The Anatomy of Super Mario: XXXIV. All good things

World 8-4

Bowser’s castle is different than the other castles. Oh, it looks the same, and it uses a lot of the same tricks you’ve seen in previous x-4 stages. But this is a challenge on a whole different level from what’s come before.


World 8-4 is a huge, complex maze. It makes World 7-4’s labyrinth look like an exercise in apathy by comparison. Nothing about this stage offers any quarter, and it gets nasty right from the start by forcing you to leap a chasm of fire from the bottom step of a downward staircase with a low ceiling. Here, even a simple jump has been engineered for maximum danger: The gap is wide enough that you can’t clear it with a normal jump, and the ceiling overhead is so low that you have to jump from the bottom step to prevent hitting your head. So you need to make a running leap with a single block’s run-up.

Beyond that, you get your first hint of the pipe maze ahead. The second pipe in the stage lets you warp… and it takes you back one screen, to the first pipe.


World 8-4 is full of this sort of thing. You can duck into many of the pipes in this stage, but only a few of them lead you forward. The rest set you in a loop — or worse, take you back to the beginning of the stage. There’s enough time on the clock to make one or two mistakes, but anything more than that and you’re dead.


The enemies that appear here are unconventional for a castle stage as well, and will keep you on your toes: Cheap-Cheaps inexplicably come flying out of the lava, Bloobers show up during a brief underwater jaunt with a strange color palette, Buzzy Beetles, Gloombas, and Koopa Paratroopas all make a rare castle appearance, and there’s even a Hammer Bro. determined to put a stop to your advance.


And no, you can’t collect a power-up in this level. If you don’t manage to retain a Fire Flower from 8-3 and make it through without a scratch, you have to make it past both the Hammer Bro. and Bowser’s respective flurry of hammers in order to claim victory.


Bowser here is the most difficult he’s ever been, belching rapid gouts of flame as he leaps and throws hammers. He tosses so many projectiles, in fact, that they tend to flicker out of sight because the poor NES can’t keep up with them.


I’d like to write some stirring proclamation about how this is it, how everything you’ve learned comes down to this moment, but really aside from the slightly increased vigor of his assault Bowser isn’t too terribly different from any encounter you’ve had before. There are no special techniques or tactics to clearing this battle; you just need to use the same combination of luck, timing, and determination that’s gotten you past Bowser every other time.

Really, it’s the level itself that represents the culmination of Super Mario Bros.’s mechanics and design. But it’s not even just 8-4; the whole of World 8 sequentially makes use of the skills you’ve learned and enemy capabilities you’ve mastered. From the tricky jumps of World 8-1 to the devious maze of World 8-4, these four stages put the lessons of the first seven worlds to the test. I don’t think the school metaphor is too far off the mark here; Super Mario Bros. goes out of its way to instruct you and make certain you make use of and understand its basics before offering advanced techniques, and it gives you ample opportunity to study and respond to the basics of its setup before tossing you into the deep end.


When you defeat Bowser with fireballs this time — and congratulations on that! — the critter that falls into the fire is… well, it’s Bowser. This means that, at long last, our princess is not in another castle. After a hard-fought struggle, you’ve triumphed over 32 stages of increasingly hellish challenges. Nicely done; enjoy your compliments from the Mushroom Kingdom’s strangely misshapen princess, whose skull was evidently replaced by a potato by Bowser’s dark magicks.


Now please enjoy the second, more difficult iteration of these levels. Oh, you thought that just because Super Mario Bros. offered 32 levels instead of four it wasn’t going to do the “second loop” thing? How naïve.

12 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Super Mario: XXXIV. All good things

  1. 8-4 is the most involved castle, but somehow I found it easier to navigate than 7-4. I think 8-4’s uniqueness inspired me to memorize its path, while 7-4 is mundane but devious, which doesn’t inspire one as much to learn it.

    So, did you play the game all in one run without save states, like you said you always wanted to?

  2. It might be irritating at first, but 8-4’s pipe maze has a trick to it. Always enter the first pipe you find after crossing a lava pit. With the exception of the lava pit at the start, for obvious reasons.

