Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

Introduction

Nintendo’s Famicom console had sold 2.5 million units by the time they looked to international markets. President Hiroshi Yamauchi was particularly interested in marketing to North America, being where the medium originated in the first place. The success of the Atari 2600 console suggested there was a market there just waiting to be tapped into. However, the games console market was suffering from the effects of the industry’s 1983 crash. To have any chance of selling their console abroad, Nintendo had to market their console as an entertainment system instead. Thus, the Famicom became the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Among its launch titles in North America was Super Mario Bros. Whatever success the console may have enjoyed up until then was eclipsed by the sales following the release of Super Mario Bros. A mere four months later, tens of millions of consoles were sold, and the seemingly interminable North American recession came to an end.

As Super Mario Bros. was being developed, Nintendo also worked on a coin-operated arcade machine dubbed the VS. System. One of the games to be featured in this system was a port of Super Mario Bros. called Vs. Super Mario Bros. Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the two main minds behind Super Mario Bros., took this opportunity to experiment with new, challenging level designs. Though the original game is considered a classic, certain level designs ended up being reused. By the time Vs. Super Mario Bros. made its debut, all of the repeated stages had been replaced with original designs. Enjoying these new stages, they sought to give fans of the original game a sequel that would push their skills even further. By this point, Mr. Miyamoto found himself leading Nintendo’s fourth R&D division, working on a game to be titled The Legend of Zelda. Lacking the time to design new games by himself, Mr. Tezuka found himself in the director’s chair for the first time in his career. He collaborated with Mr. Miyamoto’s team, using the original’s engine to create this sequel.

This game, simply titled Super Mario Bros. 2, was released in June of 1986 for the Famicom Disk System – an add-on for the Famicom that utilized floppy disks in lieu of cartridges. Exactly how well it would have fared in the West is unknown because the newly established Nintendo of America declined its release. Howard Phillips, the man in charge of evaluating games for Nintendo of America’s president, deemed Super Mario Bros. 2 unfairly difficult. He believed that “not having fun is bad when you’re a company selling fun”. A game named Super Mario Bros. 2 surfaced in the United States shortly thereafter, but Western enthusiasts would have no idea that it was, in reality, a retrofitted version of one of Nintendo’s other titles.

It wouldn’t be until the year 1993 that the original Super Mario Bros. 2 saw the light of day in the West. By this point, Nintendo had released the Super Famicom – the successor to the Famicom and known as the Super NES internationally. In its earliest phases, the console was going to be backwards-compatible. When the associated costs rendered this effort infeasible, Nintendo opted to remake the Mario installments that debuted on the NES in a compilation named Super Mario All-Stars. This included the Western Super Mario Bros. 2, which was renamed Super Mario USA domestically. Conversely, the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was renamed Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels for its international debut. How does the original Super Mario Bros. 2 compare in the face of its predecessor’s legacy?

Analyzing the Experience

Before you begin the game, one striking difference between The Lost Levels and its predecessor makes itself known. While the title screen of Super Mario Bros. prompted players to start a one-player or two-player session, The Lost Levels asks them to choose between playing as Mario or his younger brother, Luigi. In both Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros., there was no functional difference between the two characters – they even shared the same character sprite. Serendipitously, this is reflected in their names. Mario was simply named after Mario Segale, a real estate developer and Nintendo’s landlord at the time. Luigi’s name, on the other hand, has a secret meaning. It is said that his name originated from a popular pizzeria near Nintendo of America’s headquarters called Mario & Luigi’s. By sheer coincidence, how Luigi’s name is rendered in Japanese is nearly identical to the word “ruiji”, which means “similar”. Therefore, Luigi was the perfect name for a character who shared all of the abilities as his brother. Furthermore, because the two names are Italian in origin, this naming convention was sensible abroad as well.

A savvy player might deduce that simply being given the choice to play as Mario or Luigi from the outset implies the two characters have different abilities this time around. Anyone who drew that conclusion would be entirely correct. Mario controls almost exactly as he did in Super Mario Bros. By holding down the “B” button, he begins running, gaining more momentum with the speed he builds. As before, a press of the “A” button causes him to jump. The effectiveness of his jumps depends heavily on his momentum. Strictly speaking, Luigi controls in exactly the same fashion, but with two minute differences. Anyone testing the basic controls after choosing Luigi as a character will quickly notice that he jumps significantly higher than Mario can. While this is a significant boon when it comes to negotiating platforms, it comes at a price. Specifically, Luigi has much less ground friction than Mario. While Mario is capable of stopping on a dime, you’ll find yourself having to give Luigi more room to successfully stick landings. The same principal applies whether it’s by making pinpoint jumps or stopping on the ground well in advance.

