When Nintendo released Super Mario Maker in 2015, fans of everyone’s favorite plumber got excited. For some, it was the chance to create their own Super Mario levels for the first time. For others, it was an infinite reservoir of levels for them to discover. Then, in 2019, the release of Super Mario Maker 2 on the Nintendo Switch brought the game to even more players.
However, a lot of these players might have had a similar experience. They boot up the game and start looking around for levels, ready for some goomba-hopping, shell-throwing, Bowser-beating action. They probably played a couple levels that were alright, if a little unpolished. Maybe some interesting concepts they’d never seen before. But many bright-eyed first-time Mario Maker players will quickly stumble upon something…terrifying.
Why Mario, Why?
The level boots up and there are spikes and saws absolutely everywhere. It’s hard to even make a single jump. The level wants you to die. Whoever made this must be sadistic.
Some daring players might even try to play these levels, putting attempt after attempt into getting past just a couple of jumps. Then, they might finally, after all that pain, manage to see a checkpoint in the distance. Finally, some respite! Then, as they frantically make the last jump to salvation…a hidden coin block will appear out of nowhere, sending them plummeting to their death.
For anyone who’s had this painful experience—you’ve just discovered Kaizo Mario, and you have a single Japanese programmer to thank.
What Happened to the Whoopie Cushion?
In 2007, a still-unknown Japanese programmer known only as T. Takemoto had an idea to play a prank on his friend. He would re-program (or “hack”) Super Mario World to create an utterly twisted version of the game. He’d make every jump an exercise in control and precision. He’d put enemies in the worst possible places. And, just to be extra-cruel, he’d invent ways of killing the player that no one would ever expect.
The resulting game was called Jisaku no Kaizō Mario (Super Mario World) o Yūjin ni Play Saseru, which translates to Making My Friend Play Through My Mario Hack (Super Mario World). It has since become known as Kaizo Mario World. Or, thanks to a popular series of YouTube videos, A**hole Mario.
1000 Ways to Die
Kaizo Mario World broke every rule of game-design that Shigeru Myamoto laid down with Super Mario Bros. back in the 1980s. Even on the game’s title screen, you have to act immediately…or you’ll die. Many jumps need to be done with frame-perfect inputs on the controller…or you’ll die. Hidden blocks, now affectionately known as Kaizo Blocks, are placed above pits or spikes. Even though you can’t see them, they need to be avoided…or you’ll die.
Perhaps the most shocking and delightful invention was the Kaizo Trap, where Mario will actually die after completing the level unless players hit a specific switch just before crossing the finish line. Imagine getting to the goal at the end of a ridiculously hard level, hearing the victory music…only to see Mario plummet to his demise, sending you all the way back to the beginning.
While the game itself is hard—brutally so—these kinds of trolls are so absurd because there’s absolutely no way for the player to expect them. It might take hours of attempts to beat a given level, only to be killed at the very end by something that you never saw coming in a million years. Now that’s cruel.
A Genre Unto Itself
Kaizo Mario World first gained traction after videos of Takemoto’s friend attempting to play it began circulating online. Eventually, the website Something Awful discovered the hack and shared the gameplay videos under the name A**hole Mario. That’s when the game really started to take off.
In subsequent years, Kaizo Mario World has inspired an entire new kind of video game. Other creators have since created their own “Kaizo” Mario hacks in the same style, some of which have become extremely popular. And of course, with the release of Super Mario Maker and its sequel, the tools to create sadistic Mario levels are in the hands of more people than ever.
Because It Was There
Now, most sane people would be thinking, “Why would anyone want to play this game?” And that’s a fair question. It’s literally designed to be unfair. But, there’s something undeniably compelling about these games. Takemoto hit on a kind of gameplay that hadn’t really been seen before.
Kaizo Mario pushes a player’s skill and patience to the extreme, but what sets it apart is its sense of humor and mischief. There is something undeniably funny about spending hours trying to master an absurdly difficult section…only to have a fish come flying out of nowhere to kill you right when you were getting close. It’s both soul-shattering and hilarious the first time, but then that fish simply becomes another obstacle that you have to overcome to beat the game, the same as any spike or pit.
And beyond the trolls, the sense of satisfaction that comes from beating even a single level of a Kaizo game is unlike anything else. Some of these hacks take seasoned players literally hundreds of hours to beat—but when they get there, sometimes live with thousands of viewers online, the sense of triumph and relief is tremendous.
Painful to Play, Incredible to Watch
Unsurprisingly, Kaizo games are largely a spectator sport. Very few people have the time and patience to ever even attempt a Kaizo level, but a small community of diehard players have built a substantial following streaming their attempts on Twitch. Watching these ridiculously skilled players conquer some of the hardest video games ever made—then cry out in pain when they’re killed in increasingly creative and heartbreaking ways—is must-see TV.
And as viewership goes up, more and more players devote more and more time to the genre, pushing it way beyond Takemoto’s original game. Creators develop rabid followings in Mario Maker, some of whom will literally spend hundreds of hours trying to one-up each other by creating the hardest levels in the game. Playthroughs of community-created Super Mario World hacks like BarbarousKing’s Grand Poo World, PangeaPanga’s Super Dram World and JuzCook’s Invictus get thousands of views on YouTube and Twitch.
Kaizo is not Fortnite, and none of these creators are millionaires, driving around in Ferraris. Shockingly, there’s not a lot of money in making bootleg hacks of Super Mario World that are illegal to sell under copyright law. But these games help streamers and content creators develop an online following and yes, there are many people out there right now who are making a comfortable living off of playing really, really hard Mario games.
Gotta Go Fast
Simply beating even a single level in one of these games is an achievement worth putting up on the mantel. Beating a whole game might go on your tombstone. However, some players are so masochistic that they devote time not just to beating these games, but beating them as fast as humanly possible. They perfect routes through each level—that, remember, are designed to kill the player at every turn—to the point where they can breeze through them as if they’re nothing.
Kaizo games have become a staple of Games Done Quick, the semi-annual charity video game speedrunning event that has raised over $22 million since 2010. In front of cheering crowds, players will breeze through games that would be impossible for most mere mortals. Thrilling relay-races keep viewers on the edge of their seats like a NASCAR championship.
And through it all, there’s an incredible sense of community. These oddball, sadomasochistic gamers have all come together to create and play these absurd exercises in patience and sanity.
All thanks to one guy from Japan who wanted to prank his friend.