Created by a Japanese ROM hacker who calls himself “79”, XXXX is a hack from 2003 that has a lot of replay value. Pseudo-randomization of several gameplay elements and highly skilled level layout make this game harder than even the Japanese SMB2, even though it’s technically much shorter.
The game borrows several elements from SMB2J, such as Poison Mushrooms and Luigi’s unique physics, as well as the differing bounce height when stomping enemies in certain ways. As the screenshot above shows, the game starts out looking quite easy. If you play this game regularly, however, you’ll be seeing a lot of this screen (along with the GAME OVER screen).
Above, we see but one example of the difficulty, although not much is immediately visible in the screenshot. Not only is there a second firebar attached to that block at the bottom that’s just barely visible, but this is a water level and the pit below the blocks has extra gravity. I have yet to make it to that pipe below. Fortunately, most pipes merely go to the next, randomly chosen area of the game (which is even sometimes the very same area you just exited). This isn’t even considering the levels with the “hard mode” bit set, which not only speeds up Koopa Troopas and changes Goombas to Buzzy Beetles, but also adds enemies and firebars in strategic places to make the second run-through about 100 times as hard.
The goal of this game is to get four Starmen to have a chance to go to the castle level and defeat Bowser, which doesn’t always happen (as with the rest of the game, the game decides randomly whether to send you to the castle, or back to a random normal level). The Starmen are purely for collection, there is no invincibility gained from them (although when you get your fourth one, you do get a 1UP) and if you die, you start all over.
79 was nice enough to add insta-kill spikes to this game that make mincemeat of even Fiery Mario or Luigi. Coupled with the lack of invincibility, some of these rooms can be very difficult, especially with Luigi’s increased jumping height. One particular room is virtually impossible as Luigi without a Fire Flower, especially in hard mode when you have a set of Buzzy Beetles walking towards you, spikes about four blocks off the ground, and a small space with just enough jumping room where when you tap the A button and jump on one of the Beetles, Luigi bounces so high that he hits the spikes over his head.
The screenshot above actually depicts any of several rooms where, if you don’t take the right path, you miss out on the opportunity to get all four Starmen. They all look exactly like the screenshot before you run a certain distance, and some of them even have Hammer Bros. jumping between the paths, making the level even harder without a Fire Flower. Also notice, the timer in these screenshots has consistently been going down. That’s because the timer starts at 800 ticks and does not reset until you die or beat Bowser. Simple things that all add up to high difficulty and increased replay value. I have yet to beat the game on hard mode, matter of fact, and I’m not too shabby of an SMB player.
I actually lucked out while taking these screenshots and took the right path, and you can see the four “X” blocks to the right of Luigi. You’ll see many of these throughout the different levels, but not all of them contain Starmen. Some contain coins and a few even contain Poison Mushrooms. Generally, if you see four in an area like this, though, they’ll contain Starmen.
There are actually two versions of this hack that I’ve played – one with the original SMB tiles and one with the updated tiles you see in these screenshots. I much prefer this version, although videos of the other version are all over YouTube. 79’s attention to detail make the graphics and music changes very appealing. The main game music is a very nice NES cover of The Last Dungeon from Wonder Boy III (unfortunately, the first part of it gets a little tiring to hear over and over as it restarts every time you exit a room).
The new graphics for Bowser are quite nice, being an interesting mix between SMB1 and SMB3. Bowser’s just as hard (or easy, depending on your skill) as ever, which is almost anticlimactic. However, as you’ll see in the next screenshot, sometimes you save Peach and sometimes…
The game says “Bite me, you get to do it all over again!”. Still, this adds to the replay value and for veteran SMB players who like the challenge it can make you want to do it all over again. A very good thing for people who have played the official games hundreds of times over and who are looking for something new.
All in all, I find this game very enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone who loves classic Mario platformers and who are looking for something new. You can find the IPS patch at ROMHacking.net. The patch works with either PRG 0 or PRG 1 versions of SMB, but make sure it’s a [!] ROM with a title screen. I rate this hack 8 out of 10. To finish out this review, I’ll leave you with a screenshot of what may be the hardest area in the game for Luigi (at least in my opinion).