Hello and welcome to the debut of Lily Lovely Bones’ new article miniseries centered on the foundation of 3D platforming, the 3D Mario series that began in 1996 and manifested most recently in 2017. This is Part 1 of 5.
This series cites all sources for quotes and imagery used for factual, demonstrative, and transformative purposes, and these sources will be linked throughout. Please consider supporting MobyGames as their staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Credit for all images of course includes Nintendo.
When the previous millennium ended, I wasn’t even five years old. Your halcyon days of 90s gaming were my nonexistence or my literal infancy. And I was born the same summer that Super Mario 64 released in Japan. I never got the chance to be on the ground for one of the single most important and influential works of this game genre for which I have such a passion and extended history.
In fact, I had never played any 3D Mario until Super Mario Odyssey was my very first Switch game back in August 2018. Coming into the series with its latest iteration was exciting and sometimes quite disorienting, and now that I’ve assembled every home console entry in the series,1 I would like to discuss my first-time experiences with each of the games in the series up to that aforementioned most recent entry. While Odyssey will not have a dedicated writing, it will appear as an intermittent throughline during the miniseries when appropriate to speaking with how it informs my experience with the other titles, how my relationship to the series is evolving, etc. Providing my own kind of memories to look back upon in the midst of experiencing its forebears much like so many others before me looked back on their previous experiences while playing it and other more recent entries.
I want to process many different kinds of history: the history of the series itself, the history of the genre, and the interconnection of those, and from that my personal history with each separately and together, one relationship developing from an early age and one emerging so recently but so strongly. I talk about my childhood in relation to games quite often, and goodness, I do know to at least try to keep that from being too indulgent, but it’s an inextricable point of consideration given the commonality of the game as a childhood fixture for many, the parallel to that of my coming to it as an adult, and the aforementioned fact that I and 3D Mario as a series happened to begin at the same time long before we began to interact. Now, let’s return to that time of the 1990s to consider and understand a few more things.
As I will probably have mentioned in a Five Finger Discount by the time this is finished, the first 2D games I ever experienced were in middle school and all through Xbox Live Arcade indie releases like Braid, Castle Crashers, Limbo, Splosion Man, etc., and that was still almost ten years after my first games ever being stuff like Gauntlet, Power Stone, and Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast. So I really was always adjacent to the beginnings of 3D gaming and grasping at its first peaks just out of reach, and that’s where grandpa comes in.
As my life was just getting started, my dad’s dad, my currently 80-something year old grandfather, reached the tail end of his jet-setting days that same decade, and began his very financially comfortable retirement by scaling down his entrepreneurial exploits and soon enough pursuing video games as a hobby right in the midst of 3D gaming’s first full console generation, purchasing a PS1 and N64 in short order while I was just starting to grow up. I first talked about this on the Gamescast episode I substitute hosted with Kappa, Brakeman, Ben, and Annanomally last Fall, where there was some misunderstanding when I mentioned that I was introduced to the consoles through my grandfather. My relationship to early 3D gaming is always going to be fundamentally retrospective by the nature of when I was born, but it isn’t literally my grandpa’s generation of consoles or something, my goodness. He’s much older than that! He just had the time and resources to invest in such a hobby that my two working parents lacked. On top of that, my dad gets too motion sick for high framerates and most 3D gameplay, but there were many times when our family had grown more comfortable while we were younger that he would enjoy family co-op games on the Sega Dreamcast, and he occasionally still does with games like Death Squared. I’ve of course spoken of my mom’s place in my history with games before. I hope she enjoys Psychonauts 2 when it finally comes out, I always send her the new trailers for it when they release.
Grandpa’s hobbying played a big role in my early impressions of and interest in video games, normalizing and establishing them in times when we largely couldn’t afford them and my older brother’s interest are just starting to develop thanks to things like the original 90s Pokemon phenomenon, so that still looms large in my mind 20 years later as I grew more invested in this medium. Hell, I probably have him to thank for my parents getting used to playing video games with us at all, as I’ve discussed before and just above, let alone the fact that while I was home from college some years ago, the four of us spent several hours until past midnight playing the Gauntlet reboot in co-op until we finished it. We started and beat that game in the one evening, with maybe the whole last hour going just to throwing ourselves against the final boss. We always were a stubborn family.
We visited my grandparents pretty regularly in those early years, staying in the upper floors at this utter behemoth of a beachfront property they used to have, a three or four story tower of glass and marble with a working built-in elevator. I was convinced it was formerly a hotel, but I never knew for sure. I spent hours in a cramped little game room sitting on its red hexagonal floor tiles with those two consoles2 playing the beginning hours of Final Fantasies 7 through 9, and admiring the covers and manual artwork for both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Appropriately enough, the latter caught my eye more even then. I remember that room’s visuals more vividly than an off-putting amount of other parts of my life. Super Mario 64 was able to emerge into and remain in an even greater shroud of mystique than those games could, for I had suddenly gained an abstract awareness of it without the chance for any direct observation and understanding like they had, and I was stuck in that position for years to come. Until now.
