The Mezunian

Die Positivität ist das Opium des Volkes, aber der Spott ist das Opium der Verrückten

Great & Sucky Stages — Super Mario Bros. 2 ( US ) Levels from Worst to Best

Sandwiched ’tween 2 o’ the greatest video games o’ all time, it’s easy for Super Mario Bros. 2 to be forgotten. While many talk ’bout how Super Mario Bros. 2 is viewed a black sheep o’ the series, usually by people praising the game, unlike Super Mario Sunshine, I have rarely seen this sentiment 1st-hand. It did only sell 10 million copies, which while amazing for most games, was nearly half o’ what Super Mario Bros. 3 sold — tho that was also during a chip shortage.

What I can say for certain is that I ne’er liked this game as much as 1, 3, World, or e’en Lost Levels, but this is primarily due to Super Mario Bros. 2’s slower, awkward gameplay & mechanics & its wonky physics & controls. I still find it odd that people call Luigi’s slippery controls in Lost Levels unplayable, but have no problem with the fact that everyone is slippery in this game, specially Luigi. I ne’er liked how easy it is for characters to clip into blocks or how they bounce all round when they get hit.

Also, the decision to make your character shrink when you only have 1 hit point is idiotic, specially with the half-assed way they implemented it ( in the NES & SNES versions, a’least ): they don’t actually change your hitbox; they just make your graphic smaller, so it’s less representative — so it’s a lie. Making your character’s graphics non-representative o’ your hitbox is a cardinal sin o’ bad game design, & it’s shocking that an official Mario game would have such a thing. ¿Why’d they e’en need to shrink your character with 1 hitpoint? Despite the lazy repainting o’ Doki Doki Panic’s hearts to mushrooms, your health is still nothing like health in Super Mario Bros. — hell, despite the trouble they went to to make your character visually shrink, they didn’t bother to repaint your hit points on the side o’ the screen from diamonds ( & for some reason used hearts in the SNES & Game Boy Advance remakes ). Furthermo’, Super Mario 64 didn’t have mushrooms or growing & shrinking @ all, & that game was mo’ beloved than Super Mario Bros. 2, & Super Mario Bros. 2 was just after the 1st game to have the grow-&-shrink mechanic, making it probably the 1 game that most get ’way from the deviance to this “pattern”.

I also ne’er liked how the characters all feel like they have many weaknesses rather than a strength: all but Toad take way too long to pick up things, so that it’s very easy for Birdo to throw off cheap shots you’re vulnerable, unable to dodge as you’re character’s too busy slowly grabbing an egg for, like, a whole second, which is made worse by how slow Luigi & Peach fall, making them mo’ vulnerable while up in the air. Meanwhile, Toad is almost useless @ jumping & Mario is almost useless @ everything. Also, I always found it nonsensical that Toad runs fastest when holding something. Since jumping is still the most important element o’ this game, specially with skipping section, this means most players will probably prefer to stick with Luigi & Peach & just stomach the fact that they suck @ anything regarding throwing or digging & use Toad in the rare places where jumping is less important than throwing or digging. Thus, the game somehow manages to fail @ encouraging balanced use o’ characters while also making e’en the best characters feel crippled.

Most importantly, I always felt the whole Subcon health upgrade system, which, giving you extra health, played an integral part o’ how difficult the game was, was too much o’ a trial-&-error guessing game.

But Super Mario Bros. 2 had 2 strengths: it had memorable graphics & enemy designs & had catchy music. Moreo’er, tho, Super Mario Bros. 2 had underrated level designs that evolved from the 1st Super Mario Bros.’s linear left-to-right pattern to mo’ complex layouts that twisted in all kinds o’ shapes.

20. World 6-1

4 worlds after world 2, which already used the desert theme, we get yet ’nother desert level with the same litany o’ Cobrats & Pokeys. & unlike the other desert levels, which usually make the 2nd half be a cave with sand-digging, this level makes the 2nd half be a cave with… e’en mo’ Cobrats, but popping out o’ pots. I actually don’t know if I should be glad for this “twist” or find it worse.

Actually, I do know: it’s much worse — that 2nd cave involves a genius puzzle wherein you have to trial-&-error thru all 21 pots to find the 1 that has a key @ the bottom to unlock the door @ the end o’ the cave. E’en better: There are 4 pots with sand areas in them, but only 1 o’ these sand areas has the key @ the bottom, so you have to tediously dig thru each to see whether or not each has a key.

This level sucks & I’m baffled why any human would think it could be entertaining to play.

19. World 2-1

Desert levels in Super Mario Bros. 2 fall into what I will now call “Jolly Roger Bay Syndrome” harder than Jolly Roger Bay: it doesn’t truly matter that much which came 1st; the fact that all these levels feel similar brings them all down. & like “Jolly Roger Bay” makes it worse by having it apply to tedious water levels, Super Mario Bros. 2 makes it worse by applying this to desert levels with the sleep-inducing digging mechanic, which just involves rapidly pressing a button & maybe moving every so oft to make sure a Shy Guy doesn’t fall on you — all as a contrived way to make Toad feel mo’ useful, e’en tho he already has advantages when fighting bosses ( & just moving faster for speedrunners ), so these sand sections may actually make the game less balanced.

All 3 world 2 levels follow the same pattern more o’ less: 1st section is stretch o’ sandy outside area full o’ Cobrats & maybe Pokeys, followed by a cave section full o’ sand you have to dig thru. 2-1 has the least interesting sand pattern, being just a rectangle with a few holes with cherries in them. If you preserved your cherries well, you can time it so that the last cherry gives you a star & then rush thru the last stretch & kill Birdo with it. Other than that, there’s nothing else to say ’bout this level.

18. World 2-2

Same pattern as 2-1. This level’s outside area has mo’ intricate terrain that isn’t all flat, but it looks jankier & less natural. Sand just stops gainst a pot with cut-off round the pots edges.

The underground sand section in this level is mo’ interesting, with a branching path. Howe’er, 1 o’ the 2 paths just leads to a dead end. This section is notorious for possibly leading to a softlock if the player, for some reason, removes all the sand there so that they can’t get back up.

17. World 2-3

Similar pattern to 2-1, but with spawning Beezos in the outdoors section & just 1 Cobrat & Pokey each.

The underground section is also mo’ interesting. Rather than just digging down to the bottom o’ a sand pit, you dig to the bottom to grab a key & then race up to the locked door in the middle while avoiding Phanto. This sand patch also has a branching path, but both branches end together @ the same door.

There’s also a short non-sand section @ the start with a branching path. The right path is full o’ enemies, but gives you a POW block for your troubles, while the left path is just an empty hole. The Game Boy Advance remake uses this split to be cheap assholes & put an ace coin on the left, so if you happen to take the right path ( or miss the ace coin floating slightly to the left o’ the left path ), you have to kill yourself or restart the level.

16. World 6-3

This is the least uninteresting desert level that follows the “outside area with Cobrats & Pokeys followed by cave full o’ sand you have to dig up” pattern used for 4 o’ this game’s levels. Actually, while this level has sand you can dig up, there’s no reason to, ’less you’re desperate for cherries or bombs. Your main focus is 2 rock walls you need to blow up with bombs to continue. Not the most interesting challenge, considering you’ve already had to do this in previous levels.

If you want mo’ challenge, you can waste your time blowing up many mo’ rocky walls to get access to a mushroom or some coins, but it’s not worth the effort, not the least o’ which since not screwing yourself o’er is trial-&-error: there’s a 90% chance you’ll accidentally grab the potion, which is just an arbitrary grass in the middle o’ the main route forward, lost ’mong the bombs, which is long before you’re ready to get the mushroom ( or get mo’ than a few coins ), wasting it. E’en better, you can easily get yourself stuck in a lower area if you’re not careful, forcing you to commit suicide to continue.

The 2nd half o’ this level is a climb up to the top o’ a cloudy area to find a pyramid in the sky. While the pyramid in the sky is amusing, I guess, & I like the rare autumnal red vines, the challenge itself is just a mo’ bloated, less tricky version o’ 5-2’s vine section, despite coming a full world afterward. If they had made the section a bit mo’ relevant to the desert theme — a’least have Cobrats or Pokeys, ’stead — this section would be much stronger & feel less like just a generic section that could fit just as well as in any other level.

This level’s strongest element is the secret @ the beginning o’ the level: quick sand that goes under the left wall, which you can use to go under the wall to a secret door on the other side. This door takes you right to the pyramid in the sky @ the end o’ the level. Since, as I’ve written here, nothing you’ll skip is o’ any interest, this is the recommended route ’less you’re the kind o’ poor sap going for the ace coins or Yoshi eggs in the Game Boy Advance remake.

15. World 1-3

This level falls victim to introducing mechanics done better in later levels. It starts with logs falling down waterfalls, which are fun if not impressive jumping challenges, which are perhaps properly formidable in its simplest form for the 1st boss level — a great place for a slight difficulty spike.

After this we have a factory area that gives you a longer-form version o’ grabbing the key & dodging Phanto, introduced in 1-2. Howe’er, since you’re mainly falling downward with the key, it’s still easier than later varieties. The only problem is the last fall, which is blind: the left side can make you fall into spikes, & the only way to avoid that is to know ’head o’ time to avoid the left side.

Other than that cheap blind fall, tho, this is a solid level for where it is. Unfortunately, all other things being equal, the early, introductory levels usually end up being the least great levels.

14. World 3-1

Tho the 1st part is mostly just basic cloud jumps with enemies, the waterfall theme is refreshingly rare. The use o’ the Pidgit straight up the final part o’ the waterfall section builds on World 1-2’s challenge; while that 1 let you easily weave round the Beezos’ paths, here you have to weave ’tween their paths.

The next section builds on the challenge o’ the Pansers. Whereas 2-2 & 2-3 had them o’er flat land, here they are o’er short platforms o’er a pit. Granted, being fiery plant enemies, they don’t fit the sky as well as deserts. You can skip this section with a door past a wide gap if you’re playing as Peach ( Luigi might be able to reach it, too, with clever jumping ); but this section is so simple, you may not want to bother, specially since you need to bomb down a rock wall in the shortcut, anyway. Speedrunners don’t e’en bother taking this “shortcut”.

The mushrooms in this level are dickishly placed before their respective potions, & the 2nd mushroom isn’t worth the effort: you can’t climb out with the potion, leading the player to doubt the designers would put a mushroom outside o’ that li’l cave area, which means that e’en if the player knows where the mushroom is, they have to race up the ladder & onto the mushroom — making sure not to o’ershoot their drop & run right off into the pit — before Subcon kicks them out, leaving no extra time for grabbing coins. Worse, after this you need to climb up the ladder with the Panser back, hovering o’er you.

I’m not sure how to feel ’bout the secret @ the bottom o’ the waterfall, under the 1st platforms. While putting rewards down where players expect death is unintuitive, designwise, I guess it works as a consolation prize for those bad ’nough @ the game to fall down by accident.

13. World 1-2

Widely known as “the Pidget level”. Pidget is surprisingly underused in this game, & e’en mo’ surprising, this level may be the best use. This mechanic is e’en better since the game doesn’t tutorialize it: it just shows you a pit that’s obviously too large to jump past ( ’cept maybe with Toadstool — I’ve ne’er tried ) & a bird on a flying carpet & expects the player to fill in the squares themselves. I like how the Beezos seem a threat; but since you can freely fly anywhere, not really, since you can just fly o’er them. &, ’course, I can’t ignore the clever way this game lets you skip the whole underground section with careful use o’ the flying carpet.

The underground section introduces breaking rocky blocks with bombs to get thru. It’s just 2 walls, but they did still implement a shortcut: the main path actually involves going up a ladder round the 2nd rocky wall that doesn’t have any bombs in front o’ it & tediously blowing up all 3 rocky blocks to the right with the bombs up ’bove ( you can’t go down the ladder with bombs, so you can’t just break the bottom wall ) to drop back down below the rocky wall below. Howe’er, you could also just go back to an earlier part o’ the underground section, grab a bomb, & then race to the 2nd bottom rocky wall to break it & bypass the whole upper area.

12. World 5-3

This may be 1 o’ the most bizarre-looking levels in the original NES version, thanks to its bizarre palette with the lime grass & yellow dirt accompanied by eye-searingly red hills with dark blue borders. To be honest, it looks tacky, specially with the log platforms that blend in with them — some o’ which are missing their left face for some reason, leading to jarring cutoff. This is 1 o’ the few times I prefer the remakes making the palettes mo’ consistent with other levels. That said, I do like how the hills continue down into the underground area — e’en if they don’t quite line-up, technically.

