I finally managed to pull myself away from Super Mario Maker, just in time to realize that Call of Duty: Black Ops III will be getting mod tools and a level editor—the features that allow players to make their own custom content for a game—in March. That’s something that will make me consider getting the game sooner rather than later.

I love creating maps and designing my own levels or intricate mazes for my friends to try their hand at or battle each other in. This is something I’ve been doing since I was little—like so many others—using my graph paper to design Super Mario or Mega Man courses when I should have been learning math. With each new game that boasts these sorts of features, I feel like I have to try them out. Not all of those games have been great of course, but others suck me in for weeks—we don’t talk about the lifetime I’ve lost in Minecraft—which is why I want to discuss some of my favorite games with map editors and a few of the early pioneers before Nintendo made killing Mario in elaborate deathtraps the new popular thing.

My honorable mention has to go to the Park Editor in the Tony Hawk games. Out of everything mentioned, this is the game I have the least experience with, but many of my friends raved about it. There were a limited number of available themes, but the parks themselves could be made quite large with numerous obstacles for players to experiment with. The developers at Neversoft also included several of their own maps for this mode to help players get started.

It is a bit limited in not being able to stack multiple ramps or put certain objects close together, but this won’t take away too much from the series. Dropping in to test map then switching back to the editor can be a bit time consuming and breaks the creative flow a bit. Later entries in the series would add many options, but this game is where it all started.

Most people may not remember Lode Runner but this OG was doing its thing back in 1983 on the Apple II (and later on many other platforms) and is one of the first games to come with a level editor. The title came with one hundred and fifty unique levels, but the easy to use interface made the possibility of making a hundred more painless.

There were not a ton of different pieces to use, but that meant that each got a numerical value and was easy to place. Certain items, like enemies, had a limited number of uses per level, and I often forgot to actually add the player before trying to jump into the action. The key to making good Lode Runner levels is simply being mindful of the mechanics and enemy placements, but there are also a ton of fun themed creations as well. I played the game on the computer at school, but put quite a few hours into the more limited NES version, which lacked a save feature. The level editor was so well-received though that it became a major part of their marketing for the numerous other versions that came out on everything from the Gameboy (which might have been the first level editor on a handheld?) to the Xbox 360.

Released in 1985 for America as one of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s launch titles, Excitebike is now a household name for gamers. I played the game for months before I realized Design Mode existed.

There were many different types of ramps, hazards, and other obstacles to place throughout a long course and players were able to decide how many laps the race would go. Nintendo provided five maps that could be changed and also allowed for computer controlled motocross opponents on the created course. This added a ton of replay value to the game, and it was revolutionary for the time, even if it did seem a bit limited after creating several tracks. The big negative factor was that the player creations could not be saved. A save feature was only added in the Japanese version by using cassette tapes, even though there were ‘save’ and ‘load options. The manual says that those were left there for “potential product developments,” but those never came to be in the US. Still, for the time it was made, Excitebike was one of the best course designers available on a home console.

The game boasted that it was “the heir apparent to Goldeneye,” so I had to give it a shot. After tearing through the singleplayer campaign twice and enjoying some multiplayer with friends, I discovered Time Splitters 2 had a map maker, making me genuinely happy. Well, that was until I realized how complex this mode was.

The map maker has quite the learning curve, but that makes sense with how versatile the look, sizes, and item placement were possible in each creation. Unlike many others, this level editor allowed for placing multiple items on the same spot, which could make for some interesting surprises. What may be the best feature of this mode though was the ability to design campaign levels, which is almost unheard of in other games with level designers. As cool as it was to see, this option was still limited by several factors like memory space and available enemy placement. Though I played this mostly on the PS2 and loved it, that hardware could only handle seven enemies in player creations, where the Xbox version could do up to ten.

2. ‘FARY CRY 2’
I’m a fan of the series for sure—though I am skeptical about this new Primal entry—but Far Cry 2 took a lot to pull me into its campaign mode. So when I first got the game I spent a lot of time in the map editor, which quickly became one of my favorite creative outlets.

I had toyed with the editor in the first game, but the second made a lot of improvements. It is incredibly simple to use and allows for a huge level of terrain manipulation and made it possible for ingenious builders to engineer almost anything with nearly every in-game object available, which could all be stacked and maneuvered for wonderful constructs. There was a limited choice of droppable weapons, but textures could be adjusted as well as environmental settings, and this was all limited only by the budget bar, which did become a pain when I wanted to build so much more. The best feature here though was the ability to jump in and out of the map to look around or test out the map. The later titles added computer enemies that can be placed as well, which was excellent. This mode tried to make itself completely malleable to the player, which is why I have the urge to go back to it so often.

The Halo series is what convinced me to buy an original Xbox, but by the third one my love of the franchise was beginning to wane. This was however restored somewhat by the addition of a new creative mode called Forge. This feature allowed players to modify the maps, though the overall terrain and many structures could not be altered. Spawn and objective points could be changed, which is excellent for a shooter, but the best feature was the ability to adjust the maps during gameplay.

A budget limited what could be added, but this mode allowed players to sell many of the already existing items on the stage for more money. Forge was seen as a big selling point for Halo 3 and Bungie loved how the fans took to it. They provided more maps and numerous textures that were designed to allow more space and extra creative freedom. Forge was also a huge help for those who worked with Machinima and made videos. Later incarnations of this mode in other installments added and removed features, but the creative process has always been enjoyable. I can’t wait to see what Halo 5’s Forge has to offer.

Writing in the dirty South, recovering internet addict Stephen Wilds wakes up every night wrestling with nightmares of Silent Hill and stray commas. You may follow his exploits on Twitter @StephenWilds.

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