When Nintendo introduced the Link power-up to Super Mario Maker 2, it made possible one of the most infamously clever troll levels the game has seen to date.
Built by well-known level creator Chichiri, “LoZ:Twoll-light Princess” is a masterclass in troll levels—levels that are purposefully designed to trick players into unexpected, often hilarious deaths. The course starts off simply enough, with a Link power-up dropping down onto Mario; after all, it is a Zelda-themed level, the course description reading “Embody Courage, Power, and Wisdom to obtain the fabled Triforce!” There’s also a clear condition that Mario can’t take damage, which means that you won’t be using the Link power-up to make your way through an unavoidable obstacle—a trick that’s overused in many advanced levels. It also tells experienced Super Mario Maker 2 players that there won’t be a checkpoint. So far, nothing too crazy.
The trolls themselves are pretty straightforward, too, especially if you’re used to playing troll levels. Shield-blocking a rolling spiked ball to break a wall inadvertently hits an on-off switch that drops an impassable Big Muncher, forcing you to kill Mario so you can restart. Get too overzealous with Link’s sword charge when taking out a long row of Piranha Plants and you’ll hit a hidden block with another impassable Muncher. Pop a POW block with Link’s arrow that seemingly triggers a path across a long gap and you’ll drop a screen-filling gaggle of Pokeys on your head.
The weird thing about these trolls is how obvious they are. There’s a big sign pointing down to the POW block, which is always a signal to not do the thing, and the Munchers are visible or at least hinted at. Only the most inexperienced troll level players would fall for these tricks.
But those aren’t the real trolls.
Near the end of the level (or what you think is the end), after you use Link’s bombs to open a wall, you ride a donut block down and see the message, painted in ice: DO NOT GET LINK.
As it turns out, the level was trolling you from the very beginning.
But how is that possible? There are parts of the level that only Link can get through with his bombs and the Master Sword. If you don’t get the power-up, how do you get through the level?
The trick is only comprehensible if you know the deepest machinizations of Super Mario Maker 2’s complex level creator. When you pick up Link’s power-up, which is a sword, every other power-up in the level is turned into a sword. But if you don’t get the sword at the beginning, the power-ups keep their original forms. In the case of “Twoll-light Princess,” those power-ups are Mushrooms, and seasoned Mario Maker level creators know that Mushrooms can be used in all kinds of fun ways, not just for transforming Mario into Super Mario.
Chichiri uses them in “Twoll-light Princess” to open up paths that Mario, now sans Link’s abilities, can access to get through the level. Instead of using bombs to open up walls, the Mushrooms will trigger Bob-ombs to drop down and clear the way. Where there once was a Big Muncher, there’s now a Starman that Mario can use to get past a giant spike ball. And in the final room, where coins spell out “Wisdom”, the Mushroom triggers a vine that leads Mario to the end of the level.
It’s the kind of humor that relies on the language of video games—subverting expectations, only this time, the expectations are based on our preconceived notions of how level design works. When you boil it down, troll levels are pranks, except the prankee is in on the joke.
“I’m one of those people who like unexpected things,” Chichiri told me over Discord chat. “I really get a kick out of them… Scaring people is one of my favorite things in the world.”
Like many of the Super Mario Maker 2’s troll level creators I interviewed, Chichiri didn’t bother making “vanilla” Mario levels, where skillful platforming reigns supreme. He started with a clever “quiz level” that “asked a series of questions, and then presented you with a ‘challenge’ to do [of] sorts.” After that, he made a 3D World–themed Kaizo level (which he admits, “in today’s standards, is awful”), before diving headfirst into troll levels.
Shano, another troll level creator, also skipped vanilla Mario levels in favor of something more creative and dastardly. “I started to make trolls as soon as I got my hands on the game,” he said. “It took a long time for me to actually finish my first level though, because like most people getting into making trolls, my trolls started out as garbage.”
The phrase “garbage” or “hot garbage,” while relevant to other genres of Mario Maker levels, is a particularly descriptive phrase when it comes to making troll levels. It isn’t just a phrase of denigration narrowed at bad levels; “hot garbage” has a specific definition that can be found in “Trolling for Dummies,” an 80-page document that acts as a guide, a glossary, and a philosophical treatise for aspiring and veteran troll level makers. The definition for “hot garbage” (or “garbo”) in “Trolling for Dummies” are “poorly designed levels which are full of things like random hidden blocks, enemy spam, pick-a-path, doors or pipes leading to instant death, and other things typically associated with chaotic level design.”
This definition isn’t just a standardization of a phrase that’s commonly used in the Mario Maker community. It’s a guideline that lives at the core of the troll level community’s main philosophy: Troll level creators should be laughing with the player, not at them.
The level creator who wrote “Trolling for Dummies,” Defender1031, got into troll levels near the end of the original Super Mario Maker, after he finally got a Wii U in 2018. “The troll meta was just in its infancy at that point,” he told me on Discord. “What you mostly had was super expert hot garbage ‘trolls,’ which are nothing like the psychologically deceptive trolls we’ve come to respect.”