With historical background firmly in place, some introspection is necessary before moving forward. I started working on this 3D Mario series project back in December. A lot of completely unrelated and uncontrollable things have delayed it along the way, including financial emergency and an unexpectedly long stay with my parents that I returned from just under the wire before nationwide quarantine started. There were more minor things, like reorienting myself back into the gameplay after long breaks that included family Christmas and the aforementioned, and I also got back into Dark Souls. However, what perhaps ultimately affected my work more than any single aspect was a very internal matter brewing over those many months. What at all new I was bringing to the table with this piece? What new could I possibly bring? Why should you listen to me? Is it enough to just be another person who had fun with this game? Especially when those came before me, which the majority of my readers did, have had almost 25 years to trade stories, to research and report the production, to consider the game’s place in its medium’s history? What can I accomplish in writing this for you all? …What has any of this accomplished?
Have I simply come too close to the end of things to truly matter in the least? And why should I be focusing on this kind of game, or a video game at all, when the most vulnerable among us are hurt worse than ever and my comrades are fighting injustice in the streets? I understand escapism is likely something some of my readers are seeking right now and I sympathize with that need relatively, but it’s never been an urge to which I’ve related much. I tend to find more help in looking head-on into what’s around us, even if it’s through something reflecting it, than avoiding it. Even more so, I strongly and genuinely believe that there isn’t anything out there that can truly, completely be at a remove from these same issues because those issues all stem from the broader cultures, structures, ideas, and histories that we were all born into and have inherently been shaped by. They are the products of us, and we are the products of them. How can the same people that possess ideals and biases and such, as individuals or as a group, hope to accomplish keeping those same influences out of what we create?
Our creations are extensions of ourselves and our influences, to one degree or another. As a journalism student and by that point open trans woman, I was told that I should concede a story about campus trans rights issues to a cis peer rather than cover it myself. I knew both the circumstances and the stakes of the situation intimately and was a source for my classmate anyway, but her distance from the situation was prized, and by extension, her relative power and privilege. I’m lucky that my peer was as well-meaning as she was, she just as easily could’ve been exactly as “fair and balanced” in her framework of human rights as your average Fox News broadcast. That is the fallacy of objectivity and its role in institutional inequality. It is our ultimate responsibility to strive to be more aware, challenge ourselves and our surroundings, and grow rather than stagnate, even as the structures around are built to discourage it.
Once you’ve incorporated human culture and history into the narrative and aesthetic, and as established that’s nigh-unavoidable whether or not it’s done consciously, that media is open to being considered in that lens, and that shouldn’t be dismissed or resisted, regardless of the depth of that aspect in a given work. It won’t necessarily have to amount to the extended analysis that I’m doing today, but that shallowness or lack of intentionality can be what is worth discussing. A lot of stuff is very much just quite plugged into genre archetype and that too, that failure to interrogate the history of that, is worth consideration.
And that’s where the Mario series3 comes in, with things like its use of pyramids in desert levels. The series and 64 included incorporates those real-life cultural touchstones at a very broad, archetypal level. Employing that imagery is evocative for sure, but at a certain point it’s becoming more common to see it just like that, stripped of context or culture, even just lacking any presence of the actual people behind that image whatsoever, and what does that reinforce? This all is admittedly much easier to take thanks to having Odyssey already in the back of my mind, with how it celebrates travel and multiculturalism while emphasizing the actual peoples of the places Mario visits and who they represent, even if they are still very broad representations of those cultures as part of this series being a cartoon world. It’s particularly striking that throughout Bowser and the Broodals are forcefully robbing these locals of their cultural touchstones for the sake of his wedding ceremony, and Mario ultimately sets all of those right as part of his more positive and respectful relationships to those peoples.
All of that is to say…that’s not what this article is about, but that isn’t because there’s nothing to work with. I feel I have a responsibility to acknowledge it, but I don’t have to ignore it to be discussing other aspects of the game either. There is simply so much to discuss here, after all, and these are times when elevating the voices of others can often be the best, most necessary thing for some of us to do.
There have been other less existential or societal questions at hand too. My Link’s Awakening piece came together very suddenly and quickly through the sheer force of how well that game connected with me. That kind of effect isn’t something one can easily recreate or force, and unfortunately that piece has been a bit of an albatross around my mental neck ever since. Not only the matter of such a quick turnaround that I’d like to be able to repeat, but also simply that I’m immensely proud of it and want to match its quality. So I want to be able to consistently put out great work and do so at a faster, more consistent rate…but hey, what writer doesn’t? I’m not alone in living with each and every one of these different concerns. I have to try to be at peace with that, or else nothing will get done anyway. As for the content of this piece, sometimes one simply has to set aside the question of repeating what was said before them, for the sake of truly doing justice to the monumental creation before them. Some things bear repeating, especially from different voices.
And make no mistake. Mario 64 is still as monumental as it was. The place of platforming itself may have been rather complicated in the years since this game. First shoved aside by console shooters and other action games, then largely dwelling in its 2D roots as it gradually reemerged into prominence thanks to the twin pillars of Nintendo’s persistence and the indie and kickstarter booms, until finally platforming was viable enough in the market again that many of the major industry publishers have quite clearly been investing significantly in it again at last, as seen in the recent developments of Microsoft publishing and/or co-funding Psychonauts 2 and Super Lucky’s Tale, and reveals such as Balan Wonderworld, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and Sackboy: A Big Adventure, among others.
