My cousins didn't have a massive library of SNES games but they did have one title that would definitely provide hours upon hours of replay value: Super Mario All-Stars contained the first three numbered Super Mario Bros. entries, as well as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels.
I didn't get too far through any of my cousins games as a kid, but I was told to not even bother with The Lost Levels. It was hard, they said, and being a child who listened to his elders I took that on board and never selected it from the menu.
Now, some two decades or so later, I'm in a much better position to see if that advice was accurate.
|You learn about this poison mushroom the hard way...|
Ooh, Nintendo. What were you thinking? You maniacal monsters. You devilish geniuses.
The Lost Levels was confined to Japan in the mid 1980s because Nintendo of America thought that its audiences simply wouldn't be up to the challenge. In Japan it was called Super Mario Bros. 2, and when you hear the phrase 'the game picks up from where the last one left off', there has perhaps been no more appropriate example than The Lost Levels.
Think of a difficulty curve. Better yet, think of the difficulty curve of Super Mario Bros. The first stage funnelled you towards finding out what a mushroom does, right? Enemies were introduced bit by bit in small sections and you dealt with each section one at a time until you completed the entire stage. The difficulty would then increase through each world until the end of the game, more or less.
It makes sense; the game gets harder as you get more skilled in order to keep the challenge up. Now imagine that there were more levels after the end of Super Mario Bros. - some lost levels, if you will - that weren't playable until their release a year later in an entirely separate game, Super Mario Bros. 2.
The game requires you to hit the ground running. If you are a newcomer to the Mario series with The Lost Levels, you probably didn't stick around for long. The first enemy: a flying turtle, the first puzzle: how to bounce a mushroom out of a room (assuming you found the mushroom in the first place), the first new introduction: a different coloured mushroom that will kill little Mario. All of this within the space of a screens width or two.
For those of you familiar with ROM hacks, The Lost Levels could be considered Nintendos attempt: Let's take all the building blocks and game mechanics we established in Super Mario Bros. and ramp up the difficulty to somewhere in the region of brutal.
Maybe not brutal - certainly not compared to some ROM hacks - but some kind of Mario nightmare nonetheless. The Lost Levels is for the dedicated Mario player, despite it's family friendly appearance. It is the same old Mario. Same sprites, same music, same concept, just starting with a really rather steep difficulty curve.
What's really frustrating is how that plays with my head.
You see, I think ROM hacking is a thing of beauty. In the same way I find speed running a game all kinds of insane, I find the hellish creations of players and developers alike equally unsettling to my brain, but I cannot deny how incredible it is when it all comes together.
With the way that was written you'd imagine my head exploded when I watched a speedrun of The Lost Levels. It did not take me long to grin from ear to ear, while at the same time mouthing a long loud 'whaaaaat?'...
How does the Mario franchise do this? How do any classic games manage to achieve this? I am just easily amused? Whatever the reason, there is absolute joy to be found in ridiculously tricky or unnervingly designed games, whether playing them or watching others, whether failing or succeeding - but only if they're designed well.
The Lost Levels - while full of hidden blocks and demanding high precision from your jumping - is still able to be completed. Enemy placement is top heavy, but not necessarily something you haven't seen before. A row of Koopa Troopas make for easy points, right? A row of them on every other screen and a Koopa Paratroopa just beyond? That's just World 1-1 of The Lost Levels. Those Koopas also move faster. And are found underwater. You know, just because.
A number of new additions to the series make The Lost Levels further stand out from the other games. Players are able to choose to be Luigi rather than Mario, who has a different set of physics underlying his movement, notably higher jumps. For whatever reason I was more successful as Luigi, but not by much.
There are some moments where your choice of character could catch you out but these moments are few and far between, and I wouldn't know of them were I to not have watched an expert at work.
Similarly, I wouldn't have known about the introduction of wind, first appearing in World 5-1. Periodic and unexpected gusts of wind fill the screen for a few seconds, pushing the player out of position on what is usually an area that asks for accurate positioning. Thanks guys - just what we needed.
If that's not enough, upon finally saving Princess Peach after 8 worlds she suggests that Mario try an even more difficult challenge. Can't fault Nintendo for not putting enough game inside their games.
The Lost Levels is an excellent example of how far well established game mechanics can be pushed, if not in terms of fun then in terms of challenge. I'm struggling to get into the second world with my own skill, but I'm certainly not struggling to appreciate the skill of the development team that crafted these nefarious levels, nor the hobbyists who speed run them for fun.
You've got to try The Lost Levels for yourself, especially if you've been avoiding it because of the difficulty spike. Yes, you'll lose an awful lot of lives on your journey, but it is beatable and there is reward to be had in doing so, even if it's just the satisfaction you've given yourself for sticking with it.
The SNES version includes updated graphics and some minor tweaks elsewhere, not to mention the fact that it's bundled with three other Mario games, and it has found its way to a number of Nintendo consoles and handhelds down the years. These levels aren't lost any more, so get out there and play them.
Nintendo of America noted that 'not having fun is bad when you're a company selling fun'. I can't find much fault in that, but who says difficult can't be fun?
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, developed by Nintendo R&D4, first released in 1986.
Versions played: Famicom Disk System, 1986, via emulation.
SNES, 1993, via emulation (and very nearly childhood memory)
Versions watched: Famicom, 1986 (GameJ06/SpeedMarathonArchive)
SNES, 1993 (World of Longplays)