It’s 2021 and Kaizo Mario is hotter than ever.
From its humble beginnings in 2007 as a brutally difficult series of Super Mario World romhacks by someone known online as T. Takemoto, Kaizo has exploded into both a challenging platformer subgenre and a spectator sport. With a number of (relatively) high-profile recent releases like Super Hark Bros. 2, Akogare 2, and Riff World 2 making an impact and a plethora of under-the-radar stuff to try, there’s a little something for everyone in the world of difficult, precise Super Mario World romhacks.
But if you want to play the future of the genre, the Kaizo Level Design Contest is the place to be. This yearly competition tasks creators with making the most innovative or diabolical Kaizo level they can muster. Submissions are judged based on level design quality, creativity, and aesthetics. KLDC has often been where creators push the envelope, and this year was no exception. Evaluated by several prominent members of the Kaizo community, this year’s levels have been judged and the results are in. Here are the top ten entries from KLDC 2021.
10. “Domains” by quietmason
“Domains” is built around the concept of item abuse, a term which refers to the many non-traditional uses for items that Mario holds in front of him. For instance, you might grab a key not for its “intended” purpose of unlocking a secret exit, but rather so you can hurl it at a crucial switch. It’s a concept that’s incorporated heavily into a lot of Kaizo design; there’s even a hack series popular with the tool-assisted speedrun community that’s all about obscure and glitchy uses for items.
“Domains” is much kinder than those hacks, yet still manages to be a clinic in innovative ways to use items to overcome the obstacles of a Kaizo level. “This KLDC, I wanted to explore a design style that was fairly foreign to me; I focused primarily on trying to create fresh setups revolving around the P-Switch, an item I hadn’t previously built with,” explains creator quietmason, who also released the 2021 Kaizo hack Fire and Ice.
Most of the sections involve escorting a P-Switch to the end, though you’re never carrying it for very long, as you’re expected to drop, throw, and juggle it to clear out enemies and blocks that are in your way. “In making this level, I hoped to offer some interesting new ideas, as well as an opportunity for players to grapple with sometimes cryptic setups in a relatively forgiving setting.”
9. “Whirlwisp Grove” by HamOfJustice
Lovingly dubbed “Oops! All Boo Rings!” by contest judge SuperMargot, HamOfJustice’s “Whirlwisp Grove” continues the tradition of the Ultra Star, a type of level named for a stage in the original Kaizo Mario World that involves using moving platforms to progress, which in this particular case inexorably push you forward whether you’re ready or not.
This stage uses platforms that fall when a short countdown timer on each one reaches zero, but what sets this level apart is the way players must also navigate spinning rings of ghosts while hopping from platform to platform.
Interestingly, this concept was inspired by the song that you can hear playing in the level. “My inspiration for ‘Whirlwisp Grove’ in particular was actually listening to the ‘Mystic Mansion’ song port it uses,” Ham says. “When listening to its ghostly, wintry vibe, I started thinking about how one could make a fast-paced Boo level to suit it. I eventually got the idea to use Boo Rings and Timed Platforms together in a snowy forest.” Though the snow effects were dropped for visual clarity, the result is a fun level that pushes you relentlessly towards obstacles you normally have to slow down to parse.
7. (Tie) “Filtration System” by FYRE150
Earning full marks from judge GlitchCat7, “Filtration System” by FYRE150 focuses on atypical, exciting uses of water, and switch blocks players must trigger to alter the water’s properties. The first section sees Mario swimming through pillars of water that swap properties with deadly blue lava whenever a switch is hit.
The second is a more traditional tide level, with water rising and falling from the top and bottom of the screen. The final section has you precariously climbing the level using water that’s shifting on both sides of the screen, putting you in precarious positions as you must often hit a switch at the last instant to avoid leaping into a wall of lava.
A constant motif throughout the level lies in the difficult ways you have to exit the water, a design challenge which has more subtlety than it seems. The concepts in the level are a continuation of ideas FYRE explored in an earlier hack. He says, “‘Filtration System’ was sort of an amalgamation of stuff from my recent hack Purgatory; i.e. the tileset was from one level, the palette was from another, and the mechanic was a variation of an idea I had already explored in another level.”
7. (Tie) “Water Castle” by shaoshao
Much like “Filtration System,” “Water Castle” by shaoshao (author of the recently released romhack Ides of March) utilises novel takes on water and swimming, but the two levels feel very different. Where “Filtration System” uses water to break up open space and switch blocks to change its nature, “Water Castle” has you pressing shoulder buttons to instantly switch between a room full of water and one with no water. It also uses the one-room challenge concept that’s become popular recently in hacks like Mad with Kaizo Power and the Nightmare Café series.
With each room no bigger than one screen, this level is fairly beginner-friendly, which earned it a Valdio Award for excellence in introductory-difficulty level design, one of many categories of secondary awards the judges present to select levels. “I wanted my level to stand out, so I came up with and programmed my own level gimmick,” shao says, referring to the ability to toggle water in each room.
“This gimmick was inspired by a level in Arobam’s Ultra Kaizo World 2 hack and fits nicely in with one-room challenge sections that mix platforming and puzzle elements.”
6. “Constellation” by MDBattleFrog
One of the hardest levels in the top ten and recipient of an ft029 Award for excellence in advanced-difficulty level design, “Constellation” is a meat-and-potatoes platforming challenge with a twist: You need to avoid the many invincibility stars littering the level. The reason for this is that, in Super Mario World, invincibility means you tear right through enemies — which would be a problem here, since instead of being able to bounce on them to progress, you’d just pass right through them to your death.
