Super Mario Maker 2 player courses run the full gamut: some people make levels that would fit right in with real Mario titles, while others make speedruns, musical levels, and complex puzzles. And then there's "Kaizo" levels; the levels that require perfect platforming precision to overcome. These are inspired by the Super Mario World ROM hack Kaizo Mario World, which features difficult, sometimes trollish levels. They're levels full of spikes, shells, and bottomless pits, where only top-tier Mario players dare to spin jump and thromp ride across. These ultra-hard platforming challenges test your patience and precision, and are generally the focus of the biggest Mario Maker streamers and YouTubers.
One of the biggest course creators of Kaizo levels in Super Mario Maker and Super Mario Maker 2 is Alex "PangaeaPanga" Tan. Tan himself is a top-tier Mario player, having completed Super Mario World blindfolded to earn a world record time. (It was beaten a year later.) And he has to be, because both Super Mario Maker games won't let you upload a course unless you can first beat it yourself; to upload the hardest courses, you also need to be the best. Tan's courses are so well known that "Panga" courses are a known subset of the difficult Kaizo courses. He even has a Guinness World Record for the most difficult Super Mario Maker course, "Pit of Panga: U-Break".
Tan has been a long-time Mario player, but he's also been a course creator for over a decade. Prior to the release of the first Super Mario Maker in 2015, Tan was a part of the ROM hacking scene, making levels for Super Mario World through various community-sourced tools.
"Back in 2007, I stumbled across a YouTube video titled, 'Asshole Mario Stage 1,' which was a showcase of the first level of Kaizo Mario World," Tan says. "From there, I found other custom Super Mario World levels-that weren't necessarily all difficult levels-and realized that it was possible to create your own levels. I was eventually led to a site named smwcentral.net, which serves as the community hub for SMW level creation."
Breaking Ground on New Obstacle Courses
Tan creates a new level for Super Mario Maker 2 every few days. There's no set schedule for his course releases, but with the rise of Twitch he's been streaming his course uploads, allowing players to get a glimpse of what's coming soon. It's a showcase for Tan's creativity, but also his skill at Mario platforming. He says he doesn't usually have a vision of an entire course in mind, noting that "99% of the time it is freeform."
"Usually I go into the level with an overall theme first and go from there. For example, the last level I made revolved around the cat power-up in [Super Mario 3D World]. As for what I actually do with the cat power-up is all improv. I spend most of the time figuring out how I can make each section unique and just build off of 'is this possible?' or 'can I make this work?' ideas that come to my mind," he explains.
He admits that he didn't always want to create very hard courses in Super Mario Maker, but found that he always had "so many cool ideas" to implement in a level. "Ideally, I want to create levels that average players can tackle. I've had many failed attempts of trying to make 'easier' levels, which is why I have a separate level series titled 'Passive Panga.' However, the clear rates are roughly around the same (if not lower) than my more difficult 'Pit of Panga' series," he says.
Tan finds that his harder levels just come as an expression of his ideas. "The cooler the idea, the harder the level becomes," he says. With the release of Super Mario Maker 2, Tan says that he's enjoying creating "harder, mechanically-precise courses" that challenge even the best Super Mario Maker 2 players.
And the community has responded well to his creations. The level upload videos average around 100,000 views on YouTube each, and he has around that many followers on his Twitch channel. Super Mario Maker enjoyed a certain degree of visibility on the Wii U, but Super Mario Maker 2 on Nintendo Switch has given the entire course creating community a much bigger spotlight. Not only are more people playing overall, they're sharing interesting levels on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. And "Panga" is riding that wave.
"The community response to my courses and streams has been overwhelmingly positive. It's a pretty surreal feeling because at the end of the day, I'm just a guy who makes incredibly difficult levels. People really seem to enjoy the level design streams since it gives an inside glimpse on what goes on inside my head when I make these types of levels. I've received so much support the past month and I feel extremely grateful to be a part of such a wonderful community," says Tan.
Moving to Super Mario Maker 2
Tan was fairly prolific as a creator in Super Mario Maker, but Super Mario Maker 2 isn't entirely the same game. Some Kaizo tricks that worked in the first game either don't work now, or have completely different timing in the sequel. There are new tricks as well, alongside a host of new course items. While there have been issues within the community—like the number of levels course creators could initially upload—many have settled into Super Mario Maker 2. Tan includes himself among them.
