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DeppySlide VLDC Fan Judge Thread (Top 25 VLDC 1-5 Levels!)
Forum Index - SMW Hacking - SMW Hacking Discussion - DeppySlide VLDC Fan Judge Thread (Top 25 VLDC 1-5 Levels!)
Pages: « 1 »
Table of Contents:
0. Introduction
1. What’s in the Package?
2. What Do the Rank Tiers Mean?
3. VLDC2 – The Levels
4. VLDC2 – The Contests
5. Conclusions and Looking Ahead


DeppySlide's Review and Analysis of SMWC's Second Vanilla Level Design Contest

NOTE: The download links to the files (including all VLDC2 patches and all my notes/data) are here(.7z) or here(.zip). If you just want to see the rankings for each contest, you can view them online here. I would appreciate if you continued reading, though. :)






0. Introduction

About a month ago, I played through VLDC1 with the plans of writing my observations and analysis of the entries and the happenings in the contest itself. I ended up scrapping that essay because I didn’t really have much to say about VLDC1; the levels are all pretty fine if you like 2000s era vanilla design, and the contest itself fits perfectly as the “humble beginnings” of what is arguably SMWC’s biggest institution.

VLDC2, on the other hand, was a whole different beast, and I have quite a bit more to say about it. Additionally, its entries are not as readily available as VLDC1’s are, since it was never made into a compilation (and having played VLDC2, I wouldn’t expect one to be made honestly.) So, I have presented my reviews and analysis in a package for your perusal.

1. What’s in the Package?

Originally posted by readme
This ZIP contains my mini-reviews and additional data for SMWC's Vanilla Level Design Contests on 2008 and 2009. Instead of scores, the entries are presented as ranked in order from best to worst, with tiers to better separate levels of quality. In addition to these tabs are the following:

- A compilation of judge scores, with the top 5 and bottom 5 highlighted (overall and per judge), and calculations for average and box-plot quartiles.
- A comparison of my personal ranking with the contest and judge rankings, highting the top 5 "positive" and "negative" differences, and levels with no difference. The judge rankings are also compared between judges, and the largest differences are shown separately.
- Statistics for all users that entered in each contest, showing join date, submission post date and #, total posts and last post/seen dates. The ratio of submission post # out of total posts is calculated, as well as averages and medians of all three. I have also highlighted users that either left before the next VLDC or (in VLDC2's case) joined after the previous one.
- A comparison of entry ranks (both personal and contest) for users which submitted entries in both contests. Ranks are adjusted to base 100 to compensate for the different amount of entries.


Originally posted by readme
I played VLDC1 through Aja's compilation, located here. I have also thrown in the judge comments and Joshua's partial fan judge comments.

Because VLDC2 is less readily available, I have included all the BPS patches found through Zandro's Hack Archive. I have only judged the latest level versions dated before the deadline. I have also included Ultimaximus' original compilation of IPS patches and text documents, which includes a readme, results, submissions lists, judge comments, and select entry readmes. However, Ulti's fan judge documents are unfortunately lost.


2. What Do the Rank Tiers Mean?

Best – Without a doubt the best entries submitted to the contest, with great attention to design, creativity and aesthetics. These are the must-play levels.
Honorary – Great levels, maybe not quite as finessed as the Best-tier ones, but still a step ahead of the rest of the entries. Highly recommended.
Upper – Solid entries overall. Not flawless, and maybe not as ambitious as the higher tiers, but really enjoyable experiences on the whole. Recommended.
Upper-Mid – Better than the average entry, but either has too big an issue to ignore or lacks something to stand out as a really great level. Recommended if you have the time.
Middle – As it says, middle-of-the-road levels. Competent, playable levels that nevertheless are held back either by flawed execution or lack of creativity. Worth checking for your own opinion at least.
Lower-Mid – Still passable levels, but really starting to see bigger flaws in design that hamper the enjoyment in the level. Not really recommended, but nothing you’ll really regret playing I guess.
Lower – Much more problematic design starts appear, whether it’s too bland, broken or simply not enjoyable. Not the worst, but far from the best. Not recommended.
Dishonorary – Really bad levels, with unfocused design, technical issues, and/or poor aesthetics. Definitely not recommended.
Worst – Bottom of the barrel. Only play out of morbid curiosity.

In addition to these standard tiers, I have (thus far) an additional set of tiers for special cases:

Lower-II – VLDC1 only. Meant to separate levels from Lower tier that I felt were particularly uninspired. Not recommended.
Blatant Edit – VLDC1 only. Reserved for levels which are slightly edited reskins of original SMW levels.
??? - VLDC1 only. Reserved for lost levels.
Gauntlet Timeout – VLDC2 only. Gauntlet levels (see below for definition) which I feel have better design and worth a better position in the rankings. Still not something I’d recommend, but others might find them worth playing.
Gauntlet Jail – VLDC2 only. Levels which, instead of focusing on one particular design idea or theme, spread the level into several different themes and designs. While this seemed in vogue at the time, I personally feel this was a detriment to the design and makes levels feel unfocused and undeveloped. Not recommended, though maybe others feel differently.
Broken – VLDC2 only. Reserved for levels whose patch, at the time of deadline, did not work, leaving the level unplayable.

3. VLDC2 – The Levels

Now that I have explained how my tier system works, here is a side by side comparison of tier counts between both VLDC1 and VLDC2.

As you can see, VLDC2 ended up with a lot more levels in the lower tiers, mostly thanks to the inclusion of the two Gauntlet tiers. I haven’t ranked the levels of each contest together, so maybe I ended up grading VLDC2 levels harder, but I do think VLDC2 levels suffered a lot from either Gauntlet-style design or for being way too long in length, especially if they have several exits.

Now, I should mention that my only VLDC entry was a Gauntlet level, so I can sort of comment on why I think these levels get made. It’s a combination of not being confident in your design while being too confident, if that makes sense. Maybe you don’t feel like you can stretch a gimmick or idea you have to a whole level, and you don’t have (or don’t think you have) the artistic skills to make a theme in vanilla graphics unique to SMW. So instead, you try to do it all, like you’re pitching a demo reel to the judges. “Folks, I can do cave sections! A flying section! Boss battles! I’ve got it all!” Obviously I can’t speak for the developers of all these gauntlet levels, only my own decision-making, but I don’t think I’m too off-base with my theory.

In the end, I put these Gauntlet levels at these lower tiers because I genuinely do think this style of level leads to worse design. My personal favorite levels tend to have either well-executed themes unique or improved on SMW’s own (perhaps with nonlinear design that avoids being too labyrinthine), or levels that take an interesting design concept and continue to development on it throughout the level (the DKC trilogy style of design). Gauntlet levels tend to go against both of these, at most having a singular frame-work (usually just “rescue the princess!”, which makes a lot of them feel like a world-inside-a-level levels) as their theme and using no more than the standard obstacles per segment. I did put a few levels higher-up (i.e. Gauntlet Timeout) for at least being more creative or having better design, and a few levels escaped both Gauntlet tiers, but otherwise I think their placement in my rankings is fair.

The other recurring theme throughout VLDC2 was the large number of long levels. I didn’t have as much of an issue with this compared to the Gauntlet levels, but it did make playing through the contest much more exhausting. I will admit that for some levels where the length got particularly aggravating, usually do to there not being a midpoint or otherwise just being too long, I would savestate occasionally just to save myself some time (I can’t spend all day playing ROM hacks you know). Less is more really is the less that needed to be learned after this contest, honestly. Like I said, though, this wasn’t as much of a problem for me.

What was a problem, though, was the number of levels with multiple secret exits. One of the oddities of the first two VLDCs was that, since a compilation patch was not expected (though a VLDC1 compilation was talked about at the time), levels could have as many exits as the author wanted. Most entries stuck to the normal 1 or 2, but a few really took it to an extreme. VLDC1 was guilty of this also, but it was never that much of an issue and remained just a novelty. Pleasant Hills, for example, had a whopping seven exits, but the level was pretty easy and the exits simple enough to find that I didn’t really have a problem with it. In VLDC2, on the other hand, these levels were much harder to where finding all the exits became far too tedious. This comes to a head with the levels Caramel Cave and 3 Trials, which have an obscene 13 and 12 exits, respectively. Caramel Cave has 8 bonus exits, all hidden by invisible paths (with what could generously be called hints) and 5 required paths, four of which are switch palaces. Sounds like a lot, but 3 Trials is really what takes the cake: 9 bonus exits, 2 checkpoint exits and one exit at the end of what is essentially three lengthy Gauntlet levels stacked together, containing the worst of everything I’ve mentioned already.

Yet I can’t mention all this without also mentioning that out of all the levels, I have to admit that Deja Vu Tower, while being a Gauntlet level with five different exits, is hands down the best level of VLDC2. As I say in the readme, I plan on doing a bigger write-up of YCZ’s level in the future, but the level manages to be very enjoyable, with great (but not flawless) design, some impressive aesthetics (the “overworld” section was a particular eye-pop moment for me), and a clever use of multiple exits that makes the level play really well if you know what you’re doing (and maybe frustrating if you don’t). It kind of reminds me of playing an hour-long metroidvania flash game back in the day which is… admittedly not what I look for in a Mario level. Still, there isn’t a level I could really substitute for first place; the only level that really comes close is Subterranean Ship, a pitch-perfect Mario level that would’ve fit perfectly in an official Nintendo game. I don’t know if making YCZ’s level my #1 pick invalidates all my previous points, but it does seem like the best level you could make of its type. Deja Vu Tower, for better or worse, is the one level you should play from VLDC2; at the very least you’ll probably never play another VLDC entry like it again (cuz FPzero didn’t allow multiple exits after this, lol).

