It’s a Beautiful City: Troll and Glitch Levels in Mario Maker as Visionary Environments

Note: Citations for this essay are in MLA except where hyperlinks suffice.

For its entire existence the Super Mario series (1985–2021) has been synonymous with level design. It’s why its first level World 1–1 has been both valorized as the ultimate tutorial in game design circles and ridiculed by others for that very reason (one doesn’t tend to hear much about a historically significant yet otherwise generic level like 5–1). In fact Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong (1981) with its four distinct levels actually predates formal reference to videogame levels being designed — this would come later in the manual for Lode Runner (1983) which relates the concept of design to its “Board Editor”, also called the “Game Generator” and “Edit mode” in other versions. This was also the first level editor to call itself an editor, with others either using the terms “programming mode” as in K.C. Munchkin (1981), or “construction” as in Pinball Construction Set (1983) and Thunder Force Construction (1984). But it was another Nintendo Entertainment System launch title, Excitebike (1984), that would merge the concepts of level editing and level design and call it such in its “Design Mode”.

However, level editing wouldn’t become a de facto “playculture” until nearly a decade after Excitebike with the release of Doom (1993) and the advent of the first person shooter, modding tools and the internet (Flanagan). The customizable domain of The Sims (2000) was an important milestone that contributed to the series’ long-lasting appeal, however level editing went truly viral with the release of the Flash game Line Rider (2006) and its ensuing popularity on the fledgling online video platform YouTube. This set the stage for LittleBigPlanet (2008), Minecraft (2011), Terraria (2011) and — coming full circle — Super Mario Maker (2015). While there were earlier level editors within various entries in the Super Smash Bros. (1999–2018) and Mario Vs. Donkey Kong (2004–2015) spin-off series, Mario Maker was Nintendo’s official foray into letting players create their own Super Mario courses.

Early in the lifespan of Super Mario Maker, Gandolfi and Semprebene wrote that:

“[the game’s] scope is limited and restricted to defined gaming criteria and traditions; even abstract layers are circumscribed by the requirements of the genre. Iconicity is here specialized toward a previous media consumption, which can be customized but not actually revolutionized beyond the brand’s prerogatives. The outcome is a game with a glaring identity but not able to widely affect imagination because of the extremely defined targeted reality.” (68).

Not only do I aim to demonstrate that this has turned out to be false, but moreover that the most interesting contemporary level design is not being done in AAA studios or even the independent scene, but within Mario Maker and its 2019 sequel.

The Three Kaizos

Firstly Kaizo can be a shorthand for any level or series of levels that is considered difficult. The underground success of Kaizo ROM hacks can be considered part of what built the foundation for the “masocore” genre of indie games, as the hacks “tend towards extremity in their remixing and reworking” which Newman likens to “bullet-hell” shooters (342, 344). While masocore games are generally NES-inspired platformers, the desire for difficulty can be seen across popular contemporary games such as the roguelike/roguelite revival — most notably the Spelunky series (2009–2020) — and games which take after FromSoftware’s Souls series (2009–2018). While due emphasis is put on skillful play in Mario Maker Kaizo, there is a small subset of Kaizo levels known as Kaizo Academy, which are advanced tutorials for technical maneuvers (e.g. shell jumps) that are generally more forgiving in nature, since their aim is to teach as well as challenge.

Combining these two meanings of Kaizo, the mainline Mario games have even taken on more difficult remixes of their levels as post-game challenges in Super Mario 3D Land (2011), Super Mario 3D World (2013) and Super Mario Odyssey (2017). Other series have also used Kaizo-like levels as an optional secondary challenge: Super Meat Boy (2010) borrows terminology not from Mario but The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991) in its Dark Worlds while Celeste (2018) cleverly uses a musical motif with its B-Sides, remixing both its levels and their songs. Incidentally both of these examples have become popular speedrunning titles.

