Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #57

New Super Mario Bros.

There had never been a time like it: The Nintendo DS--which had been grievously languishing post-launch, its prognosis becoming increasingly dire--was unexpectedly in the midst of a rapid ascension. The dual-screened portable, which in the months prior had been showered in negativity, had resiliently pulled itself from the muck and was currently skyrocketing its way to the top of video-game world on the strength of releases like Nintendogs, Animal Crossing: Wild World, Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! and Mario Kart DS, all of which had succeeded in capturing the imagination of an expanded audience. In the span of just seven months, perception of the DS had turned 180 degrees, and even the system's most vocal critics had to start begrudgingly admitting that Nintendo was on to something.

Most importantly, the DS' disruptive values had opened the door for a whole new class of uniquely styled, radically divergent video games, and the old paradigm was finally being challenged in a meaningful way. And it was people like me who were blissfully enjoying the fruits of this revolution. The DS was providing me exactly what I had been looking for: a fresh new take on games. Before then, it had been my observation that the industry was stuck traveling a narrowing path whose destination welcomed only endless iteration and homogeneity. Now, suddenly, the medium's scope had significantly widened, and I couldn't have been happier with this outcome.

Still, I knew where a large part of my heart lied. While I was all for this shifting of the landscape, I certainly wasn't calling for the abandonment of the tried-and-true. By no means did I desire for the types of games I'd loved in the past to disappear or find themselves minimized. No--it was quite the opposite: I now hoped to see them appear in even greater number! Really, that was the true success of the DS: It had enraptured me with its collection of inventive, wonderfully new creations, yes, but moreover it had renewed my passion for video games on the whole. That's why I wanted for the DS to become home to both the distinctly new and the traditional at the same time. And that's exactly where its current course appeared to be leading us.

One game in particular spoke to that ambition. It was the game for which we'd been starving since the mid-90s. It was the game that was going to recover what should never have been lost. It was a new Super Mario Bros. title, and it was on its way to the DS.

Now, for those of us who had been around video games since virtually day one, the disappearance of 2D Mario games was a big loss. "Why has Nintendo ceased creating genuinely new 2D Super Mario Bros. games?" we wondered. "Is it really the case that all future Mario games will be rendered strictly in 3D?"

It was such a shame, since there was no convincing evidence that people had tired of 2D Mario. It was the consensus among players everywhere that Nintendo should never have stopped making them. We knew that there was still so much room to innovate in the 2D space. We were certain that were so many possibilities left unexplored.

I mean, even the Super Mario Advance games--mere remakes of the classic Mario titles--were pretty huge sellers (they averaged somewhere around five million units sold), which should have sent a loud and clear message: People want more of this, even if it's not original. Yet the fact remained that Nintendo appeared to have no further interest in producing side-scrolling Mario games; the company was apparently in agreement with the prevailing attitude that 2D platformers were a thing of the past.

Sadly, it seemed as though we'd seen the last of 2D Mario.

And then it happened: In a moment's space, Nintendo washed away our feelings of hopelessness. At E3 of 2004, Shigeru Miyamoto and friends revealed it to the world: a new Super Mario Bros. game that was so single-minded in its mission--so ostensibly rejecting of subtlety--that it was literally titled "New Super Mario Bros." What, exactly, was "new" about it, they didn't say, but I placed little importance on such details; what mattered most was that we were seeing the return of 2D Mario!

Strangely, though, New Super Mario Bros. was being exhibited to the audience in a rather understated manner. Nintendo was clearly putting a much greater focus on Super Mario 64 DS, which kind of made sense considering that it was slated to be a launch title. Still, I was surprised that the company didn't feel inclined to treat its unveiling as though it were a much bigger deal--as if it were promoting the grand return of a legendary series! Instead there was a largely uninformative 30-second trailer (about the only thing we learned from it was that Mario could now grow giant-sized and more effectively squish foes). Even the press coverage seemed a bit muted, reports on the game limited to brief interviews and a few unenthusiastic-reading trailer breakdowns.

But that didn't matter. We didn't need for there to be an elaborate ceremony to know what this announcement meant. This was what we'd long been waiting for. This was the Mario we all loved and missed. The only bad news was that we'd have to wait a year or two to get our hands on it.

