In kaizo, readability refers to the ability of a level to clearly communicate what the player is supposed to do just by looking at it. It’s especially important in kaizo because of how it bumps up against the idea of traditional platforming and demands you play the game in a specific way. To this end, hacks employ guideposts such as signs or coins suggesting what the player is supposed to do in harder to read sections. It’s become something of a shared language where something like a blue coin means you have to spin jump. Coin trails and signs open up a lot of design space that ordinarily would be too obtuse without signposting. But what would happen if you cut most of the signposting out of a kaizo hack, instead hoping your level design is intuitive enough to be read? That’s the question that Super Hark Bros. 2 by ChrisG___ attempts to answer, and the results, while not perfect, come together to create an incredibly fun hack that exercises your brain as much as it does your fingers in suitably cheeky ways.
The original Hark Bros. is known for being very accessible and devilishly mischievous in equal measure. Apart from a couple of very rough tricks early on, Hark serves as a nice step up in difficulty for those just starting in kaizo as well as a primer on level design trolls – invisible blocks that lead to your death, pipes that lead to a room gently mocking you for picking the wrong pipe, things that set the player back while not to the point of frustration in the name of comedy. These trolls add a playful element to Hark that helps the hack stand out and be more than just a collection of levels.
Hark 2 continues the trend of playfully ribbing the player as they try to get through levels that are markedly more difficult than the first game. Rude invisible blocks still make appearances throughout the game, including one late in the game that uses an indicator that outright lies to the player of where a block actually is. But the biggest troll in the game is a meta one that encompasses the whole hack: There’s very little signposting in the game. Outside of rare few instances, there are no indicator coins in the level proper. Instead, you find coins strewn at the end of most levels for no seemingly good reason. In essence, it’s the ultimate troll. He didn’t take the coins away, after all. They’re still in the level. Just not anywhere where they’re of any help.
But this has another effect as well. By severely reducing the indicators in the hack, Hark 2 makes the axis of difficulty in reading a level more pronounced, turning every level into a mini-puzzle. One trick in The Lie of the Land is a good example of this. There’s a section with a high ledge that harbors a saw that falls down on top of you. Ordinarily you’d just spin jump off the saw to get onto the ledge, but in this particular level, spin jumping is turned off. If you try to simply run and jump up the ledge, you’ll get hit with the saw. The answer ends up being that you have to do a full-throated jump onto a Para-Koopa to stall for time until the saw fully falls, thus letting you safely jump onto the ledge. By forcing you to read a level without any help, Hark 2 becomes a test in kaizo logic and sensibilities while still providing the tough platforming challenge that kaizo is known for.
It’s instructive to watch the timeline of updates, though, as we see the limits of this approach. Over release weekend, newer versions of the game were released that addressed common problems players were having with the game, attaching a bunch of signposts to the most problematic sections where there were none before. The latter half of Heaven Sent is the biggest example of this. There’s a part where you have to avoid feeding Yoshi any enemies or powerups, but what isn’t spelled out is that you need to do that in the first place. The ice block that’s blocking your way is also supposed to be a hint that you’re meant to get the Fire Flower while doing all this. All these intricacies aren’t the most intuitive to figure out, so the newer versions have a new section added with a message box and bit where you’re forced to use a Fire Flower to break ice blocks, driving home the point that you need to not feed Yoshi, and get the Fire Flower while doing so.
The extensive lengths the new signposts go to prodding the player down a particular gameplay path make for a jarring juxtaposition and ultimately reveals the hack to be a bit uneven in places. But its heart is in the right place, and when you do figure out a setup that isn’t heavily signposted, it feels amazing. And while it’s clearly not an argument for all kaizo games to ditch signposting, it does still make the game stand out with a different challenge than most hacks, and does so with the same ChrisG___ mischief that the Hark name is known for.