The Mario series throughout its history laid so much of the foundation for game design, and Mario 64‘s role in that looms largest to me as someone for whom the formative games were exclusively 3D. So much of what came after it both in and outside of its own series is ultimately just iterating on what it started, and often still falling short of the standard it set, and I was consistently experiencing that legacy second and thirdhand through various off-shoots in the genre this series helped establish and maintained the touchstone for, from the 90s on down.
This is to say I have an almost disturbingly intensive history with the morass of 90s and 00s licensed platformers, and of course a lot of past writings that already illuminate further on that. If you haven’t read and don’t remotely share such poor life choices in your background, simply trust that I’m well qualified for stating the following with no nostalgia clouding my eyes: The role Mario 64 occupies in influences and defining 3D design in the console market can be seen at every level of the industry, just look at how series like Tomb Raider first and Uncharted or Assassins’ Creed later continued the legacy of both platforming movement and the collectible costumed in more ‘mature’ and less gamified aesthetics, but perhaps it is actually the dregs that illustrate it best: Numerous games released for numerous years after it that didn’t so much build on its 3D platforming foundation as mediocrely copy it wholesale. The ground pound proliferated from Yoshi’s Island and 64 into Crash 2, Glover, Pac-Man World, etc., and further down and down the ladder into the licensed fare. Quickly just off the top of my head, I remember it in both the game for Dreamworks’ Madagascar and the one for Toy Story 2. Those are six years apart on their own. I could go on.
Instead, here is a whole, singular, and very personal game among the many examples, SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom. It was one of the better licensed platformers I experienced back then, though that’s not saying much,4 and it too derives heavily from a certain 1996 game, from the sandbox level design and progress-gating collectibles (a golden spatula instead of a shining star), to what stands out most when one is fresh off playing Mario for the first time, being chock-full of slide sequences airlifted straight from the Mountains Cool Cool and Tall Tall, just set to surf-rock and being stuffed into basically every level. And then Jedi: Fallen Order went ahead and borrowed them itself another fucking 15 years later!5
The development of this game has been covered consistently and intensively in the almost 25 years since its release, and has been done very well not long ago by our own SingingBrakeman as can be seen here. I believe some of the major details of the game’s background bear briefly repeating out of relevance to both previous articles of mine and the forthcoming ideas discussed within this one, but rest assured this is a brief interlude before finally reaching my gameplay experiences. Our focus here remains on its history relative to games as a whole leading into an overview on the design of the game and the development of my relationship with it, including discussion of each and every main level to some extent, Conception for the development of a 3D Mario began in 1991 during the development of Star Fox for the SNES, with pre-production and design concept for what we know as Super Mario 64 beginning in 1993. After beginning his work for Nintendo developing the manual for A Link to the Past, the story for Link’s Awakening, and contributing to the art for Yoshi’s Island, current leader of Switch development Yoshiaki Koizumi began his long relationship with the Mario series as the Assistant Director of Mario 64.
One of Koizumi’s most significant and famous contributions as AD (and model animator!) on Mario 64 was pitching and implementing a consistent presence of shadows from all enemies and objects throughout the worlds, meant to help communicate distance and accustom players to the 3D environments. This isn’t just a clever bit of accessibility but a direct bridge for designers and players alike between what they had been used to and this radical new 3D Mario plane, processing through the simple application of the same lines of distance to, quite literally, a new dimension, the angle of depth. The role that levels and space occupied in the classic 2D Mario games was largely one of simple obstacle; they can have charming and fascinating visual design, and opportunities to uncover secrets, but ultimately they are lines with a start and a stop. Movement is the means by which these spaces are overcome. But when you can move more than left and right and up and down, when you’re brought closer to resembling the spaces of depth that we occupy and move through every day, a whole new experiential world and a more conscious, genuine sense of immersion can become possible, while still being true to the same spirit of its 2D forebears in both mechanics and design.
So I should probably talk about the camera now. The camera, a phrase when applied to early 3D movement where the implicit scare italics are so apparent there’s no point in actually including them. Mario 64’s camera a lot like Pikmin 3‘s camera. I love Pikmin 3‘s camera! Those kind of controlled bursts allows for freedom to carefully adjust based on the path ahead without having to constantly, exactly micromanage the camera at the same time as moving Mario to and fro. It’s that kind of too many different, synchronized, continuous inputs at the same time that renders some games personally overwhelming and unplayable, like most fighting games. Now sure, 64‘s camera is not a perfected form of this idea, it’s clunkier, more prone to careening out and needing immediate corrections, and the centering function isn’t easy to get then hang of, but I would argue it’s overall 90% of the way towards effectively accomplishing its purpose, in a way more free cameras of the time were typically nowhere close to achieving and often still aren’t.6 I will concede that I feel very lucky I was playing the game with the Wii U Gamepad and Pro Controller, where I typically only needed the right stick and trigger, rather than using those face C buttons on the original N64 controller.
When I refer to the purpose of this game’s camera, what I mean is enabling and aiding the player’s freedom of navigation without overwhelming them, emphasis on those last three words. That really does epitomize the excellent tightrope walk this game as a whole accomplishes, providing a great degree and mechanically meaningful forms of freedom with the right amount of care to keep it from being shapelessly dull. It all comes down that central conceptual quality of freedom, the sheer degree of it offered, and how everything extends outward from it.