4. VLDC2 – The Contest

Part of the reason I’m looking at all these contests is to see how something like VLDC grew into an institution of the site. I mean, this was eleven years ago, back when VLDC was just the “SMW Level Design Contest” and there wasn’t even a contests subforum. One of the most interesting quirks to me is that level discussion was not allowed during the submission period; you could ask questions in the submissions thread, and talk about the level you submitted and the contest in general, but you could not discuss anyone else’s levels until the submission ended. (VLDC2 sort of subverted this by letting people post their levels in the screenshots & videos thread to get responses there, which doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of that rule anyway?) Both contests are also pretty compact as far as submissions go, 52 for VLDC1 and 65 for VLDC2; even despite the increasing level lengths in 2, it shouldn’t take too long to get through the whole thing.

Unfortunately, both of these early contests also suffer from judging/scoring issues. VLDC1 ran smoothly, absurdly smoothly in fact (results came out 3 days after deadline,) but the scoring skewed incredibly positive. FPzero in particular had nearly ¾ of the entries scored at 40/50, which doesn’t even really square with his comments (in the results thread he mentioned something about an odd scoring method). To be clear, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with this; it fits with the laid-back attitude of VLDC1, and I’m not doing this to reprimand past judge scores anyway. But it does make the data for rank comparisons rather meaningless, as the differences in ranks for me seems much greater than for the contest.

The VLDC2 overall contest scoring is more in line with what I’d expect, skewing positive but still having a wider range of scores. However, it turns out the judging process ended up being much messier than last time, taking over two months for the results to come out. Of the four originally planned judges, two dropped out (one I don’t even think ever checked the contest honestly) and the other two weren’t able to finish in time. FPzero had to drop out due to real life circumstances and Foursword4 had to take over (also inadvertently making their level a judge level, so S.N.N. had to judge it), but they both at least did a decent job of it. The fourth judge, ShodanWii, also didn’t complete judging, so about a dozen levels were left only judged by one person. They also didn’t comment on about half the levels, and only had minimal comments on most others, usually only focusing on trivial things like cutoff. Like FPzero, ShodanWii said real-life issues got in the way, which I can understand (I’ve been there, after all). But that does leave me again with nothing much I can do with the scoring/judge data other than present it as it is.

At the very least, there doesn’t seem to be any discourse at all in either of the two VLDCs. VLDC1 had pretty much no issues whatsoever, maybe some gripes about the first place entry (Mountain Heights) but that’s about it. And VLDC2 just had some people upset about the deadline and judging quality, no problems at all with certain entries or design trends or anything like that. For all my issues with VLDC2, it’s still a pretty relaxed affair, and I can appreciate it for that.

5. Conclusions and Looking Ahead

I have only skimmed the VLDC3 submissions thread, and while I obviously can’t speak for level quality yet, I recognize the formatting as what the contest looked like, at least before the collab era. There is now a discussion thread parallel to the submissions thread, custom music is finally allowed (though in 2010 this is admittedly a mixed blessing), there’s finally an exit limit, and a whopping 124 entries – more than VLDC1 and 2 combined. On the surface it seems that the contest was beginning to mature, with some of the more unusual aspects of the previous contests ironed out. Of course, VLDC1 remains having the honor as the inaugural contest, worth of its own compilation hack a decade later and fond remembrances from those that participated. So, where does that leave VLDC2?

To me, it ends up as an odd duck, the black sheep of the family, the proverbial sophomore slump. The oddities of the first contest are still intact, but without the benefit of the doubt given to the first try. More levels went for being longer and nonlinear, by extension making it a bit more exhausting to play through, as evidenced by the difficulties with judging. And again, there’s just far too many Gauntlet levels for my liking (though something tells me this isn’t a problem that’s gonna go away soon). While I wouldn’t go as far to say as the contest should be best left forgotten, as there’s still plenty of good to be found, it’s much harder for me to recommend going back to it than it is for VLDC1. Still, if you would like, I have all the levels provided to you, and both mine and the judges’ rankings for your perusal.




(Thanks for reading this far. I spent the whole day writing this and there may be some incoherent rambling. Please yell at me below if any of it doesn’t make sense. Also please let me know if none of my rankings or anything make any sense; I haven’t shown anybody my notes so there’s maybe some inconsistent logic going on. Also it’s probably gonna be a while before I get VLDC3 done, considering how many entries there are and that I need a break from this anyway.)
I have updated the thread to include a separate link for the ratings. (here)
Originally posted by DeppySlide
Now, I should mention that my only VLDC entry was a Gauntlet level, so I can sort of comment on why I think these levels get made. It’s a combination of not being confident in your design while being too confident, if that makes sense. Maybe you don’t feel like you can stretch a gimmick or idea you have to a whole level, and you don’t have (or don’t think you have) the artistic skills to make a theme in vanilla graphics unique to SMW. So instead, you try to do it all, like you’re pitching a demo reel to the judges. “Folks, I can do cave sections! A flying section! Boss battles! I’ve got it all!” Obviously I can’t speak for the developers of all these gauntlet levels, only my own decision-making, but I don’t think I’m too off-base with my theory.
Personally this is the part that's most interesting to me. I have a few theories as to why gauntlet levels were so prevalent.

I think it's important to note that at the time, VLDC was (and in many ways still is) the place to demonstrate your level making skills if you aren't interested in, or committed enough, to make a full hack. I can speak for myself when I say that 1-3 levels a year is perfectly fine by me, and I'm much more likely to enter a contest than I am to work on a hack.
This means that for many people, contests are really their only opportunity to "show off" their level design skills. So naturally people want to impress by cramming in as much stuff as possible.

And of course there's always the opposite, those level designers that are god damn machines that can just crank out entire hacks worth of content with incredibly short turnover periods just accidentally make their level 300 screens long because they dont have the tiny receptor in their brain that tells them that they should cut all of the least interesting stuff.

There's also the fact that nobody was allowed to discuss anybody else's level, maybe most people thought they were the only ones to think of making a gauntlet level #smrpg{gasp}

e: and of course with the prevalence of savestates and rewinds perhaps most people didnt even realize how long their level was, because they technically only ever played it once.
DeppySlide's Review and Analysis of SMWC's Third Vanilla Level Design Contest

NOTE: The download links to the files (including all VLDC3 patches and all my notes/data) are here(.7z) or here(.zip). If you just want to see the rankings for each contest, you can view them online here.

1. What the Files Contain

Originally posted by the readme
This ZIP contains my mini-reviews and additional data for SMWC's 2010 Vanilla Level Design Contest. The worksheet is an extension of the previous one, and thus includes the previous data for VLDCs 1 and 2. Instead of scores, the entries are presented as ranked in order from best to worst, with tiers to better separate levels of quality. In addition to my own rankings, I have also provided:

- A compilation of judge scores, with the top 10 and bottom 10 highlighted (overall and per judge), and calculations for average and box-plot quartiles.
- A comparison of my personal ranking with the contest and judge rankings, hilighting the top 10 "positive" and "negative" differences, and levels with no difference. The judge rankings are also compared between judges, while the largest rank differences for all comparisons are shown separately.
- Statistics for all users that entered in each contest, showing join date, submission post date and #, total posts and last post/seen dates. The ratio of submission post # out of total posts is calculated, as well as medians of all numbers and dates. I have also highlighted users that either left before VLDC4 started or joined after VLDC2's submission deadline.
- A comparison of entry ranks (both personal and contest) for users which submitted entries in both contests. Ranks are adjusted to compensate for the different number of entries in each contest.
- A scenario for if SyStemkraSh's scores were included as part of the final contest scores. Both adjusted contest ranks and changes in ranking are provided.


Originally posted by the readme
I would like to give many thanks to Zandro for providing me a compilation of all VLDC3 entries, saving me a lot of time. I have included that compilation as part of my files. Note that some patches were from after the deadline had passed; for those, I downloaded the pre-deadline versions off of Zandro's site. I will include those as well, but note that those files are named based on my entry numbers, and not the official contest ones that Zandro uses.

It should be noted that VLDC3 allowed custom music, and while only about 40 entries did so, because of emulation issues with custom music at the time, these levels may not work currectly on modern emulators. It is highly recommended to play these entries in compatability mode, or with ZSNES (or an older version of SNES9X).

I have also included Ultimaximus' original compilation of IPS patches and text documents, which includes a readme, results, submissions lists, judge comments, select entry readmes. The official scoring spreadsheet is also included. Separately, I have added SyStemkraSh's judge comments (from FPzero's filebin) and fan judge documents from both Aquamentus and mariofan1000 (formerly Error 52, now blank the blank); fan judge documents were from the VLDC3 discussion thread, linked below. Lastly, I have added a collection of screenshots showing various VLDC3 "architecture". I have also uploaded them here.


2. Tier Guide

STANDARD TIERS
Best – Without a doubt the best entries submitted to the contest, with great attention to design, creativity and aesthetics. These are the must-play levels.
Honorary – Great levels, maybe not quite as finessed as the Best-tier ones, but still a step ahead of the rest of the entries. Highly recommended.
Upper – Solid entries overall. Not flawless, and maybe not as ambitious as the higher tiers, but really enjoyable experiences on the whole. Recommended.
Upper-Mid – Better than the average entry, but either has too big an issue to ignore or lacks something to stand out as a really great level. Recommended if you have the time.
Middle – As it says, middle-of-the-road levels. Competent, playable levels that nevertheless are held back either by flawed execution or lack of creativity. Worth checking for your own opinion at least.
Lower-Mid - Still passable levels, but really starting to see bigger flaws in design that hamper the enjoyment in the level. Not really recommended, but nothing you’ll really regret playing I guess.
Lower – Much more problematic design starts appear, whether it’s too bland, broken or simply not enjoyable. Not the worst, but far from the best. Not recommended.
Dishonorary – Really bad levels, with unfocused design, technical issues, and/or poor aesthetics. Definitely not recommended.
Worst – Bottom of the barrel. Only play out of morbid curiosity.