We wouldn't see it in action until a year later at E3, 2005. And still it was weird: Despite its carrying a transformative-sounding prefix, there didn't appear to be anything particularly "new" about the way New Super Mario Bros. played; in fact, it looked to offer a pretty traditional Super Mario Bros. experience. The only real difference was its visual style; it boasted that 2.5D presentation (polygonal characters moving along a flat plane) that I always felt lacked character when compared to games that featured detail-rich sprite-based graphics. And since the DS wasn't really much of a technological powerhouse, it couldn't do much to render sharp-looking 2.5D visuals; in New Super Mario Bros.'s case, it was hard not to notice that its graphics were kinda warped and pixelated, which was especially obvious when the game's camera would zoom in close. "They should have gone with sprites," I said to myself as I watched gameplay videos.

But again--how it looked wasn't a make-or-break for me. It didn't really matter. All I cared about was getting a chance to play a new Super Mario Bros. game following an inexplicably long layoff. I was going to be there day one no matter what it was.

I made sure to nab myself a pre-order the moment Nintendo gave stores the go-ahead.

A few months later, there I was playing it--the first new 2D Mario in 14 long years. Mine was a memorable experience not due to a remembered chronology but because of how the game did so well to capture the spirit of the moment and fill me with positive energy. So I'm going to speak about its impact in more in general terms.

Upon first seeing it action in a more personal setting, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that New Super Mario Bros. featured pretty solid visuals; for certain it was a much more attractive-looking game than I'd originally assessed. I still would have preferred that its graphics were sprite-based, sure, yet I couldn't deny that there were clear benefits to the 2.5D presentation. For one, I appreciated how the use of 3D character models opened the door for the inclusion of Super Mario 64 enemies and allies as ripped directly from the game of origin! This was important to me because I had always been bothered by the aesthetic disconnect that existed between the 2D and 3D Mario games, whose discordant values I could never reconcile; simply seeing Swoopers, Scuttlebugs and Dorrie (the helpful Plesiosaur from Hazy Maze Cave) intermixed with more-classically-rendered, Super Mario Bros.-style characters and environments--merely observing how they functioned within a flat, side-scrolling space--went a long way toward bridging the gap.

And considering that the DS was most comparable to the N64 in terms of power, their inclusion seemed highly appropriate. It spoke to a deeper spiritual connection between two systems I adored.

New Super Mario Bros. incorporated plenty of Super Mario 64 elements (familiar characters, recognizable voice and sound samples, triple jumps, ground-pounding, wall-jumping, etc.), yes, but it also made sure to reference other classic Mario platformers. I could sense as much any time I was exploring a labyrinthine Ghost House, throwing a Bob-omb toward a destructible wall, sliding down a slope and wiping out strings of Goombas, balancing myself atop a snaking platform, getting eaten by a Cheep Chomp, or climbing a series of reversible fences. New Super Mario Bros. was one big love letter to the Super Mario series.

"So if that was all true," you skeptically inquire, "then what about the game was 'new'?"

Well, it was clear that New Super Mario Bros. was largely derivative, its dependence upon recycled elements and assets working to bely its contemporary-sounding title, but it did make a few unique contributions. For one, it introduced interesting new power-ups like the Mega Mushroom, using which the brothers would temporarily grow more than three-times their normal size and use their newly afforded girth to plow through enemies, blocks, warp pipes, Bullet Bill dispensers, flag poles, and just about anything else that stood in their way. Mini Mushrooms, which rendered them tiny enough to run across the surface of water, squeeze through the tiniest of gaps, and leap great distances. And the Blue Shell, whose donning allowed them to slide across surface in Koopa-shell form, bowl over strings of enemies, shatter breakable blocks from the side, and repel certain attacks (while crouching).

And it was fun to experiment with these new powers--keep them stored in my lower-screen inventory and bust them out in stages whose structuring either invited or visually discouraged their use. You know--just to see what would happen. My only disappointment was that there weren't more of them. That was me continuing to hold to the illusion that one day a Mario game would come along and meet Super Mario Bros. 3's standard in terms of number of power-ups and suits. 25 years later, I'm still waiting for that to happen.

Also, New Super Mario Bros. came to convey a distinctly formed personality via its visually interesting, sometimes-bonkers platforming scenarios. This game was having all kinds of fun with tilting, swaying and undulating platforms. Certain stages had me swinging across series of vines or ropes as attached to track-mounted devices; walking or riding atop giant-sized characters (like Wiggler and Dorrie); sidling along mountain ledges; or spinning through the air, tornado-style, over and around expansive, multi-level environments.

