Super Mario Enigmatic

In terms of unofficial, perhaps legally fuzzy Mario experiences[1], my preference goes to Super Mario Bros. X, the fangame developed by Andrew “Redigit” Spinks, now better known to the general gaming populace as the creator of Terraria.[2] I enjoy making levels in fits and starts, beginning to build whole quests and then abandoning them. I haven’t finished anything that most people would know about, except for one level that placed 11th out of 130-some-odd entries in last year’s Make a Good Level X contest, but it’s still a fun program to mess around with once you get used to some of its hinky methodology. At the end of the day, however, it’s still very hardwired, so it’s difficult to make anything truly innovative with it. While several people have made many impressive level packs, Super Mario Enigmatic, the episode I’ve played most recently, is the first I’ve found that lights up many of my personal pleasure centers and manages to do something refreshingly different with the normally stubborn SMBX engine.

All levels in Enigmatic take place within a single screen, and are grouped most often into sets of ten, with the occasional “mini” five-level set to break things up. SMBX usually autosaves between levels, except when you move from one to the next without returning to the map (or hub world), which is the case here—you can’t save until you complete a full set.

Think Donkey Kong for the Game Boy, but much more frantic.

There are a lot of great ideas here. Occasionally the game breaks what I consider a cardinal rule of puzzle creation (“Never base a predictable solution around an unpredictable mechanic”), but those levels run few and far between and are surrounded on all sides by the usual genius you come to expect from the game. It’s got a nicely progressing difficulty curve; you’ll lose more and more lives with each set, coming close to total failure in a few instances, but if you’ve got fairly polished platforming skills and can pay attention to patterns, you won’t have too much trouble with most of it.

That the game is both so breezy and so meaty is a testament to a lesson a lot of SMBX level creators never learn, and that is the lesson of restraint. SMBX allows you to go so overboard in indulging your most fantastical urges that most people who want to make levels never think to kill their darlings, and end up making levels that go on for ten minutes at a time, never realizing that the best levels of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World could often be beaten in one or two minutes tops.

Sadly, Enigmatic fails to stick the landing. The final set of levels, the Sacred Star Sanctuary, differs from the rest in that there is no saving between the end of the set and the final boss fight. If you’re lucky, you’ll already be down about 25 lives[3] from completing the levels—probably more like 40 to 50—and then comes this boss, whose defense mechanism exhibits extremely volatile and unpredictable behavior, such that it’s incredibly difficult to get a good read on where and/or how it’s going to swerve. You can get it down to sort of a science, but it took me on the order of roughly 130 lives before I finally scored the necessary five hits to take the boss down.

Then I found out he had a second form.

I watched the ending on YouTube.

Yes, Super Mario Enigmatic proves how terribly difficult it is to make complex and interesting boss fights with the SMBX engine. If you use the vanilla components, you make something too easy, so generally the best solution is to combine those hardcoded elements in such a way that the challenge is increased to a more satisfying level. Enigmatic manages this feat for a while, ultimately beginning to flag in the penultimate set with the latter half of the Koopa Kid fights, and then of course tanking at the finale. A shame it had to end that way; it was going really well up to that point.

In addition, SMBX has so many unusual physics tweaks that only come naturally with repeated exposure to the engine that if you don’t know some of those (e.g., the fact that you can throw blocks in an upwardly diagonal trajectory), the game may become harder still on top of the platforming challenges already posed. I wouldn’t say it’s for the faint of heart, but if you have at least reasonable platforming skills the fairer parts of the game might make you sweat a little, but not much overall.

It’s hard to say whether I should recommend this game or not. The first 98 percent is really, really good, with a difficulty curve that’s almost Lemmings-esque in the perfectness of its gradual upward incline. That 2 percent at the end, however, almost singlehandedly makes me want to say skip it, especially for the kind of person who’s obsessed with 100 percent completion. To encourage the player to get that far and ditch it at the end seems wrong and somehow backhanded, though I did just that (albeit not without much deliberation). I think it’s too well-crafted a piece of work to tell you to turn it down, but I also think it’s important to know such things going in, and in the end I’ll obviate the need for everything I just said and exhort you to decide for yourself.

(Screenshots used in this post come from here.)

[1] “Touch Legally Fuzzy, Get Legally Dizzy”

[2] For the uninitiated: Spinks began developing SMBX in 2009, and continued working on it and improving it until April 2011, when allegedly he received a phone call from Nintendo’s legal team threatening litigation, at which point he abruptly abandoned all work on it and focused the entirety of his energies on Terraria. Regardless of whether this anecdote is fact or fiction, it remains (as of this writing) the accepted version of events.
        SMBX is most easily compared to Lunar Magic, since they are the two most high-profile methods of creating custom Mario adventures. Unlike Lunar Magic, which uses the Super Mario World ROM as a base for editing, SMBX does not rely on ROM data and levels are created completely from scratch. There are some advantages to this: levels can be much larger, being limited by the the amount of blocks used rather than ROM space; SMBX levels can have dozens of moving layers, as opposed to only one or two in a Lunar Magic edit; and aesthetic customization is much easier in SMBX. SMBX’s effortless commingling of elements from Super Mario All-Stars, World, 64, Galaxy, some of the New Super Mario Bros. installments, and even Zelda and Metroid is more liberating than I possibly describe. Technically, if you have the know-how, you can put Mario into just about any 2D tile-based game, if you’re willing to do that much work with whole tilesets.
        The trade-off is that you can’t make very many alterations to the coded behavior of blocks and sprites—certainly no major ones. You can fudge some things, but for the most part, the way SMBX’s components work out of the box is how they’re going to work, period. Some of SMBX’s restrictiveness has been alleviated with the advent of LunaDLL, but there is in my estimation a steep learning curve (coding knowledge is required). Unfortunately, I don’t really have the time to put into learning it, which gives me the uneasy feeling that I’m not going to be doing as well in Make a Good Level X 2.

[3] The game generously provides a “Cannon of Lives” at the beginning, which shoots 1-ups in your face until you max out, and can be revisited between level sets.

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