Let’s Interview; Super Mario World Hack Reviewer Levelengine!

Another one already? We only had an interview with Guinea a few days ago!

Well yeah. This interview has actually been in the works for a while, but things have been a bit too hectic to get it posted. None the less, today’s interviewee is levelengine (aka SMCsLevelEngine on Youtube). Don’t know him? He’s a bit of a minor celebrity in the Super Mario World ROM hacking scene, being someone who reviews Mario ROM hacks from sites like SMW Central and ROM Hacking.net. In addition to this, he’s also been responsible for some major hacks of his own, like Colossus and Bits & Pieces (the latter has him make levels out of resources that other people suggest at random).

So enough backstory, let’s start the interview!

1. First up, what go you into reviewing ROM hacks? Why not any other type of game?

I mean, I did enjoy playing them, so I figured, let’s eventually review them to try and help people improve. The trend really took off after watching another SMW hack reviewer, Azentiger, do the same thing, having gone though a whopping 165 hacks, or something like that.

I don’t do other games really because this computer’s old, like from 2008, so that restricts what I can do unless I get around to upgrading. A sad thing is that when I do want to step out of my comfort zone, I don’t get nearly as much approval for doing so; see the like-dislike ratio on my most recent fanfiction reading.

2. On a similar note, what was your introduction to the Super Mario World hacking scene?

Very stereotypical, really. This was back in 2008, somewhere around the peak of the ProtonJon era of Let’s Players. I believe Mario’s Wacky Worlds was what he was playing at the time. This led me to try and create my own hacks, which weren’t very good mainly because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. For the first 3 years of my SMW hacking timeline (2008-2010), I was making hacks with the goal of sending one over to ProtonJon to let’s play.

Above: ProtonJon was a massive influence on levelengine

3. Onto reviews now. What’s the reason you decide to review one hack over another one?

Romhack reviews actually started out only in 2012 and took a long while to pick up. I have no real rhyme or reason. Sometimes I get requested a hack to play, sometimes I find something interesting by myself, or through word of mouth, and other times I do romhack roulette, the risky practice of playing a romhack on SMW Central before it’s been moderated.

4. How about your scoring system? What counts towards a game getting a good review score?

This is a simple percentage, ranging between 0 and 100. There are key areas on the scale, 60 being the cut-off point between bad and decent enough, 80 being a point of excellence, and 30 being a minimum unless I’m forced to give lower.

A romhack is consisted of many overall parts, but what I always look for is how it actually plays, which would heavily depend on how levels get designed. As I once wanted to say, “Gameplay and fun factor are king and queen, and graphics is the royal guard. Everything else is a peon.” Essentially, this means that if a game doesn’t play well, the fancy gimmicks and aesthetics will have been wasted.

5. Why levelengine anyway? What’s the engine thing a reference to?

Well, there’s the “level”, which is essentially the maps or objectives a player takes on throughout the game, and then there’s the “engine”, which processes, produces, and breathes levels/level design. Not just that, with how much content I’ve built in 2014 and 2015, it’s clear that I do live up to my pseudonym. And there’s no sign of me stopping anytime soon.

6. As for SMW Central, what was your story there? When did you first decide to register and why?

I registered after having gotten back into the hobby in 2012, after having completed Luigi’s Adventure OSE and Rise to the Challenge savestateless. I also decided to submit one of my old 2009-2010 hacks thinking it still had to be good in some way. While I was wrong, I think that was one of my best decisions I’ve made. Or possibly even one of my worst.

Above: Part 1 of his Luigi’s Adventure review

7. Of all the hacks you’ve played (on video or otherwise), what one would you say was the best and why?

During the early stages of my let’s play history, I always said Rise to the Challenge was best and would not likely be topped. That hack had a solid understanding on good level design, even if challenging, and it didn’t need custom resources to do it either (though the OST was an added bonus). The author, AxemJinx, has even written an in-depth level design tutorial that covers important points such as good obstacle designs or looking at how good level designs can played by multiple different players in different styles. The one downside is the difficulty curve, where World 1 ends up being the hardest world for the first half of the game.

