On to World 4-1. With Mario’s arrival in the game’s fourth world, Bowser introduces a new kind of hazard to the action: An infinite hazard that pours on the pressure from start to finish. His name is Lakitu, and he hates you.
Lakitu himself doesn’t pose much of a direct threat; he flies around on a cloud at the top of the screen, hovering back and forth above Mario and never descending. You have to go out of your way to collide with Lakitu, jumping up on a high platform and standing still long enough for him to swing your way. The opportunity is there, to be sure — World 4-1 has a few spots where you can get up to Lakitu’s level and take him out, and in doing so you run the risk of colliding with him. Most of the areas that offer a vantage point to take him on involve edge jumps to stacked blocks in which you have to move slightly forward as you make your leap, then pull back slightly in mid air to reach the block above. This is an advanced maneuver, and taking out Lakitu clearly isn’t meant to easy.
In fact, taking him out almost isn’t even worth the trouble, because a short while after you knock him out of play, he returns. Lakitu doesn’t operate by the same rules as other enemies, as there’s only ever one of him on the screen at a time, but he’ll constantly reappear as long as you’re standing anywhere but the first and last couple screens of the stage (which appear to be outside his range: He’ll scoot away once you get there). But you’ll definitely be tempted to take out Lakitu, because he is history’s greatest monster.
Lakitu’s nasty trick comes in the form of something called Spinies. The Spiny looks for all the world like a smaller cousin to the Koopa Troopa, but unlike those familiar adversaries’ rounded turtle shells, Spinies are completely encrusted with sharp spikes. As you might expect, jumping on a Spiny is bad news for Mario; they can’t be stomped, only fried. You can’t even flip them upside down to defeat them, as indirect Mario Bros.-style tactics (punching them from beneath) just makes them bounce into the air and carry on their merry way regardless.
The center of the stage plays up this fact with a wide expanse of elevated bricks that you can stand beneath and bounce Spinies to your heart’s content. However, there’s a two-brick-wide pit below the low bricks that Super Mario can’t jump without bumping his head and risking a drop into the hole, so at some point you’ll need to emerge from hiding and traverse the blocks overhead. Of course, for regular Mario, it’s an easy jump — and, better yet, one of the Question Blocks on the lower tier contains a power-up so you can get back up to fighting weight. This structure represents a touch of mercy for the suffering player, a moment of respite from the rain of Spinies and a chance to better your odds.
Like Lakitu, his rain of Spinies never lets up. As he flies overhead, he constantly tosses Spiny eggs, which sprout into little hedgehog-turtle-things the instant they hit the ground. They’re every bit as deadly as the Spinies themselves. Up to four of the things can be visible at a time, meaning that Lakitu totally spams the screen with a rain of falling danger from above that then sprouts and covers the ground with ambulatory danger. Spinies obey the same collision physics as other creatures, meaning they’ll bump into one another and change direction. This effectively makes World 4-1 into an ocean of spikes, and it quickly becomes exceedingly dangerous if you don’t have a Fire Flower handy.
Though actually a fairly short stage in terms of real estate covered, World 4-1 feels exceedingly lengthy because of the stress generated by Lakitu. And unlike much of the rest of the game, there’s no real moment of discovery or grace here to get a handle on this new threat; you’re far enough in now that it’s becoming rather sink-or-swim. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this spike in difficulty appears at the further destination point from World 1-2’s Warp Zone: Players who jump straight ahead to shortcut through the game face legitimate danger here for their impatience. If you want to warp, you do so at your own risk: This is a dangerous stage, and warping deprives you of the option to farm for 1UPs.
This isn’t Lakitu’s last appearance by any means, but it’s certainly his most memorable. I suppose whether or not he’s more dangerous than the Hammer Bros. is up for debate, but I give him the edge, personally. His persistence means there’s no room for sloppiness in this stage.