This level introduced Bob-Omb-dropping Albatrosses, with rocky walls that said Bob-Ombs can break ’pon exploding, just like regular bombs, tho you have no reason to bother, since you can easily jump o’er them. This pattern continues to the end o’ the 1st area, where you have 2 rock walls that hide a secret mushroom you can just jump round to get to the next area, which starts with a lower section blocked by rocky walls you can skip, which only hold coins. Considering the game forces you to break rock walls with regular bombs as early as 1-2 ( or 3-2 if you skip that section using Pidgit — which takes mo’ forethought that skipping these rocky walls requires ), it’s odd that they don’t force you to use the Bob-Ombs anywhere in this level.

Inside the tree-hill thing has clever challenges timing dropping down block-clogged passageways while dodging the spinning Sparks, with 2 subtle shortcuts with a single-block space o’er the Shy Guy producing pots that a ducking character can slide thru with the right momentum. Then there’s a climb up short platform steps while dodging the fireballs o’ Pansers moving down the steps & a long outside area with the last Pidgit in the game & a bunch o’ short jumps with enemies.

This level goes on a bit too long & tapers off the rails o’ its theme @ the end. This level has a lot o’ good ideas, but some are wasted by making them pointless & many o’ them don’t belong together in a single level.

This level may have the most blatantly obvious warp secret in the game, with that pot right up there where you can clearly see it & a potion right next to it.

11. World 4-3

This level begins with the most iconic puzzle in Super Mario Bros. 2: a benign Birdo whose eggs you need to ride past the gaping hole right @ the start.

After that you have vertical versions o’ 4-1’s Flurry dodging challenges, going up, & then down, with half o’ the downward section requiring you to carry a key to the bottom.

The downward section also starts with a short challenge forcing you to ride a Shy Guy or Tweeter o’er spikes. It’s less memorable than 4-2’s cannon o’er spikes, but arguably trickier, specially in the Game Boy Advance remake, as you have to jump off the enemy before the long fall to reach an ace coin on a small alcove that in all other versions o’ this game has no purpose. You can skip 1 o’ these long sections with Luigi or Peach by jumping o’er a long gap ’tween the entrance & exit o’ the palace.

I don’t know why the crystal ball room is designed the way it is. It’s just a crystal ball followed by a small hole you have to try to fall into & the hawk entrance, but there’s a high-up place with a single Flurry & nothing else. Maybe it’s there to create the ( cheap, bullshit ) risk o’ the Flurry falling on your head as you move for the Hawk head, but it’ll probably fall off before you e’en reach the jump, & a dumb challenge e’en if it worked.

10. World 5-2

The 1st half is a clever layout o’ rising & falling Hoopsters you have to weave thru, followed by the most interesting vine-climbing section in the game, forcing the player to weave ’tween both Hoopsters & Snifits.

Then the level ends with a bullshit drop where you have to weave ’tween spikes you don’t have nearly ’nough time to move round before you see them, making this section trial-&-error. The floor @ the very bottom e’en has holes o’er bottomless pits. Also, the Game Boy Advance remake has an ace coin in a very unnatural place you’re almost certain to miss the 1st time, with no way back up but suicide or restarting the level.

Fighting Birdo in a waterfall area with hopping Trouters ’stead o’ in yet ’nother cave is refreshing, a’least.

9. World 1-1

This game’s 1st level is subtly clever, with both a variety o’ themes that don’t feel contrived — including a cave you enter & climb up to reach the top o’ a mountain, which ends @ a vine that you climb up as the mountains gradually end while the clouds come into play. The level has a U shape, entering from a door in the middle o’ the sky ( which is night in the original NES version, for some reason ) & dropping straight down, going straight right on a seemingly normal grassland, & then climbing up a sky area to the fight with Birdo in the clouds.

The level also subtly introduces mechanics, such as the hill that stands out near the otherwise flat beginning that hides the 1st potion, to the short log-rolling section you can skip if it’s too hard for you so soon, to the POW block just after, & then the cherries spread out that the player will likely collect & likely see the star appear. The level weaves them together into what feels like a normal level, rather than breaking them out into conspicuously separate areas like a modern game would do.

This level also provides 2 shortcuts for mo’ skilled players, such as a way to jump the mountain in the main room to skip the cave or the door in the cave hidden ’hind a rocky wall that requires timing a bomb throw before it to break the rocks, allowing the player to skip the whole 2nd half o’ the level.

8. World 4-1

This level introduces the ice theme unique to world 4, which starts by honing your skills dealing with slippery physics with a simply but challenging section wherein you jump from ice-block bridge to bridge, weaving ’tween Flurries who slip round back & forth, trying to follow you & oft o’ershooting their mark thanks to their low traction.

This is followed not by the typical Birdo fight, but by a long battlezone littered with Flurries & cannon-manning Shy Guys, who shoot you with fireballs as you try climbing up the high ice towers.

7. World 5-1

World 5 is to world 3 what world 6 is to world 3 in the original Super Mario Bros., with world 3 having a vague tropical waterfall & hill during the day & world 5 having the same theme, but @ night.

This level may have the cleverest use o’ the Panser, challenging you to cross both o’er & under it while dodging its fireballs.

Most o’ the level takes place in front o’ underground waterfalls wherein the player must hop ’cross falling logs & hopping Trouters, the only time this game requires the player to cross waterfalls in such precarious ways with no way round it.

Tho the mushroom halfway thru the section is just a plain platform just after the potion, the last mushroom is a clever puzzle that requires the player to hop up to the ceiling & grab the block to fall down so that the mushroom can fall down when you go into Subcon. Howe’er, this puzzle loses points for having 2 blocks up there, forcing the player to either risk going up & doing it ’gain for the other block or try 1 block & hope they guess correctly.

6. World 6-2

This level has the gimmick I ripped off in Boskeopolis Land’s “Dark Sahara”: ride on the heads o’ flying Albatrosses ’cross the pits far too large to jump o’er. Howe’er, this original version’s has a simpler layout, but still feels much harder thanks to Super Mario Bros. 2’s slippier controls. This gimmick is unique to this level; but since Albatrosses are enemies who have appeared in other levels, & riding enemies heads is something you’ve done many times, if only to pick them up, this gimmick feels like a natural variation to this game general mechanics.

This is the only desert level to take place @ night on the original NES version — tho 2-1 seems like it’s s’posed to be dusk with the stars in the sky. I’m not sure why they didn’t continue the day/night scheme from the 1st Super Mario Bros. that this game uses for world 5 vs. world 3 for world 6 vs. world 2.

This level’s birdo seems harder than it is, a green ( eggless ) Birdo in a cramped room with just 2 mushroom blocks. Howe’er, Birdo standing on a dais gives you an advantage in that you can just duck on the bottom floor as Birdo shoots fireballs ’bove your head while you wait for Birdo to pause & hop to get up & grab a block or throw a block you’re holding.

5. World 3-3

While many people complain ’bout 4-2, 3-3 is arguably worse & is definitely the largest difficulty spike in the game.

This level introduces bomb-dropping Albatosses, but there are only 2 o’ them o’er a flat plain, so there’s not much to say ’bout them. Perhaps it would’ve been better to keep them to the levels that use them mo’ thoroughly so that they would feel fresher in those levels.

The inside factory area is where the game just fucks you in every way. There are 3 doors, 2 o’ which are unlocked. The top door leads to the key, @ the top o’ a room you have to go up & down, full o’ pots that repeatedly generate Shy Guys. The other door leads to a room that seems to end in a dead end @ a tall cliff you can’t reach — that is, ’less you bring the Ninji from the bottom up to the top, wherein if you stand on his head & high-jump off @ the top o’ the Ninji’s jump, you’ll be able to bypass half the key room. That half you skip is full o’ clever arrangements o’ blocks & Sparks, but a pain in the ass to navigate.

Just after this shortcut is a door whence the key door’s area meets up with this room. What’s bizarre is that if you go thru that door trying to go farther up from the key room leads to ’nother dead end before a tall height gap before farther up in the level, which you can’t skip this time, making this dead end useless. You have to continue upward, which will re-meet with the key room higher up, past the key room’s dead end. ¿Confused? Imagine trying to play this.

E’en if you take the Ninji shortcut, you still have mo’ tricky Spark arrangements & possibly the hardest Panser challenge wherein you have to dodge 2 Panser’s fireballs while slowly climbing up a chain & then go side to side on chains, trying not to slip off with these chain’s wonky hit detection wherein you need to be right in the middle to be able to climb them.

This is certainly a cleverly constructed level, & I e’en quite like the strong castle aesthetics thruout the whole level. But there’s something questionable ’bout having possibly the hardest level in the game before the half-way mark.

4. World 4-2

The 2nd ice level evolves 4-1’s simple but challenging beginning with a simpler but e’en mo’ challenging — a notorious roadblock for players — mostly-flat icy bridge that throws Beezos @ you from every vertical position, forcing you to duck & jump with quick timing to weave ’tween them.

My only problem with this level is that your character’s dumb ducking high jump mechanic gets in the way: you’ll usually want to be ducking & sliding to keep higher-up Beezos from hitting you & only jump ( while still ducking to minimize the chances o’ a higher Beezo hitting you will still waiting to land back to ground ) before Beezos @ the very bottom; but ducking too long lengthens your jump height, which not only changes your jump height, but also keeps you in the air longer, where you’re vulnerable to Beezos with li’l you can do to control whether or not you get hit.

This section is followed by a unique area with whales as platforms, who spit water out o’ the blowhole, which you can use to reach the top section o’ the area. Their tails can also act as platforms & hold this area’s mushroom. While I love this unique theme, & can certainly understand the whale’s water hurting you if you hit it from the side, sometimes the water hurts you if it hits you from below if you don’t jump before it rises under you, which just feels arbitrary & cheap. Presumably, they programmed its hit detection with the same janky “¿is the player’s vertical speed greater than 0?” check that the original Super Mario Bros. uses for testing bonking enemies on the head.

The last section o’ this level requires you to jump on the cannon-manning Shy Guy, throw the Shy Guy off, & ride the cannon rightward past the spike pit. Don’t try riding past the spike pit with the Shy Guy still on, as it just goes back & forth & you’ll just get knocked off the cannon by the low-hanging ceiling thanks to the extra height the Shy Guy gives you.

While these 3 sections don’t fit seamlessly together, they do a’least all fit the ice theme. My only complaint is that I feel this level squanders a’least 2 great ideas for 1 level, when they could’ve replaced a superfluous desert level — or e’en just replace a superfluous desert world with an ice world, since it’s clear they had mo’ ideas for ice levels than desert levels.

3. World 3-2

This level has an intriguing path shape, with the main room having a unique o’erground/underground counterparts in the same area. The main path involves going to the far right or halfway thru the ’boveground area & then down to the far right o’ the top underground area & then go down e’en further, going down & up ladders as you make your way to the left end o’ the underground area. Howe’er, halfway thru the top underground area there’s a gap going leftward that Peach can float ’cross, skipping a whole room full o’ rocky walls you’d need to bomb thru.

My only complaint gainst this level is that the 2nd mushroom puzzle is bullshit trial-&-error gameplay. The mushroom is under 1 o’ the 2 rock-blocked alcoves, which is to be expected, but the area only gives you 1 bomb, so you need to guess & hope you’re lucky or look up the answer.

2. World 7-2

This level starts with a series o’ outside cloud platforms with an onslaught o’ column-helmed Snifits, who are far from the trickiest layout, but a fitting warm-up.

The bulk o’ this final level is a factory maze with branches here & there, most o’ which act simply as alternate routes to the same end, tho there are 2 that lead to rooms with mushrooms ( as well as bullshit bomb plants, which are surrounded by towers, making it pretty much impossible to throw it & not have it blow up in your face ). Other than that, the way the mushrooms are hidden within this giant maze is a fitting way to make players work for their extra hit points in this end-game level.

All o’ this level’s main rooms revolve round block & Spark arrangements — tho oddly, none are as challenging as the kind found mo’ than half the game ago in 3-3. Many o’ the rooms present li’l danger, such as the drop down the mushroom block bridges or, e’en odder, the chain climb wherein most o’ the climb you can go straight upward without the Sparks e’en e’er able to hit you. The long climb up conveyor belt platforms @ the end o’ the bottom path & the climb up the teal blocks on the upper path with the upside-down T block & Sparky formations can be tricky, tho. This early the developers had already figured out what is now known to every rom-hack developer: that marathons make for particularly challenging levels. Howe’er, 3-3 was already something o’ a marathon itself, & the tameness o’ these rooms dampens the danger o’ e’en redoing many sections. Unfortunately, many, like the room with the Sparks & mushroom blocks, are mo’ boring to have to redo than difficult.

The hardest part o’ the level is the Birdo on the conveyor belt near the end, holding a key needed to reach the end rather than a crystal ball, specially thanks to this game’s bullshit wherein eggs hurt you e’en after they’ve hit a wall & are falling offscreen.

