Kaizo gets a bad rap.

There’s been some discussion over at Talking Time regarding certain levels on the Talking Time Bros. project; namely, their difficulty and the quality of design. I won’t be rehashing that debate (partially because I don’t have a particularly strong opinion about it myself, and partially because I don’t want to start a fight), but I did note that the word “Kaizo” came up a couple of times over the course of the conversation.

Kaizo’s kind of become a dirty word in recent years, with a lot of people using it as a synonym for “too difficult”, “bad level design”, or whatever other negative descriptor they’re trying to get across. Frequently you’ll hear defensive level designers pointing out that their level “may be hard, but at least it’s no Kaizo”. These people don’t get it.

Kaizo Mario World is one of the most misunderstood games ever made, I think. Everybody knows the game, of course — they can picture screens full of Munchers, laughably harsh time limits, and Proton Jon screaming at Pokey to move faster and weeping on-camera when he unwittingly triggers the infamous post-level trap. But very few people actually understand the game; realize what it was intended for.

See, Kaizo isn’t a Mario game. It looks like one, uses the Mario engine, but that’s not the case. Mario games have certain structures and certain rules. They’re about running and jumping and collecting mushrooms and throwing fireballs, about exploring for secrets and fighting bosses. You hold a controller, press buttons. When you die, you lose a life; when you lose all your lives, you get kicked back to your last save.

Kaizo tosses all of that out. It is not about running and jumping and mushrooms and secrets. You are not intended to play with a controller and it only has lives as an echo of its engine. Kaizo isn’t a Super Nintendo game, the way Super Mario World is and most SMW hacks pretend to be. Kaizo is very explicitly a ZSNES game. It’s not a game-game; it’s an emulator game. You’re not intended to play it straight, like a regular Mario game; it simply was not built with that in mind. The game takes it as read that you’ve got multiple savestates and pause and rewind functions at your fingertips. It expects you to be intimately familiar with the tiny little details and glitches in SMW’s engine. It’s a meta-game more than anything; yes, on the surface it’s about Mario running and jumping, but the actual gameplay lies in the player finding the proper method of forcing the game’s engine to do what he wants. Like a puzzle, levels in Kaizo don’t have exits, they have solutions. Its punishing difficulty is just fluff… a way of retaining challenge even though the player has all of these extra-game resources at his disposal.

Anyone who expects Kaizo to play fair is missing the point. If you just want a Mario game that plays by Mario rules, there’s plenty available, official or not. Kaizo is an entirely different beast. You have to have a particular kind of personality to enjoy re-loading state a thousand times trying to find the one perfect path that will get Mario to the exit in one piece… but those personalities are out there, and who are we to judge them? You might as well criticize a bullet hell shooter for not being an FPS, or a tournament fighting game for not being a Tales game, or actual football for not being Madden. Just because they’ve got similar mechanics and surface similarities doesn’t mean they’re of a kind.

The real problem lies in developers that put together Kaizo-level challenges or worse but think they’re playing fair. It’s one thing to put together a hack that baldly requires tool use and admits it up front, as Kaizo and its successors do, but quite another to build one that requires tool use but blithely pretends that with enough player skill, a normal person could do it straight. Those two classes of games get conflated a lot, but they shouldn’t be. The first is practically its own genre, even if that genre isn’t your cup of tea. (God knows it isn’t mine, though it can be fun to watch someone who knows what they’re doing work their way through it.) The second is flat-out poor level design and should be mocked as roundly as it deserves.


4 Responses to “Kaizo gets a bad rap.”

  1. 1 falselogic March 23, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    I have no idea what you’re talking about but Ok. Despite Kaizo being misunderstood I think the complaint in TT still stands. STTB isn’t a Kaizo game nor do the people who made it want it to be one. So, when things that are fare for Kaizo appear in a level or have the appearance of being Kaizo red flags go up and people complain.

    Regardless of whether they understand the nuance you explain here or not.

  2. 2 bravesword March 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Nothing Kaizo-ish shows up in Super Talking Time Bros., or even close. For one thing, Super Mario Bros. X doesn’t have savestates, so such levels would be virtually impossible — it’d be like creating a normal Mario level in an engine where the player character can’t jump; you simply don’t have the tools to win. The word just came up in passing, and I jumped on it for this post.

    It’s a question of expectations, really. If a game advertises itself as a Kaizo-style “use emulator tools and engine glitches to win” game, I know what I’m getting into. I know that I don’t have anyone to blame except myself when the game is ludicrously hard and requires constant savestating.

    It only becomes a problem in games that advertise themselves as “totally a normal Mario game.” I’d go into one of those thinking that with enough practice, I could win fairly, and I’d be disappointed. To put it another way, you could put the exact same level in a Kaizo game and a regular game and it would be absolutely appropriate in one and horrid design in the other. That’s just the way of things.

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