Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels is the famously difficult, Japan-only sequel to the titular plumber's breakout NES hit, expanding on the original formula with deviously challenging level design and obstacles. Western audiences were instead given the comparatively easy 'Super Mario USA' (a re-skinned translation of Nintendo's Yume Koujou: Doki Doki Panic Panic) as a sequel — freshly monikered as Super Mario Bros. 2 — as either an act of condescension or mercy. It wasn't until the SNES compilation Super Mario All-Stars that we experienced what our Japanese cousins had been enduring the years prior. The Lost Levels is frustrating, difficult, infuriating, and at times punishing and cruel.
It's also fiendishly clever and lots of fun to boot.
Many older gamers will remember either ignoring or disliking The Lost Levels when experiencing the title as part of Super Mario All-Stars; the game lacked the polish of Super Mario Bros. 3 that followed years later, and due to being unreleased in the West was missing the nostalgic draw of the original Super Mario Bros. The game also had an unprecedented level of difficulty - it becomes clear after five seconds of gameplay when a sickly looking mushroom — always portrayed as a power-up and beneficial to the player — kills Mario outright, that The Lost Levels is not a game to be taken lightly. As a result, it became the black sheep of the collection, an ironic outcome considering it was the Western Super Mario Bros. 2 that perhaps did not belong comfortably with the series' identity.
Some twenty years later it's a little easier to appreciate Nintendo's approach with The Lost Levels, less a sequel and more akin to an expansion pack, before such a concept even existed. The Lost Levels is add-on content for players who have mastered the accessible Super Mario Bros. and are looking for a greater challenge, one that pulls no punches and truly showcases the evil genius the masterminds at Nintendo are capable of. Those expecting to be eased into the experience with Nintendo's trademark effortless conveyance of mechanics and carefully planned tutorial-esque early levels will be disappointed — it begins at an unprecedented level of difficulty and ups the ante from there.
The Lost Levels is consistent with its predecessor's mechanics if not its rules; whilst previously aquatic enemies may now float through the air and seeming impassable crevices litter the landscape, the original title's tight jump controls and sense of momentum are present and accounted for. Perhaps the biggest change is the game's flow; the original Super Mario Bros. encouraged the player to race from A to B, with level design that facilitated bold jumps and reckless pace, arguably serving as the inspiration for Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog. The Lost Levels, inversely, rewards the patient player and often punishes the impetuous with a pitfall or meticulously placed trap. This can be frustrating at first and those familiar with Mario's original adventure may struggle to adapt their play-style, but once they are able to do so the game's brilliance shines through.
The Lost Levels subverts expectations constantly in the most devious ways; it will provide a Starman power-up in a location where it is more likely to bounce off screen than be of any use, or rewards the overzealous player with a warp-zone that sends them backwards for their attempts to find shortcuts through the game.
The use of the Virtual Console's save states are an obvious boon here but The Lost Levels, for all its bluster, is surprisingly lenient in terms of continues, only requiring the player to begin the current world anew rather than the whole game once all lives are lost, a welcome mercy in a game as challenging as this. Assets remain mostly unchanged from the previous instalment and the game is a similar length, short on overall content but longer in practice due to the difficulty. The undetailed sprites and simple music may not have aged particularly well, but provide a welcome feeling of nostalgia that remains comforting to this day, particularly for those who played Super Mario Bros. on its native platform.
Those who hated The Lost Levels on its inclusion in Super Mario All-Stars, due either to its difficulty or lack of originality, may find that they have a new-found appreciation for this underrated gem. It's not without flaws, but when played in tandem with the Wii U's save state functionality in short doses to alleviate frustration, there's a lot to enjoy here. Some of the level design and intentional placement of obstacles and enemies is almost frighteningly devious, a sense of playful teasing that is perhaps sorely lacking from present-day Nintendo's 'games for everybody' line-up. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels will constantly taunt the player with its level of challenge and meticulously sinister design, but those who enjoy triumph through adversity and can handle a little frustration will enjoy every second of it.