But ’tween the locked door & Wart is a cleverly designed room with just a crystal ball & hawk face, ominously littered with 2 mushroom blocks & no enemies @ which you’d need to throw them — that is till the player runs into the infamous twist: the hawk face, rather than peacefully opening its mouth & letting you inside as it does on every other level, starts flying @ you in wavy patterns, forcing you to throw a mushroom block @ it 3 times to tame it & continue to Wart.

Unfortunately, Wart himself is mo’ tedious than challenging. While the bubbles he constantly spits out are easy to dodge, the speed @ which he spits them makes it hard to toss a vegetable into his mouth before he spits a bubble out & breaks the vegetable, which usually turns this battle into a stalemate, which is worsened by Wart’s bloated 6 hit points.

1. World 7-1

While this game has had cloud sections here & there, including the 1st level, 7-1 is the only level 100% dedicated to its cloudy theme.

The 1st main area is a shorter, less straightforward variation o’ 6-2’s gimmick, which requires the player to ride an Albatross o’er the left wall & past the large gap after it. While most players need to go all the way to the far right to where they can climb up on a hut’s roof to get high ’nough to reach the Albatrosses, Luigi can high-jump up to 1 right @ the start, skipping most o’ this section.

The next section involves a cloud maze full o’ pots that repeatedly generate Shy Guys that zigzags down to go under a tall pole — tho Luigi can just jump o’er the pole by jumping off the Snifit on the pole to the left o’ it.

The 3rd section involves climbing up cloud sections littered with circling Sparks, including 1 section that requires the player to stack Mushroom blocks while dodging Sparks if they’re not Luigi. This is slow & annoying, howe’er, so you should just play as Luigi.

This is followed by short ladder climbs guarded by Snifits & Hoopsters, — a less-developed but better-looking version o’ 5-2’s vine climb — which ends @ a hut @ the top.

Inside the hut is the least accommodating green/gray Birdo in the game, with just 1 mushroom block with which to throw all 3 o’ Birdo’s hits & tight space to grab it while Birdo shoots fireball after fireball @ you.

Posted in Great Stages, Sucky Stages, Video Games

Great & Sucky Stages — Super Mario Sunshine Levels from Worst to Best

Super Mario Sunshine’s gone thru an interesting reverse reputation change that Super Mario 64 has gone thru. While Super Mario 64 was universally beloved when it 1st came out, it has become a common punching bag for cries o’ “o’errated” by players nowadays for s’posedly being “outdated”1, Super Mario Sunshine was universally reviled as a dumb joke that gave Mario a water pack & made him clean up graffiti & made Bowser a sitcom dad during a period when Nintendo themselves were widely considered a joke with their GameCube compared to Sony & Microsoft, — so much that people feared Nintendo would go bankrupt — only for Sunshine to now be considered an underrated gem.

I must confess that I myself harbor nostalgia for Super Mario Sunshine, a game I once played every summer when I was in high school or college. I also admittedly started to see some o’ the flaws in Super Mario 64’s armor while analyzing its levels, which made me curious to see… ¿would I find that Sunshine’s design was, indeed, better?

Then I played Sunshine & realized it aged e’en worse. I was shocked as I played with fresh & careful eyes & saw so many sloppy decisions — the lazy blue coin placements, the incompetent handling o’ coins, the underdeveloped level structures that don’t take full advantage o’ their themes, the challenges so awfully constructed they in many cases must’ve been created thru pure spite & hatred o’ the player rather than accident, & the absolutely broken physics & controls. If I were to compare Sunshine to any game, it’d be to Donkey Kong 64, ’nother game that I held a lot o’ nostalgia for as a kid, but have grown to realize wasn’t well made for the same magnitude o’ terrible level design, terrible controls, terrible physics, & terrible programming. Indeed, just as Donkey Kong 64 was probably rushed to meet the Christmas season, looking into the development o’ Sunshine reveals that that game definitely wasn’t finished; & as my level analyses will reveal, there are many places in which this game simply was not playtested. ’Cept a’least Donkey Kong 64 had a rather ambitious design core with the multi-character gimmick2 & felt bigger & deeper, despite being on a mo’ primitive system. Super Mario Sunshine is a painfully simplistic game & yet they still fucked it up.

The only thing Sunshine succeeds @ is aesthetics, which is something Super Mario 64 failed @, being on a console so underpowered, it may as well not have e’en bothered 3D gaming, since it could ne’er do 3D graphics that didn’t look worse than the average Super Nintendo game. &, in its defense, it does show some good art direction, creating a variety o’ clever level theme combinations while making every level fit the o’erarching island theme. Super Mario 64 had no such theme to tie its levels down, & yet mainly stuck to tired themes like deserts, caves, volcanoes, snow mountains, & lots o’ mountains & general.

The only reason I’ve e’er read for why Sunshine is s’posedly great is that it’s water looks nice. This has, in fact, been regurgitated so oft in such a transparently derivative way that it feels like a jokey meme by now. ¿Who cares ’bout level design, controls, game physics, programming? All that matters is that your water looks nice. This isn’t out o’ the ordinary for gamers, who are now pumping up the upcoming Playstation 5 & Xbox Series X ( Microsoft continues to up the ante in creating stupider & stupider names for their consoles ) ’cause it can make generic cliffs look e’en mo’ realistically generic & can make their uncanny-valley human models have e’en mo’ detail to their uncanny valley.

Howe’er, I’m mo’ interested in level design than pretty water. & unfortunately, as we shall see, Sunshine doesn’t look nearly as pretty when we look ’neath the surface.

7. Bianco Hills

Those familiar with my tastes won’t be surprised to see this level here. 1st levels are rarely my favorites, & 1 o’ the main reasons is ’cause developers for some reason always insist on using the blandest level theme for their introduction. In the developers’ defense, they did attempt to spruce up the level with a li’l village & windmills all o’er the place, making the level not just a generic grassland. It’s certainly mo’ memorable than “Bob-omb Battlefied”. But compared to the other levels in this game, “Bianco Hills” falls far ’hind.

“Bianco Hills” is not just weaker than the rest in terms o’ aesthetics, but also in its mission challenges. “Road to the Big Windmill”, involves going a short path through a village without having to do anything in said village & up a short hill to fight yet ’nother Proto Piranha, which you’ve already fought 2 times before in the 1st few minutes o’ gameplay, for the shine. Compare that to Super Mario 64’s 1st intended star, which has you go through most o’ its 1st level, climb a much larger mountain, & fight a unique boss ( well, ’cept for the DS remake — but e’en that changes the boss so much that you need to use a different character ) — & that wasn’t e’en that great o’ a star.

What’s worse, the developers had a clearly better choice for the 1st shine: the 2nd shine, “Down with Petey Piranha!”. This is the 1st time you fight Petey, a boss far mo’ memorably & interesting — so popular that he’s a playable character in later Mario Kart games. Petey Piranha’s battle is similar to the Proto Piranha’s, anyway, — both require you to spray water in their mouths; Petey just requires you to also ground pound his belly button.

The repetitive nature o’ this level’s shines reveals that the developers couldn’t think o’ much to do with this level. You have 2 shines wherein you must defeat Petey Piranha. The 2nd fight, “Petey Piranha Strikes Back”, is quite different, gameplaywise, but is annoying & involves a lot o’ waiting, specially if Petey throws his pointless whirlwind attack. The Swoopin’ Stus that endlessly spawn from the goop & jump @ you while you’re trying to aim are particularly annoying here, as if you’re interrupted while spraying water into Petey’s mouth, he closes his mouth & rises into the air, forcing you to go thru ’nother cycle o’ knocking him down & dodging his pointless whirlwinds.

This 2nd battle is so hilariously pointless that the developers don’t e’en bother to make up a good reason for fighting him. Petey isn’t “striking back” @ all, but is simply sleeping on a far-off cliff. Mario’s the dick this time.

Getting up to the ledge beyond which he’s initially sleeping using a Chuckster works well as a stealth tutorial for Chuckster physics, tho, but the fenced area feels too detached from the level — conspicuously thrown into some hiding place clearly just for this shine, rather than feeling like it belongs organically to the level. Furthermo’, it’s easy to miss the Chuckster & jump to the cliff from higher up on the village rooftops. After all, the game ne’er indicates to you that 1 o’ the Piantas will fling you for no reason, & this isn’t an RPG, so many players wouldn’t e’en think to talk to every Pianta, much less hate themselves ’nough to engage in such tedious scouring. While giving the player an alternate route is great, this does weaken the use o’ the Chuckster as a tutorial. O well: the Chuckster had no relevance to the o’erarching challenge. The developers should’ve replaced 1 o’ this level’s many redundant shines with an easygoing shine dedicated to Chucksters so that the player could better practice for a later, harder shine. ( But we’ll get to that shine when we get to that level… )

You also have 2 red-coin collection shines, whose red-coin locations aren’t e’en that far from each other: “Red Coins of Windmill Village”’s are just round the village while “The Red Coins of the Lake”’s are round the lake just past the village. That the 2nd red coin mission is this levels’ 8th shine is particularly disappointing. Most levels’ 8th shines are memorable. Granted, they’re memorable to most people ’cause they’re frustrating — & maybe frustration wouldn’t be a good idea for the 1st level, e’en if this would technically be an optional shine you can do @ any time after playing all the other levels.

I think they could’ve improved this by making only 1 red-coin challenge, with maybe the red coins spread all o’er the level, — there are a a’least a few red coins in each challenge that aren’t exactly unique — & made 1 o’ the challenges simply reaching the top o’, say, the village, or the tightropes o’er the lake ( the village would probably be better, since you can’t reach it from somewhere else, while the lake tightrope can be reached from the top o’ the windmill ). A’least these shines’ names are mo’ accurate than the average star name in Super Mario 64.

The only other 2 shines, not including the Shadow Mario shine, which I need not discuss, since it’s just the basic mechanic as it works in every level, are secret FLUDD-less challenges, whose entrances are found in caves in the lake. The latter, “The Secret of the Dirty Lake”, is @ the end o’ a dangerously toxic lake, which is fair ’nough; but the 3rd shine, “The Hillside Cave Secret”’s, entrance is just a seemingly arbitrary cave opening up on some hill.

The secrets themselves are some o’ the strongest elements o’ the level, but not the strongest secrets in the game. Both involve simple moving & rotating platforms, presumably to warm you up. “The Hillside Cave Secret” does have maybe 1 subtly tricky jump ’tween spinning star platforms & “The Secret of the Dirty Lake”’s area has 1 surprisingly tricky required wall-jump off a parallel wall to get ’cross a gap otherwise too long to jump o’er. “The Secret of the Dirty Lake”’s challenge also introduces cubes that you have to ride while they rotate, which can be annoying, thanks to gravity physics as finicky as Super Mario 64 had. Fitting this level’s generic aesthetics, while later secrets have workshop, sandy, casino, & Yoshi egg visuals to make them stand out, these secrets have the same starry train-track backgrounds most o’ the secrets have & use the same general mechanical graphics — including the screw boxes, nails, & those white plastic cubes — all the other secrets use. They’re not ugly or unbearably generic; just not as cool as later secrets.

Since this level has 2 secrets, its 2 secret shines are simply red coin challenges in the 2 secret areas, bringing the # o’ red-coin collection shines to a disgusting 4 out o’ 10 in this level. 1 difference is that these red coin challenges have those infamous time limits that magically murder Mario if he doesn’t collect all red coins in time. Yeah, it’s hilariously stupid that Mario develops a spontaneous heart attack from red coin deficiency; but time limits looming o’er the artificial UI have been assassinating Mario since Donkey Kong. Then ’gain, Super Mario 64 arguably created a standard by ne’er killing Mario with things that wouldn’t kill a normal person; & in fact, usually opted not to kill him when any sane game would, such as when falling in a bottomless pit in a bonus sky level magically warps him to a random waterfall. I would honestly rather the game disappear Mario in an instant, like classic “The Good Life” kid, than cornfield him & make me just waste time getting back into the level like in the Johnny Bravo parody. Still, I wonder why they couldn’t just let Mario restart the task without killing him, as other games like the Spyro games would do. The fact that Sunshine’s developers made a Mario game that feels less polished than a Spyro game should make them feel embarrassed.

Now would be the best time to point out that these secret area bonus shines allow you to use FLUDD, taking ’way what made these secret areas special in the 1st place. The vast majority o’ the time, the red coin challenges are easier than the original FLUDD-less challenge, making them weak bonus shines. “The Hillside Cave Secret”’s red coin challenge, in particular, thanks to how small the area is, has red coins all thrown round the same area, with a red coin in each corner o’ the orange-block cluster & 3 on 3 rotating star platforms that aren’t e’en part o’ the main challenge — they’re so far ’way you need FLUUD to reach them & exist purely to put red coins on them. “The Secret of the Dirty Lake”’s red coin challenge does add some surprise challenge with the red coins floating o’er the moving flipping platforms, as you need to time getting them when a platform is near ’nough to them & not flipping o’er.