It featured a collection of uniquely scripted boss battles. It contained a large number of lengthy, specially themed stages. And it had an interesting take on world progression: In order to gain entrance to Worlds 4 and 7, both of which appeared to be completely inaccessible, you had to endure Worlds 2 and 5's castle stages and defeat their respective bosses as Mini Mario; this would allow you to escape these strongholds via the tiny apertures that led directly to the alternate worlds (I've since learned that you can access World 7 via a warp cannon, but still I'd always choose to take the former route). I liked this idea of having to go to perilous lengths to access hidden worlds; reaching a new world via the required method imbued me with a greater sense of accomplishment, as if I'd just endured a mighty struggle in a quest to earn access to mysterious sacred land.

What New Super Mario Bros. lacked in originality it made up for with variety. There was a lot to do here. In particular, I enjoyed finding all of the big coins and unlocking all of the Toad houses. I had a ton of fun scouring the stages in search of them.

Really, the whole game was fun--just a great entertainment experience all around. I liked playing it. I liked listening to it and soaking in its wonderfully inspiriting vibes. Most everything about it spoke of what was so special about that moment in video-game history. "What a time!" I'd think to myself as I was progressing through it.

The game's infectious personality was formed in large part by its delightful soundtrack, which was rife with whimsical spirit. I couldn't help but feel invigorated by its buoyancy, which always had me swaying side to side. Particularly, I loved how the music played into the action; I thought it was hilarious how the enemies would make sure to momentarily stop in place so that they could bop to the overworld tune's most emphasized recurring note ("BWAH-BWAH," as we'd spell it phonetically). Ordinarily, having characters bop to a game's music was the domain of wiseguy players like me, but now the games, themselves, were apparently looking to get in on the act--looking to steal out heat. And that was just fine by me; I was inviting of such silliness.

Well, except for when an enemy's sudden pause would result in my screwing up the timing on a stomping or bouncing attempt. Then I didn't like it one bit. Nope.

New Super Mario Bros. wasn't a grand production, no. I never felt as though I was playing a game that eclipsed either Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World or rendered them obsolete in any notable way. It couldn't. That's not what it was aiming to be. Rather, it was purely a back-to-basics affair--a fresh starting point for all--and that was OK. I didn't mind that it had such a narrow focus. It was what we needed at the time: the necessary reestablishing of Super Mario Bros.'s core values during a period of great change, when so many lapsed players were getting back into video games and so many new people were being introduced to them. And if ours was a true desire to see Mario ascend back to the top of the mountain, upon which he hadn't stood for almost a decade, then we'd need for them to help pad our ranks. We'd need for New Super Mario Bros.'s accessibility factor to be a welcoming force--to make believers out of them. And from there we could all move forward together.

All I knew was that I was happy to be playing it that particular moment in time. I'd labeled it "the ultimate feel-good spring/summer game"--the type you'd snap into your DS on a sunny, peaceful afternoon when all of the windows were popped open, the birds were chirping, and the atmosphere was reminiscent of those ol' summer-vacation days. I did that more than a few times.

But the best news was that 2D Mario was back, and New Super Mario Bros. was a game off of which the series had a great chance of successfully springboarding. I couldn't wait to see how Nintendo would follow it up--where Miyamoto and pals were planning to take us next. "Will the sequel be as wonderfully divergent as, say, Super Mario Bros. 2?" I wondered. "Or will it be something so amazingly innovative that my human brain is unable to comprehend such a product?!"

And, well, we all know how that story played out. Much to my dismay, it never advanced past the prologue. None of the three succeeding entries sought to meaningfully evolve the formula. Not a single one of them endeavored to take us to a new place. To examine them up close was to find no immediately perceivable deviation from New Super Mario Bros.'s established template.

I was expecting for the series to undergo a creative renaissance and gloriously reinvent itself, but instead it decided to run in place for the next six years.

Really, what Nintendo did to the Super Mario Bros. brand was inexcusable. For decades the company had done so well to nurture and protect it and avoid tarnishing its image by pumping out underwhelmingly iterative cookie-cutter sequels, but now its executives had made the inexplicably shortsighted decision to betray their own principles in pursuit of greedily wringing every last penny out of the fickle customers they knew were only buying these games because it was trendy; suddenly Iwata and his staff, who surely understood the medium's history and were well aware of why so many big-name franchises had died off, were determined to ignore all of the available data and heedlessly produce an endless string of creatively stagnant, aesthetically identical New Super Mario Bros. games. And they were doing this at the expense of the always-trusty Mario character, which was now no longer associated with top-tier 2D platformers.