Struggling with or otherwise just not excited by a particular star challenge after a try or two? Just wander off and check out some other nooks and crannies of a given level, and before you know it you have a new star in place of the one you didn’t get. As long as you fulfill the overall star quotas for each section of the castle, ensuring that you have in fact experienced a wide variety of what the game offers, whatever your personal version of that might look like, then you are playing it “the right way.” The gradual unveiling of titles for each Star mission in a specific order is far more a gentle suggestion than a constricting cage, a thoughtful and generous means by which to provide structure, just not at the expense of fun. The designers are playing to and wildly succeeding at their particular goals and particular types of appeals and that doesn’t encroach on the equally valuable pursuit of and success in a more refined interactive experience.7
Any divergence off the beaten path inside the levels or out is more often than not utterly and immediately rewarded with an ample supply of exciting different tasks and resulting bonus stars that can further sub in for any level or activity that’s not to your particular tastes, because the design is successfully encouraging the player towards the particular joys of exploration and discovery. While plenty of stars involve more complex or obscure goals, plenty others are easy to take notice off a cursory run through the world. I for one often shot for finding all of the red coins of each level off the bat, or at least right after a boss battle or some such is taken care of. When you’re ready to move on from that starter level you’re playing right now, just one star is needed for the second level, and just two more for the next pair of levels, and just like that there’s 24 stars laid out before you ripe for the taking. The flexibility in how some enemies can be defeated is yet another of the myriad ways this game accomplishes its vision of freedom. There’s of course the punch button as an accessibility feature for the sake of players struggling with nailing down landing on heads in 3D, but just look at how footage of this game can easily show players sticking to completely different ways to take down the Big Boo! This true freedom of choice has an immensely powerful and direct personal appeal to me as an adult currently playing this, and I know for a fact that it would have the same appeal to me if I had the chance to experience this as a kid.
I cut and ran at the first sign of trouble all the time back then, from TV shows with dips in quality to games that got boring or frustrating. That’s why I got so much farther in Blinx the Time Sweeper in 2019 than I ever did as a child, . I’ve had plenty of experiences in modern games across a variety of genres that made me yearn for this opportunity of shaping my experience in a truly substantial way to just the right extent. That’s such a big risk to take when you’re already tackling an entirely unprecedented model of game and world design. Just think about how many of its contemporaries were so much more conservative than this, too afraid of the notion that a player might miss some of what they worked so hard to build. It’s an instinct I’m sympathetic to as a creator but massively skeptical of as an audience member, especially as it persists into the modern day when games are supposed to be more nuanced, complex, and narrative-driven. I have an admittedly commonly-cited example I like to use that you can or might have heard on the Avocado Gamescast #62.
I’ve already suggested in this direction, but the game undeniably keeps structure in mind as well. The options expanding out from only Bob-omb Battlefield is exciting and generous, but the need to start there naturally funnels one into more time spent there thanks to its sheer sense of energizing fun, its open and navigable space, and its capacity for communication. Just by taking the core path up to Big Bob-omb, most of the clearly and carefully delineated separate goals are established for the player, passing through or witnessing from afar the Chain Chomp, the cannons, the red coins, and the floating island. Sure, the hardware’s draw distance imposes some regrettable limitations here, you’re not immediately seeing the Chain Chimp and the star behind it as soon as you enter, but it’s simply far, far from a severe design disadvantage given that smart pathing as described. For a more macro example from the hubworld, the path between the final two locked doors points the player directly at a pair of levels that consciously start, facilitate, and expand the experience of the game’s climax. The most straightforward route of progress at this point, albeit not always the easiest, is to get most of those remaining required stars from the intricate Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride. And the sense of pace goes far beyond those two polar ends, given the gradual introduction of carefully concealed level entrances requiring more effort to enter, from the Boo cage in the back garden to the invisible paintings both up and downstairs.
The game’s design feels like it’s bursting at the seams with all the different kinds of opportunities Koizumi, Miyamoto, and everybody else found to provide additional player-first freedom and fun to the experience. Just take a look at this.
’80s Dungeons and Dragons is commonly understood to establish the hit points system later adopted by video games, but this 2004 Gamespy interview with Dave Arneson is on record for tracing the inspiration of D&D’s system back to naval tactical simulations that were in use through most of the 20th century. Only after years of further development in the Japanese games industry was this system first introduced to the Mario franchise by 1995’s Yoshi’s Island. The Mario series has always had ways for avoiding instant death (outside of falls) and complete loss, with lives, power-ups, and so on, but as time went on into the 90s, more complex gameplay and environments demanded more opportunities for players to keep going, even in the most elemental of platformers. Yoshi’s Island provided a unique take on segmented and replenishable health via the system of Mario’s bubble timer and the many stars adding seconds back to it. And so Mario 64 introduces segmented, replenishable health, that’s slowly chipped away from attacks or being underwater, while retaining the benefits coins and 1-ups from past entries. Opportunities to restore health in this game are abound and expertly weaved in with the layout of enemies on a given map.