Another way of interpreting Kaizo is something that is “unexpected, often unpredictable, and frequently unfair”, as in the invisible “Kaizo block” which are typically placed above the edge of pits, causing unsuspecting players to bump into them and fall to their doom (Newman 343–345). However as Hainline writes “Modern kaizo levels are first and foremost fair[…]The unfair prank levels have all crystallized into something commonly called a Troll Level.” The term “troll” is slang for someone who is purposefully belligerent, especially in an online context, and is related to the concept of “griefing” in games or “flaming” on forums. In the context of Mario Maker a Troll level is one which coaxes players into dying through “unfair” enemy and obstacle placement, booby traps and/or reverse psychology. Common troll techniques include a door or pipe that leads to death (a.k.a. “pick-a-path” sections), false pipes that don’t lead anywhere or power-ups and/or coins that bait players into deadly situations. According to Hainline “the art [of] creating troll levels is[…]constantly trying to balance entertainment and frustration in the player.”

In the realm of remix there are also Troll level collaborations between multiple authors — something Mario Maker wasn’t necessarily designed for — as well as Troll levels which emulate other games, as is the case in Getting Over It With Bennet Foddy (2017) inspired levels which require precise jumps into the nooks and crannies of a tall structure. The Troll level has also gone full circle, beginning within the original Super Mario Maker then being adapted into ROM hacks.

From Jaunty to Haunty

To take this argument a step further, not only are Troll levels valid experiences in their own right, but because they go against accepted level design wisdom and privilege dynamical interactions over a single aesthetic or mechanic, they are in my opinion the most robust use of the Mario Maker toolset that exists. If Super Mario Maker is “an homage that asks to deconstruct the target domain (the franchise) through its own rules [and] reproduce the original titles in terms of patterns and aesthetics” then Trolls levels are an even further form of deconstruction which diverges from that (Gandolfi and Semprebene 67). They appear almost ramshackle in nature, and the Mario experiences they most closely resemble are the glitched areas of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988) and Super Mario Land 2 (1992) used by speedrunners to “wrong warp” to the end credits.

Troll levels not only subvert the Mario level, they elevate it in a particular way that Nintendo couldn’t (or chooses not to) due to their player-friendly design philosophy, as they incorporate failure (i.e. death) into the core game loop not as a simple teachable moment but a necessity for later success — almost akin to a roguelike. Mario’s state is also more meaningful in a Troll level. In multi-objective Mario games like Super Mario 64 power-ups tend to be situational and temporary, whereas in more linear Super Mario games such as the 1985 original having a power-up is almost always preferable. But in Troll levels powerups are as equally important as “power-downs”; for example if Mario is in a Super state he can take a hit and use the invincibility frames given to pass through an obstacle.

In some instances within Troll levels the player’s relationship to death is entirely inverted, as in the “antisoftlock area”. A conventional softlock is a situation in which the player can neither make progress nor die and are seen as undesirable, often found in lesser Troll levels. But the antisoftlock is an area in which the player is trapped but can die, the troll being that there is some force or contraption preventing them from doing so. These are usually signaled with some form of audio cue such as the “Slider” music from SM64; in fact Troll levels are known for using the built-in audio and visual effects to provide crucial information, something Newman would consider a highly “dialogical relationship between player and designer” (348). In this way Troll levels are less like Mario courses and more like Zelda dungeons in their puzzlingness, something which was only further emphasized with the introduction of the Link powerup in version 2.0. Indeed some of the most inventive uses of power-ups like Link and the mushroom from Super Mario Bros. 2 have been Troll levels, as they provide further opportunities for state-based gating techniques.

Fill Thine Horn With Oil And Go

Super Mario Maker 2 reminds the player that “no one likes a troll”
Super Mario Maker 2 reminds the player that “no one likes a troll”
Super Mario Maker 2 reminds the player that “no one likes a troll”

When I say that Troll levels in Mario Maker can be considered visionary environments, my meaning is threefold. Firstly that they are like a form of outsider art that “use[s] materials” in a way that is “not intended”, secondly that they are highly perceptual in nature and thirdly that those who make, play and cherish them have a sincere devotion to the form (Schäfer and Higgs 2). For the uninitiated visionary environments are ornate large-scale artworks or series of works which are often spiritual/religious in nature and are linked to the concepts of fantasy worlds and sculpture gardens, however they are distinct from other folk art such as those which would populate tourist attractions such as miniature amusement parks, playgrounds and folk museums. The makers of these environments are aptly referred to as visionaries or visionary artists, and while under stricter definitions they do not qualify as outsider artists they are generally accepted to be under the same umbrella.