SPECIAL TIERS
Vanilla Dome - Levels that are perfectly functional and play fine, but I feel do not take any risks in design or creativity. In-between Lower-Mid and Lower tiers. Not recommended but maybe you'll enjoy these levels more than me.
Lower II - Originally from VLDC1, this is for levels that are severely flawed in my opinion, but have enough design qualities that I do not feel they fit in Dishonorary tier. Still, not recommended.
Joke - Reserved for levels that were clearly not made with a serious effort in mind.
Blatant Edit - Reserved for levels which are slightly edited reskins of original SMW levels.
Broken - Reserved for levels whose patch, at the time of deadline, did not work, leaving the level unplayable. Note that this excludes levels with existing working patches for previous versions.
DNF - Reserved for levels that I chose not to complete, most likely due to ridiculous difficulty. These levels are excluded from ranking.
DQ - DISQUALIFIED! Reserved for levels that either used custom sprites, blocks, or patches that affected gameplay, or excessively custom graphics. These levels are excluded from ranking. (Blocks of Chaos is a special case; see my comments.)
[n/a] - This is a special case; the level was included in Zandro's patch archive, as it was clearly designed for the contest, but does not to appear to have been submitted, even outside of the submissions thread. As such, I do not feel comfortable ranking the level with the rest of the entries and have only included it for completion's sake.






Going to be adding my comments later. Right now I just want to get the work I already did out there :)
1. The Levels

I think when you asked me before what I expected early VLDC to be like, VLDC3 would be what I would picture. The first two contests feel informal; VLDC1 feels more like a game jam than a contest, while VLDC2 had a lot of pains both in the level design and the judging process. With VLDC3, those issues are ironed out; the level exit limited seemed to dissuade most people from overly long levels – though there’s a handful of notable exceptions – and the judging this time was solid all-around. Much more impactful, though, was the volume of entries; VLDC3 has more submissions than 1 and 2 combined and had the most of any VLDC for several years. In other words, this was the first time I felt like I was playing a site-wide contest that attracted a variety of people into entering.

Of course, that means VLDC3 has its own host of quirks that make it hard to recommend playing through today. This time, the problem is an overabundance of average but unambitious levels that, while certainly playable and mildly entertaining, are pretty quickly forgotten; there were certainly a few levels that I immediately forgot about after playing. These particular levels ended up in their own tier around the middle of the rankings. I wouldn’t say they were worse to play than the more grueling levels of VLDC2 (and some in VLDC3), but I anticipate this will be a recurring issue in the future.

Personally, one of the more interesting aspects was the different ways in which people failed in this contest, intentionally or not. In the case of the former, not only were there seven broken patches, but they all seemed to break in different ways. Some were the typical unplayable patch, one had garbled graphics, and for another the patch changed nothing at all. One patch wasn’t even broken; CASTLE OF DOOM (LaularuKyrumo) was edited from level 101 (#1 Iggy’s Castle) but the overworld wasn’t edited in turn, forcing the player to complete Yoshi’s Island 2, 3 and 4 to reach the actual entry.

Then you had the numerous joke levels, or at least levels not made for winning the contest. You had the lazy joke entries like A Mario Game About Weed (bokobono) or DragonManGuyDude’s level (although “jackson o pololocok wouldnt take non eof o this shit” is still pretty funny), but then something like Opticallity (aka Subliminal Messages, made by fakescaper) where it wasn’t low effort, but wasn’t made to win at all either. It was, however, made to be let’s played, by raocow specifically, which is a phenomenon that hadn’t really come up at all in VLDC1 or 2 and another sign of VLDC’s growing importance on the site.

Finally, there’s the special case of Blocks of Chaos (Smallhacker), which uses an exploit in Lunar Magic 1.0's code to randomly generate a level (or, more accurately, generate a bunch of cement blocks and a goal at the end). It's not really a "failure" like the above levels, but it really goes against the standards of what is expected from this contest. More to the point, though, I think all these levels show the draw this contest was starting to bring, both in terms of the quantity of contestants and the attention both inside and outside of SMWC that the contest was getting.

Admittedly, there isn’t really a level this contest that I think should be specifically highlighted in its own essay. While VLDC2 had Déjà Vu Tower (yoshicookiezeus, and I promise I’ll do a write-up on that one day), Watch Tower Duke-Out (Agent Q), while maybe my favorite VLDC level of all thus far, is a pretty standard but well-designed level; there’s not really anything to break down. And while it is somewhat notable that this is the first time the contest’s first place entry (Forever Factory, Lynnes) didn’t match up with mine, I don’t have anything to really say about that one either. It’s an enjoyable level with stunning graphics that suffers from some annoying design, no midpoint, and a few too many cutscenes. On the opposite end, Mario and Yoshi Visit Adventure Island (mariocool1999) would maybe be gratifying to break down given how miserable I was playing it the first time, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. And of course, there’s the infamous Vanilla Rain (TheGamer), but I think that should be saved for when I reach the author’s similar VLDC5 level.

2. The Aesthetic

As far as trends go, the only one I can really think of are the aesthetics used for a good number of levels. Specifically, the overabundance of complicated Map16 decorations that’s usually generalized to “diamond dirt”, though there’s much more to it than that (please refer to the photo reel for numerous visual examples of what I’m talking about). Now, I should be clear that this graphical style had no effect on my scoring, save for a few instances where it was so cluttered that it was actually hard to tell where to go; in fact, my second place pick (Mystical Orb Search, reghrhre) uses this style quite a bit. But it’s endlessly fascinating to me that it was such a popular style at the time.

To my understanding, most of this was popularized by the hack “Super Mario World Hacks 101” by Tails_155, a once-featured hack made to assist others in designing SMW hacks. I haven’t had a chance to play it, though I probably will in the future, but the author did submit a level from the hack (Subaqua Adventure) to VLDC3, and I didn’t particularly care for it. Design-wise it’s a pretty bland water level, and the rock formations, aside from looking absolutely ridiculous in my opinion, made it hard to tell what was in the background or the foreground. Yet at the time it scored a whopping 29/30 in appeal (36/40 if counting SyStemkraSh’s scores), critical praise from both fan judges, and at least one reply in the discussion threads saying they expected Tails_155’s level to win. Notably, this level had the second biggest “negative” difference between my ranking and the contest’s ranking, at my 80th place vs. the contest’s 25th place (the biggest “negative” difference goes to Vanilla Rain, 90th vs 33rd.)

I guess it fascinates me because it’s not like these are lazy decorations or anything. Some of these setups are really elaborate and require a lot of custom Map16 blocks. At the same time, it seems like a more accessible option than using tileset merging to create new decorations that way. But it’s all in service of these ridiculous-looking dirt holes, “folding” rocks, half- and quarter-blocks, platforms-on-platforms-on-platforms, that really do not hold up at all today. It’s not even really a design vs. aesthetics situation, either; like I said, all the levels with this style very in design quality, and the only level that I could really think of fitting the “design over graphics” mold is Mountain Path (jesus) and maybe a couple others – otherwise, usually bland graphics had bland design to match.

One last thing I should mention is that this was the first VLDC3 to allow custom music as a way to add some variety to the levels. I think there’s a discussion worth having about how silly the idea is that custom music doesn’t affect the level experience and how it can’t not be judged, but there’s not really a point to have that discussion now since only 40 of the ~125 levels used custom music at all. I’m not sure if it’s because custom music was a lot harder to add back then or if people just didn’t want it because it didn’t sound good (which, to be fair, at the time a lot of custom music sounded pretty bad) or they didn’t consider it vanilla, but for the most part I heard a lot of the same SMW music I’ve been hearing since VLDC1. Just a small observation I made, since originally, I was expecting nearly every level to have custom music.

3. Conclusions

I was going to talk about the “what vanilla means” discourse, since this was the first contest where that really started popping up, as well as the judging and how the levels have been scored since VLDC1, as I found the judging here to be actually worth discussing; however, having looked a little bit ahead into VLDC4, it looks like both of these topics are going to be discussed in much more detail there, so for now I will save them for the future. Overall, though, I really don’t have much specific to talk about VLDC3 as a whole. It does feel like the definitive early VLDC, and playing through it was an interesting experience on its own, but I don’t know if I would recommend others doing the same; I certainly wouldn’t try to make it into a collab like VLDC1, even with the exit restrictions.

If anything, I’m more impressed I was able to play through 127 entries – twice even! – without crashing and cancelling this project entirely. Aside from some moments of self-doubt when dealing with a lot of the middling entries at once, there is something interesting to playing through a whole contest and seeing the standout entries, both good, bad and weird. And hey, it was kind of going back to ZSNES for a while. I guess in the end, after seeing the first steps of VLDC1 and the stumbling block of VLDC2, it was satisfying to see VLDC3 almost like the contest currently running to this day.
DeppySlide's Review and Analysis of SMWC's Fourth Vanilla Level Design Contest

NOTE: The download links to the files (including all VLDC4 patches and all my notes/data) are here(.7z) or here(.zip). If you just want to see the rankings for each contest, you can view them online here.

1. What the Files Contain

Originally posted by the readme
This ZIP contains my mini-reviews and additional data for SMWC's 2011 Vanilla Level Design Contest. This worksheet is a clean break from the previous three contests, and will eventually include VLDC5 and 6. Instead of scores, the entries are presented as ranked in order from best to worst, with tiers to better separate levels of quality. In addition to my own rankings, I have also provided:

- A compilation of judge scores, with the top 10 and bottom 10 highlighted (overall and per judge), and calculations for average and box-plot quartiles.
- A comparison of my personal ranking with the contest and judge rankings, highlighting the top 10 "positive" and "negative" differences, and levels with no difference. The judge rankings are also compared between judges, while the largest rank differences for all comparisons are shown separately.
- Statistics for all users that entered in each contest, showing join date, submission post date and #, total posts and last post/seen dates. The ratio of submission post # out of total posts is calculated, as well as medians of all numbers and dates. I have also highlighted users that either left before VLDC5 started or joined after VLDC3's submission deadline.
- A comparison of entry ranks (both personal and judges) for users which submitted entries in both contests. Ranks are adjusted to compensate for the different number of entries in each contest.