What was at first unique quickly became generic. And that should never have happened; mainline Mario games should never be perceived as "generic." Yet now they were. There was no longer anything special about them. What Nintendo did was turn the Super Mario Bros. brand into a pure product, each new release feeling as though it was born not from the imaginations of enthusiastic, ambitious creators but instead from the cold, purely functional mechanisms that comprised the nearest assembly line.

"Why the hell are they doing this to such a beloved series?!" I continued to question, my frustration-level increasing each time Nintendo would announce another samey-looking New Super Mario Bros. game. "Don't they understand that their standardizing the series will likely come with serious repercussions?"

Now, I'm not saying that any of them were terrible games. No--they just weren't what they needed to be. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, while its multiplayer modes held the potential for great fun, was ultimately nothing special. New Super Mario Bros. 2--a pure impulse purchase--was supremely forgettable; were it not for its coin-collecting gimmick, I wouldn't remember a damn thing about it. And I didn't even buy New Super Mario Bros. U. Nothing about it was compelling; in fact, there was a never mainline Mario game in which I was less interested. So I passed on it. And you know what? I felt no regret about doing so; not for a moment did I ever feel as though I was missing anything. That should tell you something.

And let me tell you: A cold chill ran down my spine when I read that Iwata told investors to expect even more New Super Mario Bros. titles. "God no," I said to myself, "We don't need any more of that."

So far, thankfully, nothing has become of that chatter.

Let's hope it stays that way. If we're lucky, Super Mario Run will be the last we see of that series and its tired aesthetic.

But regardless of the ill feelings I hold for the series as a whole, I remain quite fond of the first New Super Mario Bros. I'll continue to cherish the memories of the time I spent with it. It wasn't an incredible game, no, nor was it some huge advancement over the older 2D entries, but it did a lot of things right. I found it to be creative, inspiriting and fun to play--a winning combination in my book.

It arrived at the perfect time: The DS was riding a wave of momentum the likes of which we'd never seen. The gaming world was changing for the better. And people were again clamoring for the types of games that originally brought them to the dance--the types that were lost to the console arms race.

And there was Mario to answer to call. He was back. Super Mario Bros. was back. 2D wasn't dead, as hardcore gamers had proclaimed. It was alive and well on the DS. There was plenty of room for it on Nintendo's dual-screened wonder. There was plenty of room for everything. The future was looking bright.

That's what New Super Mario Bros. represented: good times during one of the best eras in gaming history. I'm glad that I savored both it and the (sadly unreplicated) generation it helped to define.

Whenever I think about New Super Mario Bros., I'm always reminded why I loved that era. The enduring mental images never fail to evoke memories of everything I considered great about it.

That, to me, is the measure of a truly impactful Super Mario Bros. game.

And I'm happy to say that New Super Mario Bros. is indeed worthy of carrying such a label.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #56

Super Mario Bros. 2 / Lost Levels

I can't say it enough, dear reader: The video-game medium's history truly is a wild world of mystery and wonder. Those who seek to become engrossed in it will assuredly discover that within its coffers lay a vast treasure trove filled with a great number of endlessly fascinating artifacts. And any new discovery might hold the potential to shatter your perception of how things were.

That's been my experience in recent years. As I've zealously explored history's glittering mines, I've grown ever-more enlightened. The deeper I've tunneled, the more I've develop as an enthusiast, my lust for unfiltered knowledge and scarcely documented historical data serving as the guiding force in my evolution.

Truly this is a far cry from my younger days, when I was all too happy to remain willfully oblivious as to the true nature of video games--when I viewed their progression as nothing more than a series of predictably linear events. There was nothing more I needed to know, I felt: What I saw in front of me was all there was to it. That's how I viewed the world of games.

Yet even back then, more than a quarter of a century ago, there were visible signs that the video-game scene was a much larger, more wondrous place than I believed. The first inkling of such was my shocking discovery of the "real" Super Mario Bros. 2.

