World 4-4 marks the halfway point of Mario’s adventure, and as such introduces one of the most devious tricks to date: Split paths. While the level design appears at first glance to be no different from previous castle stages — only only enemy appears besides Bowser, leaving the bulk of the active threats to take the form of Podooboos, lava pits, and fire bars — the stage itself presents a devious danger.
Beyond the initial fire moat, the stage forks into high and low paths. This in itself is nothing new, as we’ve seen a few instances of divided roads through a level, but here only one path leads forward. The other throws Mario into a loop, forcing him to cover the same ground over and over again until he takes the alternate route.
The level splits twice, and if you screw up either half you’re only thrown back to repeat that half from its beginning rather than being cast to the start of the stage. Chances are actually pretty good that you’d go for the proper path to begin with, I think; in the first half of the stage, the top route is correct, and in many ways it’s more visually inviting. The bottom path seems more ominous thanks to the tunnel-like structure that leads into it, and generally speaking Super Mario Bros. has demonstrated that Mario is more likely to be at an advantage if he takes the high ground.
So, chances are you may pass through the first half of the level without even realizing the hidden trap. The top route is easier to navigate, too, as the lower route contains a Piranha Plant (a rare instance of a normal enemy appearing in a castle stage) and a fire bar rotating counter to Mario’s movement rather than complementing it.
However, you’ll need to come to terms with the reality of the situation quickly once you reach the second half of the stage. Here, the lower path is correct, but this time it’s extremely uninviting. The entrance to the lower path forces you to double back and drop down into a narrow hole directly adjacent to a pit of lava. Visually, it says, “Do not enter!” And yet you must, lest you endlessly repeat the second half of the stage.
The level timer in World 4-4 is fairly generous, so there’s plenty of time to muck around with finding the proper course of action. Future remakes of the game would provide audio feedback to complement your pursuit of the road to the end: A chime when you complete the correct path, a buzzer when you go the wrong way. Here, though, it’s all about observation. But again, the hazards are fairly minor, so seeing your way to the end safely, before time runs out, shouldn’t be too difficult.
The end of the stage presents you with the usual Bowser encounter. Unlike the past few worlds, the final room doesn’t have bricks occluding the area, so it’s much easier to sail over his head. However, it does add its own new challenges by placing both a fire bar on the bridge and a Podooboo in the lava moat beneath him. Both of these dangers are placed in front of him, exactly where you’d normally stand to take him out with a fireball. You can’t simply stand and open fire this time, because there’s very little safe ground, especially with Bowser belching flame every few seconds.
However, if you do manage to take him out with fire, you’ll find this time around “Bowser” was actually a Spiny — sensibly enough, I suppose. Now the adventure is halfway through, which means it starts getting hard from here on out.