Future Tense

Nintendo’s Mario Maker Could Be a Minecraft Killer

Anything pirates can do, Nintendo can do better.

Back in October, a college student named Josh Goldberg created Full Screen Mario, a version of 1985’s Super Mario Bros. that you could play in your Web browser. The pirated game was instantly popular not just because it was free, but because the young programmer managed to one-up Nintendo’s original creation in one thrilling way: He gave players simple tools to create their own levels.

There was only one problem. Goldberg didn’t own the copyright to Mario, so, as I warned him at the time, Nintendo was free to shut down his site, steal his ideas, and laugh all the way to the coin bank. Fast-forward to the present. The Full Screen Mario site now displays a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice, and Nintendo on Tuesday unveiled Mario Maker, a version of the classic platformer that, whaddya know, lets you create your own levels.

As you can see, placing blocks, enemies, and pipes with the Wii U GamePad—the iPad-with-buttons that is the system’s main controller—is a cinch, and with the push of a button you can toggle between 8-bit Super Mario Bros. graphics and the high-definition world of 2012’s New Super Mario Bros. U. There’s an easter egg of the flyswatter minigame from Mario Paint, and the trailer hints that you can even customize power-ups, as Mario nabs a tall, thin mushroom that makes him so.

Mario Maker, due next year, is part of a wave of titles announced at E3, the video game expo taking place in Los Angeles this week, hoping to capitalize on the DIY ethos (and massive sales) of Minecraft. But Mario Maker seems to have a simplicity missing from the more comprehensive design games LittleBigPlanet 3 (from Sony) and Project Spark (from Microsoft) that were also announced this week. What’s more, the Mario world has a built-in, cross-generational familiarity that Sony’s and Microsoft’s offerings just can’t touch. (LittleBigPlanet is a brilliant series, but raise your hand if you’re familiar with its mascot, Sackboy.) It’s easy to imagine parents playing Mario Maker with their kids, making it the system-seller that the Wii U desperately needs (the newly launched Mario Kart 8 notwithstanding.)

As for Goldberg, he’s unapologetic about his role as a sort of classic-gaming Robin Hood. Under the takedown notice on FullScreenMario.com is a note from Goldberg that concludes, “I’m glad so many people got to enjoy the game, and look forward to working on new and exciting (and legal) projects.” But he has no hard feelings for Nintendo if the company is indeed giving him a taste of his own medicine, and using his ideas. “FullScreenMario was visible enough that they clearly knew about the thing, and it would be surprising if it didn’t affect development,” he tells me via email. “Still, whether it’s a blatant rip-off or an unlikely coincidence, I’m glad to see Nintendo bringing what the public wants. Companies like Nintendo are learning more and more that great franchises are made by great games but maintained by great communities.” A truth that game-makers, from Nintendo to Sony to Microsoft, ignore at their peril.