Aside from this case of divergent character evolution, a new player would expect the familiar gameplay of Super Mario Bros. to make a return for The Lost Levels. The first few seconds of gameplay suggest that to indeed be the case. Aside from a minor graphical facelift, everything about The Lost Levels, including the sprites, presentation, and design sensibilities, is directly lifted from the original. After having established the status of The Lost Levels as an expansion of Super Mario Bros., a returning player would gleefully strike all five of the question mark blocks at the beginning of the first stage.

Should they choose to do so, they will uncover a mushroom. Expecting the mushroom to transform Mario or Luigi into larger form, they would guide the plumber directly to it. The exact second they do, they will be taken aback when their character goes through his death animation. If they had any lingering doubts that the game was playing an elaborate joke on them, they would be assuaged upon being brought back to the beginning of the stage with one life having been subtracted. This hypothetical scenario, which over two-million enthusiasts in Japan experienced, is fitting metaphor for what one should expect out of The Lost Levels.

For a more technical explanation as to what just happened, it’s actually quite simple; players were rudely introduced to single nastiest beginner’s trap the medium had known by that point in its short history: the Poison Mushroom. Simply put, if Mario or Luigi consume it, they will take damage. If they are in their Super or Fire forms, they will revert to their normal size. As a newcomer would have learned in their first attempts playing this game, consuming the mushroom in their original state will instantly kill them. If one waits on the title screen, they can observe a demo that involves Mario collecting and consequently dying from a Poison Mushroom. This could be seen as a reward for the patient.

Fittingly, these mushrooms look eerily similar to Goombas. As such, their appearance depends on the color palette of the stage in which they are encountered. For example, they are brownish color on overworld stages and underground, they take on a blue hue. If you’re still not sure, you can take advantage of the fact that Super Mushrooms don’t spawn if uncovered by Super Mario or Super Luigi. Under those circumstances, a Fire Flower would be released in its stead. Then again, 1-Up Mushrooms are also released regardless of what form Mario or Luigi are in, so it pays to note the minute differences lest a player inadvertently disadvantage themselves.

The player’s introduction to these Poison Mushrooms is a devious, dark parallel to the original game’s first stage. The first Super Mushroom in Super Mario Bros. was designed to be difficult to avoid once released. This was so that players could learn these mushrooms were beneficial after dying to a Goomba, which is similar in appearance. To put it another way, if Super Mario Bros. welcomed newcomers with open arms, The Lost Levels does the opposite – it tells players right away that it’s not to be trusted. To have any chance of seeing this game through to the end, mastering the original isn’t good enough. They have to be willing to go the extra mile and push their skills to the absolute limits.

The game’s challenge is also enforced in subtler ways. In World1-1, a player may have found a pipe leading to an underground bonus area. Emerging from the other side only takes their character a few screens ahead of the entrance. This is quite a contrast from the original’s first bonus area in which one could skip a majority of the stage by passing through it.

A similar principle applies to Warp Zones; if you enter one, you are committed to going to the world designated by the number floating above the pipe. In fact, one may be surprised to learn that there are far more Warp Zones in The Lost Levels than in its predecessor. World 1-2 itself has two of them; one leads to World 2 while the other leads to World 4. Anyone who thinks this act of generosity runs counter to the punishingly difficult nature of the game will understand the reason behind their abundance before too long. As early as World 3-1, a player may be delighted to find a Warp Zone after having gone down one of the level’s many pipes.

The feeling of elation will be dashed the second they see the number above the pipe. That’s right; Warp Zones in The Lost Levels can send players back to the beginning of a previous world. Admittedly, only two of the eleven warp zones in the game behave in such a manner, but it can be a nasty surprise. In a measure of twisted geniality, there is a bottomless pit in these Warp Zones, allowing players to expend a life to avoid losing their progress. Alternatively, simply running out the clock achieves the same effect. Then again, if the player only has one life left, they are out of luck. In other words, the Warp Zones in The Lost Levels are a lot like the Poison Mushrooms; they turn what was once considered a stroke of good fortune into something you can’t blindly trust.

