I remember being confused a long time ago when someone referred to the “ice level” in Super Mario Bros.
“Super Mario Bros. doesn’t have an ice level,” I said, puzzled. Later, I realized they were referring to World 6-3, which features a monochromatic color scheme. But I never parsed it as ice, personally. This always struck me as a volcanic wasteland covered with ash, the only hint of color coming from the reflection of magma tinting the undersides of the clouds red.
Then again, it could just be that Miyamoto and co. only had so many different color schemes to work with and nothing in particular was meant with this particular design.
World 6-3 takes us back once again to the high columns and falling platforms of previous x-3 worlds. Things are trickier, though. Moving platforms are narrower than before, and there’s even less firm purchase to be found on what passes for solid ground. In several cases, you need to leap off springboards and onto tiny shifting platforms high above. Simply completing the stage requires good reflexes, but gathering all the coins proves to be even trickier.
Midway through the level, Bullet Bills suddenly appear. They only harass you for a couple of screens, but their unexpected reappearance combined with the high ups-and-downs of this level make their return quite memorable. The part where you have to jump off a high platform down to a low springboard and bounce back up to the top of the screen while under fire from Bullet Bills requires calm nerves, for sure.
World 5-3’s coins that can only be collected by riding a descending platform return here with a vengeance. This time, the platforms are simply stand-alone objects that drop more rapidly than the pulley systems and consequently require faster jumping. One surprising characteristic of the level design is that the further you advance into the game, the more finesse you need to apply in order to navigate he ever-shrinking platforms. Well, that’s not a surprise, but the fact that this fine maneuvering entails relying less on the run button rather than more might be.
“Oh, man,” you think. “This level is a total cakewalk!”
And it is! The challenge level takes a significant step backward in World 6-4 from the cruelty of World 5-4. No super-sized fire bars. No extra fast fire bars. Only a handful of Podooboos flanking columns dotted with fire bars. No tiny elevators to navigate. And the obligatory hall of spinning fire is much wider, providing far easier clearance than before.
Then you get to Bowser.
Maybe you guessed something was up when Bowser’s flames started flying faster and more fiercely than before. Suddenly there are two on-screen at once instead of just one at a time. And they seem a little faster. And they tend to home in on Mario’s position, too.
Another tip-off: A large depression in the floor with hidden coin blocks. Why call back to World 1-4 after progressively minimizing these little safety spots for so long? What could it mean?
What is means is that Bowser has entered full-on bastard mode here. The encounter space at the end of World 6-4 is almost exactly the same as in World 5-4… but for one difference. Namely, now Bowser can chuck hammers. Yes, just like the Hammer Bros., Bowser has his own projectiles. They arc up high, forcing you to make a very well-timed leap to clear them. And you’d better hope to god he doesn’t jump when you do, because he continues tossing hammers even in mid-air.
This is it. This is the end of Super Mario Bros. even pretending to go easy on you. For the final quarter of the adventure, the gloves are off. Bowser has escalated things, and there’s no going back.
What’s a squid doing in here, anyway? Now they’re just trolling us.