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'Mario Maker 2' Creators Are Using Cryptography to Make Impossible Levels

A strange competition has popped up to create levels with audacious passcodes that you could spend a lifetime trying to guess.

by Patrick Klepek
Nov 7 2019, 2:00pm

Image courtesy of Alex “PangaeaPanga” Tan

10^566, or 10 to the 566th power, is a very big number. It’s such a big number, in fact, that I repeatedly failed to find a website that would calculate how big it is. Good Calculators, a “collection of really good online calculators,” refused to spit out an answer. Calculator.net, on the other hand, threw its hands up in protest, declaring the answer “infinite.” Calculator Soup had no luck, telling me the answer was “too large.” Omni Calculator was no help, either, responding to my query with a blank space. Moments later, the site asked “Did that help?”

It wasn’t until I asked Wolfram Alpha, the powerful search engine that specializes in answers to hard questions, that I was able to find what 10^566 to the power translates to. Here it is:

100000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
000000000000000000000000000000000000000
00000000000

That’s a big ass number, a one with 566 zeros after it. It’s also the staggering number of possible solutions to a remarkable stage in Super Mario Maker 2 by designer ShiroVM, called Longest Passcode Level. (You can play it at LNL-2NL-W6G). It’s not a level about jumping but blindly guessing a passcode with 1,880 numbers. There’s no way to know what the passcode is, except to guess within the 10^566 of feasible combinations. The level holds no clues, and on any given try at cracking it, you’d have a better chance winning the lottery. Far better, honestly.

The underlying mechanics driving Longest Passcode Level are complicated, but the player’s task is not. You enter the stage with a spike helmet, and walk through row after row of blocks. Some blocks, when hit, contribute to the passcode. Most blocks, however, do not. There is no way to know whether the combination is right unless you get every entry right, and the level is explicitly designed to prevent you from learning if you’ve made progress.

You will probably not be surprised to learn ShiroVM is fascinated by real-life locks, and as a hobby, spends his time trying to pick them and theorizing how to design a “pick-proof” lock. He even drew upon another personal interest, cryptography, in coming up with the level.

“The goal of the level is to act as a lock, the same way a physical combination lock does,” ShiroVM explained to me recently. “Which means the level should allow anyone who knows (and able to enter) the combination to win and prevent anyone else.”

Absent cheating, beating Longest Passcode Level is borderline impossible, which is the point. ShiroVM didn’t even task players with trying to figure out, revealing the solution as a series of 1s and 0s at the end of the video. The level uploaded to Mario Maker 2 doesn’t even require the “full” passcode. The level is technically capable of supporting a passcode with 1,880 digits, but pulling that off within Mario Maker 2’s arbitrary time limit proved too much for Shiro VM, someone with all the answers. He settled on a passcode with far, far less.

Longest Passcode Level didn’t come out of nowhere, and its origins are a familiar source of experimental torture in the Mario Maker community.

In late July, a little more than a month after Super Mario Maker 2 was released, Alex “PangaeaPanga” Tan uploaded a level called Cyber Security 101: Brute Force, alongside a YouTube video with this ominous title: “You Have Better Odds Winning the Lottery than Beating this Mario Maker 2 level.” (You can play Cyber Security 101 at 6SQ-DLG-Y2G).

PangaeaPanga became known for speedrunning Super Mario World with a blindfold and making levels specifically designed to push the world’s best players to their limits, but this was unique, even for him. There was no platforming involved. It was purely about luck.

“This is both my easiest and hardest level yet,” he said in the video, introducing a level with two rooms and two codes, making odds of 10^8, or 100,000,000 code possibilities, per room.

Luck contraptions are not new to Mario Maker; right before the release of Mario Maker 2, the community became obsessed with a level called Lucky Draw, a stage where the player did not touch the controller, and instead watched as Mario, over and over, ran through a level that was essentially a dice roll to see if Mario made it to the end. A successful dice roll on “Lucky Draw” was a one in 7.5 million chance, prompting players to leave their Wii U machines running for days at a time in the vain hopes of getting the golden ticket to leave.

