Environment & levels
The Lost Levels is quite a creative game that allows for different solutions to the problem of finishing a level, so one can run and jump and hope for the best (risk always increases with more acceleration), but in the situations with the flying Koopa platforms many times just using the A button and directional pad is sufficient because if Mario lands perfectly on a Koopa he gets an extra bump up in the air which allows space to maneuver another jump to the next Koopa. What happens after a jump though is Mario gets pushed forward a bit and so he changes his position in space. With the directional cross the player must really get a feel for tapping back and forth while Mario is descending in order to land the next collision. A few instances in the game require the player to perform this with very few if any other solutions around the problem.
There is a deeper interaction with the environment that the player has through Mario, and through the core mechanic. Mario can also use his fist to effect change in the world. Littered about the world are different kinds of blocks that can be interacted with.
In each level there are usually several small groups of ? blocks, or question mark boxes. By jumping and punching (the punch is simply an automatic aspect of the jump) the bottom of these blocks coins invariably pop out and disappear into Marios invisible wallet. There are some clear purposes for these coins. They add to the high score and when 100 have been collected they add to Marios life count, thereby giving the player an extra go. However, neither of these are very meaningful in the larger context of the game.
The extra lives gained from absorbing 100 coins do not really add up to much as SMB: TLL thankfully grants the player infinite continues if they choose to save their progress and continue at the game over screen. There are checkpoints in some of the longer levels, and that checkpoint progress would be lost but there is no real risk to the player.
The other purposes of the coins are more veiled, but soon become obvious when noticed. The coins act as a breadcrumb trail to lead the way for Mario and to give hints about where it is possible to go in the landscape, the idea being that if you can physically get a coin you can also jump over to that place. This is a consistent rule throughout the game, and even if it does not add much value in the sense of lives and high score it can greatly increase the challenge of the game as the player struggles to collect them from tricky places and risks falling to their death.
The ? blocks have a number of purposes in the game. Symbolically they act as a mysterious landmark within the levels. They glow and are strangely attractive. This surreal thing adds to the general mystic quality of the whole aesthetic. They have a play function, because it is fun to punch them and to hear the coin sounds. They have an environmental function to furnish the level with interactive objects. But the ? blocks also hide power-ups in them. Sometimes a red and white mushroom will come out, which when touched by Mario grows him into Super Mario. They also hide poisonous mushrooms which either shrink Mario from super Mario to regular Mario or from regular Mario to dead Mario. The other power-ups are the fire flower and star, but more on them later.
A huge aspect of the gameplay in SMB: TLL comes from the interplay between the three types of blocks: the mystery boxes, the mutable bricks, and the fixed bricks in relation to the status of Mario and his proximity to turtles and other creatures. There are many floating structures throughout the levels that seem like little animal pens that the turtles often patrol.
The Koopas are the most complex of the creatures in the game. They are what the Greeks call pharmakon, which roughly translates as drug. But a drug is neither good nor bad and can be used for either healing or destructive purposes. In the same way the turtles have a dual function. When Mario lands on them they get back in their shell. Another hit by Mario (an automatic kick, essentially) sends the shell flying across the ground in whatever direction Mario is facing. The second kick of the shell is a bit of gamble because it could fly off and ricochet off a fixed or mutable block and end up hitting Mario. The player always has to be prepared for the return of the shell because in these situations with the animal pens and the tight architecture it can bounce back in many ways and there may be as many as four turtles on the screen at once.
Furthermore, the limitations of the hardware make it so that the player cannot scroll the screen too much forward and cannot go backwards. But a part of the screen that is hidden on either side is still in play and could be hiding a fixed block that could spit the shell back at Mario.
Theres still so much to explain about the turtles though. You can use the shelled Koopa as a ground missile to knock other Koopas off the screen, or any other creature, thus turning the enemy into a weapon that benefits you. But there is a time limit as to how long the turtle stays in its shell. If youre too late and try to kick it when it is emerging it will bite you and it could be game over. Also, when landing on a winged turtle, it loses its wings and devolves into a land Koopa but it has a tendency to quickly turn directions towards the place that Mario is going to land. In both examples, the trickster nature of the Koopa tends to be the cause of many deaths in Mario games and SMB: TLL is no exception.
A big part of the satisfaction of mastering the control system is down to its application in these situations with the turtles as an extension of the threat of Bowser, or King Koopa. It gives meaning to such a subtle and finely-tuned system of movement and action. One has to land a perfect jump and then adjust Marios position in mid-air to land on the right side of the turtle or to land on the turtle again, catapulting it across the screen.
When the player has not gained much skill they may be confused and frustrated at their constant deaths, but this confusion and frustration borne of a lack of understanding of the rules is closely connected to artificially high levels of joy and relief at being successful because the player will partly attribute their success to luck or chance when actually it is mostly a matter of skill. But even when the player has a lot of skill there is still this sense of vertigo that you experience; a kind of uneasiness at the way the world shifts and moves. There is still a bit of fear and uncertainty.
