To this point, I've made a conscious effort to create good Super Mario Maker levels — reasonable in difficulty, fair, well-balanced, with iterative design elements rather than a dogpile of concepts. My attempts haven't always been successful, but I'm making a genuine effort and slowly getting there.
However, after a pretty annoying weekend, I needed to vent some steam in the form of an evil, cruel Mario level. Or that was the plan, anyway. In practice, I ended up softening the blow somewhat with some last-minute tweaks. Challenging is one thing, but downright unfair is no good.
At least I came by my cruelty honestly: Rather than strike out to create a torture chamber of my own amateurish design, I looked to the experts by revisiting one of the single most reviled video game stages of the 8-bit era: The underwater dam sequence from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on NES. If you're going to be brutal, why not learn from the best?
This particular stage has gone down in the pages of infamy for several reasons. One, it was an unreasonably difficult stage that appeared quite early in a game targeted toward kids, so a generation of impressionable young minds encountered it and were forever scarred. Two, its difficulty stemmed from the fact that the game had fairly awkward controls and forced players to swim through narrow spaces with harsh punishment for the slightest error. And, finally, the hazards themselves were downright cruel: Intermittent electrical barriers on a short timer, spinning fire bars, and inexplicable electrified seaweed.
Would it be possible to recreate this experience in Super Mario Maker, I wondered? TMNT's elements don't carry over precisely to Mario; there's no such thing as electrical seaweed or timed barriers. Plus, the Turtles with their health bars could soak up more hits than Mario, who at best uses a three-step health system (Small > Super > Fire/Raccoon). On the other hand, Mario controls a lot more precisely than the Turtles did, so perhaps the tradeoff would balance itself out...?
The damned dam stage included four central gameplay elements: Electrical barriers; deadly seaweed; spinning fire barriers; and finally, bombs. The bombs provided the central thrust of the stage: Your goal was to defuse all of them within a time limit to prevent the dam from being destroyed and flooding the city.
I did my best to come up with equivalent elements here. For the barriers, which created intermittent obstructions blocking your path, I used dual Piranha Plant pipes. While not a perfect replacement, they demonstrate a similar sort of behavior and purpose: The plants emerge on a cycle to get in your way.
The bombs were trickier. I replaced them with Question blocks, but I couldn't actually force them to be mandatory. But at the beginning of the stage, I figured, it would be enough to simply have Question blocks, which offer the tantalizing possibility of much-needed power-ups. This first screen is probably the biggest design no-no of the stage, with dangerous pipes right at the start; there's a pretty good chance a first-time player will just dart forward without considering the idea of something emerging and die immediately. However, every single pipe in the stage has a Piranha Plant, so this one "gotcha" (faithfully reproduced from the source material) sets the pattern for the level ahead.
I also threw in a few Cheep-Cheeps, but not just for variety.
The trio of fish that appear here are intended to nudge players to swim upward. You can advance by both the high and low routes, but there's more benefit to taking the upper route.
Namely, a Fire Flower. This allows you to take an extra hit while tilting the level's balance in your favor in a way not possible in TMNT: You can take out the Piranha Plants.
Spinning fire bars are the one element that manages to be universal between the two games. Unfortunately, Super Mario Maker won't let you make them double-bladed Darth Maul style (at least not that I could figure out), so this was the best I could do.
That's all well and good, but how to make the Question blocks mandatory the way the bombs were in TMNT?
The answer is, it's just not possible to force players to hit every Question block — at least not that I could figure out. The part where the path split leads to two different Question blocks, and I simply couldn't figure out how to make anyone hit both without significantly changing the layout of the stage, which I tried to make as faithful to the original as possible.
But there was, at least, a way to make players hit as many Question blocks as possible: I obstructed key points of the stage with bricks, and put Coin Switches in the Question blocks. In order to advance, you have to reveal the switches, hit them to transform the bricks temporary into coins, and dash through the coins before they revert to bricks again. (This is also why I didn't place any coins in the stage — they turn into bricks, and there was the possibility of creating unfair obstructions during these crucial coin sequences.)
This does introduce the possibility that you could somehow screw up and fail to clear out a path while the coins are active, but (1) I placed the brick/coin spots close to switches and (2) if you play that badly, there's no shortage of opportunities to kill poor Mario and start over.
If you hang on to your firepower, you can even clear out Piranha Plants before hitting switches, which raises the possibility...
...of completely bypassing a switch or two and clearing sections further ahead on the timer of an earlier switch.
And what of the seaweed? Without a Mario equivalent, I went for the closest approximation I could find: Jellyfish. Like seaweed, these obstructions are completely passive but harmful to the slightest touch. And they make for a frightfully narrow corridor.
So narrow I couldn't even clear it without a few bumps!
I did have to make one significant change to the stage layout. The dam sequence of TMNT was three screens high, but Super Mario Maker only allows you to build two screens high. So the dangerous seaweed-filled upward bend midway through the original stage now appears at the end of the level; its configuration is essentially unchanged, but it's in a different spot.
Difficult as this sequence seems, it's actually pretty easy to get through unscathed; I deliberately placed safe walls in strategic spot so you can line Mario up against them and rise or descend in a perfect vertical line, missing the jellyfish by a pixel without breaking a sweat.
I considered adding an extra Mushroom somewhere in here, but that would be somewhat contradictory to the spirit of the source material, which offers no healing opportunities amidst its underwater hell. I did, however, tweak the arrangement of the jellyfish by removing a handful that made the stage too difficult to maneuver through. This level is meant to be tough, like the original version — it's definitely "Special World" material — but even so it shouldn't require totally flawless play.
And, finally, one last Coin Switch to clear the way for the block that ends the level.
Sadly, I couldn't figure out a way to make Mario flex and say, "OK!" [TMNT images courtesy of VGMuseum]
Well, that was an amusing diversion. Tomorrow, I take on the true challenge: Create a good, playable, and above all appropriate World 1-1 stage. I've found that make tough stages is easy, but a legit beginning's playground? That's tough.