I’ve discovered Wrecking Crew, the game where Mario can’t jump, and it’s brilliant

Every now and then I think, oh, I should track down Devil World, the classic Miyamoto maze game that never got a proper release in the West. This week I loaded up the Switch NES collection to see if it had somehow crept onto that, but of course it hadn’t.

What I found instead was Wrecking Crew, a game I knew almost nothing about. Actually, let’s do this. What I knew was: former arcade game? Mario’s in it? That’s it. And both those things I only thought I knew.

So I gave Wrecking Crew a toot, and I am here to tell you that you should also give Wrecking Crew a toot, if you haven’t already. It’s an absolute charmer. And it’s weird and clever and has a bunch of very interesting ideas in it. And it doesn’t entirely work – and I mean that, I think, as a good thing.

Wrecking Crew is a Mario game in which Mario can’t jump. Even occurring back then I sense the perverse, playful energy of that proposition. Mario! But he can’t jump! You don’t do something like that unless you really enjoy messing with people.

Mario can’t jump because he has a hammer, and he – and you – use the hammer to knock down destructible environments on each level. That’s the aim. You spawn in a level with gantries and ladders, and also slabs of concrete and barrels and bits of wall. You knock down the concrete and bits of wall and when they’re all done the level is complete and you move on.

One thing I’d like to know here, and if anyone has the answer please put it in the comments. Is this where the destructible environments in Super Mario Bros first came from? Probably a stupid, ignorant question, so forgive me.

Anyway, between you and victory are two things. One of them is enemies, which wander around the levels and will kill you if they hit you. I love the Wrecking Crew enemies. They feel weirdly alive, because they have these unpredictable patterns in their movement which feel only partly driven by player-seeking.

They can get stuck in spots, which makes them feel oddly human. And best of all you can open doors in the level and they’ll walk through and get stuck behind the screen. It’s just quirky and interesting, and I love the doors because, as an arcade game idea, it didn’t really go anywhere for a while, and then you get to the flipscreens in Super Mario World and you think: Oh, Wrecking Crew?

The other thing getting between you and victory is that you can approach the level in the wrong way and get stuck yourself. The screens wrap around, but if you find yourself on a low platform with no ladder upwards, and you still have stuff above you to smash, you’re sunk. Really, the main challenge here is the order in which you move through the level.

And this is what I mean when I say Wrecking Crew doesn’t work. You can fail it without dying, which means you get into a sort of stalemate situation. I really like this, because it suggests a design with enough life of its own to sort of get away from the designers. But I wonder how people felt about it back in the day.

What brings Wrecking Crew into focus for me, and what makes sense of absolutely everything, while making me love it even more, is discovering that this is not the work of Shigeru Miyamoto, but rather Yoshio Sakamoto. Sakamoto is the playful, impish genius of Nintendo. He makes the games that are fun but also weird, sometimes slightly disconcerting, and a bit spooky.

He pushes things – all the greats at Nintendo push things I know – but he pushes things into territory where design elements can be brilliantly unresolved. His spirit shines through Wrecking Crew – not least in the brilliant moment where I discovered a concrete ladder that I could climb, but which also needed to be smashed. Please give Wrecking Crew a try. It’s fantastic.