1 thing “Bianco Hills” does better than “Bob-omb Battlefield” from Super Mario 64 is make its 100-coin challenge less dickish. This is probably the only time Sunshine handles a 100-coin challenge better than Super Mario 64, & the 1 element “Bianco Hills” does better than most other levels. While “Bob-omb Battlefield” made it easy to get screwed out o’ getting the 100-coin star if you tried to go after it before unlocking the wing cap, “Bianco Hills” has no such requirements, & gives you so many coins that you’ll collect ’nough far ’fore you’ve run out. Why most o’ the other levels don’t work this way is a mystery to me.

“Bianco Hill”’s blue-coin placements aren’t great, tho. Probably the most interesting are the 1 on the cliff that Petey sleeps on in “Petey Piranha Strikes Back” that appears in later shines, wherein you have to jump ’cross moving cloud platforms to reach it & the 1 under the bridge that requires bouncing on power lines.

The rest are in places where you’ll find them in every level — washing off Piantas, cleaning graffiti, spraying a blue bird — or just lying round, such as a few just randomly in the water.

Then you get bullshit obscure locations, like spraying the middle o’ 1 palm tree out o’ many or spraying the spokes o’ 1 out o’ dozens o’ windmills.

Annoyingly, 2 blue coins require Yoshi to eat a bee hive or eat a blue butterfly, which means you can’t collect everything in “Bianco Hills” all @ the start. Since the game saves each blue coin separately, this isn’t too big a deal ( not ’less you’re trying to record footage o’ each level in single clumps… ). But I find it odd that they don’t just put a Yoshi egg in this level, e’en if you haven’t unlocked him in “Delfino Plaza”: this level has no problem giving you the useless turbo nozzle & rocket nozzle, e’en if you haven’t unlocked them in “Delfino Plaza” yet.

1 thing “Bianco Hills” does do better than every other level, tho: you can collect all 30 blue coins in the 8th shine. It is, sadly, the only 1.

6. Gelato Beach

Visually & thematically, “Gelato Beach” is weaker than every other level ’cept for “Bianco Hills”, being the most obvious theme to use for an island-based game. & while half its challenges are interesting & memorable, they’re marred by this game’s janky, buggy physics that make it frustrating & unfair. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was screwed o’er by mo’ than 10 physics bugs while playing thru this level ( tho, to be fair, there was maybe 1 or 2 that actually helped me, like when Mario just warped onto a tightrope I was trying to reach ). “Bianco Hills” bored me the most out o’ these levels; “Gelato Beach” pissed me off the most, when it wasn’t making me crack up laughing in disbelief @ how broken everything is. The other half o’ this level’s challenges are forgettable & thrown together.

This level does have 1 o’ the most interesting bosses in this game: “Mirror Madness! Tilt, Slam, Bam!”, a puzzle boss that requires you to ground pound the opposite side o’ tilted mirror platforms that Plungelos are on to fling them off completely & get them to stop messing with the mirrors so they can point @ the crystal ball in the center o’ the tower & melt the caterpillar resting on it, releasing a shine. It makes no sense whatsoe’er, but a’least it’s creative.

Right after that we get “Wiggler Ahoy! Full Steam Ahead!”. Those who have read my Super Mario 64 analysis will recall that that game had a late-game Wiggler boss that involved… jumping on it 3 times. Truly it put Dark Souls to shame with its brilliant boss design. This boss isn’t nearly that brilliant, but still makes use o’ the “Dune Buds” introduced in this level’s 1st shine to burst right under the Wiggler as it passes, knocking it o’er. Howe’er, somewhat like the “Eely-Mouth” boss in “Noki Bay”, while this boss in theory is interesting, in execution it’s annoying thanks to the poor hit detection on the Dune Buds that make it easy to miss the Wiggler e’en when it clearly should’ve hit them, forcing you to stand round waiting mo’. Worse, they path the Wiggler so that you have to use a Dune Bud surrounded by water to defeat the Wiggler, presumably for aesthetic reasons. The problem is that this makes it likely the Wiggler will be flung into the water where you outright can’t stomp its belly, wasting your time. I won’t lie: it sometimes made me wish for the simpler times o’ just jumping on them 3 times.

“The Sand Bird is Born” is legendary ( a’least as far as the French translation is concerned ), challenging you to stay on a bird composed o’ blocks that moves round, shifting the gravity under you, while collecting red coins. This arrangement is almost as simple as the red-coin puzzle from Super Mario 64’s “Lethal Lava Land”, with all the red coins right there on the bird & just 1 point when the bird slowly rotates, but is made much harder than its arrangement would seem thanks to Sunshine’s far worse physics than 64, including hit detection so bad it’s borderline broken & this game keeping Super Mario 64’s absolutist slope physics that make it so that once a slope goes past a certain threshold, it just acts effectively like a perfectly vertical wall, throwing you right off into the abyss. My 1st attempt recently ended with Mario just phasing right through the corner o’ the bird’s tail as it rotated.

This ’splains why this shine is rightfully reviled: since you’ll mostly die due to glitches, it’s not a fun challenge, just a tedious battle gainst this game’s bad programming. Once you adjust to this challenge’s nonsensical physics, tho, you’ll be guaranteed to ’ventually get it, which ’splains, on the other hand, why I read some super fans o’ this game wonder why people complain ’bout challenges like these so much. On the other hand, if this game’s physics weren’t so laughably bad ( say, if the rumored remaster fixes them ), this level’s arrangement would probably need to be tuned up a bit to make a bit mo’ challenging, as a game with decent physics would render this challenge too easy.

Only slightly less memorable, thanks to it being, technically, a bonus shine, is “The Watermelon Festival”, which challenges you to push a giant watermelon down a hill & thru a beach infested with Cataquacks, also known as the best Super Mario Sunshine enemy e’er, onto a narrow pier to win a contest & get a shine. Technically, that shine is the property o’ the Delfino government & that Pianta is peddling stolen goods & Mario should sick the police on him; but Mario knows it’s not wise to bring law enforcement into situations like these — that is if he doesn’t want to find himself buried in Pine Barrens. As annoying as the watermelon’s janky physics are that cause it to, for example, warp round things when not suddenly exploding just by lightly nudging walls on random occasions, — but not on other occasions — the main idea is a solid challenge, & I specially like the way they reward clever players who realize they can permanently destroy Cataquacks using the Dune Buds. I am annoyed @ the cheap way Cataquacks can combo you, tho.

This level’s worst shine is definitely “Red Coins in the Coral Reef”, which lazily throws all the red coins into a small lake, forcing you to endure Sunshine’s awkward swimming controls while trying to grab moving red coins — which can move into solid rock, making them literally impossible to collect till after they reemerge all the way on the other side.

Probably the most forgettable shine in this level is “Il Piantissimo’s Sand Sprint”, which is most players’ introduction to everyone’s favorite racist Piantaface Koopa the Quick ripoff, Il Piantissimo, challenging you to a race to the end for a shine with the threat o’ cold-blooded murder if you lose to him. Such is the law o’ omerta. E’en tho I got flubbed while trying to shortcut thru sloped terrain with its weird physics, I still beat him by minutes ’cause apparently Piantissimo stopped for a slurpee in the middle o’ the race.

This level starts with a FLUDD-less secret course, which does a good job o’ introducing Dune Buds by forcing you to find the 1 that unlocks the secret entrance. The secret course itself is a basic path o’ destructible sand blocks, ending in a mountain with the shine @ the top. This area couldn’t have taken mo’ than a few minutes to design, it’s so basic, but the sandy theme fits the level better than, say, “Bianco Hill”’s secret courses. While part o’ me finds it disappointingly easier than the secret courses in the previous 2 levels, I have to remember that this is this stage’s 1st shine & that the developers probably expected the player to play this before the 6th “Bianco Hills” or 4th “Ricco Harbor” shine.

This secret course’s red-coin challenge is similarly simple, with all red coins in obvious places, & is definitely easier than the already-easy main course, with FLUDD making the crumbling blocks e’en less a threat.

The final secret shine is hidden in a sandy staircase created by a Dune Bud, found by spraying 1 o’ its walls, revealing a shine picture. This is a bit too obscure & arbitrary for my taste, ’specially compared to the mo’ intuitive yellow bird in “Noki Bay”.

“Gelato Beach” has e’en worse blue coin positions than “Bianco Hills”, amazingly ’nough. There are 4 blue coins just in random places underwater, some o’ which move &, yes, go through solid ground, ’cause the developers thought that was very funny. They were wrong. Meanwhile, there are no blue coins, or e’en yellow coins, in the coral reef, ’cause using significant setpieces that an entire shine is dedicated to is so passe when you can just use empty filler area ’stead.

E’en lamer are the 4 places on the beach where you can magically reveal a shine by — ¿what else? — spraying water. It amazes me that as they were programming these in nobody stopped to think, { Maybe we don’t need 30 blue coins in every level }.

Continuing the rule o’ 4, we have 4 blue coins, each 1 on a single cloud you pass while riding the giant sand bird. None o’ them are challenging to reach; you just have to live ’long ’nough to access these clouds, which you have to do to complete “The Sand Bird is Born”, so you basically get 4 bonus blue coins for completing that shine. Meanwhile, that area has 4 towers in the distance that look like they may hide blue coins, but don’t, & I’m quite certain it’s impossible to reach them.

The best blue coin in this level is a blue Cataquack hiding in a palm tree during “The Watermelon Festival”, a reversal o’ earlier shines, when the blue Cataquacks are the dominant species & it’s a rare dangerous red Cataquack that gives you the blue coin. This blue coin is ruined, howe’er, but the fact that sometimes you can accidentally make it spawn inside a wall, making you leave & come back to try getting it ’gain.

The other is a blue coin hidden under the shack where you deliver the giant watermelon in “The Watermelon Festival”. If that doesn’t sound like a great blue coin position that’s ’cause the bar is very low in this level.

There’s also a swing with buggy jumping physics that are trying desperately to emulate a swinging jump, but just looks fake & feels bad on a palm tree with a blue coin in front o’ it. They went to the trouble o’ ( badly ) programming these special physics ’stead o’ fixing the broken physics they already implemented just for a blue coin or 2 ( I think this is in ’nother level, to no significance, too ). I know Super Mario 64 has a reputation for having jarringly weird level design, but as I discussed in my analyses, there was a logic to its levels’ constructions. Super Mario Sunshine legitimately has setpieces & general game design decisions that seem like they were made by people who had ne’er e’en seen a video game before.

God help you if you make the mistake o’ trying the 100-coin shine on the 8th shine, which is what most would probably try. It’s possible; it’s just super stupid. There’s barely any coins thruout the level. Whereas “weird” Super Mario 64 would scatter coins thruout its levels like levels made by normal human beings, “Gelato Beach” barely has any coins out in the open. What you do have are watermelons you can ram into walls for single coins. It seems you can do this infinitely, which would be hair-tearingly tedious, but relieving in contrast to Super Mario 64’s real risk o’ making you run out o’ coin opportunities just shy o’ 100 coins; howe’er, some coke-addled programmer decided that while you can explode watermelons for coins multiple times, you can only do it 10 times. After you squeeze 30 coins out o’ the 3 watermelons, you can collect most o’ the rest by bullying Cataquacks & spraying birds — ’cause that is what this game has reduced Mario to. I read you can also roll the smaller watermelons to the shack for coins, but I thankfully didn’t have to do that, as that sounds ’bout as fun as painting a house’s walls with just a single paintbrush hair.

The sad thing is that most people online recommend this shine for the 100-coin shine, which comes 2nd to the success o’ Animal Crossing: New Water Can Breaking Third Time Today as proof that gamers have no dignity or understanding o’ the value o’ time.

Honestly, this level is arguably much worse designed than “Bianco Hills”. It is only those few gems, like “Mirror Madness! Tilt, Slam, Bam!” & “The Watermelon Festival” ( janky physics notwithstanding ) & my preference for hilariously incompetent design o’er boring that I put this ’bove “Bianco Hills”.

5. Noki Bay

“Noki Bay” is a tricky level to rate. The strangest thing ’bout it is how it’s both strange & not particularly interesting @ the same time, being a mix o’ bizarre, mysterious cliff mazes & boring swimming challenges with big areas o’ water that could barely be described as designed. The aesthetics work the same way, being generic green grassland cliffs surrounded by surreal purple water & seashell spires with droning music that is both odd &, well, droning.

Its difficulty is similarly dualistic: its main shine challenges make this feel like a breather level ’tween “Pinna Park” & “Sirena Beach”; — e’en its 8th episode, which is usually a particularly tricky challenge in most levels, is a breather shine by this level’s standards — but its blue coins are some o’ the most obtuse & frustrating to collect.

