For many of his followers, Alex ‘PangaeaPanga’ must seem like nothing short of a god. Not only does he have the genius to devise some of the hardest, most grueling Super Mario Maker levels imaginable - he also has the astonishing skills necessary to complete his own creations. Meanwhile, those who've summoned the courage to take on Panga's levels might equate him with a demon, given that the average player will gauge the difficulty of his levels as 'pure evil'. But the real Panga is just a regular, soft-spoken college student with a knack for building - and beating - brilliant platformer stages. "I'm not used to being the only guy most people pay attention to making hard levels, because there are others who can make difficult levels," says Panga. "But I guess mine are just so much better," he laughs.
Case in point: ‘Pit of Panga: P-Break’. To help filter out truly impossible designs, Super Mario Maker requires that users complete their own levels before uploading them online. If you can’t finish it, you can’t share it. It took Panga five hours to create P-Break and nine hours to beat it; as of this writing, it's been attempted nearly 900,000 times, with just over 10 successful clears. That's a completion rate of less than 0.00001 percent, and that number's getting lower by the second. The video documenting the first time Panga himself crossed the stage's finish line accrued two million views within a week. It is, as of right now, the most notorious Super Mario Maker level in existence, which makes it the one to beat, if you think you've got what it takes.
P-Break is the closest anyone's come to 'the dream' for hardcore Mario players like Panga: creating a popular level that's attempted by thousands of players but completed by none, denoting that its creator is the only person capable of beating it. "I'd say in the long run, that would be my end goal," Panga laughs. "But I guess for the short run, my goal would be to make hard enough levels that only a small percentage of people could beat, but pretty much everyone would play." That's the trick to Panga's success: his levels may be excruciatingly difficult, but the fact that they've been uploaded at all proves that they can be beaten. And hitting that sweet spot of challenging design - molding a level into a brutal yet irresistible trial, rather than a chore that feels difficult simply for difficulty's sake - is an art form.
"When I make levels, I try to be as fair as possible," says Panga. "I've seen people who try to make [tricky] levels, and then they just spam the hell out of enemies, and it's pretty much not fun for the players. When I make my levels, I try to envision myself as the player... I generally just anticipate what someone's gonna do when they get put into my level." It's a design philosophy that permeates gaming's most infamously difficult yet widely beloved games, from Super Meat Boy to Dark Souls: seeing a lofty goal and knowing deep down that you can reach it... just not yet. "I'm a true believer of that," says Panga. "I try to have people believe that they can actually do it, [rather than presenting them with] something that just feels too impossible, to the point where they're like 'I'm not even going to put the effort into this, because I know I'm not going to beat this no matter how long I spend.'"
As with any creative process, Panga's levels all start out as a core concept; a simple foundation for complex layouts that'll push the player - and the game - to their limits. "When I start a level, the first thing I do is figure out what the central idea or theme of this level is going to be," says Panga. "For example, is it going to be a water level? Is it going to be castle-based? Is it just going to revolve around Koopa shells? Stuff like that. Then the next thing I do is place a bunch of items relating to this idea and see what I can do with that idea. Take Koopa shells, for example: I usually just place a bunch of Koopa shells out on the field, then play around with them and see what I can do. I can kick them, pick them up, throw 'em at stuff, etc." From there, Panga divides these ideas up into segments, playtesting each one individually. After putting each challenging chunk to the test and seeing if he wants to expand on any of his designs, Panga links them all up to create what eventually becomes the final level.
It's a process that Panga learned long before Super Mario Maker even existed - a time when Super Mario World ROM hacks were the primary method for making your own Mario level. The most infamous of these fan-made ROMs hacks is Kaizo Mario World, which you might know better as 'Asshole Mario' courtesy of a viral YouTube series. And the tenets of Kaizo's insidiously strenuous stages - full of baffling, seemingly impossible jumps that can only be overcome if you bend Mario mechanics to their limits, and riddled with invisible blocks that can squash a promising run just before the finish line - were a major influence for Panga. It's what got him making Mario levels in the first place.