Mario's unpublicized adventure came to my attention one random day late in 1991, when I was out shopping with my mother and her friend Audrey. As they were spending their usual small eternity perusing the clothes and appliances sections (this was in either Walmart or Genovese--I can't remember for sure), I wandered off to the video-game aisle to check up on the latest NES and SNES releases; while I was there, I decided to browse through the magazine headlines and get a sense of what gaming publications were currently focusing their energy on. That's when my eyes happened upon a new arrival called "Mario Mania," whose NES Game Atlas-like paperback cover, stocky build, and unmistakable graphical design were a clear indication that I was looking at the next entry in Nintendo's Player's Guide series, of which I was a big fan. I didn't even need to see the words printed on the cover to know what it was.

No energy went into considering whether or not it was reasonable to ask my mother to buy it for me. There was no time for such rumination; the moment the guide's iconic Mario imagery imprinted upon my reptilian brain, I knew that I needed to have it right now. Fortunately my mother was eager to answer my desperate plea--perhaps because she knew that it would likely shut me up for the day.

Once we were done shopping, we initiated what had become a traditional sequence: On any such day, that is, we'd stop for lunch over at the New Parkway diner over on 13th Avenue, and while those two would yammer on and on about their boring "adult" stuff, I'd flip through a gaming magazine or repeatedly read over a newly purchased game's box description. This time the object of my obsession was the Mario Mania guide, whose pages featured (a) a compelling retrospective on Mario's history and his many cameo appearances and (b) a comprehensive Super Mario World guide, which I knew I'd enjoy poring over even though I'd long since located the game's 96 exits.

So there I was flipping through Mario Mania's guide portion when suddenly I had to stop and backtrack a few pages because I was certain that I'd caught of glimpse of some imagery that seemed familiar yet at the same time oddly alien. The images in question belonged to a specially designed sidebar titled "Super Mariology," which in did-you-know style spoke of a "Japanese version" of Super Mario Bros. 2--not a reworking of the Arabian-themed classic we all knew and loved, mind you, but rather an original work that had never graced our shores! There wasn't much to the article, really--just four small images and maybe five sentences' worth of information--yet no more needed to be said; that tiny sliver of information, alone, was more than enough to absolutely blow my mind!

I had so many questions: "How is it that I've never heard about this game until just now?!" "Why was it never considered for release in the US?!" "Why is it so graphically similar to the original Super Mario Bros.?!" "What the hell is 'Doki Doki Panic,' and what does it have to do with the Super Mario Bros. 2 we've been playing since 1988?!" "And what's going on with that weird, cobbly-looking floor texture?!"

I was ecstatic to learn of its existence, yes, yet my excitement was tempered with a feeling of defeat, since I knew that nothing would ever become of this discovery. After all: There would never be an opportunity for me to play this game. The reality was that Japan was a world away. "There's a zero-percent chance that I'll ever find a way to gain access to its goods," I was certain.

That's why it felt all the more exhilarating when Nintendo Power Volume 52 arrived bearing news of Super Mario All-Stars--a compilation that was said to include 16-bit remakes of the three classic NES Mario titles plus the never-before-seen, curiously named "Lost Levels," which, sure enough, was one in the same with the "Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2" I'd read about eons earlier (a year and a half before, in actuality)!

The preview put a heavy emphasis on the latter and explained in detail how it was different from the original Super Mario Bros.; expanding upon what the Mario Mania article had revealed, it stressed that Lost Levels' difficulty far exceeded its predecessor's, and it reiterated that the game introduced some new mechanics that worked to turn the original's formula on its head--aspired to gleefully betray its every value. There were poison mushrooms that would "take away Mario and Luigi's powers" (in reality, they inflicted plain-ol' contact damage). Eastward wind-gusts that would push them forward and alter the momentum of their jumps. And warp zones that would send them back to previously conquered worlds.

Additionally Lost Levels featured five extra worlds and some notable differentiation between the brothers. Basically Luigi could jump higher and farther than Mario, just as he could in our version of Super Mario Bros 2. I was thrilled that the two Super Mario Bros. 2-titled games shared this connection; in my mind, this single mechanical similarity confirmed the US version's canonization as a true Super Mario Bros. game. It proved that it had a firm basis in the established Super Mario Bros. mythos and wasn't merely a lazy sprite-swap of this "Doki Doki Panic" game.