One reason I consider Troll levels a visionary art is that Nintendo does not formally acknowledge their existence through the tag system. Starting in Super Mario Maker 2 creators are able to categorize their levels for better searchability by tagging them with preset phrases. These can be broad concepts such as “Short and sweet” or “Themed” as well as more specific level types such as “Puzzle-solving”, “Speedrun”, “Autoscroll”, “Auto-Mario”, “Multiplayer Versus” and “Music”. Tags introduced in the 3.0.0 update such as “Technical” could be used to describe Troll levels (as well as “Art” if you accept my outsider analogy), however Nintendo is unlikely to add a specific “Troll” tag because of the term’s connotation with harassment.

It goes deeper than that however, as Nintendo could easily introduce a “Tricky” tag to suffice, however what’s evident is that Nintendo doesn’t feel that Troll levels are in the spirit of Super Mario (though the official Nintendo of Australia account did upload a level with some light troll elements). In the SMM2 tutorial a character wards off creators from adding “Cheap shots and surprise attacks” to their levels stating that they are “[not] very fair” and “almost never fun”, which as discussed above is an unfortunate attitude to take despite being well-meaning. This sort of exclusion is also exemplified by another variety of Mario Maker course, the Glitch level.

While Troll levels are discouraged, Glitch levels are generally verboten, and are usually downloaded by enthusiasts so they can be played locally before they are taken down by Nintendo. However Nintendo’s prioritization of what makes for a glitch that should be addressed and patched out (sometimes creating unbeatable levels as a result) and what should simply be excised from the game’s online forum Course World altogether is somewhat arbitrary. “Uno Más” levels (Spanish for “one more”) for example are short courses designed to showcase the odd emergent ways that game objects can interact with one another in a “janky” fashion, and are usually not targeted by Nintendo to the same degree that explicitly glitchy levels are. Here I liken Glitch levels to Schäfer and Higgs’ description of visionary environments in South Africa, in that they are both “deteriorated beyond repair” in a way that puts them in a “precarious position” relative to the mainstream such that many “have ceased to exist” (2–3).

It Can Be A Lot of Fun to Look Like An Idiot

Mario finds a false flagpole
Mario finds a false flagpole
Mario finds a false flagpole

Troll levels, Glitch levels and Uno Más levels all interface with the concept of sightedness, with some Troll levels even incorporating the scrolling of the camera’s view as a potential hazard. A defining characteristic of Glitch levels are the jagged “seams” formed by misaligned blocks and tiles, and the ability to phase through strings of solid objects rendering the player character into a ghost-like shadow is another Glitch level staple. Uno Más levels similarly carry a subtext of “don’t blink or you’ll miss it”, encouraging players to see their sleight of hand over and over again. A subset of Uno Más levels puts forward a technique which is sometimes used in Troll levels called the “non-suspicious setup”, where a cluster of objects (such as enemies) is used to disguise something — usually a warp pipe that leads somewhere else — the joke being that these are in fact highly suspicious.

Like the non-suspicious setup, Troll levels are all about hidden information, and not only in the form of overlapping objects or enemy encounters like the off-screen Thwomp and Cheep Cheep in a block gags. For example the end-of-level axe or flagpole which the player must touch to beat a given course is often obfuscated in some way, sometimes humourously revealed when the player is no longer able to reach it. The “Twice Twice” is another sort of troll where the player is taken to a section of the level that has been duplicated to look like a previous section but is altered with new trolls — a “specular replica” if there ever was one (Gandolfi and Semprebene 68). Thus the Twice Twice is essentially a Kaizo Kaizo, in the sense that it is an unfair remix; when it comes to the Twice Twice, you will get fooled again. More recently Troll level creators have been using advanced setups to create sections which can be played multiple times with remixed trolls without the use of duplication.

