10 or 100, depending on what you're doing). On one hand, this prevents people from creating huge levels full of 1UPs that totally disrupt the difficulty of the modes, but on the other, it makes the core things you do in most Mario games--collecting coins and finding extra lives--feel totally meaningless.
The game also tosses out some of the rules from the original games. For example, if you create two blocks in a level and put mushrooms in both blocks, you can collect one to become Super Mario, as you'd expect. But that second mushroom block won't automatically become a Fire Flower. Mushrooms are always mushrooms. This, again, seems to be a way for the game to help creators by ensuring that a player won't get fiery in a spot where the author doesn't expect them to be tossing fireballs, but it ain't how it used to be. Similarly, Yoshi eggs always hatch into Yoshis, even if you're already on a Yoshi. And eating colored shells as Yoshi doesn't let you breathe fire or stomp around, which was one of Yoshi's only cool abilities. Lastly, the enemies don't dance when the "wah!" sound effect is played in New Super Mario Bros. U. This... might actually be a good thing, but I suppose all of it is up to individual interpretation. The upgrade path of the original Super Mario Bros. is so iconic that it's really weird to see it tossed aside like this, but then you couldn't even run to the left in that original game, either. These changes stick out, but they aren't necessarily bad. Just different in a way that makes it easier for level authors to anticipate what abilities a player might have at any given spot in a level.
The last thing is something that all user-created games eventually deal with: most users upload lame levels. In a game where the built-in content feels more like a showcase of what's possible, rather than a game unto itself, this could get especially rough. But the few ways users do have to interact with and rate created levels should hopefully help the best levels rise to the top.
These are minor slights against a package that often feels like it's too good to be true. Super Mario Maker lets you create as many Kuribo's Shoe-focused levels as your heart can take and then some. The pipes work and you can make giant goombas and stack them up as high as the screen. You can press play and get served up an endless array of user-created levels of varying degrees of quality. If any of that sounds even slightly appealing, you'll probably love this thing to death.