Every game developer is just one bad day away from being mean

Super Mario Bros The Lost Levels

Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels (1986)

Every now and then in your working life you’ll run upon a person who is just unrelenting. The type of person who wakes up, runs into the bathroom and smiles at the mirror, just to get it over with for the day. You can get them in school and college too, but it’s in work where people aren’t under any pretenses to be nice to you anymore. I’m the type of person who gives these grouchy gits concessions – I try to understand them, get a bit of craic going with them, make excuses for their infuriating behaviour. Then they still rebuff me and I’m left feeling like a pilchard.

You soon realise that there’s no reckoning with these people, and actually your attempts to get along with them only makes them more contemptuous. It breeds the lesson that, when it comes to working life, probably your best option is to shut up, keep the nut down and get out without treading on too many HR landmines that day. Don’t try to extend olive branches to people who roll their eyes theatrically or sigh when you draw near, or who snipe at other people near constantly, unless you want your heart broken. You know what they say about leopards and spots, old boy.

Wish I could take my own advice when it comes to Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels. Or should I say, the real Super Mario Bros 2? I’m sure you already know the story, about how this game was demoed to the decision-makers in Nintendo of America, who immediately cowered  under the table and whimpered something along the lines of, “Clucking bell, we can’t release a game like that. We don’t want our customer-base to realise we hate them”.

So the version of Super Mario Bros 2 that America and Europe received was a reskin of a game called Doki Doki Panic, and we didn’t see this Japanease ball of spite until it was dubbed The Lost Levels, and released as part of the SNES Super Mario All Stars collection. Nice of them to release it here, I suppose, until you realise that it was less a love note and more like a poison pen letter.

Even the demo saw Mario dying swiftly via hazardous contact with the new Poison Mushroom. I admit that that’s something I always enjoy, when the game is so tough that not even the nice and motherly demo can handle it. There’s a beauty as well, the Poison Mushroom. Its appearance in All-Stars is obviously malevolent, but in the original Famicom game it was near indistinguishable from a real, friendly Mushroom (and naturally you can forget all about seeing 1-Up Mushrooms). Someone in Nintendo really wanted you dead. You thought Paper Mario: Sticker Star made you suffer? That one was child’s play.

Truth be told, The Lost Levels exhausts the knackered old Mario Bros 1 engine way beyond its limits, making it look like a fat boxer windmilling about the place living off past glories. You may not have ever been spergy enough to be able to tell which frame to do your inputs on, or involve yourself in fighting game “labs” and all that male only stuff. But you’ll know all about it when you press the jump button well in good time, only to see Mario slide right off the platform into the abyss.

Or, in the case of Luigi, he not only slides off the cliff but does a Dad-at-your-wedding run and kneeslide to go with it. A fair few collision glitches start to become apparent as well, and I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never win the 50/50 toss here and emerge from them unscathed. And in a similar vein to Pai Mei from Kill Bill, by the time you reach the final course, level D-4, you will hate Red Piranha Plants, despise Hammer Bros and have nothing but contempt for Lakitus.

You’ll be begging to the Goomba Gods for a Mushroom, yet you’ll still be dying so frequently, and usually to bottomless pits, that there’s almost no point in seeking them out. Genuinely the best route through the levels is to bomb it, just run as fast as you can and see how much of it you can play by ear before the enemies can get themselves organised. It tends to go about as well as you’d expect.

Mind you, the maddened, saddened developer probably took the same hasty approach to his own work when he made this. Hitting the levels at Mach 3 also means you won’t even have the time to react to whatever horrid things are going on around you. The level could be going like the reception in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with the floors turning to muck and alcohol being handed out willy nilly in the reptile zoo, as Fire Bars spin freely underwater and Bloopers swim across fresh air to nab you. But you won’t even notice any of it.

You’ll even regard the exceedingly rare Bonus Levels with suspicion, as if some photorealistic flesh-eating tiger is about ready to jump out and savage poor Mario, probably one of the nicer deaths of the hundred-odd he’ll suffer that day. And you needn’t expect level checkpoints by the end – die and it’s back to the start. That doesn’t matter so much in All Stars, where you can keep going. But three lives a throw in the original Famicom edition, and if you lose ‘em all, restart the world? Then you’re expected to beat the whole game a whopping eight times under those conditions? Leave it out.

Even in world 9-4, when there are Japanese characters in the scenery that spell out Arigatou!, you almost wonder if they’re having you on. A wind-up of some sort that’s set to continue even further into four of the hardest worlds the poor plumber’s ever had to suffer. The poor man is destined to be diving like one of his compatriot footballers into ever more chasms.

And as he hurls himself into pits, you could swear blind that you hear him whimpering, “I deserve better than this”. Well me too Mario, me too, and I know I’ve screamed that same complaint a few times at the business end of this game. I swear in one of the latter castle levels, Mario quite literally moonwalked into the lava right at the start.

He even glowered at me while he was doing it. He had gone rogue. I thought it took until Mario 64 for the treacherous plumber to communicate directly with the player, but evidently not. I thought I had control of the Judas – it turns out he was the one playing me.

It made me want to plump for the far more affable Luigi, and the man in green really can jump a hell of a lot higher than his fratello. But the fact that he can’t stop and act on a dime will probably cost you more lives than his jumping prowess saves you. I swear the boy’s back-end gets loose, Corvette style, and there’s no recovering him then. Save Luigi for the real Super Mario Bros. 2 instead. Well, the fake one, but you know what I mean.

I particularly enjoy the moment in this game where, having gotten to World 3 and thinking you were clever by hopping over the flagpole via a spring that shoots you to the moon, you’re then greeted with the choice of either a Warp Pipe back to World 1, or a bottomless pit. I can’t say there are many games that I expected would invite you to kill yourself, and I’m certainly surprised that Mario was one of the first to do it. I’m almost shocked that they didn’t just take a shortcut and have a suicide button on the controller, like the vertical shooter game on Game Boy Camera.

Let’s be quite honest, it was nice to have this game on Super Mario All Stars. Seeing the original Famicom version play out and noticing the subtle differences from the iconic first game is great as well, and you’ll have plenty of time to note all of these graphical changes as Mario’s limp body slides off the screen in that classic “What was that?!?” pose, arms outstretched Italian style, dead once again.

You won’t get a similar buzz out of the music, which is all the same. But as a backdrop against all this platforming sadism, the upbeat and unmistakable Mario tunes are somehow rendered all the more sinister. Anyways there’s a great incentive to complete The Lost Levels – you can’t be a true Mario master until you’ve beaten world D-4.

But stick to the All Stars version, where you can save and continue after every individual level, lose your temper every time, before finally beating it. When you do, you’ll find you have the confidence and strength to come into work the next day and upend the place; shout at the rest; give Glengarry Glen Ross speeches; send HR home in tears; have the Managing Director rattling; watch the pretty secretaries throwing themselves at your feet; and send those humourless gets running. Sounds swell.

6 March 2020

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