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The ten most difficult Mario levels EVER!

4:00 PM on 05.06.2010 // Chad Concelmo

My month-long countdown to the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 continues with another Mario-themed feature! Hooray!

If a random (preferably attractive) person on the street approached me and asked me if I thought the Mario platformers were difficult games, I would most likely answer “no.” Granted, I am a super mega-fan of the Mario series, so my years of experience may make the games feel easier than they really are, but, when you think about it, the Mario games are actually designed to be accessible to everyone. Why do you think the original Super Mario Bros. was so popular in the first place?

Because of this flawless, revolutionary design, the Mario series can sometimes be viewed as kids’ stuff, too easy for the “hardcore” gamers of today. But to this I say “HOGWASH!” Sure, there are plenty of stages I can breeze through with my eyes (half) closed, but every once and a while a Mario level comes along that is so brutal -- so infuriating! -- that it continues to challenge me no matter how many times I play it.

This feature is all about those levels. Those magnificent, @#!#$-inducing levels.

Oh, and a quick disclaimer: These are my picks for the top ten most difficult levels from actual, Nintendo-approved Mario platformers -- none of those crazy, masochistic ROM hacks or mods. As cool (and crazy) as they are, I am sticking to the official levels in the Mario series.

Grab onto a stress reliever and hit the jump for the ten most beautifully difficult Mario levels ... EVER!

Looking back, this second-to-last level in the original Super Mario Bros. may not be as tough as some of the more recent Mario offerings, but, based on my memory alone, this level had to be included on this list.

As a child, this level was the bane of my existence. Heck, it still is!

What makes it so difficult?: Those damn Hammer Bros.! Throughout most of the original Super Mario Bros., the Hammer Bros. jump back and forth between multiple levels of bricks. On this level, however, most of them stand on the ground. And since they can’t be jumped on, the only way to proceed is to time Mario’s run when the hammer-throwing Koopas randomly jump in the air. To make it worse, this has to be done over and over again before finally reaching the comfort of the ending flagpole.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Making it to the end with the ridiculously useful Fire Flower, falling into a pit, and having to restart the level as small, underpowered Mario.

Originally, one of the stars from Super Mario 64’s final world (Rainbow Ride) took the #9 spot on this list. But then I remembered this secret red coin level near the end of the game -- accessed by finding a hidden room.

In this level, Mario must collect eight red coins that are placed on the top of clouds all throughout the level. The twist is the coins can only be grabbed by flying around the level using Mario’s Wing Cap power-up -- an entertaining, though tricky-to-control upgrade.

What makes it so difficult?: The flying! Flying with the Wing Cap in Super Mario 64 is amazing. It feels great and is one of the most fun things to do in the game. But on this level, flying leads to fits of absolute rage. Trying to land Mario on the level’s small clouds is very difficult, but there is no other option, since the level’s mandatory eight red coins are scattered in the most frustrating and hard-to-reach spots.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Dying when you have collected seven red coins. Time to start over from the beginning!

By completing every stage at 100%, Baby Mario and Yoshi unlock secret, super challenging levels in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. All of these levels offer tremendous challenges, but two in particular stand out as the most difficult (more on the other one later).

In Poochy Ain’t Stupid, Baby Mario and Yoshi must ride on the back of cute (?) Poochy as he makes his way across a level full of lava-covered floors ... with enemies attacking at every angle! Sheesh!

What makes it so difficult?: Levels that automatically scroll are tough enough in 2D platformers, but throw in the fact that Baby Mario and Yoshi have to balance themselves on a very small, constantly moving Poochy and things get serious. It also doesn’t help that the lava kills Yoshi instantly.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Yoshi gets hit and loses Mario. The 30 second timer starts counting down. Baby Mario continues making that horrible crying sound. The timer ticks down more. Eventually, only a few seconds are left, and Baby Mario is completely on the other side of the screen. There is nothing you can do except wait for the inevitable “Game Over” screen.

Arguably the most infamous of Mario’s classic auto-scrolling levels, the Airships stage in World 8 of Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the toughest levels in the legendary NES game. While tension-filled, iconic music plays in the background, Mario is tasked with jumping from small airship to small airship, all the while dodging various enemies and huge bursts of fire from the airships’ engines.

What makes it so difficult?: Eff the Rocky Wrenches and the small wrenches they throw at Mario. EFF THEM ALL!

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: In the middle of a perfectly timed, giant leap from one airship to another, one of Rocky Wrenches’ wrenches that has been following Mario and the auto-scrolling screen for most of the level happens to be right in the way of your jump, knocking you into the bottomless pit below. Again, EFF THEM ALL!

In Super Mario World, after finding all the exits and defeating the already tough Star World, Mario unlocks a Special World that contains eight of the most brutal levels in the entire Mario series. One of the most difficult is Tubular (in a fun twist, all the “Special” levels are named after completely 80’s exclamations).

In Tubular, Mario must utilize his “P-Balloon” power-up -- a power-up that turns Mario into an actual balloon -- and navigate a horizontal level full of a ridiculous amount of obstacles and enemies. Unfortunately, after only one hit, Mario loses his power-up, plummets into the pit below, and instantly dies.