I'd always had an aversion to remakes, since I saw them as unnecessary, yet I could find reason to make an exception for All-Stars. I could rationalize that I was buying it for Lost Levels, which despite its aesthetic similarities to Super Mario Bros. was a completely new experience, and the rest of the games were strong "bonus content." I mean, $50 for a compilation that included a fascinating Japan-only release and recreations of three all-time classics? Why, that sounded like a great deal to me--certainly a fine use of my recently accumulated birthday money!

And, really, Lost Levels' difficulty being described as "a natural continuation of what you saw in the original's World 8" didn't sound too bad to me. Hell--if I could blast through those four stages without feeling the least bit stressed, then there was nothing in Lost Levels that could pose a serious challenge to me! "I mean, come on," I stated with such confidence. "This is me we're talking about. I've beaten some of the hardest games ever made!"

Oh, I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.

This game, man.

So the first time I booted up Lost Levels, I did what felt natural: I selected to play as Mario because hey--that's what you did the first time you played a new Super Mario Bros. game. After all: It had always been true that Mario was the "balanced" character around which the series games' basic level design was crafted. Thus the same had to be true of Lost Levels. And then I hit the Start button and learned within moments that I was gravely mistaken--that Lost Levels didn't give a damn about adhering to conventional wisdom. It was rather blunt in advertising that it would be issuing not one shred of mercy--that the player had better possess nothing short of mastery over Mario's maneuverability and jumping mechanics if he or she hoped to clear even a single world while playing as him.

Half the time, I didn't even feel as though he was capable of making required jumps over what at first glance appeared to be an insanely long, unnegotiable gaps; and if he was able to clear them, it was just barely--by maybe a single pixel. To him each stage was like a series of mini-challenges, and so much had to go right if I desired to reach the goal. Usually it didn't. And after enduring about an hour's-worth of agonizingly deflating missed jumps and piranha-plant-inflicted deaths, I said "Screw it"; I decided to reset the game and this time play exclusively as Luigi, because I'd have been crazy not to. Really, if he functioned anything like he did in the US version, then this would be a cakewalk.

But then, to my great horror, I learned the hard way that Luigi had been assigned a particularly obnoxious quirk: Upon breaking his running momentum or landing from a long horizontal jump, he'd skid along the surface at about a distance of two blocks--roughly one and a half more than Mario--before his movement would finally come to a halt. This would often result in his sliding off targeted platforms, likely to his death, or his flying off in a completely uncontrollable manner when I'd attempt to stabilize his movement using a follow-up jump--again, likely toward a bottomless pit. I thought it'd be like the US version, wherein I could joyously hop about and trivialize even the most menacing-looking of jumps; instead I spent the next few hours continuously slipping off every platform in sight and badly miscalculating jumps because I kept overcompensating for potential skidding.

This was turning out to be a nightmarish experience.

Now, I understood that their assigning Luigi this detrimental quirk was done with the intention of limiting his game-breaking propensity and creating a sense of balance between the brothers, but that's not how it was working in practice; instead they created two undesirable options. "There had to be a better solution," I thought.

And it should really tell you something about Mario-style gameplay when I say that Luigi, for all of his shortcomings, was still a far-superior alternative. I mean, seriously--I had no clue how anyone could be expected to finish the game with Mario. I certainly wasn't going to be a willing test subject. No--I decided that it was in my best interest to never play as him. I think I've done it once since then.

What drove me to continue on was the fascination factor. It was obvious, even early on, that Lost Levels was determined to break all of the rules, and I was interested in knowing the limits of its lunacy. It had the normally aquatic Bloopers floating about in the open air. Fire bars in non-castle stages. Koopas and Koopa Paratroopas patrolling underwater stages. And many other wacky occurrences. Lost Levels truly was the bizarro Super Mario Bros., and I couldn't wait to see what it would attempt to pull off next. You know--if I didn't suffer an emotional breakdown before then.

I vividly recall my first experience with Lost Levels not because I was excited to be playing a "lost Mario game" but because of how it almost drove me to the brink of madness. I can remember the scenarios that inflicted the individual wounds: The long, ridiculous jumps that required my threading combinations of fire bars and flying enemies. The narrow openings whose penetration seemed to come down to chance. The insane spring stages, within which I could never seem to land where I wanted because I could never tell where the hell I was. The windy segments that only exacerbated Luigi's sliding quirk and rendered platforming an exercise in soul-sucking frustration.