“Uncork the Waterfall” is the general “get to the top o’ the stage” shine straight from the Super Mario 64 playbook — & we e’en get a mountain in a game that did a better job o’ not having half the levels surround mountains. Unfortunately, “Noki Bay”’s mountain is no “Tall, Tall Mountain”, being far smaller & having far less variety. While the weights tied to the pots that challenge you to spray water into the pots to move the platforms upward are clever from a design perspective, from a gameplay perspective you just stand there & spray straight @ a single pot. Worse, you can trivially skip these “puzzles” & just use wall jumps to get higher up, which you’ll want to do, since it’s much faster. The only other “challenge” this mountain offers is neon orange goop that you need to spray to make parts o’ the mountain sprout out from under them — ’cause apparently this goop was so heavy it pushed back thick mounds o’ concentrated rock. When all you’ve got in your game is a hammer, it makes sense that everything should be nails; but this challenge doesn’t e’en attempt to make its nails look like they should actually be nails.

@ the top o’ the stage you have to fight the same bomb-throwing mole boss as in “The Beach Cannon’s Secret” from “Pinna Park”, but this time you’re doing it so you can blow up the cork & release the waterfall. This version’s trickier than “Pinna Park”’s thanks to a gap ’tween the mole & the land you can walk on. Actually, as far as I can tell, the only way to throw Bob-Ombs @ the mole & make them reach is by doing a side-flip & throwing @ the top o’ your jump — requiring quite advanced acrobatics for a mandatory shine to beat the game, specially the 1st shine o’ the level. Nearly everything after this is a joke in comparison.

The most memorable shine in this stage is definitely “Eely-Mouth’s Dentist”, a boss that is both clever & obnoxiously slow & tedious, not helped by this boss closing its mouth & diving down so much, which basically makes you wait a long time for Mario to slowly float down to their new position or float round waiting for the idiot to open their mouth ’gain. Since you’re also slowly losing oxygen, this will also make it likely you’ll have to either try fiddling with the questionable hit boxes o’ the purple bubbles & spray them into oxygen bubbles or take a detour to grab coins to buy back oxygen, I guess — which means slowly floating o’er to a row o’ coins way off in the periphery & then floating back to the boss ( during which you’re sure to lose a point or 2 o’ oxygen ). I’m falling asleep just imagining it.

“The Boss of Tricky Ruins” is actually my favorite main shine in this stage. While the mountain o’ “Uncork the Waterfall” had you reveal passages by cleaning up neon goop magically holding back giant structures o’ rock, these ruins a’least add a bit mo’ plausibility by having sections shift by pressing down on weights with your water ( e’en if it doesn’t make sense that you can’t just push into them with your body ). Mo’ importantly, while that mountain was much less impressive than the kind o’ mountains in Super Mario 64, these ruinous mazes reminiscent o’ Super Mario 64’s red coin maze in “Rainbow Ride” are clearly the mo’ developed & interesting ( actually being a true maze that might stump someone with a triple-digit IQ helps ).

This shine’s only weak point is a 3rd fight gainst Gooper Blooper, which works just like the 2 in “Ricco Harbor”. Why they needed this, I don’t know, since you already do quite ’nough before it & all defeating the boss does is open an entryway to a cavern with the shine inside. ¿Why not just have the cavern open from the beginning & just have the challenge be climbing up to the cavern hole?

The 2nd most interesting shine is the uninterestingly-titled “The Shell’s Secret”, which has you climb the aforementioned seashell towers, using wire to cross from tower to tower. Admittedly, this entrance challenge is the same gimmick as “The Red Coins of the Lake” from “Bianco Hills”, but less challenging; but it’s the most challenging path to a secret in the game.

The secret course itself is 1 o’ the better 1s. While it doesn’t stand out as well as the courses in, say, “Pinna Park”, it’s the best straightforward challenge course, with clever jumps that require wall kicks, & is able to balance standard secret course elements to create a better variety than most secret courses.

The best actual shine is 1 o’ the few creative secret shines that isn’t just “hurry & collect red coins in a secret area before ultra-Progeria-suffering Mario dies of ol’ age @ the ripe ol’ age o’ 27” ( tho 1 o’ this level’s secret shine is, indeed, that ): a yellow bird @ the top o’ the ruins produces a secret shine if you spray it ’nough times with water.

Like “Bianco Hills”, this level has 2 red coin shines, 1 o’ which squanders the usually interesting 8th shine, which is insulting ’nough. While this level a’least spreads those red coins in distinct places, both shines require you to collect their red coins while using Super Mario Sunshine’s awkward spaceman swimming controls. It’s too bad, ’cause shrinking down into a bottle for a water level, as you do in the on-the-nose-named shine “Red Coins in a Bottle”, would actually be a cool level idea, thematically, if only they had any kind o’ challenge-based design to do anything with it rather than just an open room with red coins splayed round in the least interesting way possible.

Meanwhile, “The Red Coin Fish” doesn’t hide its red coins, but makes them partially living as part o’ a single-minded organism: a fish that flips round weirdly & then explodes, spreading its coins all o’er. It’s mo’ annoying than challenging: only a fool would go after the coins while they’re spreading off in the distance; just wait for them to coalesce back into the center & try to grab as many as you can while they’re all bunched together.

We also get a race with Shitty Koopa the Quick in “Il Piantissimo’s Surf Swim”. It takes him 40 whole seconds to get to the flag ’cause he takes the widest fucking swimming path e’er & probably stops @ Taco Bell for a meal partway thru, too. I bonked my face into walls & took probably the least efficient path any serious human being could take & still got round 20 seconds.

Something “Noki Bay” has that no other level has is that its sequence o’ shines sort o’ tells a story, something that might’ve made the forced sequence o’ shines in this game worthwhile if mo’ than 1 level did it. “Noki Bay” is the only level that remembers that this game is s’posed to be ’bout Mario cleaning up the environment & has a story arc o’ Mario trying to figure out how to clean the polluted bay, starting with deluging it with clean water from the cork ( which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work ). Later, Mario blames Gooper Blooper & summarily tears off all Gooper’s limbs before he bothers to get any proof. As it turns out, Blooper was innocent ( & Mario truly does belong in Delfino prison now ) & that it’s the “Eely-Mouth’s” tooth decay from being busy playing too many MMORPGs to clean his teeth. & after that… this arc ends & we just get mo’ random shines.

“Noki Bay”’s a bit on the middle-ground when it comes to coin placement for the 100-coin shine. I’m not sure if it’s possible to get 100 coins in the lower shines, but a’least episode 8, where most would try, has plenty & they’re actually scattered round the cliff mazes & undersea section, rather than expecting you to grind watermelons & Bullet Bills. Howe’er, slowly falling & awkwardly sliding ( I love how Sunshine fans love to praise Sunshine for how beautiful its water is, but say nothing o’ how stiff & lifeless Mario looks while sliding round the ocean floor ) to collect coins ’long identical walls is far less interesting than, say, jumping ’long girders for coins in “Ricco Harbor”.

I have mixed feelings ’bout the blue coin placements. There’s a refreshing lack o’ blue coins gotten from spraying blue birds or eating blue butterflies ( I’m kind o’ annoyed that the 1 level that doesn’t demand I have Yoshi to get all the blue coins is after I collected Yoshi, tho — but whate’er ), & shockingly for such a water-focused level in such a water-focused game, there’s only 1 blue coin underwater in the main area — & it has coins pointing down to it, rather than just being in random empty places like in “Bianco Hills” — & 4 blue coins in the underwater area. Granted, those 4 are all on 4 identical columns surrounded by coins.

They do have some blue coins floating ’bove the water, for which the developers probably intended you to use the rental boats to sail o’er to them. I say “probably” ’cause you can easily collect them by just jumping under them & hovering a bit, & this is much faster & mo’ convenient than going thru the trouble o’ sailing a boat all the way o’er with the janky sailing physics. If this was the intention, this could act as a nice optional practice for when you’ll actually need to deal with these physics in “Corona Mountain”, & I certainly don’t mind that they make it optional. Howe’er, the boat’s so out o’ the way that for most people it probably doesn’t work that way. I know when I 1st played this game “Corona Mountain” was my 1st encounter with the boats, as I’d completely missed this boat in “Noki Bay” till my recent playthru.

The vast majority o’ blue coins are in the cliff mazes, some ’hind those weird hieroglyph squares & some ’hind random walls you need to spray without any indication.

There are also extra cliffs to the side o’ the weighed pot wheels, which are awkward to maneuver & also require you to spray walls with no indication that they do anything. As I tried this I kept running into a lovely bug wherein Mario would just have abrupt seizures & the only way to get him to move @ all was to drop him from the cliff, forcing me to climb back up. These seizures felt utterly random, tho I suspected they were caused by the rotation o’ the camera in some way.

The developers also threw in a bunch o’ gotcha traps wherein a Cuckoo bird shoots forward & flings Mario far ’way from certain holes, wasting the player’s time by making them climb all the way back up to where’er they were for the crime o’ not already predicting where developers may put random bullshit. It’s the kind o’ childish bullshit you expect from a rom hack & doesn’t belong in what is ( a’least attempting to be ) a serious, official game.

While it’s cool they hid blue coins in the shine room o’ “The Boss of Tricky Ruins”, expecting you to spray not just 1, but multiple pots for blue coins is questionable, specially since they have terrible hit detection & give you nothing most o’ the time you spray them.

The worst problem with “Noki Bay”’s blue coins is the arbitrary way this level restricts blue coins or nozzles needed to get certain blue coins in only certain shines. ¿Why can you get the rocket nozzle on episode 6 & not 8? If anything, you shouldn’t be able to get the rocket nozzle on episode 6 ’cause it breaks the challenge o’ climbing up the seashell towers by letting you just rocket a few steps up.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings ’bout “Noki Bay” in general. It was actually almost below “Gelato Beach” till I remembered that “Gelato Beach” is arguably e’en mo’ bland & far mo’ janky & terribly designed. “Noki Bay” has the cool cliff secrets & seashell towers, which balances out the boring water sections & red coin collection. Plus it didn’t piss me off as much as “Gelato Beach”.

4. Pinna Park

“Pinna Park” & “Ricco Harbor” were close, & I almost considered “Pinna Park” better than “Ricco Harbor”. But while “Pinna Park” has a mo’ exotic, interesting theme, its theme isn’t utilized to its full potential as well as “Ricco Harbor” uses its; & while “Pinna Park” has some excellent shines, like “The Runaway Ferris Wheel”, that’s balanced out by some o’ the worst shines in the game, like “Roller Coaster Balloons”. “Ricco Harbor”’s best shine isn’t quite as good as “The Runaway Ferris Wheel”, but its worst shine isn’t nearly as bad as “Roller Coaster Balloons”. Plus, “Ricco Harbor”’s music is banging, while “Pinna Park”’s music makes me want to bang my head gainst the wall so I can no longer hear it anymo’.

“Pinna Park” is a bit like “Dire, Dire Docks” in that it’s the middle level that plays a key role in story progression. For Super Mario 64, which didn’t have much o’ a story & had no twists whatsoe’er, “Dire, Dire Docks”’s 1st star acted as just a key required to reach the 2nd Bowser level, necessary for reaching the 3rd act, whereas the 1st shine in “Pinna Park” acts as the reveal to the twist that Baby Bowser is “Shadow Mario” & that Bowser is the one ’hind everything. Neither work well, howe’er: “Dire, Dire Docks” is 1 o’ the weakest levels in Super Mario 64 & its star is just a simple platforming challenge o’ crossing a timed bridge to reach the submarine, without any risk o’ death for failing; & forcing the player to collect this star to beat the game ruins Super Mario 64’s open-ended nature for no story payoff.

Super Mario Sunshine is a mo’ linear level that requires the player to get the 1st 7 shines o’ all levels to beat the game, anyway, so its open-ended nature had already been ruined from the beginning, & “Pinna Park”’s 1st shine, “Mecha-Bowser Appears!”, while far from the best boss in Super Mario Sunshine, — it’s, in fact, a janky mess whose main gimmick is screwing with your camera as you try to aim shots @ Bowser, which would be unfair if the boss wasn’t trivial, while constantly forcing you to waste time wasting rockets on nothing just so you can use your regular spray to destroy the incessant Bullet Bills & Mecha-Bowser’s firebreathing ( till you realize it’s better to just tank the hits & just hurry up & defeat Mecha-Bowser ) — is a’least mo’ than the most basic platforming challenge in the world.