This game and its developers were so clearly willing to push the series and its world forward into new and necessary places, even while it’s already shouldering the challenge of rebuilding its gameplay from the ground up in new assets. Especially given the scale of what I discussed above, it would’ve been completely understandable if they were reluctant to challenge and change the series and the fans too much, relegating new worlds and characters to later games and in the meantime ‘playing the hits’ with the most familiar and well-worn aesthetics and ideas for the series. Which is to say, this game theoretically could’ve (aesthetically not graphically, obviously) resembled how New Super Mario Bros. U largely looked 16 years later, or even the upcoming theme park.
Instead so many risks were taken, and in so many different kinds of ways. They threw out the entire established history of power-ups for the series, scaled down their overall role considerably (leaving room to build those back up in the future) to help zero in on that core mechanical refinement, and specially designing what power-ups were included to the 3D environments they’d be used in. All of this in the process only added further to how radical this game truly was as an update for the series. For worlds and characters alike, they reached for the deep cuts of the series’ history up to that point, expanded what it did bring forward from that history in such striking ways, and confidently created plenty of entirely new. All kinds of new monsters and variations on old monsters were thrown into the mix. They could equally appear front and center or come out of nowhere in the middle of the game, they lent so much to cultivating genuine atmosphere, and they burned their way into our brains as well-remembered classics in their own right. Right from the get-go, Bob-ombs and Koopas were friendly now! Boos and Pokeys, and their respective environmental themes, which had only just started recurring in the series thanks to Super Mario World, were now firmly codified by being part of the baseline for the 3D iteration of the series. SMB3’s Thwomps were used to inspire all kinds of variations in the Whomps, Tox Boxes, and the especially creepy Spindels. And so much more beyond that, including introducing such unique luminaries as a giant dead-eyed eel, an unstaring eye that struggles with dizziness, or the mysteriously harmless hovering flowers called Spindrifts, to name just a handful more.
There’s simply no better way to illustrate the depths of this than a piece-by-piece survey of my experiences with each of these levels, starting back at Peach’s Castle and the Battlefield and progressing in order of play after jumping around a bit above. I won’t take too long with any one level, and they won’t all be equally intensive. I also won’t really be dedicating space to the trio of designated Bowser levels because they simply don’t carry the same amount of compelling ideas to discuss as the rest of the game’s worlds, but rest assured, I consistently enjoyed their ol’-fashioned platforming as well.8
So…Whomp’s Fortress. It winds up being easily one of the least compelling and distinct levels across the entire game; at least they got it out of the way so early that it’s easy to move on from. Levels are mostly introduced in sets of multiples, two to four, with the option to approach them in any order (more on that part later), so the extent to which the player has to engage with a less satisfying area is generously limited and dependent on their playstyle. But the ability to opt out from it doesn’t mean the design can’t be learned from. What doesn’t work about this level? Its biggest concern is that it mostly repeats ideas that are more distinctly and effectively executed elsewhere in the game. It isn’t the first or last time the critical path of a level in this game entails scaling a great vertical space, which lends well to platforming certainly, but it still blends in with the better versions of the idea elsewhere.
The points of novelty that do come from here are the Whomp combat and the stealth mechanic introduced via the sleeping piranha plants, which recurs later in Big Boo’s Haunt. Fighting the Whomps is really great, actually. Luring and dodging its slam and then slamming down on it in the right timeframe is a very smart, organic extension of the core movement of Mario while involving more thought and precision, which in the process makes it a far more mechanically interesting boss fight than clumsily grabbing and throwing the Big Bob Omb, even though the latter as a character admittedly provides stronger new visual iconography for the series. This also makes for a great tutorial for the ground pound as a whole if the player still needs it by now, helping to establish the overall essential 3D Mario moveset going forward (and taking inspiration from Bowser’s main attack in SMB3 no less!) However, the other new aspect of this level is a far less successful experiment.
I appreciate the sheer creative instinct and sense of variety that goes into conceiving a stealth mechanic for Mario, and the instinct to bring out the excitement of dynamic interactivity where possible; the idea of an enemy who only attacks Mario depending on the player’s choices is certainly cool. Unfortunately, I think in execution at least it just gets in the way what is fun and feels good about this game. The momentum of movement is starkly interrupted both by being forced to tiptoe past these enemies on a narrow path, and the punishing attack they deliver when this is failed. The sudden, eventual discovery that one can defeat the Piranhas9 by diving into them before they wake is far more enthralling and organic to the core mechanics of the game. Some stealth sequencing, with the plants or with other enemies, does reappear in some later levels, but usually in such a less demanding and punishing way that it scarcely feels the same. And there’s one last thing this level has to offer that we’ll get to shortly.
Water levels are a complex topic that I don’t especially feel equipped to tackle in full. What I do feel confident saying is that Jolly Roger Bay feels like the quintessential example of the water level and what makes them so enjoyable, while also focusing on new and strange kinds of enemies rather than immediately bringing in Bloopers and Cheep Cheeps. 10 Water levels can be claustrophobic and stressful for sure, but they’re such a strong change of pace, from the relaxing music and very stark shifts in atmosphere (both relative to other levels within a game, including this one, and in the Bay’s case, within itself as well!) to how swimming through open water in Mario and platformers in general has always been this wonderfully pleasant but distinct experience from the running and jumping, where aiming and moving oneself is still the key but it feels so different.