Though The Lost Levels could be construed as a carbon copy of Super Mario Bros., a thorough look at its gameplay reveals that it boasts quite a few enhancements. One of the most notable modifications is to the game’s physics engine. Under normal circumstances your character controls as they did in Super Mario Bros. However, Mario and Luigi now bounce much higher after striking an enemy from the air. This is especially important because large gaps can only be cleared with this extra height. There’s even one stage fairly late in the game in which the player needs to access a secret area that can only be uncovered with a highly precise jump off an enemy falling into a bottomless pit. This ability would become iconic to the series, making it quite jarring should one have the desire to play the original only to remember it didn’t yet exist at that point.

Along those lines, The Lost Levels introduces a concept so basic that one would be forgiven for believing they had been in the series from its inception. That is to say, pipes can now be affixed to the ceiling. They can never be entered; instead, their main purpose is to house Piranha Plants. In addition to the familiar green ones, The Lost Levels introduces a red variant. In an upside-down pipe, these plants are markedly more aggressive, attacking and retreating at a faster rate. Because the player character obviously cannot stand on an upside-down pipe, there is no way to prevent them from attacking if they’re in one. If they reside in a ground pipe, they can be stopped, but a player must take caution around them, as they attack even if Mario or Luigi stand near the pipes.

In some stages, a strong wind blows in select portions. A majority of the time, these winds can be used carry Mario or Luigi forward. This allows them to circumvent pits they wouldn’t normally be able to otherwise. The player must be wary using these winds, as they make spacing jumps quite difficult. One stage even utilizes them to the extent that it becomes an exercise in precise timing and twitch reflexes – skills many enthusiasts had little reason or chance to develop beforehand.

As they make their way through the game, the player will eventually happen upon a green spring. Red springs significantly boosted the character’s height when jumping on one. The new green springs make their red counterparts seem quaint by comparison, launching Mario or Luigi so high that they disappear from sight for several seconds. This allows them to cover a lot of distance, but one must carefully predict their trajectory and the amount of time they have spent in the air if there is little solid ground in the immediate area.

Perhaps the most significant change The Lost Levels brings to the table awaits a player skilled enough to clear all thirty-two stages of the game without utilizing a Warp Zone. Their reward for fulfilling these daunting conditions is the opportunity to play through a secret World 9, though they are only afforded a single life with which to complete it.

Only one look at this world is enough to convince a player of its borderline surreal nature. These stages look like what would happen if the creators took a standard overworld stage and flooded it. As it turns out, the bizarre architecture of these stages is inspired by an elaborate glitch discovered in the Famicom version of Super Mario Bros. To perform the glitch, players needed to remove the cartridge during gameplay and replace it with a copy of Tennis. After resetting the console and playing a few rounds of Tennis, they could switch cartridges again. If the console was activated this entire time, the player could start a game of Super Mario Bros. by using the continue code – pressing the “A” and “START” buttons. If they were successful, they would end up on the nonexistent World 9, which is actually an underwater amalgamation of World 6-2 and World 1-4 that crashes randomly. The glitch is irreproducible on the NES because the console resets automatically if a cartridge is forcibly removed. Nonetheless, it’s interesting how an obscure programming mistake would not only be discovered in the short time between the release of Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels, but also upgraded to a bonus feature in the latter. In doing so, The Lost Levels provided the medium with one of the earliest examples of post-endgame content.

Although one could argue that these improvements help with the issues plaguing Super Mario Bros. and lead to a richer experience, the reality is decidedly less straightforward. One of the main reasons I say this is because, at the end of the day, many of the problems I had with the original remain in its sequel. The controls still have a lack of polish, which becomes apparent when using Luigi. I can appreciate this to some degree; Luigi allows players who can master his trickier handling to easily make jumps that would give his older brother difficulties. Unfortunately, even when controlling Mario, you’re still dealing with the unpolished physics engine. Again, this really isn’t anyone’s fault; for its time, it was a solid effort. Only in hindsight was it realistically possible to make such an observation.