Even at that point, though, levels were starting to pop up that planted the seeds for what the troll level meta would eventually become. “There were a few levels here and there that stood out in sort of jump starting the new breed of troll level,” Defender1031 said. “7 Troly Pieces was one. There was an early troll level by DanTheTank that did a lot of the contraption-based trolling we do these days. And of course SeanHip’s puzzles always ended with a series of unexpected trolls that got more and more elaborate as he developed as a creator.”
What initially kicked off the troll level craze was a series of YouTube videos starting in the end of 2016. Two well-known Super Mario players, CarlSagan42 and Grand POOBear, both created increasingly annoying levels for the other to play. The series was aptly titled “Carl vs. Poo.”
While earlier levels like Carl’s “A Dish Best Served Mole’d” and Poo’s crowdsourced “Hot Carl” show inklings of current troll level meta, the trolls in them “tended to be mostly unfair trolls of that sort,” Defender1031 said. It was Carl’s “Troll Level Design Contest” series that helped create the troll level community and, consequently, define the troll level meta.
“It was relatively small then as compared to now, only a few dozen troll creators or so all active in Carl’s discord among the other thousands of Carl viewers,” Defender1031 said. “We would all create, test each others’ levels, give ideas and help refine setups to make them funnier or more effective. I would definitely say that it was Carl’s contest that was the real catalyst for the community to coalesce.”
The community started on Discord and brought together level creators like Defender and Potatochan, and later, others like Chichiri. Members would chat about their levels and setups, but the community really exploded when these creators started submitting their work to streamers.
“Eventually a bunch of us realized that we could get a better sense of testing if we saw the levels being played in real time rather than just chatting about them via text,” Defender said, “so a lot of us started finding streams on Twitch that were taking viewer levels and submitting them there (after asking if they would be willing to play troll levels, of course). Many of those streamers have become troll level lovers, and many of us creators even began streaming ourselves, some doing creation on stream, others doing level testing and feedback.”
Current internet trolling, especially when it surrounds video games, mistakes harassment and toxicity for humor. In other words, trolling at its best is about laughing at other people’s expense, not with them, and at its worst it results in swatting, death threats, and real-life violence.
The irony of Super Mario Maker’s troll community is that it’s about the exact opposite.
“My favorite thing about the community is how welcoming and supportive it is,” Chichiri said. “It is always expanding, and in many other gamer circles only those ‘at the top’ are recognized for their gameplay… Another thing is that we all just like helping each other out. There have been tons of collabs between creators making levels together, as well as lots of playtesting and feedback from people. We want to see each other grow and get better. Again, in some other gaming circles, there is a stifling atmosphere for those who are trying to get into the ‘big leagues’ whereas this community is always welcoming of everyone.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t a hierarchy. While first-time level builders probably won’t get their creations immediately featured on the top streamers’ and YouTubers’ channels, more experienced level creators will often playtest levels from newbies, give them feedback, and vet the best levels to be featured on streams. If new level builders stick with it and continue to improve, then there “won’t be as many hoops to jump through,” Chichiri said.
Still, there will almost always be streamers willing to playtest levels from new creators. “Someone like Defender and Geek [has] a bit more time, so the requirements are a bit more lax,” Chichiri explained, “especially because Defender’s stream is geared around level playtesting and feedback. So Defender has certain requirements that must be met (aka it’s not hot garbage, the principles of his troll guide are followed, etc.). Whereas someone like me just has open viewer level nights where people bring troll levels and I play through them at various different stages of development.”
This kind of red tape isn’t about excluding new players, as there are always plenty of other troll makers and streamers that are willing to give feedback and help bring interested players into the fold, which was apparent by how open and willing they were to talk to me. Rather, it’s about maintaining the quality and, most importantly, ethics inherent in the troll community.
“There’s still a stigma in the [Super Mario Maker 2] community that troll levels have, which is that people think the super expert hot garbage levels are troll levels,” Chichiri said. “And the well-made troll levels are so much the opposite. They are carefully designed levels made with a lot of planning and psychology in them. It’s not just ‘Lul kaizo block’ or ‘Lul enemy spam’ or ‘Lul this required item was in this hidden block you’d NEVER ever find.’ So I wish people would stop calling the hot garbage levels ‘troll levels’ when they’re really not.”
Eighty-page guides, daily streams, and a vetting process don’t just benefit the community, but have also helped open up both Mario Maker games in unexpected ways. “The community is amazing and it’s the reason I’ve kept with this for so long,” Defender said. “I’m also constantly amazed that there’s always new creative stuff happening all the time and the community never seems to run dry of ideas. Even the week before SMM2 came out and SMM1 was set to become a dead game, there was still new tech being discovered and explored.”
The kind of effort, dedication, and thought that goes into creating a brilliant troll level can be seen in one of Carl’s most recent videos, in which he compiles the reactions of other streamers playing one of his levels while explaining step-by-step how he put the level together:
That a subculture formed around the concept of trolling can embody the concepts of positivity and community is no small feat in an era of the cult of personality, where streamers in other genres are performing toxic, even illegal acts and getting away with it. But that comes down to the main tenet of good troll levels.
“I always say that the difference between a bad troll setup and a good one is the difference between having a literal can of garbage dumped on your head versus a really well-planned surprise party,” Defender said. “Both are unexpected, but one is just completely gross and awful. The other is about friendship and making people feel good, and that’s what the troll community is truly all about.”
Header image: Chichiri done did it to me again. Credit: Nintendo