Bonus Tip #13 for Prospective Mario Makers: Don’t Remake Other Games’ Levels

A couple years ago, Stephen King took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. It’s a good read if you have the time, but one particular piece of it lingers in my memory still today. Someone asked him about the prospect of other authors writing stories set in the Dark Tower universe, to which King responded:

I think you might be talking about fanfic. I have no control over that, and I understand the urge, but I think writers would be best served by creating new worlds.

I’m not here to disparage fan fiction, though I’ve never seen any I would describe with any adjective more enthusiastic than “readable”. I’ll also disclaim, before anyone decides to get all clever-clogs about it, that I’m fully aware of the irony of applying King’s words to Super Mario Maker, for what is level building if not a glorified design variant of fan fiction, and what is Mario Maker if not an official Nintendo-stamped ticket to a world that has hitherto inhabited a legal gray area at best? Nevertheless, it’s sound advice that, I feel, is salient in this context.

I wish I had thought to mention this in the original 12 Tips post, but it didn’t occur to me until I saw this tweet land in my Twitter feed, having been retweeted by composer Jake Kaufman. The tweet only shows a screenshot of a Mario Maker level, but you can see it in action in the video I’ve posted below. In case you didn’t follow the link, the level is a recreation of the “Plains of Passage” level from Shovel Knight.[1]

What on earth is the point of putting in so much time and hard work to ape someone else’s creation? The obvious answer is tribute. You want to show how much you love this or that work, and this is how you decide to show it. From all my impressions of it, however, Mario Maker is neither an appropriate nor useful medium for homage. Jeremy Parish demonstrated this when he recreated the infamous dam level from the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. He adapted it to the strictures of the Wii U well enough, but it wasn’t one of his better efforts. The limitations of the game seem to discourage this sort of thing, if indirectly.

Coming up with original ideas isn’t easy. Believe me, some days I sit in front of SMBX waiting for the muse to smile upon me and I get bupkis. It would be lovely if you could flip a switch and watch as angels bring amazing levels to your brain on beams of light, but you can’t. I just couldn’t live with myself if I Xerox’d someone else’s level and called it a day. To me, that kind of thing implies not only a lack of creativity but also a lack of confidence, both in oneself and one’s level creating abilities and in the player to expect more out of a game than second-rate copies of familiar territory. Nevertheless, I expect the level will be played millions of times and people will love it and rate it highly, and I will continue yelling at children to get off my lawn.

It’s not just writers—or, in this case, level builders—who are best served by the creation of new worlds. It’s the player as well. When you put something new out there, even if you think it’s not that good, it’s still something no one’s ever seen before, which is preferable (in my opinion) to playing the video game equivalent of fan art. If I wanted to play Shovel Knight, I would play Shovel Knight. (Which I think I will go do now.)

[1] The connection between Kaufman and Shovel Knight is that he composed most of the music for it.

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