Delightful Design in ‘Super Mario Maker’

With Super Mario Maker, Nintendo created both a tool and a toy.

If you’ve spent any time in the modern software world, you’ve probably chased that elusive concept of “delight.” Whether you’re making an enterprise analytics suite or a twitter client, it’s not enough that your tool simply performs its function or even that it’s conventionally beautiful. You want people to be happy when they use it.

It’s the reason that you hear the little pops when tapping around from icon to icon in the Facebook mobile app or why refreshing your feed is done by tugging downward until new items pop up. The motions made to accomplish these things are fairly intuitive, but they’re also feature little aesthetic touches that please some very basic corner of your brain.

Super Mario Maker is a masterful example of a delightful tool. Everything about it is meant to offer easy action to powerful functions while also appealing to your aesthetic (and sometimes even nostalgic) sensibilities. This is a critical success for Super Mario Maker, as it results in a tool that is so pleasant to use that you actually want to go out of your way to use it more.

Most video game players have probably fantasized about making Mario levels. Almost as many have likely given up after after reviewing their first page of graph paper or oddly-formatted Excel workbook. Mario Maker drops you onto a remarkably blank canvas without much guidance other than to “Play around!” The trick is that playing around is actually a fun, efficient way to learn.

On the most basic level, it’s pleasant to tap around the screen with the stylus. Minute animations and custom sounds accompany every interaction. Placing elements of the level is accomplished on a one-to-one basis by dragging them off your palette and into the level. Move your stylus quickly while rearranging an item creates a tiny animation that inspires you to shake the item some more. When you do, you’re rewarded by a green koopa turning into a red one or a moving platform that becomes stationary. You’ve simultaneously encountered a delightful surprise and learned about a useful feature. Soon you realize that the entire level editor adheres to the goofy-but-consistent logic of Mario: mushrooms make things big, placing something on a block shoves it inside, and attaching wings to objects makes them hover. The editor is tactile, logical (in its weird way), and satisfying to use.

As you spend time with the tool, you begin to notice smaller features meant to streamline the experience for more experienced creators. The shoulder buttons act as modifiers that allow you to copy, erase, and select multiple level elements as you sketch out your course. This elegant design cuts out extraneous taps by recognizing that you’ll be holding the game pad with one hand and the stylus with the other. It simulates a pen and notebook “feel” while also giving you convenient ways to focus on creating. Even after your level is out in the wild, you can learn new things about it. Little red Xs mark the spots where people have failed. Players can even place comments directly in your course. All of it combines to deepen your connection to the tool while also offering enjoyable experiences.

For long-time Mario players, the entire game is infused with a nostalgic layer meant to evoke warm feelings. Sound effects and menu music reach back through the decades. Playing other players’ levels is framed in a Super Mario 3-style map. At the end you either find out that the princess is in another castle or you get to see a credits sequence complete with the the names of the people who designed the courses. Bizarrely, many of the icons and tool sets are taken straight from 1992’s Mario Paint. I never thought that I’d ever see Undo Dog again, but when I did, I was instantly happy and understood his exact function.

At its core, Super Mario Maker isn’t much different from the countless other official and unofficial level editors that have come before it. However, the artistry put into turning the very complex process of level design into a delightful experience makes it something that is inherently enjoyable to use. With Super Mario Maker, Nintendo has created both a tool and a toy.