Once upon a time, portable versions of console games did not feel the need to have clarifying titles. Mortal Kombat for the Game Boy was just called Mortal Kombat, even if a more accurate name would have been Mortal Kombat for Game Boy: A Chunky Unplayable Mess of Stuttering Green. The industry has moved away from platform-specific versions of the same games, but it still happens on occasion; when attempted, the title is the first evidence that something is amiss.
Nintendo has always leaned towards literalism: Witness the many games on the Super Nintendo endorsed with the titular superlative, or the robust line-up of Nintendo 64 games with the requisite “64” suffix, or even their recent habit of labeling new versions of games or systems with the word “New” in the title. For a company known for whimsical worlds filled with magic mushrooms, time travel, tie-wearing apes, and power-sucking pink globs, it’s all a bit on the nose.
And so it is with Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS, a port of last fall’s Wii U game that calls out its host platform. But the title addendum does spotlight an important distinction: Even if they share 95% of the same concept and content, these are not the exact same game. In some ways, the portable child out-wits its bigger, stronger sibling. In others, the 3DS version acts the same while missing an important feature, like a gymnast whose phantom limbs encourage her to attempt a cartwheel after losing her arms. The results aren’t always pretty. The most obvious change is in sharing options: The Wii U game lets you upload your creations online and share with the world, whereas the 3DS game restricts sharing to local wireless and StreetPassing strangers. Besides this biggie, let’s round up where the newer Mario Maker makes the grade and where it falls on its head.
From looks alone, it’s very easy to forget this is a full-fat HD Wii U game squeezed onto a 3DS game card. The aesthetics are of course borrowed largely from 8-bit and 16-bit games, but still, the NES original Super Mario Bros.-style courses look remarkably sharp, as do the Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World levels. A tiny letterboxing occurs to help the game achieve a resolution that fits the handheld’s screen, but the loss of real estate is a welcome sacrifice from the crispness and readability of the on-screen graphics.
Some of the fun graphical touches that made sense on the Wii U no longer work here, and their loss is felt. For example: When creating a course on the Wii U GamePad, you drop and drag your stylus across the touchscreen; on the main TV screen, a giant photo-realistic hand represents your own. You can even choose different skin tones or replace the human hand entirely with a cat’s paw. It was a small but charming inclusion. With the 3DS’s two screens so close to one another, and no on-lookers watching, no visual aid is needed. And the one graphical trait inherent to the 3DS, auto-stereoscopic 3D, isn’t used either.
The 3DS game includes ten lessons hosted by Yamamura, a master level designer who also happens to be a pigeon. The tutorials are helpful, especially for younger players who may not have grown up with the classic 2D Super Mario games and haven’t already had the series’ rules burned into their minds.
The Wii U game opens with a brilliant fake-out: You begin playing what appears to be a normal Mario level when you encounter a giant gap in the ground. There’s no moving platform or sequence of bricks from which to jump. You simply can’t progress. The playfield shifts into the game’s EDIT mode and you’re tasked with placing the necessary pieces to finish the course. It’s an organic introduction to the game’s primary motive: To play, make, and play with Mario levels. The 3DS game opens with a more staid, conventional tutorial that tells you everything you need to know. I prefered the original game’s in medias res trickery.
During the writing of my review, I left my 3DS open to the game’s EDIT mode because the accompanying music is so good. Each of the four game styles harkens back to the source game for its melodies and themes. And each style includes six different templates based on kinds of levels: Ground, Underground, Underwater, Ghost House, Airship and Castle. All told, there are thirty-six different tracks, all familiar but chopped up and calibrated in funky, surprising ways. So while you’re placing tiles and objects to create a level, you get to listen to remixed versions of music you’ve heard a thousand times, but never quite like this. Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS is the secret best Mario jukebox ever created.
The love poured into these level theme remixes was the result, sadly, of a necessary evil. Some concessions had to be made when squeezing this console game down onto the smaller game files of the handheld. In the 3DS game, each placed tile registers only a simple “click.” In the Wii U version, each discrete distributable object, be it a brick or coin or Goomba or star, announced its respective name when being placed in the EDIT mode. The audio is manipulated and auto-tuned in such a way that you barely notice it; sure enough, listen carefully and you hear a warbled voice say, “Mushroom!” when dropping the power-up in a level. Not only that, but its pitch changes depending on where in the level you place it, rising and lowering with the chosen altitude. Not only are you making a Mario stage, you’re DJ’ing a mash-up Mushroom Kingdom music track in real-time.
By far the best inclusion of the 3DS game is the generous and often-brilliant collection of Super Mario Challenge courses. Completing each set of stages unlocks a new combo of tools to use in the EDIT mode. Better yet, each level comes with a duo of optional challenges: “Gather all 100 coins,” for example, or “Jump on every Goomba.” Some levels task you with completing it in diametrically opposing ways: One devious instruction is to not push left, a request more difficult than it seems, while the second challenge is to race to the right never lifting your finger from the D-pad.
Finishing the level while accomplishing the task wins you a shiny gold stamp, the equivalent of a grade school teacher’s sticker for effort. But the reward is not in the collection of meaningless stamps; the reward is in playing a Mario game in a new way by choice, as if goaded on by your mates to hop to class on one foot. You can walk just fine. But sometimes it’s worthwhile to try something unnecessary and weird, just to see if you can.
One of the greatest achievements of the Wii U game was its collection of over 100 pixelated costume designs, offering classic Nintendo characters (and other, sometimes branded, content) as they would have appeared in the original 8-bit Super Mario Bros.. So we finally get to see what the Wii Fit Trainer might have looked like had the Wii craze hit in 1986, not 2006. Even better, these could be included in special “Mystery Mushroom” power-ups which turned Mario into these characters, each with specific movements and sound effects. Push down while an Inkling from Splatoon and you turned into a squid. Run while portraying Samus from Metroid and you rolled as a morph ball. It was a delicious and nutty callback to a company’s thirty-year history in games, all boiled down into one razor-specific style. Alas, the 3DS version excludes these costumes for some reason. R.I.P. Mercedes-Benz Mario.
Reason enough to plunk down the cash for a Wii U and Super Mario Maker is the hidden Flyswatter mini-game borrowed from the original Mario creation tool, Mario Paint on the SNES. You swat flies. It’s magical. The 3DS game, as far as I know, has not retained this bonus. Let’s hope some other game has taken its place but has yet to be unearthed. In the meantime, whether on 2015’s Wii U title or this month’s 3DS version, there’s plenty of Marios to be made and played.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.