"Super Mario Maker" does not feel like a Nintendo game. The company famous for exercising tight control in order to create authored bits of premium playtime would not seem to be the sort to hand over the keys to its kingdom. The surprise of "Mario Maker" is what a strange anomaly it is — something akin to a developer toolset, crowd-sourced game jam, and classic homage. True to Nintendo's brand, though, it is utterly artful in its craftsmanship.
Plumbing the depths
Most of that comes from the tools themselves. As the name implies, "Mario Maker" is primarily a creation engine, and just about everything revolves around the central theme. The elegance here is its simplicity. Mario has created a language of play that just about every gamer is familiar with, so we all know exactly what to expect when we place a Koopa or Spiny on the screen. We all know exactly how "Super Mario Bros. 3" feels different than "Super Mario World," and the physics models here provide that sensation to a tee.
Many of the assets have alternate versions that can be activated by shaking them. All of the moving characters have their own routines, and many of them can play off each other in unexpected ways. Even those who don't dabble too much in level creation absolutely need to play with the tools and test the way different assets interact with each other. Sometimes that kind of experimentation will spark a new idea even Nintendo hasn't used.
In an apparent effort to encourage this kind of experimentation, Nintendo has hidden the majority of the assets behind timed unlocks that become available each subsequent day you create. The idea is you slowly wade into small batches of the tools, which makes enough sense. A lot of the assets interact with each other, so giving you access to all of them at once would create an absurd and even daunting amount of combinations to try out.
Do the Mario
The creation tools are really the showpiece here. "Super Mario Maker" does come packed with a series of pre-made stages, but they're more like a sampler platter than a hearty meal. Most of the stages are short, simple proof-of-concept designs or clearly engineered to show off a particular gameplay concept. They're instructional without being hand-holding, but don't go in expecting a full-fledged Mario game from those alone.
Some are truly ingenious though. The stages from the Nintendo World Championship, once unlocked, provide an extremely satisfying and well-designed challenge. More than any of the other pre-fab stages, those show the breadth of the toolset provided.
Infinite 'other castles'
As you might expect, the quality of the stages themselves is pretty inconsistent. I found playing on Normal the best option, providing a nice balance between traditionally designed stage layouts and unique experiments. I particularly liked the auto-play stages, which use the full extent of moving parts to create a Rube Goldberg machine that ferries Mario to the finish.
The difficulty is determined by some hidden algorithm, at least part of which is how many times players die in a given stage. This has already created some trouble on the Expert difficulty. Player-creators largely don't seem to grasp how to make a stage that's tough-but-fair, so Expert difficulty feels like a gauntlet where survival depends less on quick reflexes and more on knowing the stage layout by heart. The requirement to publish a stage is the ability to finish it, but there's something to be said for knowing how to playtest as if you've never played a stage before.
Making Mario ours
All that is to say, making the game fun is up to us now. Nintendo is known for being conservative and protective of its properties, and it's taking an uncharacteristic risk by giving players this much control over its most iconic character. We're already seeing creativity flourish. I can only imagine what will happen when we're all Mario's caretakers.