Beating a Mario game is one thing — countless number of people have cleared an entry in Nintendo’s flagship franchise. Surviving a player-created Mario hack, though? Good luck surviving the literal first second, never mind crossing the end of the introductory level. Dying hundreds of times in a row is a part of the experience.
“Kaizo” Mario games are made to test even diehard Mario experts with precise jumping challenges where a misjudged pixel can mean the difference between life and death. The first Kaizo game, colloquially known as “Asshole Mario,” was released 2007 by a Japanese ROM hacker known as T. Takemoto. The hellish creation was a cheeky gift — the literal translation of the game’s title comes out to “Making my friend play through my Mario hack.” What Takemoto didn’t know then is that this sadistic offering would spawn an entire genre of trap-filled video games that have been watched millions of times on video sites like YouTube. It’s possible Takemoto still doesn’t know what he started. Nobody knows what’s happened to him since Kaizo exploded on the internet.
While Takemoto’s whereabouts are a mystery, his legacy is still alive a decade later. It’s become a tradition for Kaizo players to make experiences dedicated to friends, like a video game equivalent of a digital ribbing. In the same way good buddies might dare each other to do that, Kaizo players challenge the world to beat Mario hacks named after specific players in the community.
This year, the Mario community is abuzz with the release of Grand Poo World 2, a devilish concoction devised by DKBarbarian. Regarded by some as one the best Kaizo designer out there right now, DKBarbarian got his start making levels through 2015’s Super Mario Maker.
“After spending many hours with Super Mario Maker, I began to feel very limited by its inherent simplicity,” DKBarbarian told Polygon. While Super Mario Maker allows anyone to create a level with ease, there are also restrictions on everything from stage size, to the number of objects you can have on the screen. These are the sorts of limitations that players don’t have to worry about as much with specialized programs. “I began seeking out romhacks of classic games, where creators could take their designs so much farther than Mario Maker would allow.”
After falling in love with custom Mario levels, DKBarbarian would go on to make more himself — but his most famous creations are those named after GrandPooBear, a prolific Mario speed runner who is also DKBarbarian’s friend.
A technical sequel that took nearly a year to make with the help of a small team, Grand Poo World 2 has a lot to live up to. The first entry is considered a perfect mix of challenge, spectacle, and trolls that mess with players’ heads.
“The first [Grand Poo World] changed how people make ROM hacks,” GrandPooBear told Polygon. “It has secrets and custom soundtracks to each level, [and] its full of memes related to both his stream and my stream.”
Grand Poo World 2 follows suit — there are many secrets, nods to Mario streamers, and clever platforming obstacles that will confound even the most experienced fans. In one particularly memorable level, players have to hit a clock to stop enemies from moving, a power that somehow doesn’t make the passage any easier for people trekking through it. The trolls get elaborate, too: One random pipe in Grand Poo World 2 hides a notoriously hated level from the first game, just to mess with players. The level-inside-a-level has no checkpoint. Players who recognize the level might be tempted to just skip the pipe, except doing so might mean that you miss a big secret. The best part is that one of your rewards for clearing this travesty is that you get warped back to the title screen.
“It’s worse then dying,” GrandPooBear said. Still, though, he can’t help but be impressed by the gall of it all. “It took legit coding, time and effort to instead of just killing the player, they warped you back to the title screen as a ‘trolled you into wasting your time.’ Honestly though I didn’t even hate it. It was hilarious.”
But what truly sets Grand Poo World 2 apart isn’t that it’s a platforming nightmare that will break your patience. DKBarbarian wanted to do more than just text player’s reflexes: He also wants to test their cognitive abilities. To get the hack’s true ending, players must solve a series of puzzles that break the fourth wall. You can’t just be good at Mario to defeat Grand Poo World 2. You’ll need to break out pen and paper to decode cyphers. You’ll need to finish riddles. You’ll need to look for environmental clues that may or may not lead you outside of the game entirely. In one particularly inspired puzzle, players have to actually open up the program used to make Kaizo levels to get hex code, which can then illuminate the way toward a big in-game secret involving 5,000 blocks, two-player mode, and marketing screenshots. Solving all of this just leads to another incredibly hard boss fight, of course.
Getting this together took a couple thousand hours, by DKBarbarian’s account, in a process that was anything but straightforward.
“One of my favorite thing to do is make a level and return to it months later to completely redesign it,” DKBarbarian says.
The hard work paid off: When Grand Poo World 2 was released, some fans took time off work, if not stayed up for days just to stream the game. But listening to players talk about it, despite its impressive design and rage-worthy trolls, Grand Poo World 2 isn’t the pinnacle of what the scene has to offer. If anything, the Kaizo community is just getting started.
“I don’t think we have even peaked at this hard-level Kaizo stuff,” GrandPooBear says. “The community keeps coming raising the bar both in gameplay and level design further and further ... I’d imagine it’s going to get even crazier when Mario Maker 2 comes out.”