Bullet Bill puts in yet another appearance to create the most interesting twist on the World x-3 “mushroom platform” (though, in this case, it looks like we’re back to trees) stages to date. The fundamental design aesthetic dials things back a bit to resemble earlier x-3 levels, largely dropping the moving platforms and pulley rigs in favor of basic running and jumping high above terra firma. Mario faces a handful of enemies, but they’re all known quantities: Red Koopas and Goombas.
The Bullet Bills, however, work differently this time around. Rather than being anchored to the ground via blasters (and thus limited in their range and threat level), here they’re being fired from off-screen. With no blasters to define their flight paths, these Bullet Bills fly freely across the screen and can attack on any level.
This makes for a slightly random threat, but not unfairly so. The Bullet Bills fire on a regular cycle, with never more than one on-screen at a time, and an advance gunshot sound alerts you to their imminent appearance. Because this stage is about Mario traversing uneven ground and constantly rising and falling with the platforms, the Bullet Bills’ haphazard flight paths keep you on your toes. Generally speaking, though, they tend to appear roughly on the same level as Mario is standing at the time they’re disgorged, so you can almost definitely jump to a different altitude without fear of being caught off-guard by a Bullet Bill that unfairly spawned where you were jumping to.
By far the trickiest area to navigate is the center stretch in which you have a yawning chasm spanned only by a pair of moving platforms. The looping up-down motion of the elevators should be no trouble for you by this point, but paired with the perpendicular flight path of the Bullet Bills definitely creates a taxing situation in which you need to pay attention to elements moving on both the horizontal and vertical axes.
For the first time, I think we can finally characterize a World x-4 stage as genuinely difficult. World 5-4 foregoes the maze-like nature of World 4-4 in favor of a presenting you instead with an insane obstacle course of fire bars. This level contains no less than 11 fire bars, including a nasty surprise at the very beginning: A double-length bar that forces you to rethinking your usual bag of tricks.
The extra-long bar is an uncharacteristic “gotcha” moment in this game. Super Mario is usually so scrupulous about offering fair warning for its new tricks, but here the bar is mounted on a point that you may not even see until you’ve jumped into its path. Thankfully, it does enter the playing field in a “safe” position that gives you ample time to navigate past it, but between the shock of seeing this unexpected new element wedged between pits protected by a trio of Podooboos you’re just as likely to freeze momentarily and get caught in the fire bar’s sweep.
With standard fire bars, you can safely stand on their fulcrum and perform a full-height leap when they sweep upward, allowing them to pass safely beneath you. Here, however, you enjoy no such luxury. The extended bar is much too high for Mario to jump over, and it even sweeps through the Question Block above (where a power-up is located for the nimble). Between the deadly spinning bar and the bouncing fireballs, this opening sequence can be downright nasty… especially if you just wander into it unawares.
The stage doesn’t let up after you clear the intro, though. A split-level hallway filled with smaller fire bars awaits, with the usual trick of a final bar that spins the opposite direction from the rest and forces you to change up the timing on your approach.
An expanse of narrow elevators moving in opposite directions marks your initial approach to Bowser’s lair. A fire bar on either side of the gulf forces you to be mindful of your timing for both mounting and dismounting the elevators, and the jump to terra firma is made even trickier due to the fact that it’s the point at which Bowser’s long-distance flame attacks begin to appear.
One final fire bar awaits, and it’s a nasty one. Despite being a normal length, it spins twice as fast as other bars, creating a large threat in the midst of a depression in the floor that would normally serve as a haven from the flame attacks coming from off-screen. Instead of offering you a breather, this pit poses a new and tricky hazard that can potentially make you leap into an oncoming flame as you dash to clear the fire bar.
Uneven ground pocked with pits and depressions make the final run-up to Bowser extra tricky, and while this stage lacks the bridge-based fire bar of World 4-4, the low brick wall returns along with a bounding Podooboo that occupies the ideal space to stand if you want to fry Bowser. Upon his defeat, this ersatz Bowser reveals himself to be a Lakitu.