Every night for the past several weeks, a cheerful, plump plumber arrives at my apartment and brutalizes me. Sometimes, his overalls are blue, other times red, but his cruel smile is constant. His mustache never changes. Something has gone bad with this version of Nintendo’s enduring, pipe-diving mascot Mario. He’s been modified, his game hacked into a nightmarishly difficult torture chamber that I have foolishly dedicated myself to successfully navigating.
I have decided to learn how to play “kaizo” Mario.
These are fan-made versions of Nintendo titles you might recognize, like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, and they’ve become increasingly popular, thanks to livestreams and video game marathons like “Games Done Quick.” Devilish enthusiasts have changed the games’ original source codes to create relentlessly-difficult new levels on top of the bones of childhood challenges, making exquisite corpses of adolescent memories.
“Kaizo” is loosely translated from the Japanese 改造 as “reconstruction,” a reference to the way in which these games break and reassemble original Mario games into new levels, new miseries, new mechanics, and entirely new philosophies of play. In practice and slang, however, “kaizo Mario” is more accurately articulated as “asshole Mario.” These games viciously troll their player, subjecting a casual run of a single level to hours or days of failure.
In a traditional Mario game, the player uses running and jumping to move through a world of precarious platforms, bottomless pits, and a stream of enemies. These games feature sophisticated level designs that are challenging but fair — and usually rewarding. Nintendo’s Mario games famously teach you how to play without a formal tutorial. As the difficulty ramps up throughout the game, you learn how to clear enemies, hop over short gaps, leap over longer ones, and, eventually, dispatch broad inventories of traps and monsters. Everything builds on itself, and frustration peaks only at the right moments, elegantly rewarding the player with a sense of accomplishment.
Kaizo Mario hacks, on the other hand, are cruel experiments in breaking gamers’ spirits. They are filled with invisible blocks to bonk sweet, gormless Mario into a lake of fire and skewer him on a field of spikes. Fish fall from the heavens to kill your character, mere pixels before the end of a stage; levels move too fast; you are forced to abuse the pause button to manipulate the actions of enemies. Moves require absurdly precise inputs, some as tight as a single “frame” (exact to roughly 1/60th of a second). A successful kaizo player lives in the liminal space of the original Mario engine’s affordances, required to repeatedly execute moves that are not prohibited by the game, but shouldn’t be necessary.
For instance, in Super Mario World, our hero can spin-jump, twirling through the air in such a way that allows him to bounce off of otherwise-deadly enemies and obstacles. Mario can also carry items: shells of his slain foes, switches that temporarily transmute blocks and coins, short-fuse bombs that blow up walls.
However, Mario cannot spin-jump and carry an item at the same time. One cannot have their koopa and smash it, too. Enthusiasts, though, figured out that if you start spin-jumping and then catch an item, the game lets you do both. But it knows it shouldn’t: Often Mario will play the spinning sounds but his animation is locked in an odd, mid-air rictus. Nevertheless, he still manages to bounce off saws and spikies, holding onto his prize. As a result of this exploit, kaizo levels are filled with challenges that force Mario to juggle an item while spin-jumping around death traps. It’s such a common maneuver in kaizo hacks that it was required in every single one that I played. I performed this maneuver thousands of times, and each time it felt uncanny, like it was playing between the seams of the game.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of kaizo maneuvers. You might have to juggle two shells at once, releasing each into a wall at the right moment to “double shell jump” over impossible walls. You might duck and spin-jump to glitch through solid walls. Sometimes, you do something so bizarre that your mind cannot process what it is seeing. One such trick involves jumping with a spring, smashing your D-pad from side to side and releasing the spring at the precise apex of your jump, such that it falls helplessly to the ground. Yet Mario somehow bounces off it anyway, catapulted into the air by nothing at all. To play a kaizo hack is to substitute the margins of the game for the game itself. You die thousands of times and frustration, a velvet fist gently stalking the original games, strips down into the bare-knuckled, raw material of play. In short, kaizo games transform a child’s property into an implement of masochism.
Until the beginning of this month, I had spent days watching popular Twitch streamers play kaizo games, but I’d never attempted them myself. Though it’s endlessly entertaining to watch talented pros flirt with emotional breakdown while trying to achieve impossible tasks, there’s nothing about these games that suggests you should play them yourself.
On a recent stream, Grand POOBear, one of the more popular Mario streamers, estimated that though a normal stream might attract a thousand viewers, only a few hundred people in the world regularly play these punishing games. I was happy to be in the lurking majority, watching the madness safely through a video window. Then Nintendo announced a sequel to their popular game Super Mario Maker, in which players can create and share levels for each other to play. The first Mario Maker came out in 2015 and motivated a huge upswing in kaizo Mario popularity. For the first time, brutally hard levels could be made and shared without players having to patch decades-old Nintendo games.