One of the most exciting things about this game is the dynamic design in many of the levels, how the world itself evolves with Mario’s progress through the missions. Even coming to this game so many years late and being so used to modern experiences, this is still such an exciting, surprising experience that proves this game is still special. This idea starts isolated and small with finding and activating the special cannons, but it expands so suddenly and greatly in both Whomp’s Fortress and Jolly Roger Bay, with things like a whole tower suddenly being in place of where the Whomp King boss once stood or the destructible part of the fortress, and probably my single favorite one in the game for how dramatically immediate it is, the sunken ship suddenly rising to the surface once its treasure chests are opened properly, in the process putting Mario into the urgent position of quickly but carefully reaching the star at the top edge of the ship. There are many other wonderful examples of this but this is the one that is probably among my favorite single experiences in games as a whole.
Cool Cool Mountain is pretty iconic, of course: the penguins, the snowman and its head, and the mountain slide that begat a thousand more mountain slides as discussed above. It’s really not a personal favorite, but like most of the personally ‘secondary’ levels in this game, I respect the hell out of it, it is singular in its vision and executes it with aplomb. That penguin child mission, all memes aside, is quite clever and adds another lovely entry of accomplishment in the capacity of this game and 3D Mario overall to provide great variety to the kinds of fun, memorable tasks available to the player.
Big Boo’s Haunt is one of the single most creative levels in the whole game, it’s a pitch-perfect translation of a classic part of the series into this new format, it’s confidently weird and classically spooky, including foreboding-as-hell music with a chorus, intermittent narration straight out of a certain Disney ride’s favorite ghost host, and a particular rather shocking enemy directly inspired from one of my all-time favorite films, (who went on to be as important of iconography for the game as it was for the film, and it attracted some amusing speculation/misinformation, as seen below). All of that, and yet the player could also very well go through the entire game without even realizing it’s there!
One could miss a lot of levels in this game at first glance, really, they’re increasingly needing more effort to suss out and access without being needlessly obtuse, and the artistic instinct behind that is so exciting and resonant as another way of realizing the joy of discovery and exploration. The deeper into Peach’s Castle Mario goes, the more hidden and out of the way some of the entrances are, from invisible paintings that need leaps of faith to enter or a mirror to find, to a long set of hallways leading to a hole in the ground, and another hole right in the middle of the floor Mario was crossing to get to a Bowser level! And most wonderfully, suitably bizarre of all, that only after acquiring the right amount of stars, a Boo will appear in the back of the castle, lead Mario out into the haunted garden, and from there he has to find the right Boo and attack it the right way and suddenly Mario can enter a miniature cage containing its own reality?!
Getting back to the actual level, it’s chock full of the game’s imagination at its brightest. You have joys ranging from stumbling into a godforsaken underground wooden merry-go-round complete with a creepy circus music track, leaping across a fractured floor and crumbling bridge, solving puzzles of old bookshelves leading into secret passageways, using the same invisibility against the Boos have always spooked and chased us with that very same power…and did I mention the fucking man-eating piano from a 70s surrealist lesbian tragicomedy masterpiece? Yes, there really is a fucking reference in one of the premiere Nintendo games to something like that. That’s wackier than the Twin Peaks stuff, and way better than localizers naming a Koopaling after a then-infamous racist talk show guy.
Hazy Maze Cave was actually the very first level of the second area I visited, as I hadn’t realized that one of the paintings was just a wall, I was still too intimidated to enter Lava Land as discussed below, and of course the Docks weren’t open yet.
I tend to struggle with desert levels in games, which is pretty funny considering that I quite happily live in a desert. For some reason quicksand as an environmental hazard is a bit more stressful and challenging for me than others, perhaps from the dread of how it draws the death out with still little to no chance of survival. Or maybe it’s that there is a lot less room for variability in the visuals; lots of sand and a pyramid or two are basically guarantees, and there still isn’t much else to find, beyond the sugar skull village in Odyssey, which is visually refreshing but is a little too stereotypical to be wholly satisfying as a step forward in locale design. So Shifting Sand Land isn’t a favorite, but there are a lot of individual ideas and experiences that I really love.
Eyerok is another cathartically elemental boss, entailing a tense cat-and-mouse game within which the punch button is used more than it probably ever is elsewhere in the game. Both the narrow pathway to scale up the pyramid’s exterior, and the extended vertical obstacle course within the ruin, are some of the most exciting platforming in the game for me, tone-perfect proto Tomb Raider sequences that keep Mario moving along tensely narrow pathways and through gauntlets of enemies, including some aforementioned especially creepy ones (I’m sorry, those faces are horrible). Just getting that far is a thrilling, involved journey of its own, with a multitude of different avenues for reaching the entrance, from the long way of carefully traversing past the Tox Boxes, to precisely jumping over the massive sand dune at the start with either the bouncing box or Mario’s own sweet moves. At a 2017 E3 interview with IGN on the heels of revealing Mario+Rabbids and the full scope of Odyssey, Miyamoto cited the Tox Box as “one of his masterpiece” designs, and it’s easy to see why. The shifting faces on each of its sides are the right mix of goofy and a bit eerie11 with a unique industrial quality, and it presents a quintessentially Nintendo challenge that’s simple to understand, but satisfyingly exact to succeed. The very fact of this being wonderfully thought out course and enemy right in Mario’s face to enjoy, but still with so many equally satisfying opportunities to totally avoid it, both aforementioned and the long-jumping over the water around the Tox Boxes, that is what makes me love this game in a nutshell.