The twist, like much o’ Super Mario Sunshine’s story ( which we have, thankfully, not had to talk ’bout much, since it’s otherwise irrelevant to level design ), is dumb, which is hurt e’en mo’ by this game’s embarrassingly bad acting that makes 4Kids anime dubs sound like Shakespearean plays. Worse, this game follows that inane trope wherein after beating the boss, the boss just leaves with the prize ( in this case a human being, Peach ) while the hero just stands round gawking like a moron, making the whole ordeal feel pointless. Also, ¿why can’t FLUDD tell what’s going on during the cutscene? ¿Can he not see? Thruout the game he constantly insults the player’s intelligence by saying what they could obviously see in front o’ them, ¿but now they randomly went blind for a cutscene?

“Pinna Park” also acts as a key by serving as the means for unlocking Yoshi, who is necessary for 100% every level & unlocking “Sirena Beach”. Choosing the amusement park level is an interesting choice ’mong a selection o’ levels in which none o’ their themes truly fit Yoshi. The developers make sure to fill the level with quite a bit o’ Yoshi theming, too, including making both secret courses have Yoshi’s Island style backdrops & Yoshi egg blocks, e’en “The Beach Cannon’s Secret”, which otherwise has nothing to do with Yoshi.

Howe’er, the shine that unlocks Yoshi, “The Wilted Sunflowers”, doesn’t have much to do with Yoshi: you magically make sunflowers happy by defeating Snooza Koopas, who have shells that look like Yoshi eggs, but otherwise have nothing to do with Yoshi eggs.

But my main qualms with “Pinna Park” are that it doesn’t use its amusement park theme to its full extent. A full 2 shines — the aforementioned “The Beach Cannon’s Secret” & “The Wilted Sunflowers” — take place completely outside o’ the park, on a beach not much different from “Gelato Beach”, the level the player has likely just played before this 1. This could be effective as a way to cock-tease the player by making them “earn” access to the amusement park if these were the 1st 2 shines, but the 1st shine does have you enter the amusement park, so it’s just a pointless diversion. Granted, this 1st shine & the 8th shine barely have you do anything in the park, anyway, so only half o’ the main shines have you do anything in the park. What kind o’ developers would look @ a level theme as beloved as an amusement park & think, { A whole level’s too much for this theme; let’s use mo’ generic beach }, is beyond me.

This leaves “The Yoshi-Go-Round’s Secret” & “The Runaway Ferris Wheel” as the strongest shines in this level. “The Yoshi-Go-Round’s Secret” challenges the player to wake Yoshi by bringing its desired fruit ( & on the off-chance that that fruit isn’t the pineapple or papaya, eat a nearby papaya, ’cause it needs to be an orange Yoshi ) & bring Yoshi o’er to the empty spot on the merry-go-round where a Yoshi has gone missing to magically warp Mario to a secret course. While this has a nice paint job to it, it’s effectively a simple fetch quest to the secret course. Still, probably 1 o’ the most interesting ways to get into a secret course.

The secret course itself is 1 o’ the strongest, starting with new spinning box platforms that become increasingly faster, then opening to the main course o’ circles o’ Yoshi egg blocks that alternate from clockwise & counterclockwise, & then ending with a tower o’ orange blocks. This course has a variety o’ setpieces without any feeling o’erused & feels tricky without feeling unfair.

“The Runaway Ferris Wheel”, which is not only the best shine in this level, but also 1 o’ the strongest shines in the whole game, has you take a back-end path to the top o’ the Ferris Wheel, which is now spinning way too fast for non-speedrunner players to use. This climb involves clever puzzles involving platforms that flip for a short period ’pon being sprayed & wire nets with Electrokoopas that knock you off if they hit you on the same side, but which can safely be knocked off themselves if kicked from ’hind. The shine ends with a bouncy wire common in Super Mario Sunshine, which you need to use to reach the top wire net, ’pon which sits a giant Electrokoopa apparently causing the Ferris Wheel to spin out o’ control. You knock them off to return the Ferris Wheel to regular speed & then ride up the Ferris Wheel to the top.

“Red Coins of the Pirate Ships” — whose name sees a return to that classic Super Mario 64 naming pattern o’ inaccurately implying that all the red coins are in a place where only ’bout 2 are — is a middleground shine. Rather than having you explore the whole level full o’ attractions for red coins, the challenge is, in fact, a straight path from the pirate ships to a path o’ wire netting. But it doesn’t e’en do linear paths all that well, breaking the principle o’ difficulty evolution: jumping ’long the rotating ships @ the start with their janky slope physics is the hardest part, while everything afterward is trivial.

The same can be said ’bout “The Beach Cannon’s Secret”, which takes place on the irrelevant beach area with a Monty Mole helmed cannon shooting Bullet Bills @ you. Much like in “Noki Bay”, you have to toss 3 Bob-ombs @ the Monty Mole to defeat them & gain access to the cannon. I would call this irrelevant to the level, but I guess the level entrance does involve a cannon that shoots you to the level.

The secret course itself focuses on disappearing & appearing blocks. Strangely, the 1st part is mo’ complex than the final stretch, which is just a straight path that just challenges you to keep diving forward to go down the blocks before they all disappear. In the middle they add variety with a few springs that don’t look like springs, which, in typical Sunshine fashion, are laid out in a simple pattern that would be trivial to do if not for Sunshine’s janky physics that cause Mario to go in strange directions after a bounce whose logic I still haven’t uncovered. Strangely, there’s a path straight past these bouncy platforms that doesn’t lead to the shine @ all. I think it leads to a 1-up — ’cause those are worth the long diversion.

The absolute worst shine in this level is “Roller Coaster Balloons”, which is some extreme Beaver Bother shit — e’en mo’ than the rings in Super Mario 64. “Roller Coaster Balloons” uses the same cheap rollercoaster mechanics as “Mecha-Bowser Appears!” with its camera screw & demands you to pop 18 Baby Bowser balloons within 3 laps or Mario will spontaneously die o’ a heart attack, kicking you out o’ the level & making you go back in & talk to the guy to try ’gain, ’stead o’ just letting you try ’gain right from failure like a well-developed game would do. Luckily, this challenge is so lenient that you’ll usually stumble ’pon victory within the 2nd try; but like the infamous “Beaver Bother” from Donkey Kong 64, it doesn’t feel earned any mo’ than the unfair losses do, since you have li’l control o’er your aim with the camera yanking it round, & just feels like the game randomly decided to make you win. It’s just boring & obnoxious & it sucks ass. Let us ne’er speak o’ its shittiness ’gain.

Since this level has 2 secret courses, both secret shines are red coin challenges. The “The Yoshi-Go-Round’s Secret” challenge does a good job o’ balancing red coin spread o’er the area & puts them in interesting places; but they oddly give that challenge a high time limit compared to most o’ the other secret course red coin challenges, which barely give you time. I made a lot o’ screw-ups when 1st trying this challenge & still had round half a minute left ’pon collecting the last red coin. Most o’ the red coins in “The Beach Cannon’s Secret” are in the 1st area with the vanishing blocks. Like most secret course challenges, FLUDD makes e’en collecting the red coins trivial as you can stay in the air ’bout as long as the blocks stay missing, which means you have to be truly not paying attention to let yourself fall into an empty hole — far less attention than you had to pay when doing this challenge FLUDD-less, as you’ve had to do before. The dead-end has no read coins, which makes it completely pointless in the whole game. I’m still not sure what’s down that path, since I’ve ne’er had a reason to explore. The Mario Wiki claims it has a Strollin’ Stu spawning wall. I think this game’s developers might’ve had a few too many drinks, ’cause that sounds like an e’en dumber thing to have @ the end o’ a path than a 1-up.

“Pinna Park” has, on average, much better blue coin placements than most levels. While it still has repetitious placements, like marks you have to spray, including timed pairs, or birds you have to spray or blue butterflies you have to eat with Yoshi, & has multiple blue coins you get by just spraying random parts o’ the beach, — tho, thankfully, only 2 — the ratio o’ these vs. interesting blue coins is far lower than in other levels, & there are no blue coins in random places in the water.

For instance, 1 unique blue coin challenge this level has are baskets that you need to lead Bullet Bills into the open, allowing you access to the blue coin. There are a lot o’ these, which can feel repetitious — but for Sunshine standards, that’s good, sadly.

This level also has some cleverly placed blue coins just out in the open, like 1 on a high platform that requires jumping onto the bottom o’ a pirate ship as its swinging all the way round.

Taking a page from Super Mario 64, there’s an attraction with rotating seashells that you can spray to open, revealing their contents, 1 o’ which hides a blue coin. The only downside is that this makes me imagine what much mo’ interesting blue coin locations they could’ve devised in attractions. They could’ve had an attraction wherein you have to throw something ( ¿a coconut or other grabbable fruit, perhaps? ) @ a target or stack o’ bottles to win a blue coin. Or you could have you ground pound a “Test Your Strength” machine. Hell, they could’ve made it so that spraying the merry go round makes it spin faster & that if it spins fast ’nough, a blue coin pops out.

“Pinna Park”’s 100-coin challenge is e’en dumber than “Gelato Beach”, which was pretty fucking dumb, so this 1’s really fucking dumb. I 1st tried episode 8, as most would expect, & after collecting round 64 coins on the beach area — which any reasonable person would expect to be ’nough — I ran out in the amusement park ’cause there are apparently fewer than 30 coins in the amusement park area. Once ’gain, they don’t scatter coins thruout the level like any sane collectathon would do, but hoard paltry coins ’hind a single timed switch, a few sprayable clams, & a few green birds. Looking this up on the internet, I found everyone recommend trying shine 2, wherein you’re s’posed to just spray Bullet Bills for infinite coins. Now, I could understand someone not liking the idea o’ exploring a whole level collecting many coins ( I disagree with the sentiment, but I can see it as something a reasonable human may have ); but if someone were to tell me they would prefer repetitive grinding to get 100 collectables, ’stead, as rude as it may be, I would honestly think there may be something wrong with their head. ¿What the fuck were the developers thinking?

While “Pinna Park” is far from the worst level in this game, it feels like the the 1 with the most wasted potential. An amusement park is full o’ opportunities, many o’ which the developers didn’t take in favor o’ mo’ beach bullshit. One could maybe ’scuse a level as bland as “Bianco Hills” for having forgettable, seemingly arbitrary blue coin placements due to just not having many notable areas; — you know, other than the fact that developers made a bland level with few notable areas @ all — but as I showed in the previous paragraph, this level had so much mo’ potential, & the fact that the developers didn’t take advantage o’ that potential while copy-pasting other blue coins multiple times wasn’t due to a lack o’ options, but simply due to laziness.

Thinking ’bout the potential blue coin ideas the developers didn’t take made me realize something that truly makes this level look bad: Banjo-Tooie had a much better amusement park level in “Witchyworld”, which stuck mo’ with its theme & had far mo’ creative ways to win its collectables. & I didn’t e’en like “Witchyworld” ’cause o’ all its fetch-quest, backtracking, shaggy-dog-story bullshit.

3. Pianta Village

“Pianta Village” has perhaps the most ambiguous level theme I’ve e’er seen. It’s called a “village”, but has no houses. If anything, the large plots o’ tall grass on the sides & the many trees & mushrooms scattered all round makes this level feel mo’ like a jungle level, just a jungle that has been mildly domesticated not so much with residential, but civic areas, such as the public bath with the saluting Pianta statue near the back, with paved paths all leading to it. It’s yet ’nother example o’ Sunshine’s strength @ twisting together traditional level themes to create something unique & shows yet ’gain Sunshine’s excellence when it comes to aesthetics, despite its gameplay flaws. ’Nother subtle touch is that the even episodes take place during the day while the odd episodes take place @ night — the only time one sees nighttime in this sun-focused game3.

Making this likely the final main level you unlock is an interesting decision in a game where none o’ the levels stand out as harder than the others, unlike Super Mario 64, where “Rainbow Ride” & “Tick Tock Clock” were a notable difficulty increase. It very well may be the hardest, specially with its infamous secret course challenge — tho that’s mo’ a hard-to-get-used-to gimmick, rather than an unambiguous evolution in challenge; some, particularly those who have practiced the gimmick thru repetitive play, may find “Noki Bay”’s secret course’s traditional tricky platforming to be mo’ challenging. “Secret of the Village Underside” requires the player to get Yoshi, & then hop from mushroom to mushroom below the village so they can spray the weird yellow material that looks like those hanging brushes @ automatic car washes, which can only be destroyed by Yoshi juice. Like many challenges in Super Mario Sunshine, these jumps are simple in theory, & the platform layout would be baby easy on a game with good controls; but in typical Sunshine fashion, Yoshi has janky, different physics wherein it’s hard to turn while in the air, so the developers needed to hold back level design to accommodate bad controls, rather than simply fix the bad controls. But like many Sunshine challenges, taking your time & stopping to aim Yoshi toward the next platform & then jumping straight for it, rather that trying to jump & turn while already in the air — which has a high chance o’ failing — will make this not so troublesome. It’s, ’course, much less fun than a platformer with good controls, but less frustrating.

