My mission to 100 percent Super Mario Bros. Wonder officially started a couple of weeks ago, but really it began in the late ‘80s.
As a kid, I was certifiably bad at Mario. We didn’t have our own Nintendo console, so any time I spent playing Mario prior to that was at a friend’s or cousin’s house. I’d hold the second controller and wait my turn, marveling at how they just knew where the hidden boxes were, where to jump to the top of the screen and skip ahead three levels, and how to get to the very top of the flagpole every single time. As I struggled to clear the first few stages before running out of lives, it seemed obvious to me that I lacked some instinct that made my friends good at Mario and made me objectively terrible.
A few decades later, I found myself once again sitting on the couch in my pajamas playing a side-scrolling Mario game. And as I cruised through Mario Wonder’s delightful levels, I decided I would 100 percent the game after beating it. Why? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe partly because the game is so charming and I didn’t want to be done playing it yet. But I think at least part of the reason was to prove to myself that all these years later, maybe I am good at Mario. And what could be more definitive proof than collecting every seed, purple ten coin, and flagpole in the game?
The Final-Final Test Badge Marathon is a gauntlet of the worst, trickiest ‘Mario’ shit you can imagine
Picking up the extras that I’d missed the first time around started off easy — delightful, even. Mario Wonder is pretty forgiving, which helped. If you pick up a purple coin and die in a lava pit later in the level, you don’t have to go collect the coin again. That’s key because they’re often in tricky spots, and if the game required you to finish the level on one life to retain the coin, I think I would have thrown my Switch into the sea. Even the trickier stages in the Special World and timed KO challenges were difficult but still fun in a way. Then I arrived at the very last stage, which is only revealed after you reach 100 percent on every level in the game. That’s when things changed.
The Final-Final Test Badge Marathon is a gauntlet of the worst, trickiest Mario shit you can imagine. There are 10 mini-stages inside this absolute monster, and it is the most infuriating level of any video game I’ve played in my life. Each level requires you to use a different badge ability and is specially tailored to drive you out of your mind as you time seemingly impossible jumps and dodge seemingly impossible obstacles. You do it over and over until you finally figure out your way through the level, and then you have to learn another new mini-level with fresh horrors. There are only two (!) checkpoints in the whole thing, so you end up repeating some of the same levels over and over and over until you’ve mastered the ones after it.
Cumulatively, I went through hours of play and hundreds of lives over the course of a week after tucking my kid into bed to slowly master the final-final test’s challenges. I only started to reach the very last stage three days in. I confessed to Verge’s games Slack channel that I was attempting to clear the last level, and my colleague Jay Peters offered some encouragement. “It just takes practice,” he said. One of those talking flowers says as much in the game, too, just before a heinous little number where you’re forced to bounce your way through spinning fireball obstacles. It greets you every time you start the level with “Practice makes better!”
It dawned on me, as I fought the urge to throw my controller for the hundredth time, how right they were. My cousins and friends weren’t just naturally good at Mario when we were kids, they had just practiced a lot. That sounds obvious, but honestly it’s a lesson I keep learning again and again in life. How do you become a better writer? A better parent? A more confident public speaker? Maybe a few people are born naturally gifted, but for the rest of us the answer is always the same: practice. Lots of life’s challenges seem like they can only be won or lost, but usually they’re just good practice for the next thing. That’s what I keep trying to remind myself, anyway.
Lots of life’s challenges seem like they can only be won or lost, but usually they’re just good practice
The thing that makes the final-final test so stressful is that it’s difficult to get the practice you need to beat those stages. It’s demoralizing to fight your way through three challenges only to die one jump into the last stage and have to repeat it all over again. And that last stage of the final-final test is just plain rude. It’s a lot of timed jumps onto moving targets while Mario is totally invisible. Five nights into my quest to beat it, my sanity was on a razor’s edge, and I clung to my “it’s just practice” mantra as I slowly mastered the first part of the stage.
Eventually, on maybe my hundredth try, it just happened: I jumped my way to solid ground, timed one last leap, and landed at the very top of the flagpole. It was probably partly luck, but mostly lots of practice. I celebrated as loudly as one can with a sleeping child down the hall, collected the game’s last badge, and realized I didn’t know what to do next aside from gloating on Threads. A few days later, I still haven’t figured it out. There’s always Mario Odyssey to revisit; I remember some of those levels giving me a lot of trouble the first time through. But hey, practice makes better.