Originally posted by the readme
I would like to give many thanks to Zandro for providing me a compilation of all VLDC4 entries, saving me a lot of time. I have included that compilation as part of my files. Note that, with one exception, I did not play any of the patches submitted to the aborted version of this contest, as I feel none of those levels had any major changes when resubmitted to meet the new requirements.

I have included the documents provided in FPzero's results post: the individual judge comments and the scores spreadsheet. I also included the judge application form and the associated patch (FPzero's "Flight of the Yoshi" from VLDC1) found at the beginning of the submissions thread. While there were a lot of fan judges in VLDC4, I decided against including them all in my compilation. If people would like those comments included, please let me know.


2. Tier Guide

Best – Without a doubt the best entries submitted to the contest, with great attention to design, creativity and aesthetics. These are the must-play levels.
Honorary – Great levels, maybe not quite as finessed as the Best-tier ones, but still a step ahead of the rest of the entries. Highly recommended.
Upper – Solid entries overall. Not flawless, and maybe not as ambitious as the higher tiers, but really enjoyable experiences on the whole. Recommended.
Upper-Mid – Better than the average entry, but either has too big an issue to ignore or lacks something to stand out as a really great level. Recommended if you have the time.
Middle – As it says, middle-of-the-road levels. Competent, playable levels that nevertheless are held back either by flawed execution or lack of creativity. Worth checking for your own opinion at least.
Lower-Mid - Still passable levels, but really starting to see bigger flaws in design that hamper the enjoyment in the level. Not really recommended, but nothing you’ll really regret playing I guess.
Vanilla Woods - Levels that are perfectly functional and play fine, but I feel do not take any risks in design or creativity. In-between Lower-Mid and Lower tiers. Not recommended but maybe you'll enjoy these levels more than me. (This is the same as Vanilla Dome tier from VLDC3, but renamed to fit the many forest levels this time around.)
Lower – Much more problematic design starts appear, whether it’s too bland, broken or simply not enjoyable. Not the worst, but far from the best. Not recommended.
Lower II – More like the VLDC1 version of this tier, it’s designed for levels I feel are particularly bland and uninspired. Not recommended.
Dishonorary – Really bad levels, with unfocused design, technical issues, and/or poor aesthetics. Definitely not recommended.
Worst – Bottom of the barrel. Only play out of morbid curiosity.
Joke - Reserved for levels that were clearly not made with a serious effort in mind.
Blatant Edit - Reserved for levels which are slightly edited reskins of original SMW levels.
DNF - Reserved for levels that I chose not to complete, most likely due to ridiculous difficulty. These levels are excluded from ranking.
DQ - DISQUALIFIED! Reserved for levels that either used custom sprites, blocks, or patches that affected gameplay, or excessively custom graphics. These levels are excluded from ranking.
Replaced – Reserved for levels where the author decided to submit a different level to the contest instead. This is for a special case and I do not expect to ever use this tier again.

[once again, written analysis will be posted later, hopefully tomorrow. go braves go chargers]
3. The Contest (or, The Vanilla Question)

Before I can go through my thoughts on the entries of this contest, I have to talk about the difficulties this contest faced early on. When VLDC4 initially started, it mostly kept the same rules as VLDC3, with maybe some extra patch exceptions thrown in. The main changes went towards level length; in addition to the previous rule allowing only two exits, levels required a midway point (unless deemed short enough, I guess) and had to be under 75 screens long. For comparison, most SMW levels are about 20 screens, depending on sublevels, so you could still make really long levels, but it at least prevents them from getting too out of hand. Either way, these were pretty welcome changes to the contest.

However, five days later, the contest was rebooted completely, and even greater restrictions were placed. ExGFX was disallowed entirely, meaning no more mixing different tilesets. None of the fix patches were allowed either (aside from any within Lunar Magic itself), and custom music was once again off the table. So what happened? Well, since VLDC3 there were debates about what should be considered a vanilla level, especially concerning levels like Forever Factory. These debates continued into VLDC4 and intensified, probably playing some part in the change to the new rules. The real issue, and what FPzero stated was the reason for the changed rules, was that he was just getting bogged down by all the different requests and questions people had, whether it was different patches they wanted to use, or tiny graphical edits in YY-CHR they wanted to make. I can’t blame FPzero for wanting to start the contest fresh, as not only did it become too confusing to tell what changes were allowed and what weren’t, but it’s just tiring to read – let alone answer – all these questions that ultimately seemed to misunderstand the point of the contest.

Still, I feel this was a step backwards for VLDC. When VLDC4 first started, it was labeled as the “Vanilla Resources Contest”, and I think tileset merging fits that description. After all, everything used is still from the original game; it just requires an additional tool outside of Lunar Magic. Usually arguments against tile merging are related to aesthetics vs. design arguments, which I feel is more reliant on how the scoring is handled than whether or not tile merging is allowed (I will discuss the scoring for the VLDC4 and the previous contests later.) And, for what it’s worth, there was rarely any levels in the earlier VLDCs where I felt design took a backseat from appeal, and if anything VLDC4 had more egregious examples of that taking place, when tileset merging was disallowed. I think there’s this collective amnesia that tileset merging is a newer development of VLDC rather than something that existed from the start and was later removed; I hope this perception starts getting corrected, but I doubt it.

(I’m only mentioning this as an aside, as I don’t really have the technical knowledge to get into detail on things like Lunar Magic updates. The more eye-catching updates from the readme are expansions to Map16 and Direct Map16 Access, changes to the background and palette editors, a save-restore system, and a complete overhaul of ExAnimation. From the discussion threads, the most talked about feature new to LM was smkdan’s “VRAM modification patch”, which seems to expand the amount of graphical tiles used in a level. This is probably what allows VLDC4 to stand on its own in appearance compared to the previous VLDCs, but again, I couldn’t explain to you the differences at all. Unfortunately it’s a blind spot in my analyses.)

The other rule changes, on the other hand, are much more agreeable. YY-CHR edits should’ve just been disallowed completely, and I’m a little surprised entries got away with them back in VLDC3. Even though it was usually just for minor changes like fixing cutoff, it clearly crosses the line of what isn’t vanilla anymore. Also, I agree that custom patches, even just for fixes, shouldn’t be allowed; considering how many fixes Lunar Magic has already added over time, I think it’s fair for the authors to just work with what they got in that regard. I’m more accepting to custom music, even though it’s clearly not vanilla. I think the arguments defending it are pretty poor, though; people (and even the VLDC3 rules) argued that people can simply not judge the music, but it’s pretty obvious that listening to a level with custom music completely changes the experience. Honestly, I would just rather listen to different music than the paltry amount of original tracks, for variety’s sake.

Ultimately, I can’t blame FPzero for changing the rules so drastically; I would be frustrated too having to deal with so many people trying to find loopholes in the rules, and nearly always just for graphical purposes. Still, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by this change, and that it would last for both VLDC5 and VLDC6 (not counting 6’s own weird spin on the rule). It’s a shame, because I think FPzero addressed this matter pretty well back in VLDC3:

Originally posted by FPzero
I feel like people always get confused with this contest. Contest starts and everyone starts calling it the Vanilla contest. same thing happened with the "Chocolate contest." Don't remember what it was called officially but my point is that these are names given to the contest by the participants, not the real names. In reality, this contest isn't so much a Vanilla contest as much as it is a Vanilla Resources contest. That's why we see levels with new graphics made from vanilla tiles that are still legal entries. True vanilla, or "Water", is what everyone knows as the original SMW. Because playing lots of levels that are very similar in feel and look to SMW, the idea that manipulation of vanilla resources to create new graphics and effects was decided as a basis for this contest. So that's why you'll see all this crazy "vanilla" stuff going on.


Nevertheless, those were the rules. It was now up to the entrants to bring a good showing.

4. The Levels

In VLDC3, I mentioned how there were a lot of different ways certain levels failed, like how there were seven different broken patches that all seemed to break in different ways. Well, VLDC4 had zero broken patches submitted as final, something not seen since VLDC1; as it turns out, this is pretty emblematic of this contest also. After the sluggish, sprawling entries of VLDC2, and the scattered, chaotic entries of VLDC3, VLDC4 is a much more solid collection of entries. Despite all my grievances laid out earlier, I have to admit, this felt like a return to form for the contest.

Notably, there were more returning entrants for VLDC4 than there were for VLDCs 2 and 3 combined. Most of these came from the crowded VLDC3 field, though there were a few returnees from VLDCs 1 and 2. Even besides that, 61/90 of the authors joined SMWC while VLDC3 was still going on, a huge increase from previous contest and the first time that faction represented a majority. It seems like the designers are much more experienced overall this time around, and that checks out with the entries themselves; not that many levels feel terribly designed this time around. There are definitely some recurring issues, and we’ll get into those, but I think the combination of author experience and level length requirements made this contests’ levels much more solid to play, if not too outstanding.

As the perfect example for this, take Grinding Guides by Nimono, my favorite entry from this contest. Nimono is the only author that has entered every contest since the beginning, and has always had memorable, though flawed, castle levels. The levels tended to be pretty ambitious and experimental – Frost Cavern Castle was one of the earliest instances of a VLDC level using 1F0 tiles for a puzzle, and that was back at the very beginning. However, they tended to suffer from some design flaws which made the levels too tiresome to play, and were never able to break out of the middle-lower tiers. With Grinding Guides, however, Nimono took a simple concept, made great and varied obstacle designs with it, kept the difficulty from being overwhelming while still challenging, and also gave it a nice appearance. Maybe it’s not the most ambitious level, but I do think the years of experience the author had designing levels contributed to how tightly the level played.