The secret course itself — which is also notable in being the only secret course to have a nightly blue cast o’er it, fitting the fact that it’s the only secret course found @ night — revolves round the gimmick o’ “Chucksters”, Piantas who fling you backward. Like other gimmicks, such as the boat, Sunshine does a terrible job o’ giving the player practice, only introducing this gimmick elsewhere for a bonus shine in the hub world & during a part in “Bianco Hills”, both o’ which are easy to miss. This ’splains why this has a similar reputation o’ being frustration.

’Nother reason is, also typical o’ Sunshine, the gimmick, while sound in theory, is badly programmed & hard to control. The player needs to time when they talk to many Piantas so they fling you @ the right place, while also being @ a precise angle so they fling you @ the right angle. Messing up either will easily make you pass the target platform & fall into the abyss all round & die. Some Piantas move, so you need to time when you talk to them. ’Gain, this is all reasonably necessary to make this gimmick a challenge @ all, but is crippled by the unreasonbly picky hitboxes o’ the Piantas. You’d think being near them @ all would allow you to talk to them: you talk to them with “B”, which you technically don’t need for any other part o’ the course, so it’s not as if being mo’ lenient would intrude on the player’s playing. This means it’s easy to accidentally dive @ a Pianta, possibly flying straight off the platform or into the abyss, specially when quickly pressing the button to time a throw right when a Pianta gets into a position. Expecting the player to act quickly while also waiting to see when the game arbitrarily decides they can talk to a Pianta & shows the “B” icon is simply unreasonable & could’ve been fixed if the developers properly playtested this gimmick — or the whole game in general, truly.

This secret course’s secret red coin challenge is arguably the only 1 that’s harder than the original, FLUDD-less challenge, due to the ( moderately tight ) time limit making the itchier player mo’ likely to flub something up in this finicky gimmick that requires exact precision. Also, for once this secret challenge uses alternate routes not used by the main challenge for red coins, rather than having the same main path & only using the alternate routes for useless 1-ups that shouldn’t be in the game @ all ’cause making a game in 2001 with lives is stupid, specially when Donkey Kong 64 & Banjo-Tooie already showed they weren’t needed or useful in a collectathon platformer the previous year.

Possibly the 2nd hardest shine in this level is “The Goopy Inferno”, the only episode that takes ’way your FLUDD @ the very beginning & expects you to maneuver thru the main level, rather than a secret course, without FLUDD. The whole village is covered in fiery goop that spam-hits you till you’re dead, effectively making it instant-kill in most cases, ’less you luck out & the game fails to instant-kill you, since nothing in Sunshine is set in stone.

“The Goopy Inferno” reveals what an awkward bridge Sunshine is ’tween Super Mario 64 with its many ways to do tasks & Super Mario Galaxy with its insistence on doing tasks the way the gods intended. “The Goopy Inferno” has a clear method it wants you to take, — go round the perimeter & find the right hole that leads to a wire fence underground that takes you to a hole in the center o’ the level — but it’s terrible @ communicating it, to the point that I think my recent playthru was the 1st time I e’er did this shine the legit way. I actually forgot precisely how I’d do it as a kid, but I think it involved slowly walking ’long a narrow fence somewhere, which got me close ’nough to uncovered dirt to allow me to jump ’long safe areas to the center. Speedrunners, meanwhile, let the Wind Spirits hit them so they have temporary invincibility & use that to safely walk on the lava — not unlike what Mega Man can do on spikes — for long ’nough that they can reach safe land. Unlike Super Mario 64, whose alternate routes are usually intentional, or a’least natural, these are clear glitches in their janky, unintuitive glory; but the fact that so many people stumble ’pon these odd solutions shows how unintuitve the intended route is. & yet, while this doesn’t feel as clever as what Super Mario 64 oft did, it still feels better than Galaxy’s utter lack o’ options & paint-by-#s design. Plus, exploring the wire fences below the level mixes the fun o’ exploring twisting paths with the tension o’ avoiding being knocked off by enemies.

The 3rd trickiest shine may be “Fluff Festival Coin Hunt”, which uses “Pianta Village”’s 8th episode for quite a memorable red-coin challenge — probably e’en better than “Sirena Beach”’s ( not the least ’cause it doesn’t have an arbitrary timer ). This episode does a great job o’ hiding red coins in places where they’re tricky to find, but not unintuitive. Yes, a reasonable person would check under a conspicuous stack o’ crates, under the fruit tree, or all ’long the tree tops & on the wire platforms ’neath the village. What helps is how wide-open “Pianta Village” is, with plenty o’ places to hide things.

Finding all the red coins is only part o’ the challenge, tho: the shine appears on clouds far in the distance, requiring the player to grab onto dandelions blowing back & forth in the wind to reach it. Unfortunately, this gimmick is only used here, with no practice beforehand, &, you guessed it, is janky & doesn’t work well. Their hit boxes are questionable: you’ll dive @ dandelions many times & go right thru them when trying to grab them. Also, be careful aiming in a direction while preparing to jump off: holding right on the control stick can make you fall off & into the abyss, forcing you to collect all 8 red coins ’gain. Normal games would have made down or B make you fall off, while relegating right or left to simply adjusting your aim; but as we’ve seen, Sunshine is not a normal game.

1 o’ the coolest secret shines in the game challenges you to reach the highest point o’ “Pianta Village”, a platform on the tallest tree, & spray the sun itself to reveal a shine image, which gives you a shine for some reason. ( Granted, this is, ’gain, weird, since this game wherein you’re s’posed to clean graffiti is now asking you to add graffiti yourself to the sun itself, which can’t have good ecological consequences. )

“Pianta Village” loses quite a bit o’ points for the rest o’ its shines, which are rather weak. “Piantas in Need”, for instance, is a weaker version o’ “Scrubbing Sirena Beach”, not only ’cause daytime “Pianta Village” isn’t nearly as nice to look @ as “Sirena Beach”’s sunset beach. “Pianta Village” lazily double-dips by making 8 out o’ 10 o’ the villagers give you blue coins if you talk to them after cleaning them — which means if you didn’t think to talk to them, you’ll have to do 80% o’ this shine’s challenge ’gain. “Scrubbing Sirena Beach” has 2 characters you need to clean ( 2 mo’ are also on “The Manta Storm”, for some reason, for a total o’ 4 ) for blue coins. “Scrubbing Sirena Beach” has better variety & doesn’t squander as many blue coins on double-dipping.

“Pianta Village” also has 2 shines that are basically cooling down Chain Chomps & moving them into water sources, which would be a creative gimmick if done once. Episode 1, “Chain Chomplets Unchained”, is the better o’ the 2, allowing you to yank back the Chain Chomplets’ tails & fling them into water, while also threatening you with their lava trails. Neither o’ these are hard compared to the challenges you’ve likely already faced in “Noki Bay” or face in other episodes o’ this very level, but the 1st iteration is strangely harder than the 2nd. “Chain Chomp’s Bath” requires you to slowly pull back a Chain Chomp by its chain, while routinely cooling it back down after it heats itself up ’gain. Anyone can easily pull this off; it just requires patience & holding down in a single direction for long periods.

One might expect that in the last main level everyone’s favorite racist Piantaface-wearing racer who threatens to murder Mario if he doesn’t beat him in a race would offer the slightest semblance o’ a challenge. If so, one will be very disappointed.

The developers use coins in inane ways in “Pianta Village” just as much as every other level. I, for some reason, tried “The Goopy Inferno”, for the 100-coin shine, ’cause it seemed like “Fluff Festival Coin Hunt” had fewer coins ( tho in hindsight, I think that was usually where I got it as a kid ). I wouldn’t have to make these calculations if the developers just put coins all o’er the level on every episode, rather than have some episodes have the underground area full o’ coins & the trees have nothing, while others have the trees full o’ coins but nothing underground. Just have coins everywhere, for fuck’s sake. After quenching every fire & getting all the coins I could out o’ the lava-pooping Coo Coo’s, I had maybe 97 coins & searched desperately for scraps, only to find out you can make a whole ring o’ coins appear by ground pounding the center o’ the bath. I think I only thought to do that cause I may have read ’bout that in an ol’ strategy guide years ago & it clung to my mind ’cause o’ how nonsensical it is. I always thought while playing Super Mario 64, { This would be much funner if I had to do obscure bullshit to find 100 coins in a level }. No, in reality, I thought, { They probably couldn’t fuck up 100-coin challenges any worse }, & to my surprise, Sunshine’s developers took up my challenge.

“Pianta Village”’s blue-coin placements are average quality: not as good as “Sirena Beach” or “Pinna Park”’s, but not as bad as “Bianco Hills” or “Gelato Beach”’s. As I mentioned, a full 8 out o’ 30 are from cleaning Piantas in “Piantas in Need”. We also have the obligatory ( well, ’cept in “Sirena Beach”, which was actually creative ’bout its blue-coin placements ) blue bird, blue butterflies, timed triangle paint, M’s, & a whopping 2 beehives you have to spray down & eat all bees with Yoshi. ¿Is that exciting, or what?

Then we have obscure bullshit, like ground-pounding the statue’s nose or spraying a random sign.

Honestly, the only good blue coin is the 1 you get by spraying the moon on night-time levels. Yeah, it may be obscure, too, but a’least the moon is much mo’ notable than a fucking sign or some statue’s nose.

2. Ricco Harbor

“Ricco Harbor” is a solidly-designed level with a refreshingly uncommon level theme. The developers weaved together setpieces that fulfill all the main criteria for a good level: smoothly coming together in a way that feels like a real cohesive environment, rather than a scattering o’ independent challenges with no interrelation ( the Galaxy method ); having both a variety while also all feeling relevant to the o’erarching harbor theme; & having these setpieces serve as interesting challenges in & o’ themselves.

This level’s most prominent & memorable landmark is the web o’ girders with hooks & wire nets high up to explore, which is mainly used for “The Caged Shine Sprite” ( albeit most o’ this area can, in classic Super Mario 64 fashion, be skipped with clever use o’ the rocket nozzle below the cage ), & 1 o’ the most interesting implementations o’ the ubiquitous 7th shine Shadow Mario battle ( tho with the least interesting title, “Shadow Mario Revisited” ).

Below & beyond the girders is a harbor bay full o’ boats, which makes a great obstacle course for the unfortunately blandly-titled “Red Coins on the Water” while riding on a Blooper. Showing no mercy on the player, this game not only saddles the player with ’nother patented red-coin death timer, but also demands the player collect the shine that appears while still on the Blooper, with the very-real risk o’ smacking into 1 o’ the main walls & dying instantly round the harbor where it appears.

& yet, this is probably easier than the 2nd shine, “Blooper Surfing Safari”, which introduces blooper surfing in a subterranean area entered through a sewer tunnel in the harbor wall. Here you’re forced to race round a winding track using a Blooper that’s not good @ turning & beat an unspecified time limit. Luckily, there are shortcuts found by jumping o’er walls that would otherwise make you sharply turn round them ( or, mo’ accurately if you chose the fastest purple Blooper, will make you ram into a wall & die ) that make the time limit easy to break; unluckily, whether or not you can jump is finicky. If you don’t beat the time limit, which is very much possible if you use the slowest Blooper & don’t take shortcuts, the Pianta automatically ejects you from the level, but doesn’t kill you. It’s a jarring break from this game’s pattern. ¿Why couldn’t the programmers figure out how to just let you retry a challenge after failing without throwing you out o’ the level, like a normal game?

In possibly the lamest secret shine in the game, you get a secret shine for beating “Blooper Surfing Safari” a 2nd time… but 5 seconds faster. Chances are you’ll beat 40 seconds the 1st time, so it’s basically just doing the same thing twice. What blatant filler.

The other major landmark is the lighthouse, which holds the entrance to the secret course for “The Secret of Ricco Tower”. I only wish they bothered to make getting to the entrance an actual challenge beyond just jumping from the top o’ a nearby ship directly to the top platform.

The secret course itself is probably the most generic ’mong them, with just a bunch o’ those janky rotating peg blocks & a few rotating screw platforms in the middle for the barest o’ variety.

The only thing to note ’bout this secret course’s red-coin challenge is the admittedly well-hidden red coins @ the top o’ the walls in the middle break platform — tho I would’ve preferred they didn’t double-dip 2 red coins here. It fits well with the timing o’ the rotating screws: when I 1st played through this area, during which I missed these red coins, trying to go fast, I was annoyed @ how the stage seems to make you wait for the screws to rotate to the middle so that you can reach the red coin in the middle. But if you wall-jump up the walls to get their red coin, but the time you make it back down the screws will have rotated to the middle, right where you need them.