I was intimidated by the opportunity to enter Lethal Lava Land for a few different reasons. The painting art was actually quite creepy, as seen above; it felt much more like the entrance to some kind of special Bowser challenge level, (like, say, Odyssey‘s Darker Side of the Moon) or maybe another haunted level but with a lot more fire. Also, here’s a fun fact about me, I have a pretty bad pyrophobia, like get in the way of blowing out birthday candles bad. So that didn’t help. Once I was sure it was the volcano level I’d previously heard about, I wasn’t much comforted, seeing as it would clearly still have plenty of fire hazard, not to mention that I heard constantly about how challenging and frustrating it was. But I still needed to increase my star count and get a taste of everything the game had to offer, so ultimately, in I went. And much to my surprise and delight, I actually did quite well with it, obtaining 3 of its main stars inside of an hour with few if any deaths. I love that you can dive right into the central volcano whenever you want even if the mission list has yet to suggest it, and that curiosity is rewarded with a whole new area to explore! (Albeit one with some of the most personally challenging platforming…)
Dire Dire Docks is such a smart expansion of the template set forth by Jolly Roger Bay, keeping its same core loneliness but stripping away the open space and majority of the surface areas to create a sort of survival horror setup of managing Mario’s breath, swimming confused and scared for minutes at a time, through highly industrial and imposing, narrow tunnels, or a deep fish and shark-infested ocean. Its missions are less memorable than its environment, it’s far from my favorite level, but it sets a great standard for how unique and variable the ‘secondary’ levels of a platformer can and should be.
Ice levels have never been my favorite in games, but the biggest obstacle to enjoyment is mercifully almost never distributed across every single surface of those levels (looking at you, Blinx!) Slipping along an icy floor comes with a particularly bitter flavor from the matters of needing to put in much greater effort just to exert as much control as you could naturally otherwise, and the deeply unpleasant feelings of not stopping and careening over edges. Luckily, both of this game’s ice levels at least offer very separate and compelling core experiences and iconography, enough so to not only make me happy to have spent the time with them I did, but even driving me to max out both levels’ stars! 12
There’s a strikingly Sisyphean quality to Snowman’s Land, one that I really think goes far beyond the nature of struggle and repetition already intrinsic to most game design. It fully brings out a sensation that usually remains more understated and ignorable in video games, wherein the world is truly antagonistic, it is actively throwing absolutely anything and everything it has at you to halt your travel. It’s like Gwyndolin directing an army of illusory giant sentries and knights expressly to repel the player out from Anor Londo. A desert or a volcano are dangerous to an intruder just by their nature, but it’s a passive danger one can sensibly anticipate and prepare for as much in the real world as they would in a game. Heights and falls, ocean depths, those too can easily feel entirely not deliberate even though they of course ultimately it is all by someone’s design. Snowman’s Land puts a brick wall in your path too high to jump over even with your expanded toolset, in a genre built around moving and jumping! That wall had to be chosen to be built not just by game devs, but by characters themselves. The path to begin scaling the giant snowman endlessly throws piles of snow of varying size straight at you, which in turn can push you into freezing water that drains your health. Once Mario reaches the head of the snowman, its voice booms out, sensing him as a tiny pest to be viciously blown away, with a positively ruthless hitbox to boot.
Wet-Dry World reminds me a lot of the concise puzzle-box level design introduced in the Captain Toad levels of 3D World and continued in his dedicated spin-off game. Of course, Mario remains free to jump unlike the tool-weighed-down Toad, and there are some notable platforming sequences in this world. However, it remains a rare example of a Mario 64 level where traversal and platforming aren’t part and parcel with its core theming; the defining quality of it is undeniably the raising and lowering of the water level to change what you can access and how you access it. Different challenges are approached in completely different ways depending on whether or not Mario is coming at them from the water or from the dry platforms. Some are totally cut off by one water level or another, some can depend on multiple changes to the water table It’s a far cry from Bob-omb Battlefield in terms of simplicity versus complexity, but it’s a totally organic extension of the same fascination with exploration and space.
As much as it is easy for me from where and who I am to look back and marvel at the stories of the false secrets people believed in and desperately searched for in this game and Ocarina of Time, the Triforce and Luigi and so on…the behavior became very sympathetic if not outright understandable once I discovered the underwater city. If something that mysterious, that unexplained even by the standards of a series that started in wholly abstract, contextless imagery, and can be that far off the player’s path entirely by design, what other discoveries can be made with the right spark of imagination from either designer or player?
The city is an admittedly common thing to shout out from this game, but it simply earns it through sheer memorability, as it’s up there with some of the game’s other best and strangest rewards for exploring the worlds to the very fullest. From the puzzles for entering some of the main levels, and the hidden castle compartments concealing the game’s power-ups13, my favorites including the drawn-out process leading to the cage of the Boo’s Haunt, as previously described, where the stained glass windows lead, and suddenly being thrust into learning how to fly just from staring up into the sun in the Castle entrance.