I wanted to dip my toe into the torturous waters ahead of Super Mario Maker 2’s release. Fortunately, at the beginning of this month, popular kaizo creator and streamer PangaeaPanga posted his newest hack, Kaizo Kindergarten, a game explicitly intended to teach new players how to kaizo.
This is how one of the most physically and emotionally-draining fortnights of my adult gaming life innocently began. But before I get into what happened — the days I lost to kaizo — it’s important to note that I’m not entirely unaccomplished when it comes to challenging platforming games. Growing up, I methodically beat each Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden as they were released. More recently, I 100%-ed infamously tough titles such as Super Meat Boy and completed all the A-sides, B-sides, and C-sides of Celeste. That last group is so hard to unlock and clear that most players don’t even know it exists. I was reasonably confident in my ability to jump into tight spaces — and I was wrong to be.
After a fandango of obtaining black-market game files, installing an emulator, patching Super Mario World, and getting a fake SNES controller to connect to my Macbook over Bluetooth, I booted up Kaizo Kindergarten and immediately died 10 times on the first jump. Soon after, I encountered an early level that taught “re-grabs,” a crucial kaizo skill in which you lightly tap and release jump only to immediately press jump again. This allows our awkward dumpling of a hero to hop between longer stretches of short ceilings and deadly floors, executing a low-height jump while maintaining the slow-fall benefits of holding the jump button in the air.
This might sound straightforward, but in practice my thumbs lumbered like sun-baked hippos around a gamepad they were supposed to dance upon. To re-grab between the narrow slaughter tunnels of Kaizo Kindergarten, your thumb must just lightly kiss the jump button before slamming back down. I found I had to literally say the word “light” or else I would press the button for far too many frames while Mario happily shish-kebabed his grinning head into a jagged little canopy of spikes. After half an hour of willing fine motor dexterity into my drowsy digits, I was finally able to complete the task.
The next screen demanded that I do it six times in a row.
Three hours drained off the clock as I baked in my own exertion on a sunny couch, too focused to turn on the AC. For the first time in my life, I became painfully aware of my now-inflamed dorsal interossei, the muscles that web the back of your hand and allow your index and middle finger to balance and clutch your controller while your thumb bounces and slides around. This was level 6 in a game with 34 levels in total (not counting postgame levels and secrets). I started to fear I had bitten off more than I could chew.
Throughout the next two weeks, I slogged through a monstrous difficulty curve across levels that murdered Mario every inch of the way. I learned how to govern Mario’s momentum by flicking the D-pad from left to right. I learned how to ride multi-colored “disco shells” that reeled drunkenly as Mario attempted to pogo on their backs. I mastered force-feeding koopas to Yoshi, Mario’s eternally-tormented dinosaur companion, a special sort of twee gavage that exploits a glitch and allows him to transform more quickly than otherwise possible. After many nights of blown bedtimes, I reached the final exam, the last level before I could say I’d beaten a tutorial that was more challenging than any game I’d ever played.
I figured I had another hour or so to go, yet it took me 10 hours to taste victory. By the end, I had gone to a darker place than I thought a game could ever pull me. At one point, in the middle of my trial, my wife tells me that I pleaded with her to hit me in the face. I cannot remember why, but I’m pretty sure I said something like, “I will never accomplish anything. What is my head even good for?”
It might sound outrageous that a video game could puncture your ego so violently but this is exactly what kaizo hacks are intended to do. A short level might require you to do 20 maneuvers perfectly in a row. You will learn each one in succession, losing to its challenge for 10, 50, 100, or 1,000 deaths. But your progress won’t build linearly. You’ll suddenly forget how to do a jump that you’ve done countless times already. Mario will smash into your incompetence tenfold before you remember that you had been holding Y when you succeeded before, but now, for whatever reason, you had forgotten to do that. By the time you remember, you won’t recall how to maneuver the next spinning mace or wall of anthropomorphic bullets.
Some obstacles, reached after a chain of these leap-frogging errors and trials, will present no clear way to solve them at all. Of course, each attempt at them requires you to not mess up the eight previous moves. Other times, you get too good at executing a move, when suddenly you find yourself moving too quickly through the level. You have to teach yourself everything again so that you remain correctly synced with movements of the enemies and obstacles. You try. Fail. Try again. Fail worse. You will never beat this stage.
But then, just as suddenly, something shifts and Mario slides through an impossible hole as if it were as natural as sliding down a pipe. You live for these moments. And then, you start to hate them too, knowing that any proficiency will rechristen itself in miscarriage, over and over again, as you slowly crawl toward consistency.