I give Mr. Tezuka and his team credit for not reusing the stage designs as often as they did in the original. However, with the odd exception here and there, the worlds still don’t really have much personality to them. The lack of a meaningful, unifying theme in these worlds doesn’t do the colorful setting of the game justice. There is a bit more effort put into aesthetics with eyes having been dotted various inanimate objects on the clouds, mushrooms, and bushes. This facet in particular would become one of the series’ artistic trademarks. Even so, with none of these choices having any substantial impact on gameplay, the goodwill is somewhat lost.

Despite sharing many of the same issues as Super Mario Bros., I would say the biggest problem with The Lost Levels is its difficulty. There’s nothing wrong with a challenging game. In fact, the idea of making the sequel to a popular game markedly more difficult is a great idea when the two works play similarly. Though it starts off with a lot of promise, The Lost Levels ultimately has trouble distinguishing between a real challenge and artificial difficulty. A legitimately difficult game puts the player in many daunting situations but makes it feasible for them react accordingly and succeed. With The Lost Levels, you will constantly have to take notes of what pipes lead where because if you’re not careful, you could end up in a backwards Warp Zone or otherwise losing progress. Ideally, a game this simple should not necessitate the player constantly looking at a map.

Alternatively, you may find yourself unable to progress until you take a specific route. These situations are often inescapable because, just like in Super Mario Bros., the screen only scrolls right. This has the potential to lead to many inconvenient situations wherein you scroll a path you intended to take off-screen, ensuring you can’t get to it unless you expend a life.

I admit I like the idea behind the Poison Mushrooms, but having to memorize what they look like with various color palettes is annoying. It doesn’t help that they look similar to 1-Up Mushrooms in underground areas, potentially resulting in many accidental deaths or missed opportunities to gain an advantage. In later versions, Poison Mushrooms take on an obviously harmful appearance, placing the onus on the player to avoid falling into such an obvious trap. One could argue this takes some of the challenge out of the game, but I would argue the level design, being as malevolent as it is, doesn’t really need that extra help.

Speaking of which, one aspect I don’t like is that levels are occasionally designed in a way to make collecting power-ups detrimental. In some situations, Mario or Luigi can get a power-up only for the player to realize they don’t have enough clearance with which to make a jump. In these situations, their character’s head would hit the ceiling, causing him to fall into a bottomless pit. There are even some cases in which a Super Star prevents Mario or Luigi from jumping on enemies. This is because when invincible, they fall through the enemies instead of bouncing on them. This aspect would work if the core gameplay revolved around using each form wisely. As it stands, players are naturally inclined to get a Fire Flower and keep it for as long as possible so they have a viable means of defense. By telling players they need their character’s small form to proceed, they’re effectively being punished for being too good at the game.

Anyone tenacious enough to complete the game will be rewarded with a star, which is placed on the title screen. If one collects eight stars and begins a new game by holding the “A” button before pressing “START”, they will be taken to the first of four new secret worlds. Though I can appreciate rewarding dedicated players with new content, these requirements are highly unreasonable – especially given how difficult it is to beat the game a single time. Even if the game was easier, clearing it eight times doesn’t add anything meaningful to the experience. It’s a shame because clearing the extra four worlds adds a level of closure simply beating World 8-4 does not provide. If one doesn’t consider The Lost Levels finished until one clears every single level, then the quest to obtain eight stars could be considered a precedent for the needless padding many big-budget games would have in the decades to follow.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Significantly more challenging than original game
  • Fewer repeated stages
  • Extra stages await the skilled
  • Good music
  • Luigi now serves a unique purpose
  • Ambitious presentation for its time
  • Quite a few new gameplay features
Cons:

  • Artificially challenging at times
  • Very similar to original
  • Indistinct level design
  • Inability to backtrack
  • Controls are somewhat unpolished
  • Difficult without guide
  • Unreasonable requirements for extra worlds

Even with all of this game’s grievances, it is nice to know that, even when creating what amounts to a token sequel, Nintendo found ways to challenge both themselves and their audience. As the ribbon adorning the cover suggests, The Lost Levels is indeed for super players, and being able to clear it, even on the easier version featured in Super Mario All-Stars, is one of my proudest gaming accomplishments. If you can stick with the game, you will feel immense satisfaction upon reaching the flagpole of each and every level. Despite this, I do acknowledge that the main reason I enjoyed it as much as I did was because I knew of its trickery ahead of time. Anyone playing this game blind is in for a miserable experience involving copious amounts of trail-and-error.

