I've been enjoying the slow trickle of NES games being added to the Switch Online service. Sure, it's no Virtual Console, but I'm happy to just kind of get a surprise handful of "free" games each month now. It also serves as a weird impetus to play stuff that I probably wouldn't otherwise. Case in point - The Lost Levels.
I should put up the disclaimer that the Super Mario Bros 2 we got in the US is actually one of my favorite Mario Bros games period. As insane as this might sound, I probably like it more than Super Mario Bros 3. I certainly revisit it more often. And in truth, I didn't even know that a more traditional Super Mario Bros 2 existed in Japan until it was localized as part of Super Mario All-Stars on the SNES.
I remember getting All-Stars for Christmas in 1993 and being really excited to play this new-to-me game, now dubbed "The Lost Levels." And I also remember being really underwhelmed when I finally played it and moving on pretty quickly.
And that was the last time I played The Lost Levels. December, 1993. Even when that Wii All-Stars compilation was released (and seriously lacking Super Mario World), I didn't even bother re-playing Lost Levels then. I don't know. I just used it as an excuse to revisit Super Mario Bros 2 and 3 in their 16-bit reimagined glory.
But something about The Lost Levels rolling out to Switch piqued my interest. I think it's the fact that (correct me if I'm wrong) this is the first time that the original 8-bit version of the game has been released in the US. It's kind of neat to see Fami box art in the games list, with the US title of The Lost Levels. Of course, any real localization efforts are clearly minimal given that the title screen itself just reads "Super Mario Bros 2." But whatevs.
So yeah, I fired it up while my wife was watching a movie last night and... I'm still pretty underwhelmed. Look, the original Super Mario Bros is an undoubted classic. However, if I'm being honest I think that for me personally, I kind of think of the game highly because of its historic importance. And I don't just mean gaming history - I mean, my own history as a gamer. Before the NES dropped I had a Commodore 64 and an Atari 2600. Those were the primitive games that I knew. And when a friend got a NES and showed me Super Mario Bros for the first time, it blew my young mind properly. That game (and a small handful of others - Ice Hockey, Excitebike, etc) were responsible for making me beg my parents for a NES and turning me into a video game junky from a young age.
I played the hell out of the original back then - as we all did. So everything about it remains iconic. Yet, when I revisit it every few years, I find that it's more a nostalgia thing. It's like going back to see an old friend. It's comforting, but at the same time it's not quite as fun to me as Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros 2. Those are the ones I go back to the most because I just love playing them.
So now playing Lost Levels feels to me like... I don't know. Like playing a ROM-hack of Super Mario Bros. It's like the first game but stripped of those things that give me the tinges of nostalgia. The familiarity of the levels is gone. And dickish things like poison mushrooms are present. You can totally argue that those dickish inclusions are what makes the game so interesting - and I could even agree. But I just don't find myself having much fun playing it.
I mean, there's whole crops of games that have grown out of indie scenes in the decades since that could be inspired by The Lost Levels to a degree. I'm talking about pure masochism and trial and error fueled romps. Things like I Want To Be The Guy, or whatever. You could probably write dissertations on how The Lost Levels is the true progenitor to Dark Souls. But I'm not sure how much that would even really matter to me if I'm not actually having any fun.
That's a lot of background just to say that I fired the game up again for the first time in 26 years and found out I still don't really like it. But it is what it is. I played for an hour or so and it felt like torture. I kept getting annoyed, and rolling my eyes, and finally decided to move on. But on that note, I guess it's interesting that you could look at this game as sort of the beginning of these uber hard trial-and-error platformers that are still pretty popular today.
New Super Luigi Bros definitely, at least. So maybe that's the interesting take-away here. That this brutally difficult and not-so-impressive game from 1986 was deemed too difficult for North American audiences so buried and replaced by a completely different game. And then finally it was doled out in the US as a bonus on a compilation in 1993 and most gamers agreed that, "yep, this is way too difficult to even be fun." But somehow, the game's inner logic was revisited in 2013 to illustrate that maybe Nintendo was actually way more hardcore than most modern gamers gave them credit for. Maybe that's the interesting thing to note here? Well. At least it got me thinking.
