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Super Mario World: World 5 - Ghost House. We are now in the famed "Forest of Illusion," a sequence of levels that will never end unless you find a secret exit. Ghost Houses are a staple of the Super Mario formula, but this one proves to be especially memorable for its use of space and off-putting confusion tactics. Most levels are wide-open affairs; here, you begin in a narrow corridor, the rest of the screen black. Yellow doors are visible on top of the corridor but you don't know how to get there. Meanwhile, boos large and small chase you down, forcing you into split-decisions. Choose incorrectly and you never get out. When you realize what to do and break that giant white ribbon at the end, you don't forget.
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Super Mario Bros.: World 2-3. You forget how many new ideas were presented in the original game. This short but frantic level takes place across a segmented bridge. Throughout the entirety, those flying fish named Cheep-Cheeps jump out of the water in parabolic fashion, raining down upon you like hail with gills. The safe-and-careful way is to walk slowly, evading each fish as it launches around you. But it's hard not to overcome the urge to race across the bridge, leaping atop those unlucky Cheep-Cheep heads and surviving by instinct and (eventually) memory alone.
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Super Mario Bros. 3: World 5-3. Put on the fabled Kuribo's Shoe and dance atop spikes like Gene Kelly in a rainstorm.
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New Super Mario Bros 2: Gold Classics Coin Rush pack. New Super Mario Bros. 2 is often maligned as an unnecessary cash-in. But it does a few things that no other Mario game does, and those decisions made me play it differently, and more, than many "superior" 2D Mario games.
It has a meta-game of collecting 1,000,000 coins. There's a supplement mode called "Coin Rush," a trio of levels played all in one life where you challenge other players (via StreetPass) to high scores. Nintendo released extra downloadable "Coin Rush" levels for purchase. The "Gold Classics" pack included variations on levels from the original SMB with an emphasis on this new coin collection prerogative. It embodies the distinctive traits of NSMB2 all in one go: A weird new way to play Mario (coin collection madness), asynchronous competition, cheeky nostalgia, and a first for the series (paid DLC). This was either the death knell of your Mario love or evidence of a conservative company evolving with the times.
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Super Mario Bros. 3: World 6-Airship. Whereas each final stage in the original ends with a Bowser clone, SMB3 introduces the Koopalings, Bowser's seven children, each with their own personalities. And instead of castles, these final levels take place aboard a flying pirate ship of sorts, filled with cannons and wrench-throwing moles.
The sixth airship is protected by Lemmy Koopa, allegedly named after Motörhead lead singer and bassist Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister. Bedecked with a colorful mohawk, Lemmy rolls on a giant rubber ball and manifests other, smaller balls with the aid of his magic wand. Defeat him by bopping his head thrice and, as in each end level, the wand falls, the room disappears, and Mario falls down into the King's chambers, newly transformed to human form. Defeat the boss using an outfit like the Raccoon suit or Hammer Bros. suit and the King has an especially odd request from you: "How about lending me your clothes?" he asks. Um, no thanks. "No dice?! What a drag."
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New Super Mario Bros U: World 5-4 "Painted Swampland". This is less an interesting array of obstacles or challenges than it is a glimpse at a more aesthetically bold future where 2D Mario games return to striking artwork and distinctive personalities. For some reason, this level alone uses a Van Gosh brushstroke effect to illustrate the dark night sky and eerie swampland environs of this world, itself a call-back from the SNES game's Forest of Illusion. By the time you jump on the flagpole and a painted Bowser stares at you from the horizon, the remaining levels feel staid and replaceable.
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Super Mario Bros. 2: World 1-3. It is here where many will first encounter the dreaded living mask, that harbinger of night terrors and sucker of joy: Phanto. The first section is a satisfying mix of waterfall-platforms and high-low elevations. Savvy players will find a secret Warp Zone here, too, if they know where to look. But that would deprive them of facing off with the demon of Subcon.
Enter the door and climb a chain upward, navigating an industrial tower cursed with rotating electric orbs. In the highest room is a key guarded by five hanging masks. Grab it and one flashes, awakening with a rumble, only to swoop down after you. A locked door awaits in the tower's basement. But you must evade this foul rigid face along the way. The sequence is known by many, but the first time Phanto chases you is a frightening new kind of anxiety previously unknown in the light-hearted franchise.
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Super Mario World: World 8 - "Front Door".
Bowser awaits in the very last castle of every game. But the final sequence and end-battle in the 16-bit game will for many always be the high point, if for no other reason than the giant mutant turtle's vehicle of choice: a propeller-powered clown head. The rest of the stage is a pretty satisfying gauntlet, including disco spotlights and wind-up alligator toys. Cue the thunder and lightning.
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Super Mario Bros.: World 5-2. I call out to my wife, "Name a Mario level."
"From which game?"
"Any 2D one," I say.
"Level five, world two," she says, an adorable mish-mash of stage nomenclature but I know what she means. "I could never get past that level for some reason." I watch it on YouTube and, sure enough, it looks tricky: a jumping spring over a gap, three sets of Hammer Bros., and a dicey split-staircase complete with Jumping Winged Koopa. But what amazes me is that, decades after playing, seconds after being asked, she still remembers the exact location of her stalled progress. This is the power of Mario: All we want is to keep playing.
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New Super Mario Bros. Wii: World 6 – Fortress. Some fiendish architect decided to install a giant, spiked drill bit that shoots all the way up the middle of the stage, over and over again. Your task is to time the ascent in fits and spurts so as not to be destroyed. The higher you get, the harder it is to judge when the drill will slam upwards from below. There's a distinct sense of anticipation and dread that feels different from many other Fortress levels in the game. It's a fun one to play with friends. Whatever you do, absolutely do not pick up your pals and throw them into the ascending drill. No way. I do not condone such devious acts. Not at all.