In terms of good design and creativity, there’s also a collaboration hack known as JUMP (Janked Up Mario Party), which sets a record for most exits in a Super Mario World hack, having 125. Creativity in gimmicks (a gameplay concept which the level places emphasis on that makes the level more memorable) reached a high point in JUMP, particularly in the late game stages or several rooms in Bowser’s Castle or Shattered Dreams. Don’t forget that this was worked on by multiple people.

Above: Also, it had an insane final boss

There’s also a whole series of romhacks, the Devious Four Chronicles, that focus on a lengthy but engaging storyline and revolve mainly around it. The two brothers that produce it, Hunter and Scorpion, have big plans for the D4C and so far have released 2 official releases (Crater and Fourth Sector), have done 2 remakes (Hunter’s Revenge 1 and 2 Recharged), one of which is finished, and are currently remaking an old spin-off episode (Hunter and Scorpion’s Bet). They’re also pretty good graphic artists that have their own unique style (which often verges on metallic and industrial), which is really like a digital signature of sorts. With Hunter and Scorpion’s commitment and work ethic, I consider the D4C to be something everyone should get a chance to see.

Above: Some trailers for the Devious Four Chronicles games

8. And the worst? Is it still Hammer Bro Demo 3?

No, it isn’t. And not only is it one, but six romhacks. However, I don’t want to talk about them or spread any sort of publicity of those round, since the author can’t be reasoned with. But Hammer Brother Demo 3 will always be a hallmark example of how not to make a hack.

Above: Hammer Brother Demo 3 (and its full version) are infamously bad, but not quite the worst.

9. Any games you’ve played you’d consider disappointing? What were they?

Action 52. Do I need to explain further? OK, I will.

Despite having a wide selection of games to play, a bunch of them function poorly and just play like mediocre clones of much better video game titles. Some of which are unbeatable. On the cartridge, a few of them don’t even work at all.

Above: Critical Bypass from Action52 is one of the ugliest games ever officially released.

There’s one game with palettes so eye-searing, you can barely look at it (Critical Bypass), and don’t forget, there was also a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, a space shooter, and… another space shooter. This was roughly 12 out of the 52 games, if I recalled correctly.

But still, this game had a suggested MSRP of $199.00. I mean, if you did buy it back in the 90’s and didn’t break it out of pure fury, it’s now a collector’s item that could easily get you your money back, if not double.

10. What things annoy you the most about a ROM hack? Any design trends that make you instantly dislike a SMW mod?

If anything, I’ve never liked blind jumps, or to be more generic, anything that can cause fake difficulty. A good example would be invisible coin block abuse. After having played Hammer Brother Demo 3, I’d just about want to complain so much even about the invisible blocks that are placed to help you reach ledges. Between that and the awful custom music, I think I’ve been scarred for life.

Also, one more thing: custom bosses. I know for a fact that many are based off of Iceguy’s noob boss sprite, including many in an older project of yours, Mario Endgame. I’d actually bet 500 bucks that Kaos, Fawful and Smithy are all built off of the noob boss sprite. There were some absurd ones in O Ninja Negro, but Kaos from Endgame should speak for itself, really.

Above: Levelengine’s least favourite boss/level

11. Your own hacks now. What was your first ROM hack project?

It was 6 blatant level edits done back in 2008. It wasn’t too surprising at the time because it was literally the first time I’ve used Lunar Magic. For silly reasons, it doesn’t exist anymore.

12. For Colossus, were there any aspects you felt could have been better?

Of course. The hack had long levels with checkpoint starvation, particularly making the last two levels extremely difficult to navigate let alone survive.

