In this series of articles we'll write about one Mario game every day for 30 days, each representing a different year as part of our Super Mario 30th Anniversary celebrations.
We kicked off this series with a look at Super Mario Bros., and it's pleasing that it only took one year for Mario's history to get even more interesting. For starters, to be technically correct the headline here should simply say Super Mario Bros. 2, as this game was known in Japan, but the quirky release history of this one means that to Western gamers this is better known as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels.
The history is well-known to long-term fans of the game but, in the interest of being thorough, let's break it down. Following the success of Super Mario Bros. Nintendo was, naturally, keen to thrash out a sequel in haste; once again Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka were leading the project, though Tezuka-san had a greater role due to his colleague being increasingly busy and tied up in other projects. The intention was evident - to ramp up the challenge for players experienced from the first game.
Though the similarities with its predecessor are clear, some clear design changes were made. Luigi had a higher jump and less grip when dashing, trends that are maintained to this day in his platforming appearances. Poison mushrooms were to be avoided and no doubt tricked most first time around, and the level of challenge is undoubtedly ramped up with some pixel-perfect jumps and even varying wind effects.
It's a brutal game, especially in the context of the mechanics of the original, with limited scope to manoeuvre when in the air, while in 50Hz in PAL versions it's extra difficult to play with the required precision. That said, it's important to acknowledge that it was a critical success in Japan - released onto the Famicom Disk System, it was reportedly the most successful game on that platform in shifting around 2.5 million copies.
The issue was that Nintendo of America, when shown the game, rejected it for the region. The simple justification was that the difficulty was too severe for the market, and with the sales message being focused on fun in the territory a rock hard, throw-the-controller game was ill-fitting. It was one of the earliest culture clashes of Nintendo content that captured the Japanese market yet didn't work in the West.
What the West received as Super Mario Bros. 2, instead, was a reskin of Doki Doki Panic with Nintendo characters. That'll be covered separately, but in a pre-internet age many would have been unaware of what had transpired, with the markedly different style and approach of the 'USA' sequel proving to be quite a disconnect; that said, it's a fine game.
The original sequel was no doubt only known to those in the import scene and in-the-know back in the late '80s, and it would arrive as The Lost Levels on the SNES in Super Mario All-Stars. This compilation included 16-Bit revamps of the three well-known NES releases; while players in the West could finally endure the challenge of the original sequel, the branding may have led some to believe it was a compilation of levels from the first game left on the cutting room floor.
In any case, it provided a full picture of what Japanese Famicom gamers had been enjoying as the first Super Mario sequel. The Lost Levels would eventually receive multiple ports (like its contemporaries) and Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition on the Wii arrived in recent times. Those keen to play the original 8-Bit version have been able to do so across all three Virtual Consoles (Wii, 3DS and then Wii U), too.
For those that do want a fiercely challenging Mario platformer, The Lost Levels is certainly a better option than the various trolling online Mario games that are designed to be unfair and ridiculous - if you've been around on YouTube, you know what we're referring to. The Lost Levels isn't unfair, as such, but it is incredibly harsh and difficult once beyond the early levels. If you've beaten it without using restore points, we salute you.
It's also a reminder that 'Nintendo Hard' used to be a commonly used phrase, albeit this one arguably went beyond even that remit. Difficulty in modern Nintendo platformers and Mario games comes in completionist tasks rather than reaching the credits, and The Lost Levels reminds us of an early time when Nintendo was less interested in encouraging gamers of all abilities to beat its games, and more concerned in pushing their abilities. The Lost Levels - as a design approach - was clearly not sustainable on any level, though there will be those that would like more challenges of its scope in modern Nintendo games.
Perhaps The Lost Levels provided an important early lesson to Nintendo's development teams in Japan. To win over and entertain a global audience games need to accommodate and encourage fun, and so Nintendo of America rejecting this sequel may have helped to get that message home. Of course, we suspect that many fiendish level designers will channel the spirit of this game with their creations in Super Mario Maker.
Now, if you'll excuse us, we've got to take it on again, and possibly break a controller or two.
The video below, as a final note, shows insane skills and glitch manipulation to beat the game in around nine minutes.
Further Reading: Our review of Boss Fight Books - Super Mario Bros. 2, which explores this tale in exhausting detail.