Though certain Western fans lamented being robbed of what was the real Super Mario Bros. 2, the reality is that they didn’t miss out on anything too special. In fact, not only did reviewers in Japan complain about the game’s cheap difficulty, Shigeru Miyamoto himself wound up agreeing with those sentiments in the end. It’s commonly believed that The Lost Levels wasn’t exported due to its high difficulty. This theory falls apart given games of comparable difficulty were released abroad without a second thought. In reality, a larger factor in The Lost Levels failing to make it to the West in its original form was its similarly to the original game.

With its complicated backstory now common knowledge, the final question concerns whether or not I could recommend it. It is precisely because of its unrelenting difficulty that The Lost Levels has something of a cult following in the West. Those enthusiasts adore the game for providing them with a level of challenge no other entry made since could provide. I can certainly understand the appeal of The Lost Levels, but in spite of its numerous enhancements, it is essentially a repackaged Super Mario Bros. with a jarring difficulty spike. If you’re a big fan of the original game and are looking for a punishingly difficult version of it, The Lost Levels will assuredly scratch that itch. Newcomers, on the other hand, should look elsewhere for a point of ingress, for it has the potential to leave a bad first impression. Its difficulty is not indicative of the challenge present in the rest of the series or even the original game.

Final Score: 5/10

11 thoughts on “Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

  1. So perhaps instead of “the next Dark Souls” we should be saying “the next Lost Levels”? haha

    Jokes aside, fantastic review (as always) of a game that I had only ever heard of. It seems that despite some of its familiar(?) flaws it created more foundations for future games to build upon, despite, perhaps, the fact that it may not have been the most popular (or accessible) of Mario entries.

    Like

    • I think the problem is that at least half the challenge comes from not knowing of the trickery ahead of time. Dark Souls stood out not just for being difficult, but also being fair about it. A lot of people called it old-school, but in reality, there was nothing old-school about its difficulty – and that’s for the best. Meanwhile, The Lost Levels was very much a product of the “let’s make this game as difficult as possible to steal quarters from our players” era.

      Like

  2. Warp zones that send you back is pretty cruel. I liked the fake Mario 2 we got in the west so I think Nintendo of America made the right call. All these games getting different names in different regions gets confusing though. Reminds me of the old numbering for Final Fantasy over here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind a challenge, but the backwards warp zones is a clear case of not knowing where challenge ends and annoyance begins. And you know, as I’ve been typing up my review of the Western Super Mario Bros. 2, I’m inclined to agree. Purists complain about not getting the “real” Super Mario Bros. 2, but I have no doubt we got the better game out of the deal.

      I know what you mean; I still have to realize that there are technically two Super Mario Bros. 2s. Even knowing the backstory, that is quite confusing to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I wasn’t a fan of the Lost Levels. I really don’t feel like we missed much, missing out of it. Even beyond the difficulties, I just felt the levels were a bit more sloppily designed than in the original. And in a platformer, controls and level design are about 80% of the game. When one of those is off, that’s going to throw the whole experience down.

    That said, I didn’t much like our Super Mario Bros. 2 either. I guess Mario 2 just can’t win.

    Except for the Shy Guys. Shy Guys are cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, as much as purists like to complain about not getting the real Super Mario Bros. 2, I don’t really think we missed out on anything incredible. To be honest, I like it a little more than the original game, but that’s mostly because it doesn’t repeat any stages and I like the new mechanics. That said, if repeating the stages is a deal-breaker, I would be more inclined to recommend Vs. Super Mario Bros. instead. As it stands, The Lost Levels takes just as many steps forward as it does backwards, ending up in roughly the same place. You’re right in that the level design is pretty sloppy at times – at least half of the difficulty stems from not being on the same wavelength as the developers, which completely flies in the face of how the previous game was designed.

      I’ll save my thoughts for the review, but I’ll say right now that I actually believe the Western Super Mario Bros. 2 to be a slight improvement over its predecessor, though I will admit it is hardly the best the series has to offer.

      Liked by 1 person

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