Not just that, but there was also a low point with the custom bosses. Yeah, that again. I knew very well that I had to work with respect to how few hits Mario would take, and that brought up the challenge of making a boss not too hard but not too easy that it’s just filler. Now having done it, I’d say anything above 10 hits to kill a boss is usually overdoing it unless you have an alternate health system that allows you to take more hits. I guess that explains why most bosses in Super Mario World only take 3 hits to kill. As much fun as it would be to have interesting boss fights, that’s an obstacle that would require a lot of effort to properly balance, and keep fresh the whole way through.

13. And what was the inspiration behind Bits and Pieces? Why a hack based on random resources?

I figured that I would get a mixed combination of resources as opposed to knowing what I could do with them ahead, I believed that that would require me to think harder and possibly lead to creating a new gimmick I didn’t think was possible. I did make a few crazy ideas though based on a few of the ideas that were suggested; one of them became an ON/OFF maze that you would have to constantly switch back and forth between both ON/OFF states.

Above: A random level from Bits & Pieces

14. Have you tried making a Mario fan game or Super Mario Bros X episode? If so, what was it like?

Speaking of X, I’ve only made a few levels here and there for the occasion. One of them was for Talkhaus’s A2MBXT, based off of a Talkhaus gag which was taken a little too far in the eyes of one of the project coordinators. I quote from their discussion, “what if all the enemies in the game were busty?”. I then proceeded to put a rack on a few of the enemies, such as the Bowser statue, the Rex, but best of all, the tit mouse. Those changes were later redacted for when the level was sent in, but my video preview of this level still has the enemies with breasts.

I also made two levels for SMWCX (on SMW Central), but it’s the people that still haven’t finished SMWCP2, so I don’t know.

I also entered the two Talkhaus SMBX level contests, and that was about it.

15. What about Super Mario Maker? Have you tried making many levels with that?

I have not tried Super Mario Maker. From what I’ve heard, it’s too restricted in terms of what you can do. I’ve seen just a few bits of footage of the level editor, and given its target audience likely being the average Joe, it’s far more user-friendly, but less powerful than the tools actually used in development. Super Mario Maker was not their first in-game level editor (Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis came earlier), and even then, that also didn’t have absolutely every feature from the game, and also came with a bunch of restrictions.

Also, I would have to get a whole new game console, plus the game, which would easily cost $360, probably even more with the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar.

Oh, and Mario Maker’s our competitor. Nintendo sort of drew the battle lines when they took down most of PangaeaPanga’s content, probably because they didn’t want to have any competitors.

16. Any plans for the future? Do you keep intending to review ROM hacks, or will you start reviewing other kinds of fan games at some point?

I can assure you that as long as I keep having fun with reviewing SMW hacks, then I’ll keep reviewing SMW hacks. I still do plan to occasionally upload other content, possibly even start up a Cards Against Humanity corner.

17. Finally, what suggestions would you give people wanting to make their SMW hack, or start up their own Youtube channel for reviewing them?

First thing, if you’re doing this on YouTube, don’t expect it to be easy to be known, as YouTube’s more business-oriented and capitalist than ever nowadays (which means giving the rich and powerful all the benefits/publicity). Since mid-2014, I’ve ignored the hype about growing numbers such as sub count or view count and now, I mostly Let’s Play SMW hacks because it’s something I want to do. This also means I’ll probably do whatever the hell I want, no matter what is considered “normal” or “popular” here. If you want to let’s play hacks like me, it must be something you want to actually do, and not just do looking for fame and fortune.

You don’t need a million dollar salary to be passionate about what you do, and if you think that you do, then rethink that.

So that concludes another interview. Thanks to levelengine for agreeing to be interviewed, it was a pleasure interviewing him. Hopefully it also explains a few things about the SMW ROM hacking scene for people who don’t have much knowledge or experience of it, and gives them another channel to watch on Youtube.

Anything you want to add? Questions about the interview? Post them at the Gaming Reinvented forums or on social media today!