In 2021, a guy named Brian Riggsbee wrote a book called The Legend Of Argus: The Complete History Of Rygar. Not only did I buy the book, but I read the whole thing in one night. And I think any game who's a fan of niche gaming history should read it. I also think any game who's interested in writing about games should read it. Not because Rygar is an immensely interesting topic, and not because Rygar is even an especially good game. But because it's awesome when a writer has such an intense passion for a specific topic that they can write this much about that topic and make it interesting to a reader who kind of doesn't even care about said topic.
I had heard about Rygar before reading the book, sure. Gosh, I remember that game from way back in the late 80's. I remember the NES game existing. I just never had an inclination to play the game myself. Not until reading this book. And again, it's not that the book made the game sound all that good to me. But I just loved that someone had found so much to love in what looked like mediocre game to me. I felt like I owed it – not to Rygar – but to Riggsbee to play this game.
Around the same time, I discovered Antstream Arcade. This is a gaming service where you pay a subscription service to have access to a library of streaming games. While that might sound a bit like Xbox Game Pass, the selection is immensely different. Anstream is a European company who has filled up their Netflix-of-games service with a huge archive of old arcade and console games. But with a decidedly European lean. Which is to say that there's a lot of ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 and Amiga games on there. And there's also a whole slew of arcade games from respectable publishers well known to Americans like me such as Taito, Data East, Namco and so on. It's also incredibly fitting for my Surface Go, as basically any device with an internet connection (and preferably an Xbox controller) makes it a viable gaming machine. In my mind, it's kind of a hidden gem of a service.
Digging through the Antstream library, guess what I found? Rygar!
Rygar was released to arcades in 1986. And I'm not sure how it was initially received. It's a side scrolling hack-n-slash kind of deal. You play as a sort of barbarian dude with a bladed shield on a chain. It's... Pretty weird, honestly. But it's also pretty unique, at least in its presentation.
The enemies are all kinds of weird organic... Things. I don't really know how to describe them. They're not monsters exactly. They kind of resemble bugs or lizards. If anything, it reminds me of a very exaggerated takes on mythological creatures or something. I'll be honest, I don't know a ton about this kind of stuff. But I'm reminded of things like Conan mixed with Clash Of The Titans or other various fantasy things.
There's also a very earthy tone to everything. There's not a lot of projectiles, but the ones that exist are mostly just fire. The color palette is generally lots of browns and greens, except for the sky which is often a striking orange or red. The visuals of the game have a serious character of their own.
The music is sparse, though triumphant.
The game itself is brutally hard. Playing through Anstream means I have infinite credits, which I'm not proud to brag about but they'd be needed. I doubt I could even pass the first level or two without a quarter. From my understanding, there are 23 levels in total and I made it to Stage 21 after an immense amount of credit feeding, only to realize that you can't continue from stage 21 on. Drag.
This game throws an immense number of foes at you. And if you dilly dally, then you'll be chased by a huge red mass. And if you're too hasty, then you'll be sure to misjudge a leap or find yourself overwhelmed by baddies. It's a no-win situation unless you've got endless time (and credits) to memorize the levels. At least the checkpoints and generous!
I have no real ambition to continue Rygar. I don't care to get good at it. I don't think it's a great game. I don't connect with the setting or even the vibe of the game in general. But I can see why it's a cult game. It's unique. It looks great. It plays well. The challenge is immense. And outside of the NES version and a weird 3D remake, it never really made itself into a franchise proper. And yet, there's some subset of gamers who still to this day continue to try and master it, which sounds daunting to me, but hey – good for them.
I'm glad I got to see what all the fuss is about, even if I have no intentions of sticking with Rygar. That said, I still think that book is great. I love a good video game history book that sheds light on a new subject for me.