Imagine loading up Super Mario World and entering the first level. Instead of the comfort of flat ground and the odd Koopa, there's a large gap with Boo ghosts fading in and out of existence. Jumping into the void, you see a pipe in the distance. It's a beacon of salvation but, to get there, you must utilise Mario's spin jump to bounce from Boo to disappearing Boo; relying on timing and precision. You frantically thumb back and forth on the D-Pad to control the spin and just as you reach the pipe, Mario thuds into an invisible block at the apex of his jump.
That's a Kaizo block. You fall to your death, and go back to the beginning.
The word 'Kaizo' comes from a Japanese term that roughly translates as to 'reorganise' or 'restructure', and thanks to a series of three ROM hacks called Kaizo Mario World is now synonymous with ultra-difficult versions of the Mario classics we knew as kids. In order to create these games, a ROM file of the original Mario title is hacked, giving the creator a full set of tools to use in playing around with the mechanics and level design. The products are then usually played on emulators, or loaded onto one-off cartridges or Everdrives (flash cards in cartridge form).
Behind these Kaizo games lies a certain mentality: they are about challenging the player's skill and patience, but also try to balance this with a sense of fun, mischief and discovery. You get a hint of this in the nickname some use for Kaizo Mario: 'Asshole Mario.' An ever-growing group of players is central to the scene, with creators devising new ways to torment one other and, in ways large and small, break how others think about Mario.
“We're a weird sado-masochistic family,” says creator and player Barb. It's a sentiment that others echo to me. Fellow Kaizo player Dram55 reckons that “thanks to the internet, all the masochists have been able to find each other.”
Though the scene has been around for much longer, the past couple of years have been something of a golden era for Kaizo Mario. “This resurgence or big boom of Kaizo Mario is definitely related to Mario Maker,” says the wonderfully-named GrandPOOBear, a speedrunner and Twitch streamer who is watched by thousands as he attempts to beat these games in ludicrous times. The hacks have also featured at several Games Done Quick marathons: “I put Super Mario World down for a few years until I watched Dram55 run Kaizo Mario World at AGDQ 2015,” says player Dode.
As players discovered the limits of Mario Maker, it was inevitable that some would search for a less restrictive experience. “After a while I got tired of the limited options Mario Maker offered and started branching out to Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World hacks, before I began making my own”, says Barb. This creator is behind many Kaizo Mario highlights, most notably Grand Poo World named after, you guessed it, his friend and fellow player Grand POOBear.
One creator, PangaeaPanga, became known for his insanely tricky designs on the WiiU title, but he'd already been playing with Kaizo Mario for some time. “I first discovered Kaizo Mario World through a YouTube let’s play back in 2007. It was my first exposure to custom Super Mario World levels, which was something that interested me back then — I was only 11 years old.” Since then Panga has gone on to create a vast library of Mario hacks, which are adored by the community. Poo goes on to say that creators like Panga and Barb “balance a fine line and make a four hour level grind feel like an hour.” Just to be clear, in Kaizo Mario speak that's a compliment.
Barb splits his time between creating his own experiences for others, and learning from what's out there. “I go through periods where I am wholly focused on creating a new level or project and nothing else. Since making Grand POO World, I have not made any levels or hacks, I've been playing those made by others. This, in my opinion, is essential to grow as a creator and player.”
There are swathes of hacks being uploaded every single day, so it can be hard to know which to try. POO reps his friend and creator Linkdeadx2 for dedicating their time to playing as many as they can and comparing them, writing about them in Discord, and ensuring the best hacks see the light of day on YouTube and Twitch. It can be hard to know what to look for when choosing a hack to play: some players look for specific creators, and others look for particular styles of play. Dram, known for a deathless run of Kaizo Mario One, says he “gravitates away from glitches and tricks and more toward difficult platforming.” Panga on the other hand enjoys “concepts like well placed Kaizo blocks, unique trolls and new ideas.” He's also partial to memes being scattered within levels, most of which are inspired by the community themselves.
Asking this group of Kaizo runners for their favourite hacks and creations shows the variety available to play. Dram opted for Kaizo Mario 2 as his favourite, whereas Dode looked to Super Panga World created by Linkdeadx2. Barb loves Super Riff World and POO falls on the first Dram World. Dode believes that the key to a good Mario hack is that “the player should be taken on a ride of enjoyment naturally. Originality is important.”
Playing a Kaizo hack is already difficult because of the designs on show that tax players, making them think outside of the box at all times. Most skills require lightning reflexes, breaking the concepts that Miyamoto and Nintendo established all those years ago. Each member of the community tends to go through the same motions; playing with save states – which allow levels to be broken down into sections – before moving on to playing without them and eventually speedrunning them. “It came as a natural progression after speedrunning Super Mario World for so long,” says Dram55.
Along with the speedrunning side, Kaizo gaming is also entertaining in a straightforward sense – whether that entertainment comes from watching someone juggle Koopa shells for wall jumps, or a skilled player being trolled by hidden enemies. Most runs leave viewers on the edge of their seats, punching the air with their favourite runners or throwing their hands up when a Kaizo surprise kills a streak of success.
Throughout my conversations with members of the community one thing is apparent: these hacks have brought together people from all over the world, and they've built a group that is friendly, competitive and creative. All players are open to others taking part, whether they're creating or playing, and this may be because Kaizo Mario is itself an offshoot from speedrunning, another community where collaboration and sharing knowledge is key. “You'll see the most legendary and skilled players hang around on Twitch as a newer player struggles, offering encouragement or advice,” says Barb. “We troll each other, we torture each other – but we also celebrate together.”
Dode adds: “runners and creators constantly interact, we always want to see each other improve and have fun. Nobody hides strats from each other, everyone is geared towards success.” Kaizo Mario may have been around for a while, but the scene today is richer and more vibrant than it's ever been. “The Kaizo community means everything to me. It literally built me from the ground up,” says Panga. “The best part of getting to do this is the people I've done it with," says GrandPOOBear. "The people that are around and involved, the people, the friends, you can share this passion with.”
It's easy to see how Kaizo Mario games have brought the players and creators involved closer together, and it's special when a community forms around a shared love like this. Their passion is obvious, not only in imagining and building but then throwing themselves into near-impossible struggles – laughing off the pratfalls and exulting in the improbable victories. For one kind of Mario player, finally beating Bowser is the end of the game. But then there are the other Marios, the ones with the wild eyes who hear a call from beyond – and who know that their princess will, always and forever, be in another castle.