Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels reviewed.

The art of play.
Nov. 5 2007 1:00 PM

Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

After 20 years, I can finally play this lost gaming classic.

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The game is so hard that I expect I'll never complete it, though it's perversely engaging enough to make me want to try. On YouTube, I watched a player race through the game to watch out for the torments that await me in distant lands: wind, upside-down pipes with plants that bite at you from the sky, and an end-of-the-stage flagpole that can be discovered by climbing a vine into a hidden level.

The Real Super Mario Bros. 2 is preposterously challenging, but it's not unpleasant. It's deeply satisfying, in fact, during the times when it's not so frustrating that it's enraging. This game gave me the chance to re-experience playing the original Super Mario Bros. for the first time—especially when I plugged in the Wii's Classic Controller, with its tactile similarity to the NES original—and made me remember why that first game was so revelatory. Super Mario Bros. is so familiar to me now—I know exactly when to jump, when to stop, where to find warp zones and underground levels, when to keep running with a turtle shell until I get a 1UP, and when to jump toward a flagpole so that I'll get those coveted six fireworks—that I had forgotten how, once upon a time, it was a game of exploration.

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The key to excelling at Super Mario Bros.—I have no idea how to excel at the Real Super Mario Bros. 2—is to learn the game's territory, to become so deeply familiar with it that you don't even have to think about what you're doing. But to do that requires painstaking exploration. You can't just test each block of bricks—to uncover all of the game's secrets you have to test every single block of airspace, in case a hidden vine, extra life, or coin box is hiding there.

Lacking access to the back issues of the Japanese-language version of Nintendo Power, I doubt I'll be able to learn all of the secrets hidden in the Real Super Mario Bros. 2. I had time for OCD games as a child—I remember bombing every square on the map in the Legend of Zelda—but as an adult, I only have the patience to play in less time-consuming bursts.

But the Real Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't just hard—it's "difficult," like a book or a movie that initially rebuffs you but becomes rewarding as you unlock its secrets. As a standalone game, it would be a disappointment, too challenging and too impenetrable. But as a reflection and inversion of one of the few titles in the gaming canon, it provides a sort of meditation on game design and player expectations, and how to flout them. I only wish I'd had a chance to play it in 1986.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.