Because well-designed Troll levels are in truth more invested in fairness and “beatability” than is commonly believed, both the low visibility modifier and outright bugs and glitches are uncommon, though not unheard of. A notable exception to both comes in the form of “LUIGI HAS HAD ENOUGH v2” by WildfredBos, whose description reads “Luigi finally decides to murder his brother in the abandoned desert mansion”. The haunted house analogy is very apparent in this level, as lighting effects are used to dramatically reveal tile art of Luigi’s head along with the words “DIE Bro” spelled out in blocks. Then the magic trick comes, which uses the pinhole effect of low visibility to blindside the player as they are unexpectedly warped to the left toward an unseen door while climbing up a claustrophobic chute via a vine. Because the player is holding up to climb and that’s the same input used to open doors, they’ll likely go through it and get sent backwards in the level (though in actuality closer to the end).

Many Troll levels are built around this sort of revelation, whether the illusion is false progress as in the antisoftlock or false failure as in the troll fake-out described above. Some levels take on a multi-linear structure where dead ends reveal new information such as an alternate path, while others use a more meta approach and reveal that the level is in fact an “auto” level and all that needs to be done to solve it is to walk forwards. Some levels task the player with collecting a series of pink coins to unlock a door, only to subvert expectation and reveal that they were never necessary. The level “LoZ:Twoll-light Princess [Troll]” by Chichiri tricks the player into thinking the Link powerup is necessary, then reveals the key to beating the level is going alone without it. In “Mechakappa [Troll]” by 5thKnight the reveal is that the level must be played in 2-player mode to be beaten.

#DGR

Participation between content creators such as YouTubers and Twitch streamers and their viewers has become an integral element of contemporary internet playculture. Dave is well aware of this and adjusts his language accordingly, often phrasing something to the effect of “we did it” rather than “I did it” when accomplishing goals. He has also developed several ritualized behaviours in his videos, which come in the form of catchphrases, graphics/sound effects and props/costuming. Often these are more than mere “dad jokes” — they actually comment on the structure of levels themselves. When Dave either makes progress or reaches a checkpoint it is met with an exclamation of “progress city!” or “it’s a beautiful city that checkpoint city!” respectively. When he must make a leap of faith he puts on the “YOLO bolo” tie for good luck. When he finds a way to cheese (i.e. cheat) a level he puts on the “cheese hat”. When he needs to focus on attaining success he puts on the “clutch daddy shades”. When he wants to assure viewers he will beat the level or make progress on the next life he makes a “DGR Guarantee”, which is accompanied by a graphic resembling the Nintendo Seal of Quality. It’s common knowledge that in Mario pits should be avoided, however according to Dave in a Troll level “every hole is a chance for glory” and should be dove into, an approach which occasionally pays off.

Lastly are “The Troll Commandments”, a series of observations Dave has made throughout his time playing Troll levels accompanied with a graphic resembling the biblical Tablets of Stone. Again some of these are structural, such as “It’s not a troll level, unless you get sent back to the start, or a previous checkpoint” (interestingly Newman notes how the absence of checkpoints in the original Super Mario Maker “generates frustration”, yet it appears their presence has been abused to further frustration by Troll levels (348)). Others are humourously contradictory, such as “He who waits, dies” and “He who rushes, dies” or “Arrows always lie” and “Arrows always tell the truth”. And even Dave, after playing his fair share of #DGR levels admits that “All troll levels are not created equally”, alluding to the vast gulf between the best and worst of them.

To conclude with another quote from Gandolfi and Semprebene, they reason that because “players have to finish the levels that they design in order to share them with the community [Super Mario Maker] occurs a continuous challenge with a spotlight on performance rather than on spectacle and personal creativity.” (67). Yet as I have shown Troll levels provide the potential for all three: performance through mastery and speedrunning, spectacle through tricks, glitches and visual effects and personal creativity through outside-the-box design and internet playculture.

CITATIONS

Flanagan, Mary. “Playculture: developing a feminist game design.” (2005).

Gandolfi, Enrico, and Roberto Semprebene. “The Imaginative Embrayage through Gaming Deconstructions.” Im@go, no. 7, 2016, pp. 56–71.

Newman, James. “Kaizo Mario Maker: ROM Hacking, Abusive Game Design and Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker.” Convergence (London, England), vol. 24, no. 4, 2018, pp. 339–356.

Schäfer, Sarah, and Richard Higgs. “Perceptions and Experiences of a Digital Visionary Environment: Digital Curation and the Owl House.” The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts, vol. 14, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1–15.

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada