Mario, the mustachioed, overalls-sporting plumber, is the omnipresent figure of video games, an instantly recognizable property in one of the world’s biggest entertainment industries. In 1981, Donkey Kong starting taking our quarters at the arcades — here, with Mario at its center, the first platformer was born. When Mario showed up again just a few years later on home consoles with 1985’s Super Mario Bros., the result was nothing less than revelatory. Never before had players encountered a game with its level of precision and character-control. Its graphics were wildly inventive, its gameplay immediate and compulsive and its musical score burrowed into our brains. And since then, the Super Mario Bros. series has continuously redefined what it means, and how it feels, to run (and jump) through a digital space.
Our collective familiarity with a property as ubiquitous and beloved as Super Mario Bros. is what makes Super Mario Maker 2 so appealing. The game sets out to fulfill a highly specific adolescent fantasy, one that likely inspired many game developers over the past few decades: “What if I could make my own Super Mario course?”
Super Mario Maker 2, and its predecessor released in 2015, answer that question by offering players the tools to create, share and play one another’s levels – either in the visual style of the newer games, or in the style of the classic NES and SNES titles.
Like all Nintendo games, its mechanics are simple on the surface but hide a deeper complexity. And much of that complexity and the ingenuity it affords is propped up by the community of players who have already made over 2 million custom stages since the game released on June 28th for the Nintendo Switch.
It’s Nintendo’s reliance on the creative spirit of these dedicated players that makes the Super Mario Maker series such a quietly radical property within the Nintendo canon. For years, players and spectators have nurtured fan communities around popular Nintendo titles that emphasize high levels of skill and competition. At the same time, Nintendo itself has kept these movements at an arms length: wearily cautious and supportive of them at best, and aggressively hostile towards them at worst.
Crackdowns on competitions
Among the most talked-about of these fan communities is the competitive culture surrounding the Super Smash Bros. series. Super Smash Bros. Melee, released in 2001 and the second entry in the series, is still regularly played today. The game was designed to function as a casual multiplayer experience that brought together characters from beloved Nintendo properties. It was Nintendo attempting to design a fighting game that was simple to pick up and play: Rather than force players to memorize complex button patterns a-la Street Fighter, attacks were mapped to two buttons and a directional stick. But players soon found that the game’s unique physics engine and unintended movement options made high-level play a consistently creative affair, rather than one of rote memorization. When played at its competitive peak, the game’s frenetic pace and ridiculous number of button inputs per second barely resemble the experience that lesser players — that is, most of us — are familiar with. This spectacle has proved interesting to a lot of people: Today, major tournaments for the game often attract over 50,000 viewers on Twitch.
But Nintendo has always been uncomfortable with Super Smash Bros. being played in this kind of competitive way. Entries in the series that followed Melee, while still played in tournaments, have been stripped of many of the gameplay mechanics that led to Melee being such a fast-paced, input-heavy experience. In 2013, Nintendo attempted to stop the game from being streamed at EVO, a hugely popular fighting-game tournament in the U.S. The series’ chief designer Masahiro Sakurai has also explicitly expressed his discomfort with the game being played in tournament settings.
That same attitude of ambivalence and borderline hostility around competitive play has been extended towards fan-made games that use Nintendo’s assets. Nintendo is often quick to crack down on fan projects, including those that don’t exist for the sake of profit. Using a company’s established IP to create your own work is, of course, illegal – but Nintendo has always been particularly militant with how it enforces copyright violations. Compare this with a company like SEGA, which once commissioned a team of fangame developers to make an official Sonic The Hedgehog game. That game, Sonic Mania, turned out to be the most well-received Sonic game in decades.
This attitude extends to Nintendo’s history of issuing copyright strikes for YouTube creators and Twitch streamers who play Nintendo games on their channels. This can be particularly troubling for the speedrunning community, a group of players who often make their money from beating video games as fast as possible. Speedrunning has proven that it has a sizable audience: This June, Summer Games Done Quick, a charity speedrunning event, raised more than 3 million dollars in donations for Doctors Without Borders. Nintendo games remain popular at events like this.
A new acceptance
This is why Super Mario Maker 2 and its predecessor feel so refreshing in the context of the Nintendo canon. By loosening its grip on a beloved property and tossing the keys to the player community, Nintendo feeds into the fan-obsessive tendencies they’ve previously refused. With the Super Mario Maker series, Nintendo acknowledges the history of competitive speedrunning, tournament play, and even the masochistic fan games that have made their games visible and interesting in an entirely different way. It’s the rare Nintendo game that is depending on those players, creators, and spectators to keep it alive.
Super Mario Maker 2 has only been out for a few weeks, but already we’ve seen how the game’s deceptively complex course editor has led to the community making some astounding levels. One of the first courses I played had me running along a course and hitting blocks to the rhythm of a popular Kirby theme. This, I found out later, was done by using the game’s “note block,” which once interacted with by the player, produces a musical note in a certain key when struck again. The sound of the note block changes depending on where it is placed in the stage. In this instance, players have turned the course creator into a kind of musical creation tool, recreating their favorite tracks from other Nintendo games and even their favorite movies. I played one stage that was a recreation of “Country Roads” from the Studio Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart; another that interpolated Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”
And then, of course, there are the difficult stages. It seems like these difficult courses are sort of the life-blood of the Super Mario Maker franchise, because they embody most directly the cycle of creation and consumption that fan communities thrive on. Many of these courses are impossibly difficult for the average player, requiring tricks, strategies, and precise movement often used in the speedrunning community. Players also compete for world record times and a spot on the global leaderboard, mimicking many of the characteristics of the speedrunning community. There’s a certain pleasure in experiencing your own miserable failures only to run to the internet and see somebody easily mastering what, to you, felt impossible.
There are a lot of people like myself, I imagine, who don’t have time to play games in the compulsive way they used to. And for us, keeping up on new games can mean assuming the role of spectator, watching others play games we don’t have time to. This relationship — between developers, content creators, and viewers — is increasingly vital to the current gaming marketplace, especially at a time when E-sports and Twitch streaming are driving trends in gaming. But Nintendo has always been old-school in the way they rely on offline experiences, downplaying the kind of online communities that other developers prioritize.
Ironically, it is that indifference that has made fan communities formed around Nintendo games feel singular and special — they’re smaller, more intimate, and regulated by the players themselves. With the Super Mario Maker franchise, Nintendo finally acknowledges the power and influence of its most obsessive fans — by creating something that couldn’t thrive without them.