Along that same line, Unlock the Key by x1372 is a huge improvement on the author’s previous levels. This level feels sort of like a sequel to their VLDC2 level, Curse of the Golden Mushroom; that level was very much of its time, a 7-exit gauntlet that only ended up being okay due to good pacing for each section. With Unlock the Key, the design is much more focused, with several different rooms requiring the player to use the key in the different way. The ending sequence is great at utilizing layer 2, and overall it’s a shining example of puzzle-platformer design in SMW. Sadly, the author left the site shortly after this contest, though they do seem to have a presence in the Mario Maker community.

Dottedgirl and CK Crash (formerly Lucas) both deserve mentioning for hitting the 3-contest mark, even though the former didn’t appear in VLDC4, and the latter’s level was pretty average. However, the true honor belongs to WitherSkellie (formerly superwiidude) for consistently making top 10 levels three years in a row. Even though Ghosting Factory has a couple technical issues, and the castle-ghost combination isn’t anything new, it’s executed well and very fun to play. It’s just impressive how consistent this author has been for three contests, and I really want to explore their work further now.

As far as the other levels in this contest, most of them can be put into two categories. The more interesting of these groups are the levels that have creative ideas and tight design, but suffer from being too difficult and long to really enjoy. Levels like Sand Castle by neosaver or Skull Island by Aja are typical; the former has possibly the best beach sequence I’ve seen, while the later has a really unique gimmick with the time-limited caves. Unfortunately, each of their second halves extend the levels way too long and contain really difficult segments to where it starts becoming aggravating. Fort of Confusion by Artsy3… utilizes a mirrored level gimmick to a more developed degree than any other VLDC level, but by making the level so hard it doesn’t let the player get used to this kind of level without a lot of practice.

The most unfortunate case of this, in my opinion, is Vic Rattlehead’s Shining Moon Tourguide. It offers split paths with some great platforming and hands down the best P-Switch run section I’ve ever played, but there’s some technical problems that really hurt the flow of platforming; the elevator section, while a really cool idea, suffers greatly from slowdown early on, at least until the player hits a few P-Switches. It’s a shame, because this could’ve been a top three level easily if these were fixed, or if the difficulty was toned down just a little.

The other group is the many bog-standard levels made for the contest. Like with VLDC3, I had to make a whole category for the most average of these levels, though I did change the name to “Vanilla Woods” tier to fit the overabundance of forest levels. I don’t really have a problem with a certain theme being popular in a contest, but I feel a forest theme is a pretty bad choice; because the standard vanilla forest background requires forcing the camera to not scroll, else it looks screwy, there’s not a lot of vertical movement a player can make in these levels. (This becomes particularly painful in An Autumn Adventure by PowerStrike, which tries to have two vertically split paths without allowing the camera to scroll up.)

Case in point: Forested Field by E-Man (not to be confused with E-man38). Admittedly, it’s one of the better forest levels, with good execution and unrestrained platforming that prevents it from feeling stale. But I never would’ve expected this to be the first place winner of the contest; it doesn’t really push the boundaries of Vanilla SMW in any way, and the platforming isn’t THAT spectacular. I don’t want to turn this into an argument with the (half-inactive) judges, and it is a pretty good level anyways, but it’s definitely the most modest of the first place levels thus far; certainly it’s an 180 from something like Forever Factory. Speaking of which…

5. Aesthetic vs. Design

Seemingly intertwined with the arguments of what constitutes “vanilla” hacking is the vocal emphasis on putting level design over level appearance. While it’s mostly agreeable to say that how a level plays is more important than a level looks (though some have argued differently), there’s a perception that people, typically implied to be the judges, tend to like levels with flashier graphics more. Whether or not that’s a fair assumption, this kind of grumbling began at least as far back as VLDC3 with Forever Factory. For VLDC4, the focus was put on two different levels: Lunar Limbo, by Uhrix and Incognito and 105 Days by Ludus.

Lunar Limbo is maybe the best-remembered level of this contest, and for good reason. While these silhouetted or single-color levels have been done plenty of times in the early VLDCs, here it’s done remarkably well, with great atmosphere and graphical details; it wears its inspiration well on its sleeve. Design-wise, it’s not so solid; while the middle areas play fine (though the swimming section is a little rough), the opening segment has some pretty obtuse moments, and it’s hard for the player to tell where they’re supposed to go. Maybe that’s intentional, but it comes off clunky. The ending section, meanwhile, relies a bit too much on precise Podoboo jumps, and has the player go all the way back to the beginning of the section just to get a key stuck in the ceiling...just to go all the way back to the end of the level again. Also, the level doesn’t properly end; you go into some sort of transitional room and then the level loops again. It’s not really a flaw with the level, just something I found weird. Overall, it’s an enjoyable level, but I can understand some of the criticism regarding its aesthetic focus over its design; still, I’d recommend checking it out.

(BTW, there’s a few bits of trivia I should mention. One of the rule changes I haven’t brought up yet was the allowance of partners, two user per entry. Only six people (or three pairs) took that offer, so I didn’t think it was worth bringing up in detail. Coincidentally, one of the other partner levels used a similar single-color gimmick; Stuck in a Rainbow by Argumentable and limepie20 was much flashier and had much more complicated design, but suffered from some really annoying obstacles and enemy placement.

I should also mention that this was the contest where Uhrix designed the original VLDC trophies, with a little bit of help tweaking the trophy colors. They’re pretty nice, though admittedly they still kinda look like candy bars.)

For those familiar with Vanilla Rain from VLDC3, you probably have an idea of what 105 Days is like. Personally, though the level still has some serious design issues, it’s a marked improvement from Ludus’ previous level. While the platform layouts are on the cluttered side, the space station graphics are pretty incredible for the limitations of this contest. And even though it’s only in the level for a tiny bit at the end, I really like the bramble/vine section a lot; it would’ve been interesting to see a level just based on that. Unfortunately, the actual design of this level is a mixed bag. It opens with a ridiculously obtuse hidden door “puzzle”, and a lot of the obstacles either feel kind of janky or completely skippable. Also, it requires following its own savestate points, or else you’re going to replay a whole lot of the level. I think it’s this last point that really scored it low with the judges, even though I appreciate a lot of what it tries to do, and overall feel it’s a much more competent effort by this author (though I still didn’t get much of the story).

For all the attention those levels got, I think they both have merits beyond their aesthetics. Lunar Limbo, for all its design faults, is still a very playable level, and while I can’t really recommend 105 Days, I respect that it was trying to do a lot with the level, both aesthetically and with the design. If you really want a blatant example of aesthetics over design, there’s The Haunted House by Ninja X. While the level has pretty impressive 2.5D-style graphics (though I think it makes Mario and enemies look really out of place), the design itself is totally flat and uninspired, and the level ends on a pretty standard Big Boo boss fight. More than any other level I’ve played in a VLDC, this really feels like what people imagine with levels that are presentation over design.

You might be wondering if there were any levels that deliberately presented itself as a counterargument to this philosophy. As it turns out, there was one entry explicitly designed to be gameplay over graphics: Zeldara101’s Reznorland 1, taken from their hack in development at the time, Zeldara’s Glitch City. The main gimmick of the level is the aesthetics are purposefully glitched up, with cutoff and repeating tiles, the usually. This isn’t really used to benefit of the design in any way, and even seems to have a graphical focus of its own, like how the Fish Skeletons sort of look like they have jet boosters on them. What really kills the level for me, however, is that it’s ultimately just a blatant edit of Vanilla Fortress, with the only real difference being that there’s no water. This was the intended design, so it’s not like the author was being lazy or anything, but I really don’t see how this can be argued as “design over graphics” when most of the design is just taken from the original game. It’s unfortunate, as there hasn’t really been an example of this kind of level otherwise, and I’d be interested to see what I’d end up thinking about it.

6. Judges and Scores

For the most part in these analyses, I haven’t talked about the contest judges and scores at all. I’ve been trying to avoid this from being a breakdown of judges’ opinions or rank comparisons, as I want to respect that they have their own opinions and qualifications. Still, I have to comment on what a hectic judging process this contest went through. Before that, however, I want to give a breakdown of the scoring of these contests, since that was also one of the changes of VLDC4.

For the first three contests, levels were score out of 50 points, with 10 points earned from each category: Creativity, Difficulty, Appeal, Functionality, and Fun. Personally, I like that each category has only 10 points to work with; when you start getting higher than 20 points, it’s a lot harder to argue why, say, 42/60 design is worse than 43/60 design. Of those categories, Creativity, Appeal, and Fun are all pretty self-explanatory. The first two are pretty uncontroversial, and still exist in some form in modern VLDC, though people might scoff at Appeal taking up 20% of the score. I think Fun tends to get looked down on as a “subjective” category, but I really think it’s an important criteria to a level; even a level with tight, well-executed design could feel like a slog or just too frustrating to play through.

The other two categories, Difficulty and Functionality, are much more problematic. The idea of judging a level’s difficulty on its own is pretty questionable; it’s not like there’s a specific difficulty level an entry has to meet, so people are going to choose how easy or hard they want their level to be. Unsurprisingly, this level ends up just punishing harder levels, despite there being plenty of levels that are way too easy. As for Functionality, initially this sounds like a logical category, but based on the judge comments I’ve read, nobody really seems to know what to do with it. Usually, it ends up being a free 10/10 for levels that don’t break in any way – while most categories in VLDC3 averaged at 20/30, the average for functionality ended up at 23/30. Also, it’s surprising that Design in itself wasn’t its own criteria to be judged; I guess you could argue that Difficulty, Functionality and Fun all cover that, but those first two categories end up not working well on their own.