Everything in the game is so well inter-related. Often, the animal pens are patrolled by Koopas some of which just move back and forth and others of which keep moving left or right until they fall off a line of blocks or off the screen itself. Upon investigating these floating sub-levels and exploring the mystery boxes you can punch upwards, the force of which will push the turtle into its shell. This is fun and seems like a good tactic, but in a tight space the next hit could just as easily kill you if you are not careful. Turtles could also fall off the top and hit Mario. A red mushroom gained from punching the box empowers the player as they grow big, but the danger and peril of the situation could just as easily take that power way.
Upon growing into Super Mario, the player can punch and destroy the mutable blocks, opening up holes in the floating structures and gaining access to the top of the level, or to coins, or to other mystery blocks. Some situations and level designs allow the player to form strategies such as kick turtle shells down multiple levels, destroying all the enemies below. In some levels you can play skittles. If you jump on a Koopa, turning it into a shell, and then jump on it again and keep following it as it shoots to the right it will knock over all the other Koopas and Goombas in the way and if you knock down all of them you tend to get a 1-UP.
Sometimes there is a fixed block at the end of the path though and the shell bounces back at you, which keeps you on your toes! Some animal pens trick the player by placing a patrolling Koopa in a very tight space between two pillars. If you jump in there and miss hitting it then youll fall into the gap and it will come to bite you. But if you hit it and jump out and then hit it again you can witness its spinning shell shaking left and right between the pillars for all eternity. All of these subtle, well-hidden rules of the game create rich and challenging play only with a few buttons.
The size of Mario as he changes into Super Mario affects the design as a whole too. It is not all easy sailing from there. In tighter spaces Mario does not have as much room for movement and jumping on enemies is more difficult. The player can be aided in this by learning a new skill: ducking. By ducking and jumping you create just enough space to land successfully on creatures. By virtue of his size Mario also seems a little slower and heavier, but this may just be psychological.
The evolution to Super Mario also opens the game up to exploratory play. In many of the underground levels if you have a super mushroom you can break through the bricks in the upper part of the screen like in the 80s Atari arcade game Breakout. This can lead to secret warp pipes that transport the player to distant worlds. The very fact that Mario can run in front of the statistical text at the top of the screen symbolizes the playful nature of the game.
The fire flower power-up modifies the gameplay so much in SMB: TLL that Im not surprised they are quite rare and difficult to retain as death and de-evolution is very common. It turns SMB into a shooting game, allowing Mario to spit out a constant stream of fire balls in an unstoppable reign of terror. Cleverly the power-ups also transform the gameplay. The animal pens become sniper spots and if you are in possession of a fire flower in the underwater areas, SMB becomes almost like a game of Asteroids.
The star grants the player limited invincibility and while a nice variation in play does not add that much value to gameplay in the long run.
The yearning and romantic melancholy of the world of TLL creates in the player a desire to explore and investigate, but also to reflect. What is this strange land? How can I deepen my experience of it? The inclusion of making some warp pipes explorable and some not plays on the austerity of the aesthetic in a physical way. Quite often I would go around testing all the pipes to see which ones I could go through. This leads to surprise when one is not blocked, followed by elation at finding a stash of golden coins (which is often the case) or perhaps disappointment at finding the same stash of golden coins. But often in those secret dungeons there are things hidden further in the mutable blocks and through using a super mushroom and some creative jumping and ducking skills one can extend their exploratory play.
The ambiguous narrative and the gameplay inherent within the narrative may also bring forth many questions about Mario. Is he using his plumbing skills to unplug that pipe? What tools does he use? How does he stay so clean? Who left all this gold here? Why is there a massive image of my face in this dungeon? The questions are endless. It is finding the answers that prove elusive.
In SMB: TLL I see the age old Mario game design stretched to its limits, and even though it is sparse in areas, it repeats a lot of backgrounds and arrangements and it only has a four background theme songs; even though at times it is infuriating and had me cursing and almost throwing my control pad about it kept me coming back with its charm and its challenge.
It is perhaps a long way from the open world play box design of the contemporary Mario, but most of what eventually came to fruition with Super Mario World and eventually Super Mario 64 is in this game in some form or another which is a pretty impressive feat for game from the late 80s.
I love and still dread how the world of Super Mario Bros. shifts and shimmers. It feels as if it is world set on ice, with everything in play and everything to play for. I enjoy the way some Koopas patrol their specific bit of land, and the way some of them simply keep on marching and appear to commit some kind of animal suicide. Or perhaps they fall into another dimension? Who knows what goes down in the MushroomKingdom?
I enjoy the way the flying Koopas dance about mirthfully with stupefied expressions on their faces. I enjoy tap dancing on their shells. I enjoy spinning around and around under fountains of hammers. I enjoy falling into the endless abyss only to pull back at the last moment and come crashing back to land. I enjoy the echoing funk of the underground music and the satisfying plunging noise as Im sucked into a warp pipe. I enjoy the steel drums, the smiley clouds, and the way Mario slides down a pole at the end of each course. I remember the expressionless, squashed up face of a tiny man never ready to give up. All of these encounters express the characters in the game and the character of the game. The whole experience feels like becoming part of an understated but nonetheless grand slapstick comedy or theatrical play.
The Lost Levels is a story of courage as each jump, heart in mouth, could mean the end. It takes such bravery and boldness to overcome and rise against gravity, the true boss of the game.
Thanks for reading! :-)
Please don't play this game!