The design of Cyber Security 101 is the foundation for everything that’s come after, including Longest Passcode Level. In Cyber Security 101, the player enters a long hallway with a series of coin blocks underneath a long stack of POW blocks. Each stack represents one entry in the level’s 16 digit passcode. (By comparison, “Longest Passcode Level” requires 1,880 digits.) Every time you hit the coin block, it counts towards that digit. Hit the coin block six times? Your entry is six. Don’t hit the coin block at all? Your entry is zero.

The way Cyber Security 101 works is best understood by just watching PangaeaPanga explain it himself, but in short, inputting the correct digit results in a POW block being carried into another part of the level. When the player hits a music note later in the stage, signaling they’re ready to confirm the passcode, a bob-omb will start moving forward. If the correct number of POW blocks are in place, confirming the correct passcode, the bob-omb will eventually fall down in front of the player, blowing up a block that’s hiding a red coin. The red coins unlock a key, and the key is required to walk through the door hiding the exit.

How this happens is a two step process. One, the player inputs the right digit:

Then, the game adds up the number of correct digits to see if it’s the entire code:

One very funny note about Cyber Security 101: PangaeaPanga worried players could figure out the passcode based on how much time it took to complete the level, so when uploading the stage, he briefly brought Mario to a stop before climbing the game’s ubiquitous flag pole.

Pretty quickly, Cyber Security 101 got solved, but it remains unclear if anyone did so legitimately, or if they used a hacked Switch to download the level and pull it apart. It made all the subsequent clears of the level suspect; someone who hacked the stage could just as easily have passed on the code and allowed someone else to then clear it “legitimately.”

“There was actually one person who donated on [my Twitch] stream with the correct code a couple of days ago too but not sure if anyone actually tested it out,” he told me at the time.

The first person to respond to PangaeaPanga’s weird creation was...well, PangaeaPanga. Roughly a month later, he returned with Cyber Security 102: Brute Force. (You can play it at 345-X0G-2PG.) Cyber Security 102 introduced a level with code possibilities of 8^83, or the equivalent of 904 trevigintillion, which a number sporting 74 (!!) decimal points.

The core concept—requiring a passcode without clues on how to solve it—remained, but PangaeaPanga made some important structural changes. For one, instead of hitting coin blocks to interact with POW blocks, players now literally gathered coins attached to vines, and the number of coins collected corresponded to the desired input. When a P Switch gets activated, the level checks for the solution. If it works out, a mushroom then moves forward, and if the mushroom can move all the way across the stage, a key will suddenly appear.

PangaeaPanga recognized Cyber Security 102, much like Cyber Security 101, was madness. It was largely an experiment in creativity, trying to push the game’s editor in strange directions. As such, Cyber Security 102 didn’t entertain anyone trying to legitimately (or even illegitimately) figure it out. In the comments section of the video unveiling Cyber Security 102, PangaeaPanga revealed the passcode with a note: “Don’t play this level.”

It’s at this point that PangaeaPanga gave himself a break, but the community? Not so much.

Another month went by before designer Hu Rei CV revealed a tweaked version of PangaeaPanga’s Cyber Security 102, which expanded the amount of code possibilities in the level by a whopping 11 trillion. (11,054,295,750,520.9 more possibilities, to be precise.)

To date, the level, which you can play at N9B-R5G-3NG, has not been beaten.

Which brings us full circle, back to Longest Passcode Level. It’s also a stage that has yet to be beaten, outside of the person who uploaded it, even though the code isn’t a secret. The real question is whether ShiroVM has reached the limit of the possible, if 10^566 is the cap.

“In theory the limit could be higher than that,” ShiroVM speculated to me recently.

One person who’s been wondering about where it could go next is PangaeaPanga.

“Damn this is pretty smart,” said PangaeaPanga, when I showed him ShiroVM’s creation. “I'm sure I'll find a way to improve on it.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:
nintendo
Nintendo Switch
Super Mario Maker
cryptography
Super Mario Maker 2