When you take one of the most beloved and informative games of all time, jack up the difficulty somewhere just past sane, and hold it back from an adoring public for the better part of a decade, you can cause an ostensible adult to go airborne.
I swear that will make more sense in a minute.
After I moved out of my parents house and into my first apartment, I played a lot of video games. As you could have guessed. Shortly after my brief time as the best Sonic the Hedgehog 2 player in the world, I reached another milestone.
I lived with my best friend Tony and his girlfriend Amber. Not long after Amber moved in with us, her high school-age brother Dustin had some problems with their parents and needed a place to go, a place we were glad to offer. Thus we were four on the nights when there were no parties and no one had to work.
By this point I had been fired from one of my jobs for accidentally knocking down a huge hanging lighted sign. Losing the job sucked, but with two paying roommates I didn’t need the money quite as badly, and I did not have to choose so much between fun and sleep. So, you know, it worked out.
At some point, either Tony or I reclaimed an errant copy of Super Mario All-Stars, which is probably disqualified from being the greatest game of all time only by dint of it being, you know, four games. Or five, if you have the one that also has Super Mario World on it. We had obviously played through Super Mario Bros, SMB2, and SMB3. While I had never exactly been on point with my Mario games, having only beaten them each once, I still knew them in the way that any NES owner from the late ’80s had to. I think it was some sort of decree.
One thing we had not done, though, was lavish the proper attention on the Lost Levels. Briefly, for the uninitiated, Lost Levels was the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros 2. Matt recently noted the idea of “Nintendo hard“, and wee-fucking-haw was Lost Levels ever Nintendo hard. So hard, in fact, that it was deemed inappropriate for wussy American audiences, who instead got the fever dream SMB2, a reskin of a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic.
When Super Mario All-Stars came out in 1993, it was the first exposure that non-import-minded Americans had to this original vision of Super Mario Bros 2. Its graphics and gameplay were almost identical to the word-renowned first game.
The main difference, then, was the Lost Levels’ intent to strike you as hard as possible in the soft bits, over and over and over.
(Sadly, this is sort of literally true in my case, in that it brought out my tendency to drop my hand and/or controller in resigned frustration, which would then land often as not square on my bollocks. (This tendency has not gone away.))
BUT I DIGRESS. At some point Tony and I decided to conquer our fears and go after the Lost Levels. Years, nay, decades of video game experience served us well at first. While a lack of specific familiarity with the level designs gave us more trouble than we would ever have had on another Mario title at that point, our well-honed quick twitch reflexes and hard-won knowledge of the way Mario moves meant we were able to make our way steadily through. The game increased in difficulty, as games tend to do, but despite some bullshit Warp Zone-related setbacks, we persevered, fighting through to the ending we knew was coming. (After all, the rest of the game was just like the original, so why should the ending be any different?)
Only the ability to save ultimately got us through that level. One attempt at that beast would have been enough to engender a lighthearted controller-tossing “Fuck this game” from either of us. After all, we already knew the ending, right? But being able to start straight in gave us confidence that, eventually, we could win.
Our trek through the Lost Levels had taken on a bizarre significance in our house. Both Amber and Dustin would watch Tony and me passing the controller off at each lost life if they were home, and that particular level’s ability to last through several days (and several bouts of Nintemper) transfixed them as much as it enraged us.
And then it happened. I jumped on that fucking flagpole and the level was vanquished. And probably the greatest photo ever taken of any of us was snapped.
I still don’t know if she planned it, but Amber was something of a photographer, and she was set up in the perfect spot. Tony and I were sitting upon the trunk that served as our coffee table, as one often did in the days before reliable wireless controllers happened. Dustin was stretched out under a blanket on the sofa. And then we weren’t any more.
I was airborne, my body curling in victoriously around the control pad floating before me. Tony was mid-fist pump, an epic gesture only achievable by great guitarists, which he is. Dustin’s arms were both free of the blanket and raised to the sky. And it was all captured, forever, on film.
Now, I’m not exactly saying it was the greatest photo of all time or anything, but, for example, Neil Leifer’s iconic photo of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston had the advantage of much more famous subject matter (and being in black and white in its most commonly published form). Nevertheless, that comparison should tell you the significance Amber’s photo carries for me.
Only then, as is its wont, 8-2 loaded up.
It turns out we never really beat that game. Our psychic energy was spent; we fought through to the end of 8-4, but our half-hearted attempts felt anticlimactic even as they were happening, much like the 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series victory after their triumphant comeback against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. When World 9 popped up after we had ostensibly saved the princess, we tossed in the towel.
I still have never have properly beaten the Lost Levels, and I probably never will. Yet beating that one level gave me as much satisfaction as beating any entire game ever has. It will stay with me… even if I never see the photo again.