He points to some fairly major additions that he loves, including "being able to pin certain things to the top, zooming out, vertical levels, night themes, and clear conditions." But his favorite addition is one that's almost ubiquitous in popular Super Mario Maker 2 courses: the new ON/OFF Switch. "It is such as simple block that can create different contraptions and to compact existing ones. For example, I recently made a vertical 'Don't Look Right' section in one of my levels that is not really possible without the use of ON/OFF switches," he says.
He does miss a few things from the first game though. Like many veteran course creators, Tan misses being able to view downloaded levels in the Course Editor. That feature in Super Mario Maker allows veteran and neophyte creators the ability to take apart someone else's courses to learn how they worked or how they could be improved. In Super Mario Maker 2, the feature is non-existent. Tan also has a small list of new features he'd like Nintendo to add to Super Mario Maker 2.
"Having night themes in 3D World would be really cool and would allow for even more possibilities. I would love to see the stone block used in Story Mode in a future update as well. A small quality-of-life change I would also like to see is the ability to place blocks while entirely zoomed out since sometimes it is nice to see the whole level so I can see if I need to adjust things or if I missed anything," Tan tells me.
Kaizo vs. Panga
One of the long-running discussions in the Mario Maker community has been the difference between "Kaizo" and "Panga" levels. For some players, the difference is immaterial. For others, they believe Panga is a subset of Kaizo, or that Kaizo leans harder on trolling players, while Panga is more about hard precision. I ask Tan where he falls in terms of this discussion, because Panga should have the last word on where "Panga" levels stand, right?
"Pretty much all 'Panga' levels are 'Kaizo' levels, but not all 'Kaizo' levels are 'Panga' levels," Tan explains. "My levels force players to complete the level in a specific way with little room for error—with the occasional troll—which is what Kaizo level design is like. But just because it is a Kaizo level does not mean it is a Panga level. There are tons of other talented Kaizo level designers out there; I am simply just another one of them. Each level creator has their own style as well. And generally, my style revolves around really flashy, but complicated tricks that look super cool when pulled off correctly."
While Super Mario Maker 2 offers a robust series of tools for players, it's limited by what Nintendo will allow within the confines of the Course Creator. ROM hacks might be harder, but there's also more freedom in terms of creation. Tan himself has created full games, Super Dram World and Super Dram World 2, with the ROM hacking tools at his disposal. Does Tan prefer ROM hacks to Super Mario Maker 2, even if the latter has far more visibility?
"At the moment, I prefer working in Super Mario Maker 2 just because of how much I am having fun with the game. The game is only a month old and there is still so much you can do in the game, both as a level designer and a player. I will always have a love for ROM hacks because it is what got me introduced to level design. But for now, you can expect to see a lot of Super Mario Maker 2 content from me," he says.
With the growing visibility on Super Mario Maker 2, more players are also trying their hand at course creating. When he's not creating courses, Tan is playing them, seeing what other creators are doing with Mario Maker 2's tools. He says that he sometimes plays on Endless Mode at the Super Expert difficulty, but he realized that "a lot of the levels are just not fun to play." In regards to those levels, he offers a few tips for budding course creators, or those who just want to take their courses to the next level.
"Everyone has that period where they feel like, 'what am I going to do next?' I ask that question to myself every single time I make a new level," says Tan. "Designing levels is no easy process and really pushes you to think outside the box most of the time. And whenever you feel like you might have run out of creative juice, take a break. Or even start playing other people's levels.
"That's where inspiration can come in. Building levels takes time. And sometimes, it can take days, or even weeks. On average, I spend eight hours to finish one level, and some people consider that to be 'fast.' It takes patience and a lot of playtesting. And the more you create, the more experience you will have. Never give up. "
If you're patient and you're willing to put in those hours, perhaps you can be the next PangaeaPanga, with a less than 1 percent clear rate on your courses as a badge of honor. Or at the very least, you'll be able to tackle all those Kaizo and Panga levels you can find in Super Mario Maker 2.