In VLDC4, the scoring system was updated to mixed results. Difficulty was removed, and Design was added, so at least those two issues were taken care of. However, Functionality was kept, and instead Creativity was merged into Appeal; this not only brought down the total points to 40, it raised the weight of Appeal even higher to 25% of the score, ironically making aesthetics a bigger focus. Supposedly, people viewed Creativity and Appeal as the same categories (or at least the former feeding into the latter), but I didn’t really see that as the case in the judge notes, and these categories weren’t judged that much more closer together than any of the others. The Functionality problem seemed to get even worse, too; Counterfeit scored all but 12 levels (out of 81) under 9/10 for Functionality, while tatanga made some weird decisions in the category too, like marking down levels for not having Dragon Coins. I can’t really blame the high score in Functionality on the judges, though, since most levels played pretty fine to me; it’s just a really bad category.

I guess now we should talk about the judges. It’s astounding how out of the four VLDCs I’ve played, only VLDC3 has had more than two judges, and two of them (VLDCs 2 and 4) have had huge issues with getting judge results. While VLDC4 is an improvement on 2 in this regard – at least 2 people judged all the levels instead of 3 people judging a partial amount of levels – it’s still a far cry from how well VLDC3 judging went. Because FPzero and S.N.N. were too busy to judge, and the former didn’t want to force judging duties on the hack team, FPzero decided on a judge application process that users could submit to; all people had to do was judge FPzero’s VLDC1 judge level, Flight of the Yoshi. While I have no idea how many people actually applied [EDIT: according to FPzero, it was 21 users], six people ended up getting selected: three as the main judges, and another three as backup. In the end, only one main judge (Counterfeit) and one backup judge (tatanga) were able to finish judging the levels, the latter apparently rushed to do so.

The two judge documents seem like polar opposites. Counterfeit went to great detail talking through her thoughts on each level, and while I didn’t read through all her descriptions (admittedly I don’t like it when judges write comments for each category instead of just the level overall) the selection I did read were very interesting and clearly described her opinions. Unfortunately, at least in regards to the contest, they’re all undermined by her scoring which ended up slanted very high; 75% of her entries are at least 28/40, or a 7/10. Tatanga, whose scores were both much lower on average and had a wider range, ended up influencing a lot of the rankings in the contest. However, their comments were much sparser, which led to a lot of backlash when it came time for the results. Considering they were pressured to judge all the levels in one week because four of the other judges had to drop out, I can’t really blame them. It’s an unfortunate situation overall.

7. Conclusion

At the end of the VLDC4 Results thread, S.N.N. left some scathing parting words for the contest:

Originally posted by S.N.N.
Last year's was fantastic, if not the best. The ones before that were good as well. This one not only fell flat, but pissed several people off, and I'm pretty annoyed at that since most of the contest's flaws were actually easily fixable.


In some ways, yes, VLDC4 was a hot mess; it was completely overhauled early on, and the judging process was both too long and fraught with issues. However, I don’t think that should overshadow the levels that came out of this event. Even with the false start, 88 levels came out of the contest, and while there’s not too many levels that stand out, overall it’s a pretty solid collection. I think it’s ripe for a compilation-style hack, much more-so than VLDCs 2 or 3. It finally feels like a step forward in quality, and I’m eager to see where it goes from hear.

As for me, things are going to be a bit hectic outside of VLDC, so it will probably be a while before I get through VLDC5. I’m still excited to check it out, especially since this was the first contest where I was really active on the site, but I’ve got other things on my plate right now. Either way, hope to see you next time.
DeppySlide's Review and Analysis of SMWC's Fifth Vanilla Level Design Contest

NOTE: The download links to the files (including all VLDC5 patches and all my notes/data) are here(.7z) or here(.zip). If you just want to see the rankings for each contest, you can view them online here.

1. What the Files Contain

Originally posted by the readme
This ZIP contains my mini-reviews and additional data for SMWC's 2012 Vanilla Level Design Contest. This worksheet includes the rankings and data for both VLDC5 and VLDC4. Instead of scores, the entries are presented as ranked in order from best to worst, with tiers to better separate levels of quality. In addition to my own rankings, I have also provided:

- A compilation of judge scores, with the top 10 and bottom 10 highlighted (overall and per judge), and calculations for average and box-plot quartiles.
- A comparison of my personal ranking with the contest and judge rankings, highlighting the top 10 "positive" and "negative" differences, and levels with no difference. The judge rankings are also compared between judges, while the largest rank differences for all comparisons are shown separately.
- Statistics for all users that entered in each contest, showing join date, submission post date and #, total posts and last post/seen dates. The ratio of submission post # out of total posts is calculated, as well as medians of all numbers and dates. I have also highlighted users that either left before VLDC6 started or joined after VLDC4's submission deadline.
- A comparison of entry ranks (both personal and judges) for users which submitted entries in multiple contests. Ranks are adjusted to compensate for the different number of entries in each contest.


Originally posted by the readme
I would like to give many thanks to FPzero for providing me a compilation of all VLDC5 entries, saving me a lot of time. All patches are in IPS format, save for one: entry #82, The Difficult Journey by bbk61. I have downloaded the patch from Zandro's archive (in BPS format), but I should note that this patch is broken. At the time of the contest two of the judges had a working version, so it's possible a working patch is out there; for now, I am declaring it a lost entry.

I have included the documents provided in FPzero's results post: the individual judge comments and the scores spreadsheets. This time, there was no additional material I felt was worth including.


2. Tier Guide

Best – Without a doubt the best entries submitted to the contest, with great attention to design, creativity and aesthetics. These are the must-play levels.
Honorary – Great levels, maybe not quite as finessed as the Best-tier ones, but still a step ahead of the rest of the entries. Highly recommended.
Upper – Solid entries overall. Not flawless, and maybe not as ambitious as the higher tiers, but really enjoyable experiences on the whole. Recommended.
Upper-Mid – Better than the average entry, but either has too big an issue to ignore or lacks something to stand out as a really great level. Recommended if you have the time.
Middle – As it says, middle-of-the-road levels. Competent, playable levels that nevertheless are held back either by flawed execution or lack of creativity. Worth checking for your own opinion at least.
Lower-Mid - Still passable levels, but really starting to see bigger flaws in design that hamper the enjoyment in the level. Not really recommended, but nothing you’ll really regret playing I guess.
Lower – Much more problematic design starts appear, whether it’s too bland, broken or simply not enjoyable. Not the worst, but far from the best. Not recommended.
Torture Chamber - Levels that have merits in their design, but suffer from ridiculous difficulty unfitting for this kind of contest. Only recommended for those interested in high-challenge levels or don't mind using tool assists.
Lower II – Maybe not as flawed as levels in Lower tier, but I feel they are particularly bland and uninspired. Not recommended.
Dishonorary – Really bad levels, with unfocused design, technical issues, and/or poor aesthetics. Definitely not recommended.
Worst – Bottom of the barrel. Only play out of morbid curiosity.
Joke - Reserved for levels that were clearly not made with a serious effort in mind.
Blatant Edit - Reserved for levels which are slightly edited reskins of original SMW levels.
Broken - Reserved for levels whose patch, at the time of deadline, did not work, leaving the level unplayable.

[once again, written analysis will be posted later, hopefully tomorrow. don't forget to vote in tourney]
3. The Levels

Depending on how you look at it, VLDC5 is either one of the best contests or one of the worst. For me, I would consider it if not the best VLDC I’ve played through thus far, then certainly in competition for that spot. While there were some real frustrating levels in this collection, the ones that were good were some of the best entries I’ve played thus far.

Take my personal favorite entry from this contest: Blind Devil’s Slaughterhouse. It’s a castle level that’s designed very linearly; the camera remains vertically fixed as the player goes through what is essentially a tunnel. While this does restrict exploration almost entirely, that in turn puts pressure on the designer to make more interesting platforming. In the case of Slaughterhouse, the platforming is superbly done, using only a handful of sprites to challenge the player without overwhelming them. It’s far from the only level that does this, not even the only great one, but it does the best job of threading the needle of challenging, fair, interesting, and fun design.

Not since VLDC1 have I ranked at least three levels in Best tier, and that’s thanks to three different excellent approaches in design. If Slaughterhouse represents the ideal tight, difficult platformer, then Forest Utilities by DragonLX is the best example of the opposite: a pleasant, breezy romp through a forest level, with some additional industrial theming. It’s still pretty linear, but there’s more room for the player to breathe, and even though the level is certainly easy, it’s not devoid of obstacles; there’s also a cape provided if you really want to risk blazing through the second half. It’s a very enjoyable entry, and the top-notch presentation and environmental detail is what really puts this level at the top.

The third of these Best tier levels is The Flipside from ToxicRave. After their ridiculously hard entry Burning in Hell – For Noobs from VLDC4, which even after this contest is still the hardest level I’ve played, the author made a level that’s not only reasonably challenging, but very focused in its design. Climbing Nets are one of those SMW elements that it seems designers have a hard time using in interesting ways, and tend to drag out levels. Here, the net sections are used in clever situations that require the player to think through their movements. They’re also broken up nicely with some quicker platforming sections to keep the pace moving. It’s a great example of both puzzle-platformer design and taking a singular theme and expanding on it throughout the level.

I’ve already mentioned that many previous entrants returned for this contest, but interestingly, for the first time, several first place winners (for my rankings, anyway) appeared once again for this contest: yoshicookiezeus (VLDC2’s Deja Vu Tower), Agent Q (VLDC3’s Watch Tower Duke-Out), and Nimono (VLDC4’s Grinding Guides) all made entries that, amazingly, featured in my own top 10. The highest was YCZ’s Trauma Towers, a fantastic vertical level both in design and presentation; it’s well-deserving of the contest’s first place position. TOFFEE TERRAIN, by Agent Q, while not quite as stellar, is still very good fun, and plays in the same vein as their VLDC3 level. Nimono’s THE LEVEL THAT… is more of a romp, and maybe is a bit more plain in its design, but it’s a convincing desert level with authentically Mario platforming. As I said in my review of it, it’s vanilla comfort food.