“When I was brainstorming what to build for KLDC, I took into account what I thought others would do, and saw creators leaning towards a custom gimmick or mechanic that heavily changes how SMW plays,” creator MDBattleFrog, who also made last year’s lauded Ultraviolet, explains. “I decided to make a level that still felt like Mario World while introducing fresh setups featuring interesting ways of avoiding the Star Man powerup. The idea was heavily inspired by a level in Mostly Harmless, a hack by ThirdWall.”
5. “Gate Crashers” by MiracleWater
One of two levels in the top ten to get the Favourite Brain Teaser award, “Gate Crashers” twists Kaizo in a puzzly direction with a simple gimmick: You can’t pass by net-like gates without dying if you’re big Mario. So the levels become about clever ways of taking damage at the right moment so you can progress, testing both your Kaizo execution skills and your ability to read setups.
This is a design trademark of MiracleWater, who previously worked on many memorable levels in collaboration hacks like the JUMP series of games. “I’m a fan of Kaizo levels that incorporate a bit of problem solving into them, rather than being purely hard in execution,” MiracleWater says about the inspirations behind these levels. “Gaijin Mario, a Kaizo hack by Morsel, does this quite well and was the main inspiration for my entry. However, the winner of KLDC 2021 Lazy, has made some fantastic Kaizo levels that influenced my level as well.”
4. “JerryWest 60 Footer” by Nirv
While many entries emphasise novel mechanics or innovative platforming, Nirv’s “JerryWest 60 Footer” is about creating a light, fun atmosphere while also employing some tight, innovative level design. The concept is that Mario is playing in a basketball game and must successfully make a shot at the end of several short Kaizo platforming sections. Between each section is an image accompanied by a line or two of funny dialogue. “When I was building my level for the competition, I always had in mind the player having fun, above all,” says Nirv, who is best known for the Tebeo series of hacks.
“Usually, I want to bring something new to the table when making levels, so I spend a lot of time thinking and brainstorming ideas that I think I would love to play. That’s how at some point in the process I realised I wanted to make an actual basketball level. I would also love to see it expanded outside of Kaizo, as there is a lot of fun to be had with the concept!” This dedication to maintaining a fun atmosphere earned the level a Favourite Lore award.
3. “Mono No Aware” by FerpyMcfrosting
The concept of the awareness and acceptance of the transience of all things may sound too high-concept for a Super Mario World level, but that’s exactly what FerpyMcfrosting, creator of well-received Kaizo hack Super Cool World, created with “Mono No Aware.” It’s a brain-bending level where you run into a dead end and are forced to turn around, only to discover that the level changed off screen. Complementing this concept are a spooky tune and ghostly moving holes, capped off with a Boo Boss that takes advantage of the ephemerality of the environment.
For this level, Ferpy wanted to draw on inspirations outside of Super Mario World. “To put it simply I wanted to focus on a gimmick that’s relatively simple in concept but hadn’t been done in SMW before,” explains Ferpy. “I had found some existing code that could be used to make Mario teleport seamlessly, and I had the idea to re-purpose that to make a sort of non-euclidean level where you turn around and the level is completely different. Kind of inspired by games like Antichamber or Manifold Garden; I like that surreal and mind-bending approach to level design.” “Mono No Aware” is another recipient of the Valdio Award for excellence in beginner-difficulty level design.
2. “Extended Athletics” by KevinM and Dogemaster
A collaboration between two creators, “Extended Athletics” takes a simple concept — allowing certain sprites that don’t normally interact with on/off switches to be able to toggle them — and builds a complex set of tricks and setups that expands what Mario can be while still feeling like a Mario level.
Conceptually inspired by KevinM’s submission in the Bad Level Design Contest prior to KLDC 2021, the level was designed in such a way that “the main focus was to make something that would force interesting and unique setups and make the player do some unusual but fun manoeuvres,” says Dogemaster. “I also really wanted the level to have some non-linear movements where you loop around a certain obstacle.”
At the end of the level is an innovative hybrid boss battle featuring two of Super Mario World’s minibosses, Reznors and a Big Boo. Mainly in charge of this boss fight, KevinM explains: “For the boss, I didn’t have any clear inspirations, but I was probably influenced by The Binding of Isaac and worldpeace’s level Cool or Cruel: “Tubular,” which both have heavy bullet hell-style elements. Although the idea of having a Big Boo and Reznors in the same boss [fight] was probably original as I haven’t seen it elsewhere before.” The fight was recognised as one of the best boss encounters in the contest with a Best Boss award.
1. “810TOXIN” by Lazy
The winner of the Kaizo Level Design Contest, Lazy’s “810TOXIN” is easy enough to explain conceptually, but difficult to visualise until you see it in action. The level uses something that’s often completely neglected when making a Super Mario World hack: score. In this stage, as long as your score is exactly 810, you’re invincible. So the goal of the level is to get 810 points at exactly the right time so you can progress to the next section, often across an otherwise impassable section of spikes. Sometimes you even have to go over 810 after acquiring invincibility so you can go back to normal and bounce off of enemies.
“I often take inspiration from Morsel, one of the most innovative creators in the community,” says creator Lazy. “His hack Double Jump Man had a mechanic where getting points replenished your double jump, and the fascinating obstacles he designed with this inspired me to do my own take on a point-based gimmick for KLDC.” Not only did this level win a Favourite Brain Teaser award, but it also managed to outdo the competition to win the whole contest which, for a very thinky level, is a rare and impressive feat.
This article has been retimed since its original publication.