What makes it so difficult?: Tubular is not that long of a level, and there really aren’t that many enemies. The enemies that are on-screen, however, all shoot projectiles that follow very odd paths (I am looking at you, football-wielding Chargin’ Chuck!) Trying to dodge everything and still hurry your way through the level before the “P-Balloon” power-up runs out is ... let’s just say I let out my fair share of early 80’s “exclamations” when playing through it.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Mario is hit, loses his power-up, but luckily ends up landing safely on small question mark block. Problem is, no more “P-Balloon” power-ups are even close, leaving Mario stuck on that question block until he chooses to commit suicide and restart the level. Dag!

Upon its release, Super Mario Sunshine for the GameCube was met with a mixed response from critics and audiences alike. One thing that everyone seemed to agree on, though, was how awesome the game’s retro-feeling bonus levels were. These secret levels throw Mario into old-school, platform-heavy stages that offer a ton of challenge and feel completely different than the normal Sunshine gameplay.

Pachinko Peril is exactly what you would think it would be. Mario -- using his F.L.U.D.D. water-shooting pack -- must figure out how to make his way through a giant, vertical stage that resembles a huge pachinko machine.

What makes it so difficult?: After shooting himself in the air, Mario must somehow collect eight red coins (yup, it’s one of those levels) by landing on narrow, hard-to-reach openings at different places on the massive pachinko machine using nothing but the F.L.U.D.D. pack and the luck of where he happens to fall. It is even harder and more annoying than it sounds.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Oh, did I mention that if Mario misses any of the platforms on his way down the machine he falls through a pit on the bottom and instantly dies? Oh, I didn’t? WELL HE DOES AND IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME!

This “extra” level -- unlocked after completing 100% in the world -- sounds easy enough. Guide Baby Mario and Yoshi through a sewer containing small passageways and not a ton of enemies. Simple, right?

No. No, it is not simple. At all.

In fact, The Impossible? Maze is anything but simple. In the level, Baby Mario and Yoshi have to navigate a convoluted maze, making sure to jump up correct passages and push a specific crate to a very specific area. It all gets very complicated and requires a ton of backtracking and trial and error to discover the right path.

What makes it so difficult?: The intricate, confusing design. The level design is not so confusing as to feel sloppy, but it is just confusing enough to drive you absolutely insane. The level is long, winding, and altogether maddening.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Pushing that damn crate the wrong way and having to start over again. ARGH!

This level is ridiculous.

Another of Super Mario World’s “Special” levels, in Outrageous, Mario must make his way through a forest-themed level filled with tall pipes, tons of Bullet Bills, and a bunch of those irritating Wigglers. On top of all this ...

What makes it so difficult?: ... Mario is required to carry a springboard through almost the entire stage in order to jump high enough to clear a towering pipe near the end of the level. And as fans of the game know, carrying things while trying to dodge enemies in Super Mario World is very, very tricky.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Yes, only one more jump until you can put down that annoying springboard! Aaaaaand, you just accidentally let go of the “Y” button and dropped it in the pit. Great.

Okay, to be fair, this list could have included every level from Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels and still be completely accurate. Lost Levels is easily the hardest game in the Mario universe. The game is brutal, to say the least.

But the level that elicits the most angry controller throwing has to be World C-3, one of the bonus* levels that can be accessed once you finish the main stages of the game.

*I hesitate using the term “bonus,” as that word usually implies something that makes you happy. World C-3 will never make you happy.

What makes it so difficult?: This level is comprised of nothing but giant pits and springboards. That is already a lethal combination, but imagine trying to manage all of this while dealing with strong bursts of wind that come and go with seemingly no pattern that will either send Mario too far on a jump or immediately force him into a bottomless pit. Fun!

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Pretty much the entire level.

This is it. The hardest Mario level ever created. Hell, it may be one of the most difficult levels in any videogame ever!

A little set-up: After beating Super Mario Galaxy for the first time, a series of purple prankster comets appears, forcing players to complete older levels by collecting a large amount of purple coins. One of these purple prankster comets shows up on the 8-bit Luigi Planet level, which basically is a giant 8-bit model of Luigi from the original Super Mario Bros. that players have to jump across to collect purple coins. The tricky part is that once the player touches one of Luigi’s “sprites”, it disappears, forcing the player to make it through the entire level only touching each section of platform once.

Completing this the first time through with Mario is already extremely difficult. But after collecting all the Power Stars, Super Mario Galaxy throws out a twist and allows the player to replay the entire game as Luigi. The thing is, Luigi controls a lot different than Mario. He jumps much higher, but has much less traction, slipping and sliding like he is on ice at all times.

Trying to collect the purple coins on the 8-bit Luigi Planet with Luigi is impossible. Seriously, it is the hardest thing I have ever attempted to do in a videogame.

What makes it so difficult?: Um, everything.

@#!#$ this @#!#$ moment: Nothing (NOTHING!) has ever made me scream more than being only a few purple coins away from completing this level and then falling into a pit of my own creation and having to start all over again. To this day, I have still not yet completed this level with Luigi.

It is my arch-nemesis.

So, what do you think? Do you agree that these are some of the most difficult levels in the Mario series? What other Mario levels drive you absolutely insane (in a good way)?

Nintendo has promised Super Mario Galaxy 2 will be even more challenging than the first game. Do you think any of its levels have a chance of topping something on this list? Sound off in the comments!

Chad Concelmo,
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