"I think I saw a video of someone playing Kaizo, and I thought 'Huh, this is pretty cool,'" he says. "I also stumbled across another ROM hack: Super Demo World, an easy ROM hack, unlike Kaizo." These hacks planted the seed in Panga's mind that he might have the creative chops to make his own Mario levels. After finding the requisite program, he was on his way to carving out a name for himself in the Super Mario World ROM hack community. "I was like 'Wow, this is really fun. I'm just going to keep doing it,'" says Panga. Since getting his start in 2009, he's made six complete ROM hacks of his own, including the legendary Item Abuse series, which uses Super Mario World's objects in ways you never knew were possible.
In some ways, ROM hacks still offer a more complete toolset than Super Mario Maker. "With a hack level, you're given a lot more items and stuff that you can use," says Panga. "So I guess there's just more thinking involved with what you want to do. You're open to so many more options that you have to limit yourself, because you don't want the level to be too long." Kaizo levels have to find a balance between being so lengthy that they feel like neverending gauntlets, and being so brief that there's no glory in finally reaching the goal post after hours upon hours of attempts. "The longer the level, obviously the harder it's going to be," says Panga. "Kaizo hacks (and my levels) tend to be kind of short - but not so short that you do one thing and beat the level."
That said, Super Mario Maker does have a few tricks that SMW's original engine could never afford. New possibilities for exacting challenge are made possible by oddball combinations of existing elements (like plopping wings on a Bob-omb), as well as new items (such as the empty Buzzy Beetle shell that Mario can wear as a protective helmet). "That definitely opens up more creativity for me; it gives more variety, gives more options for me as a creator to implement into my levels," says Panga. And most crucially, both ROM hacks and Mario Maker allow for the use of the Kaizo series' signature trademark: those devilish invisible coin blocks that have brought countless almost-there runs to a humiliating, soul-crushing halt. "The invisible coin block is something that I enjoy very much," laughs Panga. "That's the one thing that I'm unfair about. But at the same time, it's not really - I don't really consider it a Kaizo [level] unless you put an invisible coin block somewhere."
If you're determined to conquer the challenge of Panga's levels, you're signing up to be put through a demanding, meticulously designed hell. Successfully completing even a fraction of these levels requires intense concentration, incredibly nimble fingers, and the kind of mental fortitude that'll prevent your sanity from snapping in two when you inevitably die for the thousandth time. But once you've invested so much of yourself and your skills into achieving victory, the sensation that awaits you just past the finish line is utter bliss.
Listen to how ecstatic this Japanese player is when he finally beats Pit of Panga: P-Break. His impassioned shouts of "YATTA!" (Japanese for "I did it!") eventually give way to sobs of joy - at the relief that his undertaking is finally over, and that he is one of the few human beings to have beaten Panga's level. And as a creator, it's profoundly moving to know that a player experienced a transcendent sense of accomplishment after beating a level you made from scratch. "I just felt really, really happy for him," says Panga. "I could tell he spent so much time and effort on wanting to beat my level, that watching him finally do it and hearing how excited and happy he was... it just made me feel happy for him."
Panga's future is looking bright. He's currently taking donations on his increasingly popular Twitch channel to help pay for a trip to the Awesome Games Done Quick charity event next year, where he hopes to livestream his stunning blindfolded speedrun of Super Mario World. For now, Panga will simply continue producing hard levels to entertain all the players and spectators in his growing fanbase, livestreaming his creative process as he goes ("There's some amount of pressure in regards to performing well for the audience," he laughs, "but overall it's just regular playtesting for me"). All of Panga's levels to date are organized in a tidy Google doc; you may notice a lack of the original Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario Bros. 3 templates in his creations, but that won't last forever. "I never really played those two games much in my childhood; I mainly played Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros., so I'm a little biased towards those two games," he laughs.
Despite the unanimous praise for his level designs, Panga hasn't given any thought to taking his talents and making his own game. "I'm mainly just focused on making levels in Mario Maker, only for Mario Maker, for people to play on Mario Maker," he says. "The only way I'll ever get sick of it is if I absolutely run out of ideas. Other than that, I'm probably just going to keep making levels until that happens." If the creativity of his current work is any indication, it'll be a long, long time before Panga puts down Super Mario Maker for good. Someone's got to make the hardest levels in the game - and at this rate, Panga's name could be the Kaizo for a new generation of players.