Those awful maze-based castles, which I imagined were exceedingly difficult to figure out without the remake's kindly provided aural cues. The friggin' omnipresent Hammer Bros., many of which were programmed to unyieldingly march forward and bedevil players who were bereft of fireball power. The millionth time a Paratroopa appeared at the screen's edge just in time to collide with me as I was landing from a lengthy jump. And the 8-4 castle whose absurd wraparound jumps did me in time and time and again and forced me to continuously repeat the previous three stages, which grew to become a tedious exercise, just so I could get another shot at negotiating them (or "fail at them," as it were).

It was all one big ball of frustration, and most of my mental energy was spent wondering what hell was wrong with the people who made this game. Lost Levels was, in every way, the antithesis of Super Mario Bros.. It was designed to be cruel. It was neither accessible nor fun.

Shoot--Worlds A through D were some grade-A Game Genie material, but unfortunately I wasn't aware of such a product.

But I was determined to finish Lost Levels, so I did what was typical of me: I locked myself in my room and put myself through the grinder; I abandoned any sense of restraint and persisted it until it was done, my escalating level of anger the driving force. And it was a mighty struggle, as Lost Levels proved itself to be one of the toughest, meanest games I'd ever played. I was left scarred by the experience.

Thank goodness for the game's generous continue system. Had it been absent of such, I might've punted its cartridge across three boroughs.

I would learn years later that Lost Levels didn't see release in the US because Nintendo of America balked at the idea of bringing an unfairly difficult (not to mention highly derivative and graphically dated) expansion of Super Mario Bros. to the market in 1988. Now, I'm one of the biggest critics of Nintendo of America's decision-making, but I have to give credit where it's due; the company made the right call here. Lost Levels--perhaps Nintendo's most uncharacteristically uninviting big-name sequel--might have tanked the entire series in all other territories. Instead there was a far-more-desirable outcome: We in the West got our own delightfully unique Super Mario Bros. sequel, and later on we'd get the chance to play the original work in a more-palatable form--as a cool bonus in a splendid remake compilation.

It wasn't until the Internet age that I got the opportunity to play Super Mario Bros. 2 in its original 8-bit form. I messed around with it via emulators, but for some reason I never felt compelled to spend more than a few minutes experimenting with it (maybe some form of posttraumatic stress disorder kicked in?). I didn't get serious about playing it until 2014, when I decided to purchase it from the 3DS eShop.

It just felt like the right time. I'd recently started up this blog, and I looked upon Super Mario Bros. 2 as the kind of game that encapsulated all its essential features. I reasoned that if I were to identify as a gaming historian, then it was incumbent upon me play through this game in its original form and get a true sense of what it was. Also, I had to admit that it still held undeniable allure to me despite my distaste for the design philosophy to which it adhered.

I compared it to those like Rockman & Forte and Adventure Island IV--"forbidden" games that were imbued with an indescribably attractive quality that so captivated me though I couldn't adequately articulate why. Even if I didn't particularly enjoy playing a game of its type, I could extract some form of sensory pleasure from it via (a) my fixating over its lost-artifact qualities or (b) my absorbing of its uniquely nostalgic vibes. Super Mario Bros. 2 was loaded with both.

I played through it a bunch of times, albeit usually by taking the short path--particularly during the first week, when I used warp zones to more quickly complete it the eight times necessary to access the special lettered worlds that were otherwise unlocked by default in the All-Stars version. It was right around then that it dawned on me that I really liked Super Mario Bros. 2, though I could provide no sane-sounding explanation for why that was. I mean, look at it: It's not accessible. It's rarely intuitive. It's cruelly designed. And it's just too damn difficult to be enjoyable for any length of time. Super Mario Bros. 2 is an insult to its legendary predecessor; it's a hateful impostor masquerading around in its shell. Yet, so help me, I actually like it.

It's a strangely met equilibrium: I don't particularly enjoy playing it, yet I find great reward in running around its world and observing it. I object to how it endeavors to desecrate the memory of its predecessor, yet I love that it exists. I'm drawn to Super Mario Bros. 2 not for its quality, or lack thereof, but for what it represents: It shows us that medium's history is chock-full of strange and wonderful games and products that are just waiting to be discovered.

It's flush with those like Super Mario Bros. 2, which I'll remember most for how it gave me my first glimpse into a world that was far more expansive than I'd ever imagined. It was the first of many surprises to come.

And, really, who knows what I might discover next?