Miyamoto depressed when creating Lost Levels, suggests Nintendo executive

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When thumbing through the pages of The Ultimate History of Video Games, by Steven L. Kent,  I came across a striking statement from Howard Phillips about Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. For those of you not old enough to remember Howard Phillips, he served as Nintendo’s most visible corporate spokesman during the late 80s. The man knew how to dress — his red bow tie and perfectly coiffed 1950s hair style gave off the air of a dapper cross-breeding between Tom Wolfe and Orville Redenbacher. He appeared in a wacky series of comics called Howard & Nester that ran for three years in Nintendo Power. The comics spoofed the current games released each month by plunging Howard and his spunky sidekick, Nester, into parallel dimensions of NES titles like Golgo 13, StarTropics, and Solar Jetman. Their humorous contributions lightened the magazine’s often jingoistic cant and they quickly became quintessential projections of Nintendo’s American image.

Here’s what old man Howard had to say about this week’s Virtual Console release:

“There were . . . things in the Japanese Super Mario 2 that made it not so palatable. At the time, I didn’t really know if Miyamoto had driven these changes or not, and it made me question whether he just lucked out to begin with.”

He goes on to state that the game contained elements that were,

“classically un-Miyamoto, in that [they were] random and out of the player’s control. Maybe Miyamoto was depressed at the time he made Mario 2 . . .”

Well, Howard, you were dead wrong. The Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 is long overdue for a re-evaluation and just might qualify as the pinnacle of the entire series. Hit the jump for my rebuttal to Howard’s nonsense and let me know if I’m full of it, or if you’re tempted to agree.

Given the context and Howard’s general sense of humor, I’m almost sure that his depression comment was meant in jest. But it does bring to light a certain notion: the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 is not considered canonical. Its standing in the grand Nintendo burlesque revue is tenuous at best. As a long time fan of this title, I’m always suprised when people tell me they hate it, gave up after a few minutes, or haven’t even bothered trying it. I would posit that Super Mario Bros. 2 stands as Miyamoto’s most brilliant work and is an essential game you must experience if you consider yourself a Mario fan. It is a bitter, aqcuired taste, but once its complex flavors develop, it becomes impossible not to recognize it as a couragous artistic experiment that deconstructs our entrenched notions of what it means to play a videogame.

I clearly remember the first time I heard of the mysterious true sequel to Super Mario Bros. The news was broken to me on the tetherball courts of my elementary school playground. This was in fifth grade, just before the launch of the Super NES. Rumor had it that our school’s star basketball player, Inku, had a special import copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 that included backwards warp zones and poisonous mushrooms. Of course, the playground was fertile ground for ludicrous gossip that never proved true, but I grew up in Hawaii, a culture inundated with Japanese influence. We could watch untranslated anime on local TV stations and the malls were littered with import toy shops that featured the latest in offbeat and kawaii entertainment. So I wasn’t able to dismiss the murmurings of a new Mario game offhand.

When Nintendo eventually released the Super Mario All-Stars compilation in the United States, I finally had the opportunity to play Miyamoto’s sleeper hit, the original Super Mario Bros. 2. By then, more information had come out about that game’s sordid history, elevating it above playground gossip into the realm of legend for me. I’d spent the previous few years daydreaming of how hard the game would be and I couldn’t wait to cut my teeth on it. It did not disappoint.

Miyamoto had crammed enough abnormalities and twists into the game to make the Mütter Museum jealous. We’re talking blooper squids floating through the air on ground level stages, hammer brothers and flagpoles submerged underwater, piranha plants that don’t scare when you stand next to their pipes, Bowser hanging around outside of his castle, and yes, that fabled poisonous mushroom really does make an appearance. Somehow all of this seemed even stranger than the Western Super Mario Bros. 2, because these mutations took place in a world we all felt so intimately familiar with. Mario had gone on a sojourn to discover himself and he came back a very strange man indeed.

To survive in this Mushroom Kingdom shoved forcefully through the looking glass, you need to employ every skill Mario learned in his first adventure. By the end of the Lost Levels, you’ll probably find it necessary to develop a few more of your own. In particular, the makeshift wall jump will save your hide on many occasions.  Often employed in the first game when showing off to your dilettante friends, this move becomes a necessity to gain that extra smidgen of height when playing as Mario. Luigi can jump as high as he needs to, but his landings carry the grace of Jim Carrey’s serious acting attempts. In other words, don’t use him.

No matter what precision you think your thumbs can employ, this game will instantly humble you. Because it does take more than Ritalin-fueled reflexes to achieve success. Super Mario Bros. 2, above all, serves as a giant puzzle and practical joke. You must stay alert, concentrated, and you absolutely have to be open to the forced evolution of your style of play. The game designers are out to screw with your head and if you keep the right attitude about you, you’ll find yourself entering a hilariously intimate unspoken conversation with them.

For instance, almost all of the poison mushrooms are strategically placed so that you are confronted with one floating toward you in the most awkward of times, like in the middle of an enclosed dueling hammer brothers showdown. Even more devious though, are the times where the poison mushrooms are hidden in tantalizingly out of reach mystery blocks that require complex series of moves to acquire. I’ve wasted multiple lives trying to get a hold of these temptations, only to discover in the end that my efforts were wasted on an evil power-down. Sort of like when your best friend give you a hertz donut.