As far as the rest of the levels go, I don’t have too much else to add; while the best levels are really good, the overall selection is about the same as in years previous. SGARBOO. INC by Alessio (formerly Dinomar) is a stand-out level visually, though the design is pretty average in comparison. SMW: Legend of the Golden Mushroom by BMF54123 got a lot of attention from the author’s reputation, and even without that context it’s a pretty memorable entry. There’s of course Placeless Color by Ludus, which even though I didn’t particularly for it, I have to admit that of his three levels it’s the most conceptually realized of the bunch.

Also, alongside Nimono participating in their fifth(!) consecutive vanilla contest, both WitherSkellie (formerly superwiidude) and dottedgirl deserve mentions for their fourth appearances; At Diamond Level and Midsummer Night, respectively, are two solid entries from the authors, even though they’re not my favorites from either. Aside from all those mentions, there’s only one other trend I feel the need to address in this contest.

[Actually there’s one additional minor trend I couldn’t fit in anywhere else. For whatever reason, three different levels had issues where the overworld wasn’t set up properly, so the player either accessed the wrong level (usually the title screen level) or couldn’t access any level at all. I don’t know how this was an issue only one time ever before (and even then the level was still technically accessible) yet happened three times here. Just something I thought was really unusual.]

4. Entering the Torture Chamber

When playing through previous VLDCs, I was a little more lenient in using emulator tools for the most difficult levels. Don’t get me wrong, I would try my best to complete them without tools, and particularly gruesome levels would be affected in the rankings, but I really don’t want to spend hours trying to get one level done correctly. Keep in mind, for the first three VLDCs, there was no restriction on level length, no midpoint required, and not even a limit on level exits until VLDC3. In VLDC4, that was all corrected, and save for a few levels, the difficulty was overall pretty fair. VLDC5 even added another rule specifically to say that Kaizo levels would not be expected, so you would think that would deter people from submitting ridiculously hard levels. Well, I think some people took that rule as a challenge, because VLDC5 ended up being the hardest contest of the bunch so far.

First, I want to clear the record here. In the past, I’ve been incredibly harsh on Kaizo levels (in whatever general definition that stands for) and the people that make them, and unfairly so. It seems now that most people, myself included, find Kaizo design to be valid, and entertaining in its own way – at least for me, it is really entertaining to watch someone play through a ridiculously hard level like it’s nothing. In the time of VLDC5, though, these levels were not well-received, and both Axemjinx and MrDeePay spoke rather harshly of them in their judge comments. In terms of judging VLDC, it’s understandable that a lot of these levels scored very low; I think it’s reasonable to expect levels to be completable without tool-assistance, and for the judges to not use tools at all in their process.

Still, for my own personal rankings, I don’t want to completely dismiss some of these levels when there are merits to their design. So, starting with this contest, I have created the “Torture Chamber” tier for these levels and placed it in-between the Lower and Lower II tiers. Take a look at Nine Inch Fireballs by mathelete and The Four Elements by FellipeUzumaki, respectively the lowest and second-lowest ranked levels in the contest (70th and 68th in my personal rankings). The Four Elements is I think what one would picture a Kaizo level to be: very precise, almost pixel-perfect, movements required constantly, with almost never any room for error; I think the final segment is the only time the player can take a few hits to reach the ending. Without tools, and compared to your typical Mario level, it’s a maddening experience to play, but from a design perspective there are some interesting setups throughout, and aside from some really egregious moments it’s not terribly hard to figure out what you need to do. These qualities I think make it worth playing over some of the really uninspired entries.

Nine Inch Fireballs is an entirely different beast. It’s in a real gray zone between Very Hard and Kaizo, and there’s not quite as much polish or focus. Certainly some segments are more doable than others, and the boss fight in particular was a really aggravating experience. But again, there are some interesting sequences in the level, like the water/lava swim, and there is thought put in other places that try to make it fair. For all the nastiness brought against the level and author (and we’ll get to that in a bit) it’s really not a terrible level, and definitely not deserving of last place.

Also, to be clear, this isn’t going to be a quarantine category for every level I label with the Brutal difficulty. Levels like Mystery of the Giant Dark Switch (yogui), Metal Gear Solid 3 (Forty2), and Wraithwreck (Morsel) all ended up with great-to-decent rankings because of creative design, interesting presentation, or just making it so it wasn’t completely miserable to complete without savestates or rewinds. Punishing Pothole by Sokobansolver got roped in a lot with the Kaizo levels, and that second half is killer, but it’s not that bad, really. On the flipside, Yoshi’s Ghost House by AUS ended up much lower than the Torture Chamber levels; with or without using tools, it’s just not fun to play at all, with a gimmick fundamentally flawed at its core. In the end, I wanted this tier to exist for those levels that may get slammed from the contest, but I think are worth checking out for players that don’t mind some incredibly challenging difficulty.

5. The Contest (aka The Good and The Really, Really, Ugly)

I don’t know what it is, but so far every even-numbered contest has had giant issues with rules or judges and massive delays for results, while every odd-numbered contest runs pretty smoothly. Here, VLDC5 picked up right where 4 left off, only had a couple rule/scoring revisions, and picked three judges from the start that stuck it through to the end, taking just over a month to wrap up judging. It’s about as smooth as a process that you’d want a contest to go.

Aside from the “no Kaizo” rule addition, the only other change of note was to the scoring. Now, Design, Appearance (replacing Appeal), and Functionality were the only categories, putting Fun on the wayside. Actually, it’s more accurate to say Design and Fun were merged into a single category (called Design) worth 20 points, while the other two categories went down to only 5 points, bringing the total points a level can earn down to 30. I’ve already state my feelings on Functionality before, and it’s still too positively slanted here, but at least it’s less influential to the score now. It’s also the lowest percentage of points Appeal/Appearance has ever had, down to a 1/6th of the score, marking the first time design was really in the forefront on the judging perspective of the contest.

Speaking of which, this may be the best collection of judges VLDC has had thus far. FPzero returns for his fourth appearance as judge, though unfortunately he was only able to comment on the first third of the entries. That’s more than made up for by Axemjinx’s scoring comments, which ended up as roughly a page per entry – all 98 of them – and over 40,000 words combined. Really, both comments and scoring-wise, it worked out pretty well, preventing the issues that VLDC2 and 4 ended up having.

I should mention that Axemjinx being a judge was a notable decision, as in-between VLDC4 and 5 he wrote his guide to level design, APPALLED (short for AxemJinx's Profoundly Pragmatic Advice for Lovely LEvel Design). At the time, this thread was a big deal, and even nine years later it’s a pretty useful tutorial for beginner developers. It touches a lot of points I’ve covered in my individual level reviews, and though its points are a lot more conceptual than practical, I do think it gets you in the right mindset to develop a level. Inevitably, Axemjinx brings up a lot of points from his thread in his judge comments, and even brings up terminology from it. Personally, I felt his comments went too deep into the details, or “micro” structure as he would call it, which is the opposite of what I do. But then again, if I made an entry for the contest, I probably would prefer to see all the specific areas I could improve, so I’ve got no reason to complain.

Regardless of my quibbles, it’s fair to say that for this contest, both the levels side and the hosting/judging side were all handled solidly. You would think that would make it an uneventful contest, but reading the discussion and results threads tells an entirely different story. The amount of vitriol spilled over a forum contest is unlike anything I’ve seen previously; even the arguments that did occur were due to contest issues or some sort of meaningful debate. Here, it seems to be a combination of unnecessary aggression, lack of social skills, site and off-site grudges, inability to handle criticism, and just plain poor attitude that led to over 500 posts in the matter of two weeks after the contest deadline. And once the results came in, add another hundred or two more for good measure. (And the two most controversial levels had pretty decent rankings! Why were they so mad?! It’s maddening to read!)

I’m not going to go in-depth on each argument and say who was right or wrong or whatever. Everyone involved has either long left the site or grown since the nearly nine years it happened. If you really want to see what I’m talking about, you can read the discussions thread and the results thread, but it’s not even an entertaining read; it’s just a lot of nastiness that didn’t need to happen at all. It’s a shame that for the longest time this contest I only remembered this contest as some kind of dramafest, given it’s got a lot of really good levels buried inside. Hopefully, a project like this will dissuade others from thinking the same.

6. Conclusion

After five years of hosting the Vanilla Level Design Contests, among many other things, FPzero stepped down and took a break from the site. While he would still appear from time to time, he wouldn’t take his leadership position again for several years. Thus, I think it’s fair to look at the VLDCs from 2008-2012 as a sort of original era for the contest. It starts with the small, jam-like VLDC1; going into the messier VLDC2; exploding with entries in the chaotic VLDC3; starting over with the more conservative rules of VLDC4; and ending with VLDC5, fully established as one of the major site-wide events.

Next time, we’re headed into a new era with VLDC6. But before that, we’re gonna take one last look at the greatest levels from these first five contests.
Over the last few months, I’ve played through over 400 entries from the first five Vanilla Level Design Contests (2008-2012). Even though most of these levels are over a decade old, quite a few of them hold up pretty well. However, because these contests (other than VLDC1) have never been compiled into a single ROM, I think most people have missed out on some of these levels, especially if they weren’t on the site when these contests originally took place. So, I have decided to pick out the 25 levels from these contests that I consider to be the best designed.