Tall Tall Mountain immediately distinguishes itself from the early Cool Cool Mountain with an incredibly simple but clever beat: starting the player at the base of the mountain rather than the peak. Climbing and descending a mountain are equally mighty struggles, but ones of entirely distinct experiential quality. One, as both symbolic or mechanical use in modern games like Celeste or Breath of the Wild respectively, is an agonizingly inch-by-inch scaling of both the obstacle and your own capacity for giving up, each step a deliberate, exact choice. The other has happened to me a lot in Death Stranding, your travel is a process of great speed and force all in one sudden downhill burst, where the challenge stems from maintaining careful control over the momentum of your descent, lest you slide or careen and ultimately crash.
Many try, but there are only so many moments in video games that truly, fully succeed at plunging their hand directly into your chest, pulling out your heart, and filling it with hate. That drive your every moment of play with the motive of, “Fuck this character in particular. I must avenge myself against them.” One is the beginning of Fallout: New Vegas, where a Chandler Bing voiced gangster in a garish checkerboard coat shoots you in the head while posturing about fate and his bullshit sense of honor. Another is that damn monkey stealing Mario’s hat on Tall Tall Mountain. Mario just isn’t himself without at least some form of headgear. He was downright naked, it was undignified. Even the game knew it, just look at that animation of him reacting to its absence after leaving the level! And that loss of dignity was only exacerbated by the embarrassing experience of desperately chasing that bastard Ukiki, falling back down to the base of the mountain, and trekking back up again and again. Getting the hat back in Snowman’s Land wasn’t as bad, even though it was accompanied by more of my girlfriend making fun of me.
The hardware would take a little longer to be in place to most effectively bring various creative, memorable Mario locales into 3D, but Tiny Huge Island was a delightfully bold effort to reintroduce the effects of Giant Land from SMB3. It was one of the more strenuous areas for me, with attributes like the pools of water infested with hungry fish and nigh-impossible to escape from or the return of failing to sneak around Piranhas in tight spaces, but I greatly admire the ambition and creativity at hand, starting from the twin entrance paintings.
Even though I was quite curious and uncertain when I first reached the 50-star door and realized I was still gated from some of the main levels, upon actually playing those dual final worlds, Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride, I instinctively understood why they truly needed to be gated off into their own sequence. Everything leading up to this point, both backwards and forwards in the series’ history, and admittedly far more additional 3D platformers in general than kids who played this in ’96 could have possibly accessed or anticipated, had perfectly prepared me for this experience. In the span of a single afternoon, just like any proper dedicated 90s kid, I swiftly and fully flourished within these environments in a way I hadn’t always been able to when faced with quicksand or lava or ice. Together they complete the intelligent, expert translation of the series’ previous decade’s worth of design into the new 3D reality, with the precision platforming of Mario 3 and World, and, through the magic carpet rides, the intensive, constant, equally legendary and infamous auto-scroller levels of (especially) 3 realized as works of tremendous spectacle and scale that celebrate just how far you’ve come*.
This thrilling and triumphant afternoon culminated in a perfect parallel to the first experience that cemented Mario for me as a series that’s not “just” fun, but sincerely meaningful as well, resonating as an ongoing celebration of joy and adventure that offers as much of a dynamically evolving vision of what adventure looks and feels like as the legends and myths of old. That first I’m alluding to was the much-discussed New Donk City Festival of Odyssey, a bridge bringing me, the young newcomer only experienced with the imitators and the spin-offs, (and a person whose very nature of being invites hate and dismissal) right directly back to the origins of the series and the genre and practically the whole company with a sense of absolute welcome and love, the powerful embrace of wide open arms. It didn’t matter that it took me so long to get here: all that matters is that I’m here now. It can always be time to jump up and be a superstar. That two years later, Mario 64, with the help of my loving if teasing girlfriend, did in fact come even close to matching the experience those feelings, would be enough for me to enjoy this game on its own, no matter how many deadly falls I took. The soaring journey on the Rainbow Ride carpet, accompanied on that day by the Super Smash Bros. Melee rearrangement of the level’s theme as provided by her, was a moment of soaking in the pride and accomplishment of coming so far in the game, the series, and every other adventure in life.
I wrote articles of roughly equal size for both this staggering, beloved classic, and Blinx the goddamn cat.
A whole lot of time and effort goes into making my work here possible. Please show your support however you can to help keep this going, whether that means sharing these articles wherever and to whomever there might be interest, or for those able to, donating to my Patreon dedicated specifically to these writings, which is linked here: https://www.patreon.com/lilytina
Even if you aren’t a regular donor for myself, please consider continuing to support the many orgs working to protect and aid the many victims of police violence right now.
Thank you to Marcus TAC, Dramus18, Singing Brakeman, Science is Bad, Ninjaneer, Prestidigitis, Frosst, and Suoly among others for your financial support of this project. Thank you to any readers for your wonderful patience while I finished this article. Thank you everyone for your reading!
The misadventures will return! Next time we’re having fun time basking in the Sunshine! I’ve got plenty of different Nintendo pieces in store this summer and beyond, from Twilight Princess to Earthbound! And please check out lt3.eu, which I write for now!