Did I mention that you’ll be dying a lot? You’ll really start to develop a new relationship with that little death jingle that plays when Mario bites it. You never know how taunting that thing can sound until you die for the twelfth time on the same damn rotating fireball stick. If you’re a careful player, very few of these deaths should come as cheap surprises, though. What the game does expertly is lull us into a platformer complacency where we’ll speed along at top clip expecting the game to provide openings and landings for our jumps. Just when you’re at your most comfortable and you’re straddling that controller and spanking its side like you own the world, it’ll slam your face into a brilliantly placed yet avoidable enemy. It shows you the aporias in your game playing philosophy that you didn’t even know existed. It ships you off to side-scrolling boot camp, and trust me, you’ll emerge as a much better and more thoughtful player.

If you’re pretentiously bent like me, these moments make you question why you perform choices in games and how much of that decision making is caused by subconscious impulses the designers lead you into. It almost becomes like an anti-game at certain points and I’m reminded of Lisa Simpson’s famous defense of avante-garde jazz music: “Listen to the notes that aren’t being played.”

If you’re calling B.S. on me by this point, that’s okay. But I’d like to point out one last example that will seal my case against Howard Phillips and prove that Miyamoto was not only not depressed when making Super Mario Bros. 2, but at the height of his artistic powers. Here we go…

Bowser’s castles: they come at the end of every world. I’m surprised the tattoo for “dash 4” has yet to catch on as the universal signifier of a black heart. Often times the castles will use a strange looping maze effect that forces you to thread Mario in precise patterns through the granite and brimstone obstacles.  There’s a tremendous amount of trial and error involved as you race against the clock to beat the puzzle. As you can imagine, these demented castle loops have been amped up on the Lost Levels. After making it through 44 of the toughest levels known to man, once you reach Bowser’s castle in the bonus world of B-4, you’re just about prepared for Satan himself to jump out of the screen and slice off your fingertips.

I will go ahead now and proclaim the puzzle in B-4 100% unbeatable, and I offer my first-born child to anyone who solves the patterned loop. There are creative possibilities the designers highlighted that suggest routes you could take. Should you do a straight shot through the middle, then swing over the piranha plant, landing a backwards jump on the brick hovering over the lava? Should you stick to the high road? It doesn’t matter. The game ignores every action you take and keeps repeating the same prefabricated design over and over again.

As a child, my first encounter with this level was a brutal experience. That timer dwindled down as I beat my leg in anger and attempted the most acrobatic feats in vain.  Finally out of a frustration borne from the depths of a seething 12-year old heart, I ran straight through the level blindly without stopping, ignoring the patterns in a big middle finger to the God of that game world. I didn’t care if I died, I just wanted to prove to the game that I didn’t care that I died. As I trudged on through the Sisyphean loop in what seemed like an eternity, a miracle happened. Bowser’s fireballs roared from the right of the screen. And there he was, throwing his puny hammers.

I’d been punked! There never was a puzzle to begin with. Miyamoto had simply designed the illusion of a puzzle based on our innate understanding of the Mario world’s laws. The fourth wall of the game had just been broken with a metaphorical wink. Dumbo can fly without the magic feather! You’ll feel so much joy at the plucket-tuck-tuck sound of Bowser’s bridge collapsing, knowing the creator of the game was smiling years ago, thinking of the moment he hoped to share with you. I’ve never experienced such an epiphany in a game before. It was the first time that I truly saw videogames as an artistic medium suitable for expressing an individualistic vision. 

Like many of you, I first played through the Lost Levels on the Super NES, unaware that important changes besides mere graphical updates had been made to the true Japanese version. It wasn’t until years later, after the game earned its way into my heart as one of my all time favorites, that I discovered the alterations while playing through the Famicom Disk System original.

Super Mario All-Stars allows you to save at every individual sub-level on the Lost Levels, while the original Japanese version only lets you save at the beginning of each world. This huge difference in difficulty means you need to make every move count. You don’t want to reach Bowser after an agonizing twenty minutes, only to lose your last life and find yourself back at the beginning of 4 tough-as-nails sub-levels. This adds extra significance  to the 1-up trick you can do on the flagpoles of each stage and it forces you to consider every single coin you pick up. You’ll horde those lives like orphaned kittens, and the strategy involved in matching your coin tally to your time counter makes for an incredibly addictive addition. The gameplay is as deep and robust as you can find in the 8-bit universe.

The Famicom Disk System version also forces you to repeat the entire game eight times, earning a separate star on the title screen for every win, before you are able to unlock the 4 bonus worlds. Beating the game once is an accomplishment daring enough to get you listed in Santa’s naughty ledger, but eight times? This week’s Virtual Console release is the first time a lot of us outside of Japan (unless you did some bootleg importing like me) have access to the pure, unadulterated carnage of the original.

The Lost Levels earns the title of masterpiece, especially for people who love the original design of the first Super Mario Bros. but are tired of flying through it in half an hour. I’m sure a lot of you have probably surpassed that point. It’s like an album that you’ve listened to so much that you know every note the bass guitar strikes, every thumping off-kilter beat the drummer performs. It’s still wonderful, but there’s no excitement left. I haven’t reached that point on the Lost Levels yet, even after more than a decade of playing it. There are still secrets I’ve yet to discover and no matter how well I think I know it, the designers will once again catch me with one of their nasty death traps. 

I had the opportunity to speak with a few former Nintendo employees recently, including some who worked in localization. They’ve all adamantly suggested that our hopes for future English releases of Japanese classics on the Wii rely on the money Nintendo makes from their first test runs of import products. So get hoppin’. Tell your friends, dentists and mechanics to start downloading. And especially you, Mr. “I’ll just download the ROMs.” Please make an exception and support Nintendo’s decision to unearth these private treasures. We’ll all benefit in the end if the Wii becomes a Pandora’s box of wickedly creative and offbeat games. I wish Miyamoto only the best, but I wonder what life will need to throw at him before he releases another game with as much bite and vicious charm as Super Mario Bros. 2. This beauty is damn near perfect. 

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