Instead of just taking the top 5 from each contest and ranking all those, I replayed the top 10 from each contest and went from there; this turned out to be a good call, since there’s a few entries from VLDC1-3 (before rules on length and midpoints were added) that haven’t held up as much since I’ve last played them. The levels are ranked in the order of what I feel are the most fun and best designed. I could probably change the list up several times depending how I feel, but I’m satisfied with what I have here. Either way, I’d recommend playing all the levels listed.

The Top 25 Levels from Vanilla Level Design Contests 1 – 5
(download link above)



Honorable Mentions:
asdf - Frozen Future Fury - VLDC1
jesus - Mountain Path - VLDC3



Personally, these levels are just beyond my tolerable difficulty zone that I couldn’t really fit them into my top 25. Still, they are both excellently designed in different ways; Frozen Future Fury takes a handful of sprites and uses smart placement to keep the level engaging, while Mountain Path works with a variety of ideas to constantly challenge the player’s ability. If you really like high-challenge levels, both of these are definitely recommended.

25. Iceguy - Greenland Grove - VLDC2


It was really hard to decide which entry got the final spot, but I decided to give it to Greenland Grove since it’s a pleasant level to start with. It’s very nonlinear, and maybe a little too easy to get lost, but the design is consistent enough that it never feels grueling. Overall, it’s a pretty solid level on the whole.

24. reghrhre - Mystical Orb Search - VLDC3


I have to be honest, after playing through VLDC4 and 5 with the length limit, it was rough going back to this level. It’s just ridiculously long, and it’s pretty obvious where it could’ve been cut down. Still, it gets a spot here because the design is consistently strong, and the atmosphere is just top-notch. Definitely worth checking out still.

23. Forty2 - An Aerial Anomaly - VLDC4


It’s the kind of level that will drive you up a wall, but in a good way. The first half requires precise movements to get through, and one really nasty jump, but it’s all very doable with a few tries. The second half is more forgiving, but still pretty tense. It’s got some interesting ideas backed up with solid design, check it out.

22. CK Crash - Boo's Time Tower - VLDC1


Great combination of puzzle box rooms in the first half and a vertical layer 2 climb in the second half, complete with one of the better Big Boo boss fights. While the individual ideas have been improved on since, when bundled together with a connected theme it works well.

21. TriplePat - Firestorm Fortress - VLDC4


Making a fun, difficult autoscroller is a tough proposition, but it’s pulled off pretty well here. There’s enough going on that the player usually isn’t stuck waiting around, though the fireball generator makes it a little too tough sometimes. Still, that frantic energy works well for the level’s theme, and there’s enough power-ups to keep it from feeling too unrelenting.

20. Agent Q - TOFFEE TERRAIN - VLDC5


This is a rock-solid level through and through. Despite the Monty Moles being a somewhat finicky enemy sometimes it’s got tight design and a fair challenge that makes it a lot of fun. Don’t have much more to add, honestly, just go play this one.

19. TLMB - SMWorldbound 2: Bowser's Rage - VLDC3


While I’d consider it a gauntlet level, it makes up for it by having more creative themes in its sections and having very nice pathing; it makes it a little repetitive in the judging phase but playing normally it gives the player a lot of options to take. A very fun and appealing level.

18. Breakfast - Random Airship - VLDC1


The best of the airship levels thus far. The presentation and design perfectly captures the feeling of an endgame level, and the various sections do a good job of building up to the final boss. Maybe it runs a little long, but still a great level on the whole.

17. DragonLX - Abandoned Toy Factory - VLDC4


Forever Factory may be the more famous level, but I feel like this does everything that did but even better. The presentation and narrative is strong without overwhelming the player with cutscenes, and the design is kept fair, enjoyable, and interesting. And, mercifully, there is a midway point. It’s a very memorable entry.

16. army128 - Subterranean Ship - VLDC2


The best entry from VLDC2 if you’re looking for a regular Mario experience. It’s a nicely done sunken ship level, not fancy but nice and polished. I’d even go as far to say that it exceeds SMW’s own take on a sunken ship level. Great stuff.

15. WitherSkellie:
Fire Mountain - VLDC2
Mountain Fortress - VLDC3
Ghosting Factory - VLDC4
At Diamond Level - VLDC5


(Images taken from Mountain Fortress and Ghosting Factory.)

If I had to give out some kind of MVP award to any of the entrants thus far, it would absolutely go to WitherSkellie. Over four different contests, their levels have maintained a solid baseline of quality that hasn’t been matched by anyone else. If I had to pick a single level, I think Ghosting Factory is my favorite, but really, all four of these levels are worth checking out.

14. underway - The Bubble Forest - VLDC5


This really shows how a creative idea can elevate solid design to a new level. The water bubbles are a simple idea used very smartly, both for platforming and for enemies, even outside of the usual Cheep-Cheeps. Overall, it’s a great example of remixing vanilla assets into new ideas.

13. Aqualakitu - Lakeside Island - VLDC4


The best of the water levels, it hits the mark on both design and presentation, and feels almost like an authentic Nintendo experience. It also has my favorite secret exit so far; it’s just perfectly done in every aspect. It’s a great level to play.

12. Kaeru - Mountain Heights - VLDC1


Perhaps the definitive example of rompy level design. It’s lengthy and nonlinear, but welcoming and never overwhelming. The variety in the segments always connects back with the mountainous theme. Excellent and worth playing multiple times over.

11. yoshicookiezeus - Trauma Towers - VLDC5


You don’t see vertical levels too often in VLDC, but this one was top-notch. Having to move between all the parts of the towers is a lot of fun, tightly designed, and complemented nicely by the environment. Its midpoint is pretty lopsided, but beyond that, it’s a really enjoyable level.

10. Supertails - Mario Ware: Mega Microlevel - VLDC1


Definitely one of the most unique levels of any VLDC. It does a great job emulating the frantic yet simplistic minigames of the WarioWare series. While Mountain Heights has better design overall, this level best represents the playfulness and creativity of VLDC1 that makes it one of my favorite contests.

9. Time Traveler - Temple of Time - VLDC3


This takes Boo’s Time Tower’s puzzle and platforming combination and really takes it to the next level. The P-Switch runs in the first half are tense and well-done, while the item puzzles in the second half take a brilliant approach with time that really requires the player to think. The boss at the end feels pretty tacked-on, but otherwise, this is a great level.

8. x1372 - Unlock the Key - VLDC4


Very well-made puzzle level. After so many of these levels end up being a lot of item fetch quests, it’s great to play one that really feels like a puzzle platformer. The difficulty and complexity of rooms ramps up nicely, though some of the non-key related platforming is a bit basic. Besides that, it’s a great effort by the author.

7. Truxton - Maroon Lagoon - VLDC5


It’s tough to choose just one of the many tightly designed levels from VLDC5, but this one really sticks out to me. Even without vertical scrolling and only working with about five enemy types, it smartly uses its resources to keep the level entertaining and challenging. It’s a great entry and a testament to VLDC5’s great selection of entries.

6. Nimono - Grinding Guides - VLDC4


Very nicely done line-guide level. The author does a great job creating a variety of obstacles throughout the level with such limited resources. It also does a good job maintaining a solid, challenging difficulty that similarly themed levels struggle with. Of their five(!) levels submitted in this period, this one is my favorite for sure.

5. ToxicRave - The Flipside - VLDC5


Climbing net levels tend to suffer from being very slow and uneventful, but the way the author uses them here makes it a legitimate challenge and always fun to solve. The net sections themselves are kept short and sweet, with some nice platforming in-between to help the pacing. While there is one glaring glitch towards the end, I’m willing to overlook it because of how well the rest of the level is designed. The best of the puzzle-platformer entries by far.

4. yoshicookiezeus - Deja Vu Tower - VLDC2


I have maligned VLDC2 in the past due to the many levels that are overly long, contain several exits (upwards of 13 in some cases!), and lack a coherent level theme, opting for a gauntlet of environments instead. Yet Deja Vu Tower, while fitting that description, manages to stand out thanks to smart pacing, interesting design, and great presentation. It gets better every time I play it, and it will always remain one of VLDC’s biggest standout entries.

3. DragonLX - Forest Utilities - VLDC5


One of the best takes on a forest level I’ve seen. Compared to my other favorite entries, it’s a lot easier, but it’s enjoyable in a different way. Its theme is both pleasantly presented and enhanced by the solid design; it’s fun to explore the level and get the Yoshi Coins, and the feather provides a nice challenge to try to speed through the level. This one’s always going to be one of my personal favorites.

2. Agent Q - Watch Tower Duke-Out - VLDC3


This is a superbly done level. The presentation is great without being overbearing, and the theme and design are perfectly tied together. It reminds me a lot of Frozen Future Fury, but fortunately the difficulty is toned down to something much more reasonable. One of my favorite levels of VLDC thus far, and just a few hairs away from taking the number one spot.

1. Blind Devil - Slaughterhouse - VLDC5


For the best level of VLDCs 1 through 5, it has to be this one. The author really nails that SMW style of design to the point where this felt like an authentic, Nintendo-made castle level. It’s really tightly designed, the Yoshi Coins are placed well, and it hits the perfect levels for both length and difficulty. Words can’t really do it justice; just play the level and see for yourself.



In hindsight, I maybe should’ve waited for VLDC6 before doing this, since that also came before the contest collab era. Maybe I’ll update this after I go through that. In the end, I hope you enjoy these levels as much as I did.
Happy Thanksgiving! I just realized I haven't been including Snifit (ShadedZelda on Youtube)'s VLDC video compilations in my archives, so I have handily included each one I've played (starting with VLDC2 up to VLDC6) in this 7ZIP file. From now on they will be added to each of my VLDC compilations.

Anyway, reading through the VLDC6 discussion thread right now. Once that's done I'll do the usual replaying of entries, compiling scores, etc. I'll probably have VLDC6 fully done by mid-December. VLDC7 probably won't get started until after the holidays.
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