World 6-1 sees the return of Lakitu. This is Super Mario Bros.‘s way of congratulating you for surviving a brutal gauntlet: By following it up with something even worse.
Actually, this stage isn’t too difficult if you have fireballs, since Lakitu’s Spinies go down like suckers when you flash-fry them. Of course, that’s something of a tall order given the previous stage; and there are only two power-ups in total in this world, the second of which appears very near the end, when it’s too late to take proper revenge against Lakitu.
The stage design here does give you a fighting chance against the airborne nuisance, thankfully. Shortly after he appears, you can climb up onto a pair of bricks (one of which is a Question Block that contains a power-up) to take him out either by jumping or burning him. That gets him off your case long enough to get you very nearly to the next area where you can attack him, which constitutes the approximate midpoint of the stage. This second raised area is a little too low to make a jumping attack easily, but you can definitely shoot him with a fireball from up here.
If you manage to take out Lakitu once or twice, World 6-1 becomes something of a cakewalk. Of course, you’ll be tempted by coin blocks and other bonuses to put on the brakes and not jet through the stage. Not that you really can. A mad sprint to the end got you safely through World 4-1 if you didn’t feel up to dealing with Spinies, but that’s harder to pull off here where the ground is uneven and often brings you much closer to Lakitu.
Yes, the high ground offers an advantage in that it puts Lakitu within your reach, but there’s also a downside: The “run at top speed to safety” approach works by taking you beneath falling Spiny eggs, which is a cinch when Lakitu’s at the top of the screen and you’re way down below. But when you’re at a higher altitude and jumping to climb stairs, you’ll find yourself much less likely to be able to streak past the falling eggs… because they don’t have as far to fall. It’s a great instance of the level designers cleverly undermining a simple strategy by merely changing the topography and taking advantage of the way an enemy relates to the world and how that affects your own actions.
They also throw in some nasty traps. In the area where you don’t really have a means of taking out Lakitu regardless of how well you’re armed (and therefore subject to the constant assault of Spinies), there’s a low-hanging multi-coin block hidden above a pit. If you take the time to farm the block for the coins within, chances are good that you’ll give Lakitu time to drop a Spiny on your level and hem you in, leaving you nowhere to go besides dropping into the pit. In short, the very earth itself is stacked against you in World 6-1.
Not surprisingly, World 6-2 echoes the design of World 5-2, giving you three different paths which which to complete the stage. The ground-based path straight through is the most difficult and least rewarding, while the jaunt through the clouds yields the greatest dividend with the most minimal risk. And, alternately, you can go underwater, if you want.
Piranha Plants and pipes define this stage. There are tons of pipes, most of which are occupied. If you don’t have fireballs, the going can be pretty slow as you’re constantly forced to pause and wait for the plants to pop out of their tubes and make vaguely threatening chomping motions at you. On the plus side, the abundance of pipes means there’s also a record number of hidden rooms to be found. Besides the underwater and sky portions, you can also drop into two underground chambers to collect a ton of coins… provided you can figure out which pipes contain the secrets.
The most interesting feature of the stage, however, appears toward its midpoint, just after the pipe that brings you up from the underwater area (and which you’d completely miss if you took the sky route): A wide pit. This in itself is nothing incredibly noteworthy aside from being the widest pit to have appeared to this point in the game. What makes it interesting is the way the level design offers a safe route over the pit… unless you’re a pro player who’s managed to retain a power-up to this point and has developed a habit of breaking every possible brick in search of secrets.
You can leap the pit with a running jump, but it’s an intimidatingly wide span — the largest you’ve seen so far. However, there’s a row of bricks high above that allow you to circumvent the chasm safely. To reach those bricks, though, you need to ascend a series of bricks and pipes to the left of the pit. At first glance, you might not realize those bricks are there for utility rather than to hide secrets. If you hit them in search of goodies, you’ll simply shatter them, and in the process you’ll lose out on your safe passage.
This represents a small turning point in the mentality behind the stage design of Super Mario Bros. Until now, we’ve generally seen the game give you a sort of safety net by making key blocks effectively indestructible. Not only has this given Mario better footing, but it’s also provided clues and directions for the optimal route. Here, however, the discipline of seeking secrets at every opportunity actually works against you. If you break those blocks, you have to take the more dangerous (albeit more straightforward) path.
In the first half of the game, hunting for secrets proved to be a valuable skill. As we approach the end, however, survival begins to take priority over thorough exploration. Time grows shorter in each stage, and you’ll discover new ways to undermine your progress and miss out on something useful or even essential by being undisciplined.