    If there’s any place I’ll likely end up Game Overing at, it’s this stage. The underwater bit near the end (especially the too close fire bar in the middle) is very likely to take any power-up you might have, and without a power-up of some sort the dual combination of a lone Hammer Bro and the Podoboo in the pit behind him is very likely to kill you.

    I’m not kidding when I call that Hammer Bro the real final boss. Bowser telegraphs his flame throwing, has a huge blind spot in his hammer arc, gives you a wider margin of error to run under him and for the axe. As long as you’re cautious, dumping him in the lava is no problem.

  3. You know, I was just thinking about how the timer is a legitimate threat in the original SMB. Aside from what I’ve heard about New Super Luigi U, I can’t think of any other instances of having to really be careful about the timer in any of the other games. Then again, 20+ years of playing side-scrolling platformers could be warping my perception.

    I agree with Vega on the navigation issue. 7-4 was the level that really made me nervous on my last full run of the game.

  4. I’m wondering if Jeremy finally finished the game himself, or just went by the screenshots?

    I’m still trying to beat this game (on original hardware, no warps or Game Genie), last night’s attempt ended with my last Mario undershooting the jump for the axe and colliding with 7-4’s Bowser. :'(

    1. Clearly you didn’t pay much attention to these articles! I mentioned playing as I wrote several times. And how could I possibly write detailed analyses based on screen shots, especially when I often referenced elements not shown in these screens?

  5. Ah, 8-4… it was so intimidating when I was a kid, but it’s a fun challenge now. I love how it really does feel like everything you’ve been through comes down to this, particularly with most of the enemies making one final appearance. All bets are off.

    By the way, not sure if you’re collecting these for a book as I think you did with Castlevania, but if so, it’s “Cheep Cheeps,” not “Cheap Cheaps;” they’re flying fish with wings, not extremely frugal spenders. ;P

    So much satisfaction in defeating this Bowser with fireballs and seeing the real Koopa King fall.

    The Hammer Bro reminds me: For the first game, I didn’t realize that the white thing coming down from their helmet was a chin strap in this game’s art; I just thought they had this really big, psychotic grin which went hand-in-hand with their movements and hammer throwing for maximum intimidation factor.

    Last, if I’m not mistaken, I think it is possible to clear that first game from the top step, though you might need to duck or be regular Mario to do it.

  6. @J. Parish
    I did not intend to cast aspersions on your gaming ability or journalistic integrety, but it’s because I was paying VERY much attention to these articles (perhaps TOO much attention) that I came to suspect you might be relying more on distant memories and screenshots from VGMuseum and VGMaps than on recent gameplay experience. Particularly in Part I (Donkey Kong) when you admitted “I confess I’ve never finished Super Mario Bros. (made it 8-3 a couple of times before I burned out)”, and how you mentioned chimes and buzzers signaling success/failure of the maze in your anatomy of 4-4… which now that I look back on, I see you’ve amended and explained in the comments that you were playing on a noisy airplane when you wrote that section. Color me corrected, just give me a minute to take my foot out of my mouth…

    I guess what really surprised me was the lack of fanfare to celebrate finally beating this classic game for the sake of this article. I guess you are just more humble than I gave you credit for… or just too burned out from the effort to feel like celebrating? :p

    To tell the truth, this Anatomy of a Game series is partly what made me resolve to keep the old SMB/Duck Hunt cartridge in my NES until I could finally beat it. No matter how tempted I get by Zelda, Final Fantasy, Chrystalis, or Dragon Warrior, saving Princess Toadstool will come first. I was also challenging myself to beat the game before you did… I may have failed that challenge, but I still hold out hope I can beat the whole game in one run sans save states before you do (as pointless an acheivement as that may be)! Tonight’s effort was my first time ever reaching 8-4… and ended with Mario falling into a lava pit before getting halfway through the maze :(

  7. I feel like it’s possible to get over the first lava pit in 8-4 by simply backing up to the left side of the screen and running full-throttle to the the right without jumping. Does anyone know if this works?

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