I continued racking up repetitive stress injuries as I aborted thousands of runs on the last room of the last level. At no fewer than 20 different moments, I turned to my wife and sadly declaimed that I would never be able to write this piece. I would never beat the game. After burning several hours of poor performance in an aggressive depression, I collected myself, focused, and finally threw Yoshi to his death one last time at the perfect moment to cue up a final spin-jump onto a block kicked from off-screen. I twirled into the exit. And that was it. I’m pretty sure that I actually cried.
And then, a day later, I started a slightly more difficult hack, Quickie World 2. This time it only took me five days to finish. I jumped from there into GrandPOO World 2, the first level of which I’ve been inching through since then. But why did I go back? My first kaizo experience caused me to question my human worth. What had compelled me to immediately return for more punishment?
In an era of esports and streaming, video games find themselves in an arms race of professionalism. Kaizo hacks mock the shiny promise of the marketable, the capital fantasy that play should become a commodity. They don’t invite novices with flashing cosmetics and stadium banners of pimply teens making seven figures. A kaizo hack waits coldly on an inauspicious message board, offered for free, a curiosity promising only pain, a thumbscrew in a Cracker Jack box. Kaizo hacks drip with amateur relish and make their players seem silly. Why would anyone do this? Even full-time streamers routinely look foolish playing kaizo hacks. There are YouTube compilations of the top players losing their minds after drilling a level for hours only to be ruined by a hidden block at the end.
There’s something defiantly anti-commercial about kaizo. It rejects the banal aspirations of glamorous sport for the sharp pangs of unpolished pleasure. These rough edges make the games sublime. When playing immensely popular games like League of Legends or Overwatch, I would constantly feel terrible, even when succeeding. The franchises’ powerful marketing engines kept telling me that I needed to win more if I was ever going to be a serious player, have a shot at the big leagues, and get the cool costume. I was always in the red.
In turn, this environment transformed huge player bases into pits of resentment as each gamer viewed everyone else as the one holding them down, the bottom-feeder keeping them from the promised land. Kaizo hacks, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about you. Often you will wonder if you are even supposed to be able to complete the game. It’s not unheard of for popular hacks to feature bugs that make the success of certain actions completely random.
It’s unclear to me what it even means to be good at kaizo. Of course, there are platforming skills and reflexes that develop over time, but when you’re playing a genre that prides itself in continually inventing new ways to frustrate players, top kaizo gamers are forced to cite patience as the presiding virtue. Kaizo is an art of suspended animation. You are constantly stuck on a level for hours, waiting for something to click and praying that this failure isn’t final. Your agony builds and you get angry at yourself for taunting arthritis with such an absurd pastime.
But then the release comes. Mario enters the golden door, beyond the trolls and tortures, and all the annoying obstacles become worthwhile. As Gilles Deleuze, a French theorist who revived interest in self-punishment in the ’60s says of masochism: Pain finds its meaning in repetition. Those gaping hours of anguish will forever be baked into the succor of success that I’ll remember.
Despite how truly sad Kaizo Kindergarten made me, most of the time I loved playing it. The victory at the end felt richer than all the lesser achievements I’d stacked up in hundreds of hours of couch quests with spiky-haired anime boys and weeks spent in multiplayer online arenas with the worst people on the Internet.
Surely, you are wondering after reading this, “How can I get into kaizo, this awful thing you’ve introduced me to?” This is, perhaps, the best week in the entire short history of the genre to make first contact. On Thursday, there was a five-hour block of kaizo games recorded at “Summer Games Done Quick,” a popular marathon of video game speedrunning in which experts attempt to beat games as fast as possible while raising millions of dollars for charity. You can watch a recording of the stream on the organization’s YouTube channel.
And Super Mario Maker 2 just came out, opening the door to new brutal levels built by kaizo creators. You can even experiment with your own devilish designs. Please, take my advice and do one of the most agonizing things that I’ve ever done.
Most friends won’t understand what you’re doing or why you’ve chosen to punish yourself. Your accomplishments will remain illegible to all but the niche kaizo community. Your investment in the genre is almost certainly a bad one — and that’s what makes it special. Kaizo is honest about being an entirely arbitrary goal, made by online buddies to challenge each other. But that’s what games should be about. Kaizo recalls those bored childhood days, doing nothing in the backyard with a friend.
“Hey, I bet you can’t throw that ball over that branch.”
“Betcha can’t do it three times in a row.”
“… with your eyes closed?”
Kaizo captures that spirit of wild and imaginative play and reminds you why you started playing games in the first place.