Monday, June 24, 2019

Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels Review

To people outside Japan, Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels is the long lost sequel to Super Mario Bros on the NES. When it was finally released outside Japan as one of the remade games in Super Mario All-Stars, it was like a newly discovered, unreleased B side from a band that broke up long ago. But to Japanese gamers, it's just Super Mario Bros 2. It was originally released on the Famicom Disk System in 1986, 2 years before SMB2 USA, but not even a year after the release of Super Mario Bros on the Famicom. I heard lots of weird things about the development and release of this game over the years, but most were myths and lies. The Lost Levels was made at R&D4 (later known as EAD) by a lot of the same people who worked on SMB1, but Miyamoto was not directly involved with it its development. Takashi Tezuka, designer of SMB1, took over as the director while Miyamoto worked on Zelda. The game was not released on the NES because Nester's best friend and NOA spokesman (mascot) at the time, "The Game Master" Howard Phillips, thought it was too hard and didn't like it. I guess the "Game Master" was no "Super Player".

The Lost Levels is notorious for its punishing difficulty. I'd say Lost Level's 1-1 is about as hard as SMB1's 7-1, and it quickly ramps up from there through 52 levels in total. It's a Mario game designed with Mario experts in mind. It says so right on the box, "For Super Players". It breaks every game design rule set by SMB1 it can get away with, messes around with the level design aesthetics in weird and creative ways, and constantly throws curve balls at the player. It is extremely hard, and it's not for everyone, but there is a lot to like about it.

The Lost Levels is really more of an alternate version of SMB1 than a real sequel. It even uses the same story. It's the New Super Luigi U of its day in more ways than one. This is the game in which Luigi started becoming more than green Mario. Instead of having an alternating 2 player mode, like SMB1, LL had separate Mario and Luigi modes. Mario controls pretty much the same as in SMB1, but Luigi can jump higher, but has less traction, so he can't come to a complete stop or turn around as quickly as Mario. That might not sound great, but playing as Luigi actually makes some of the more difficult sections of the game much easier because he doesn't need to pick up as much speed as Mario to jump farther. Well, as easy as the hardest Mario game ever made can be.

The Lost Levels also introduced an early version of the Super Jump. It doesn't work exactly like in SMB3, but it's the same idea. You can essentially double your jump by stomping on an enemy. The level design often requires you to bounce off multiple Koopa Paratroopas like this to clear gaps throughout the game. Something which is never required in SMB1. It’s pretty hard considering how little air control you have in this game.

The only new item in the game is not even a power up. It's more like an enemy. The Lost Levels introduces the Poison Mushroom, which is a mushroom that hurts you. It's basically an invincible Goomba that hides in item blocks. I’m pretty sure it’s actually more common than Super Mushrooms, too. It's just another one of those curve balls the game likes to throw at you. The Super Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Starman from SMB1 return, and they work exactly the same, but they're much more scarce than in SMB1. Some levels don't even have Mushrooms, hide them in long lines of regular bricks and inside invisible blocks, or make you catch them in midair. I barely even got a Fire Flower after 5-2 or so, since the game is so hard. I played most of the game as small Mario, which only adds to the constant tension I feel while playing this game.

The thing I love the most about LL is the thing most people probably hate about it, the crazy hard level design. This is Tezuka unleashed. I just love how it forces me to use all my Mario skills and learn new ones as well. You have to know how to run over 1 space gaps and jump from single blocks, how to perfectly hit springboards, how to deal with mazes, how to bounce off a wall with a jump and land on a block behind you, how to land on a single block at full speed and jump off it right after landing, etc. This game is full of the kind of stuff that only comes up once or twice in SMB1. The game also has its own bag of tricks. My most hated one is the green springboard that shoots you off-screen for about 5 seconds. Since you can't see Mario, you have to line up the center of the screen with the platforms to make these crazy jumps, and you have to do it over and over throughout the entirety of a few levels. It's pretty ridiculous. A few stages also have gusts of wind that can either push you forwards or backwards during jumps. I really didn't have much trouble with the wind, since it's easy to tell which way it's blowing, but this was one of the things that "Game Master" Howard hated about the game. Another thing people hate is the warp pipes that send you to previous levels. They’re clearly marked; though, so it’s kind of hard to be tricked by them. You can always just kill yourself instead of going in them, too. I just found them kind of funny. Lost Levels also likes to make you find invisible blocks to get to places where you need to go sometimes. It's pretty obvious when you need to find them, though.

This game is also pretty relentless with its enemies. The first enemy in LL isn't a Goomba waiting for you off-screen, it's a Koopa Paratroopa bouncing up and down, and it's coming right at you the instant you start 1-1. There's Piranha plants in the first pipe you see, Buzzy Beetles in 1-2, Bullet Bills with no cannons, and Hammer Bros everywhere. So many Hammer Bros. There's even Bowsers ("Bowser's Twin") in the middle of some levels. There's also more enemies and they often come in larger packs. There are old enemies in new places, like Koopas underwater and flying Bloopers, but there is only one real new enemy, the red Piranha Plant. The red Piranha Plant hangs out in pipes, just like the green one, except this one doesn't stop popping out when you stand by it. You have to stand on top of the pipe for red Piranha Plants to stop coming out. All Piranha Plants are red from 4-1 on, so this totally changes how you have to think about pipes for most of the game.

If given the choice to play either the FDS original or the All-Stars version, I'll pick All-Stars every time. Aside from graphical differences and the issue with the way Mario keeps going up after breaking a brick instead of bouncing back down, they both play pretty much the same. I prefer the All-Stars version because it lets you save and continue from any level and it gives you 5 lives instead of 3. The FDS version lets you continue, but only from the first level in each world. This is less of an issue if you're using save states, but all that loading gets annoying real quick, too. The All-Stars version also lets you go back to any level from the file select screen, and you can switch between Mario and Luigi at the start screen without losing your progress. You can even go back to 1-1 to do the infinite lives (not actually infinite) trick and then go back to the level you left off at if you want.

The music and graphics are exactly the same as in that system’s version of SMB1 in both versions of the game. I think SMB and Lost Levels both look really nice in All-Stars. They look almost as good as Super Mario World and add a lot of great details to the backgrounds that make the levels feel more like they’re part of a bigger world. There are some things that just look wrong to me, though. The things that bother me the most are the ground and the bushes. The ground wasn't just orange dirt in SMB1, it was bricks with a tile pattern on them. I don't like how the FDS version changed it to some ugly gravel texture either. I can understand how they would get changed in 1986, but in 1993? Those bricks are iconic. Don't mess with the bricks. The bushes aren't even bushes in All-Stars, they're clumps of tall grass. It's not like any other Mario game ever changed the bushes like that, so I don't know where they got the idea to change them. There's also the matter of the underground levels. I know underground areas in later Mario games were caverns, but I don't think they were supposed to be caverns here. I think they should be tunnels and sewers, like in the original Mario Bros arcade and in Piranha Plant Slide in Mario Kart 7 and 8.

Lost Levels gets a bad rap. It's not a bad game. I like it better than SMB2USA. It is extremely hard, but that doesn't make it bad. These levels are incredibly well designed. I think most people who have made levels in Super Mario Maker should be able to see that. You don't make levels like this by randomly slapping down blocks and enemies. If you like a challenge, and think you're a Super Player, you should check out The Lost Levels. The All-Stars version was released on a Wii disc, and the FDS version is on 3DS and Wii U VC, and on the Switch Online NES.