World 4-4 marks the halfway point of Mario’s adventure, and as such introduces one of the most devious tricks to date: Split paths. While the level design appears at first glance to be no different from previous castle stages — only only enemy appears besides Bowser, leaving the bulk of the active threats to take the form of Podooboos, lava pits, and fire bars — the stage itself presents a devious danger.
Beyond the initial fire moat, the stage forks into high and low paths. This in itself is nothing new, as we’ve seen a few instances of divided roads through a level, but here only one path leads forward. The other throws Mario into a loop, forcing him to cover the same ground over and over again until he takes the alternate route.
The level splits twice, and if you screw up either half you’re only thrown back to repeat that half from its beginning rather than being cast to the start of the stage. Chances are actually pretty good that you’d go for the proper path to begin with, I think; in the first half of the stage, the top route is correct, and in many ways it’s more visually inviting. The bottom path seems more ominous thanks to the tunnel-like structure that leads into it, and generally speaking Super Mario Bros. has demonstrated that Mario is more likely to be at an advantage if he takes the high ground.
So, chances are you may pass through the first half of the level without even realizing the hidden trap. The top route is easier to navigate, too, as the lower route contains a Piranha Plant (a rare instance of a normal enemy appearing in a castle stage) and a fire bar rotating counter to Mario’s movement rather than complementing it.
However, you’ll need to come to terms with the reality of the situation quickly once you reach the second half of the stage. Here, the lower path is correct, but this time it’s extremely uninviting. The entrance to the lower path forces you to double back and drop down into a narrow hole directly adjacent to a pit of lava. Visually, it says, “Do not enter!” And yet you must, lest you endlessly repeat the second half of the stage.
The level timer in World 4-4 is fairly generous, so there’s plenty of time to muck around with finding the proper course of action. Future remakes of the game would provide audio feedback to complement your pursuit of the road to the end: A chime when you complete the correct path, a buzzer when you go the wrong way. Here, though, it’s all about observation. But again, the hazards are fairly minor, so seeing your way to the end safely, before time runs out, shouldn’t be too difficult.
The end of the stage presents you with the usual Bowser encounter. Unlike the past few worlds, the final room doesn’t have bricks occluding the area, so it’s much easier to sail over his head. However, it does add its own new challenges by placing both a fire bar on the bridge and a Podooboo in the lava moat beneath him. Both of these dangers are placed in front of him, exactly where you’d normally stand to take him out with a fireball. You can’t simply stand and open fire this time, because there’s very little safe ground, especially with Bowser belching flame every few seconds.
However, if you do manage to take him out with fire, you’ll find this time around “Bowser” was actually a Spiny — sensibly enough, I suppose. Now the adventure is halfway through, which means it starts getting hard from here on out.
10 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Super Mario: XXV. The battle of mid-way”
Actually, the chime and buzzer were something added for All-Stars.
I was going to mention that I’ve played the game since I was four and have never heard any sort of buzzer or chime whatsoever in the castle levels with splits–in fact, when I was very young I remember the whole affair feeling very mysterious and making me quite panicky. To this day, I can never remember which paths to take in these castles and feel a bit of tension whenever they arrive.
@spikey I was just going to comment that I didn’t remember the chime and the buzzer. Or I never noticed. But I wonder if it is something they retconned in to current VC releases?
(I never noticed this but I like the Have your say button instead of the normal Post Comment!)
Yeah, there’s no chime or buzzer in the original NES version of Super Mario Bros…or Lost Levels, but that’s another “Anatomy of a Game” series waiting to happen altogether. Your only option on NES is trial and error…lots and lots of error.
That said, 4-4 is definitely the easiest of the looping mazes. It’s about a dozen levels later before we see the true evil of this mechanic.
Truly, the chime and buzzer are added features of the snes Super Mario All Stars; the original nes games leave you deafly to trial and error on your own… And in 4-4 it may not be that daunting, but in 7-4 and most of all 8-4 things get pretty nasty… Not to mention the utterly sadistic madness of Japan´s original SMB2 split roads. That´s why I say the absence of aural clues in those castles is one of the very few design oversights of SMB, that had to be corrected years later.
OK, no chime and buzzer. I was playing on an airplane when I wrote this and couldn’t hear the game audio, so I was going off memory. My mistake.
@Javier: 8-4’s maze is trivially easy to navigate if you know the trick. Always go in the first pipe you find after crossing a lava pit…with the exception of the start, where it’s technically the first pipe after the second lava pit since there’s a pit right at the beginning.
@Jeremy: Ha,ha, sorry about making such a fuss over a trivial mistake in the midst of such comprehensive and interesting articles! It seems like everybody here has unpleasant childhood memories of these split road castles (specially 7-4), and after having that chime and buzzer feel so right and helpful in All Stars, it just made its absence in the original kind of unforgivable… But truth is, the “Lost Levels” where the ones that truly made that feature a necessity in an attempt to become semi-playable.
@MetManMas: Thanks for the tip, I never noticed that easy to remember pattern in 8-4! But I´m not gonna try it myself now… that castle and world 8 in general are EVIL! Only my younger, Battletoads-beating self had the skill and patience to go trough that ordeal. I wish Jeremy good luck in the rest of his journey through the Mushroom Kingdom, the final quarter of this adventure is quite hard…
The second half of the final castle reuses the hidden maze path from the original game. The path is bottom, top, middle. If done correctly, after each level you will hear a little “ding” sound to notify you.
The ‘linear maze’ mechanic is often cited as one of SMB’s weak points, yet it is still an example of something it does right that other games do wrong. Case in point: Bazooka Bill for Commodore 64 (1985, Melbourne House). Mario’s maze with its distinct arrangement of platforms makes it quite clear when you’re stuck in a loop. But Bill’s repetitive graphics don’t help at all, and many players don’t even realize they’re in a looping maze until they’ve killed so many enemies that they stop spawning, and often the only indication you’ve made progress to a new area is when enemies start spawning again.
BB’s mazes aren’t just visually opaque, their solutions are also needlessly convoluted. Apparently, finishing the final level requires that you DIE in a specific location, just so you can respawn in the proper place to progress through the maze. How’s THAT for masochistic game design?
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