It's a story so well known now that we'll just summarise it for you: what is now known as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels was actually released in Japan as the sequel to enduring classic Super Mario Bros. Western gamers instead received the subconscious vegetable buffet that we more traditionally think of as Super Mario Bros. 2.
Various reasons have been given for the switch — brutal difficulty ranking high among them — but whatever the rationale, we're glad that we're able to play both sequels to the original classic, as they're fantastic in their own ways.
The Lost Levels, of course, is best known for its controller-smashing challenge. Even with the restore points on the 3DS Virtual Console, you'll be in for some serious difficulty.
While this game doesn't innovate the franchise nearly as much as its Western cousin did, it does take some interesting liberties with the formula set down by its predecessor. For instance, Luigi has distinct jumping and running physics from Mario, a sort-of tradition that would reappear in several other games to come. For fans who knew the original game inside and out, this alteration was both a serious curve-ball and an impressive new way to experience the Mushroom Kingdom.
Speaking of the Mushroom Kingdom, The Lost Levels obviously takes place in an even more vicious region than the original game did. Here you'll find all manner of traps to take you down in the most ingenious — and sometimes hilarious — ways. Everything from springs, to invisible coin blocks and even warp zones will conspire to work against you, and it's unlikely that anyone other than the most expert players will find their life counter reaching double digits.
Visually there's not much new here. Nearly everything has been carried over wholesale from the first game, though there are a few notable exceptions, such as the notorious poison mushroom. Otherwise sprites are identical to the originals, even if they behave in new and interesting ways, such as the increased lift you'll get from a stomped enemy, and a surprising overworld appearance from an enemy you'll only have previously encountered under water.
The Lost Levels are — this cannot be said enough — relentless. Expect to die, and expect to die often. In fact, the entire release feels like a ruthless ROM-hack more than it does a proper title. It's another pack of levels designed explicitly to break your spirit and frustrate you endlessly, packed with pixel-perfect leaps, blind jumps, and sadistic castle mazes. But one thing's worth noting: regardless of how difficult the game gets, you can never fault its physics.
Yes, much like the original, The Lost Levels controls brilliantly. The game is responsive and reacts immediately to every press of a button; it's not its fault if you decided to leap into that pit, after all.
The music is also carried over from the first game, again making The Lost Levels feel like a bit of a retread. When measured against the significant changes introduced by the Western sequel, The Lost Levels feels like it lacks innovation. What it does do, however, is build upon the innovation of the first game, and re-employ enemies and gimmicks in extremely creative — and punishing — ways.
If you enjoyed the first Super Mario Bros. game (and really now, who didn't?) then this is an expansion worth experiencing. Don't expect to finish it, though; it's not an experience many people will complete, but it's one everybody will remember.
Anyone who feels that Mario's 2D adventures have softened over the years owes it to themselves to experience Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. With a difficulty curve that'll have you pulling your hair out by the second world, game-loving masochists are in for a genuine treat. Be warned, however: the challenge here is unquestionably excessive, and it's not an experience for everybody. Those willing to invest the time — and who aren't afraid of shouting a few cursewords — will find a clever and creative palette of charming frustrations here to greet them. And, frankly, we think it's worth a little grey hair.