The least relevant areas o’ this level are the small marketplace @ the northmost end & some helicopter landing pad off to the side o’ it. These areas are used for the 2 Gooper Blooper fights they, for some reason, saddle you with. Both battles are basically the same: stomp on the Blooper’s front appendages & pull them back till you rip them off so they can’t smack you with them, & then clean their face off & grab their nose to snap them ’way. I’m glad they a’least made the boss only have 2 phases. It’s an interesting boss ( with a surprisingly gruesome means o’ battling them ) that’s only marred by the fact that they use it multiple times. Unlike “Noki Bay”, Gooper Blooper is actually responsible for making the harbor bay oily, & their defeat leads the bay to become clean ’gain.

The marketplace is also used for the least relevant shine in the level, “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure”, which challenges the player to get a Yoshi, spray fruit @ hopping fish to turn them into moving platforms, & ride them to the shine in a cage locked ’hind that strange moving yellow goop that reminds me o’ those weird sponges they have @ the car wash that can only be destroyed with Yoshi juice. “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure” is 1 o’ the notoriously hard 8th shines in the game, but strangely, I didn’t find it very hard @ all & was able to beat it 1st try on my recent attempt.

The most frustrating, & ridiculous, part is unleashing Yoshi in the 1st place. You need to get Yoshi a durian & kick it o’er to his egg. The durian’s kick physics feel arbitrary, with sometimes attempts to be as light as possible with my movement kicking it clear ’cross the market while other times I was able to just hold forward & keep kicking it in short bursts. But the worst part is that you have to alternate ground pounding buttons @ the top o’ 2 towers to release fruit & some jackoff developer thought it’d be great if it randomly spit out a fruit, 1 out o’ 4 o’ which is actually relevant. E’en better, sometimes when you release a durian it’ll go flying off into the water, destroying it, specially if there’s other fruit in its way, which means you need to drop down & fling the useless fruit to get it out o’ the way. There’s no compelling challenge to any o’ this: it just wastes your time & you have no control o’er any o’ it.

Thankfully, after so many levels with dumbass 100-coin challenges, “Ricco Harbor” has a decent implementation, with coins actually scattered round the level & plenty to reach the goal ( a’least in episode 8, the 1 most would try, tho it seems as if all would likely have 100 coins, too ). It’s sad that I would need to praise this level for accomplishing something Super Mario 64 always accomplished, but those are the rock-bottom standards Super Mario Sunshine has left me with.

“Ricco Harbor” also has some o’ the most interesting blue coin placements with probably the least repetition in all the levels, ’cept maybe “Sirena Beach”’s. The worst blue coins are probably the 1 you find by spraying a random part o’ a random wall to make 1 o’ those blue shine marks appear ( which makes no sense: ¿you’re rewarded for creating graffiti, the thing you’re s’posed to be getting rid o’? ) & yet ’nother blue coin you get by just eating blue butterflies with Yoshi — & the latter isn’t e’en bad, just used in every level.

The rest o’ the blue coins are spread evenly thruout the level: up on the girders, round the towers you climb with Yoshi, & round the marketplace & ships all o’er the bay. There are e’en some clever blue coins, like 1 you get for spraying a fan to raise a yellow submarine ( tho the yellow cage before it is pointless &, bizarrely, only appears on the 1st shine despite having nothing to do with that episode’s challenge ). These blue coins were e’en able to turn repetition in a clever hint: you get blue coins for killing 2 Klambers on the wire net in 1 o’ the ships by knocking them off while hanging on; howe’er, there is also a Klamber on a non-wire wall. Apparently, you can spray them & slide o’er them while they’re stunned, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that, since they’re stunned for maybe a second, & it sounds glitchy in any case; most players would probably try getting Yoshi & eating it, which is much easier.

My only problem with “Ricco Harbor”’s blue coins is that I feel like they could’ve all been available on episode 8, if not all episodes. In particular, the developers for some reason made 1 blue coin floating o’er the bay near the entrance to the Blooper race only obtainable on episode 2, e’en tho there’s ’nother blue coin floating o’er the bay that is available on any episode.

Finally, the way this level handles nozzles is unintuitive as hell. There is 1 turbo nozzle ( virtually necessary to get 1 o’ the graffiti race blue coins if you’re not a speedrunner ) box on a rooftop that was always a “hologram” on every episode, e’en after unlocking the turbo nozzle in Isle Delfino. Finally, I had to look it up online & found out you need to collect a specific nozzle box hidden in a ship to make them all appear in full.

1. Sirena Beach

“Sirena Beach” is Super Mario 64’s lackluster “Big Boo’s Haunt” done well, which is the only time Sunshine bests 64 on such a large scale. The tropical hotel theme mixed with the haunted house theme transforms a tradition Mario theme into something unique, while offering far mo’ variety in challenges than fighting Boos for 3 stars.

While fans always love to heap praise on “Noki Bay”’s visuals, it’s nowhere close to as good-looking as “Sirena Beach”’s orange & purple dark sunset beach & plaza.

Unlike “Pinna Park”, “Sirena Beach” pulls off its cock-tease, closing off the hotel for the 1st shine, “The Manta Storm”. As a kid I always hated this shine ’cause I found it hard once the mantas are split off into many & begin chasing you & it came in ’tween me & exploring the hotel, & sadly many adults concur with this same sloppy “hard, therefore bad” argument. Howe’er, e’en as a kid I was able to figure out a safe, albeit slow, way to pick the mantas off from under a hut, while the older & mo’ capable version o’ me was able to blast them off easily while going on the offense. Unlike most other bosses whose gimmicks, howe’er clever they may be, were slow & boring, this boss manages to match a clever gimmick with compelling gameplay, allowing the player to choose how whether to go slowly & carefully or quickly & aggressively. I think I now consider this 1 o’ the best bosses in the game, save maybe the Plungelos in “Gelato Beach”’s “Mirror Madness! Tilt, Slam, Bam!”, which I ding a few points from for being a bit too simple & trivial to beat.

The 2nd episode, “The Hotel Lobby’s Secret”, gives a li’l taste o’ the hotel, but only opening ’nough thru the pink Boos infesting the hotel to climb up the top o’ the pillar to enter the boo statue’s mouth, developing the cock-tease a bit mo’.

Unfortunately, the secret course itself is forgettable & feels like it belongs on the cutting room floor o’ “Gelato Beach”, involving the same straight paths o’ sand blocks. With both the path o’ sand blocks below the main path & the whole inside o’ the weird block formation afterward, which are both a complete waste o’ time for the main shine, you’d think the obligatory red-coin secret shine would force you to explore these areas for red coins. Well, there is 1 red coin right @ the bottom o’ the weird block formation, but absolutely no red coins down that 2nd sand-block path, making that part o’ the level utterly pointless, ’cept that there might be a 1-up down there that only a fool would risk a life & wasted time for. Unfortunately, e’en the best level o’ the game isn’t safe from a bit o’ thoughtless level design.

But the main shine o’ attention is the 3rd episode, “Mysterious Hotel Delfino”, which challenges you to explore a 3D maze o’ rooms, going door to door or up & down floors from the 1st floor to the ceiling vents, starting from secret passageways in the bathroom stalls, trying to find the secret entrance into the blocked-off pool room. The path is twisted ’nough to get my interest without going on too long, & the developers interspersed the path with clever ways to get from room to room, like having the player spray posters to reveal holes ’hind them they can jump thru.

As an extra twist, to get past the Boos blocking all paths in the vents, you need to grab a pineapple hidden in 1 room & bring it to the Yoshi on the 1st floor so you can eat the Boos. My only problem is that sometimes while exploring with Yoshi you can end up stuck in a room with no way to go thru a door back out while on Yoshi, so you have to abandon Yoshi; & since you need Yoshi & the Yoshi egg won’t spawn while Yoshi’s still round, you’ll have to kill Yoshi. Make sure you don’t leave Yoshi round where a pineapple spawns ( as the pineapple room is easy to get stuck in ) or it’ll ne’er die & you’ll be waiting fore’er.

Episode 4 & 5 focus on the hotel casino, with “The Secret of Casino Delfino” forcing you to spray slot machines till they show triple 7s, 1 in which you can change each square individually & 1 in which all squares spin in sync, followed by an obnoxious grid wherein you have to spray each individual piece & hope that it spins with the picture-side out & hope you don’t undo progress on ’nother square from the residue o’ your spray. It feels random, which I guess is how casinos work; but that doesn’t make it a compelling challenge in any way. Finally, you will be able to enter a pipe to the secret course.

Thankfully, this secret course is mo’ interesting than “The Hotel Lobby’s Secret”’s. Aesthetically, a sunset casts its light o’er everything, which helps this secret course stand out from all the others. It begins with a board with weird white cubes sliding round, threatening to shove you off or squish you. Howe’er, you can just flip jump onto 1 & jump ’mong the tops o’ cubes for an easy way thru. I would also advise moving the camera straight ’bove so you can actually see. Sadly, the course gradually tapers off from here, leading to wooden blocks that move out & in, & then the dozenth spinning wooden block with pegs you’ve encountered as the finale.

The absolutely worst part o’ this level is that you have to do all the tedious slots & that spinning tile puzzle yet ’gain to try the 2nd red-coin secret shine. ¿Why don’t they just let you go into the pipe on later episodes? You’ll still have to do this tedious nonsense the 1st time you beat the secret course, since you can’t do episodes out o’ order, but you won’t have to for the repeat, which is only fair.

“King Boo Down Below” has you ground pound a conspicuous purple tile on the roulette wheel to make it drop down to a fight with King Boo. As cool & clever as this boss is, it falls victim not only to a bit o’ Rareware stop-&-go tedium, but also to luck: every time you spray King Boo, he spins the slots under him & will only release the fruit you need to hit him if he gets 3 pineapples. Anything else will waste your time cleaning up what garbage he throws @ you. Since King Boo can’t hurt you directly, only send mooks after you, there’s no chance o’ you dying, so the only “challenge” this boss offers is wasting time.

Episode 6, “Scrubbing Sirena Beach”, challenges you to clean the beach & a few beachgoers within a certain time limit. They give you plenty o’ time & are very lenient — I still had plenty o’ conspicuous goop when the game said I was done. Still, it’s slightly mo’ compelling o’ a challenge than “Pianta Village”’s, has a bit mo’ variety than just spraying 10 Piantas, & looks nicer. Having 1 mo’ challenge take place outside also adds variety after 4 shines indoors, & does so in a much mo’ effective way than “Pinna Park” — not the least o’ which ’cause the outside area isn’t just yet ’nother beach with a few plain grass & flower beds, but has an elaborate yard with stone walkways, mini ponds, lit torches, huts, & flower gardens.

The ubiquitous Shadow Mario chase episode 7, “Shadow Mario Checks In”, sugars stuff up with Boos posing as Shadow Mario. Since they’re clearly a whiter shade, they’re not convincing. Unfortunately, this shine reveals a major problem with this level’s camera when you’re on the stairs, making it slower & e’en mo’ tedious to try aiming your sprays @ Shadow Mario while chasing him up & down.

Episode 8, “Red Coins in the Hotel”, while not as hard as “Gelato Beach”’s “The Watermelon Festival” or “Ricco Harbor”’s “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure”, perfectly wraps up this level with a red-coin collection challenge thruout the the maze o’ rooms. I could’ve gone without the time limit, which feels like trial-&-error, tho.

Once ’gain Super Mario Sunshine sabotages a 100-coin shine by being needlessly stingy with coins. “Sirena Beach” is better ’bout spreading its coins round the hotel, but I was still barely able to find 100 coins on episode 8 & couldn’t find ’nough on episode 3 ( tho IGN seems to claim that you can ). Some may call this “challenge”, but making it so easy to get screwed out o’ 100 coins & have to start o’er is tedious, not challenging, specially when most o’ the coins are gotten by spraying dozens o’ torches & doors. You can also get 100 coins by going into episode 4 & just grinding for triple coins on the slots. Since I had ’nough grinding for coins in “Gelato Beach” & “Pinna Park”, I passed.

“Sirena Beach”, thanks to being such a large, complex level, has the greatest variety o’ blue coins. It has so few copypasted blue coins that it’s 1 o’ the few wherein having 30 blue coins was reasonable & didn’t feel like overt padding.

The only problematic blue coins are the 1s where you have to spray the ceiling light — which, to be fair, I guess is a notable landmark — & some random flowerbed & random bookcase — which isn’t notable & all. There’s also a blue coin way off in the tides out from the beach — but a’least there’s only 1, & it’s in the corner, as if it’s trying to hide, so it doesn’t feel as arbitrary as the underwater blue coins in “Bianco Hills”.

You also have to spray a few torches out o’ many to get some blue coins, but you’ll probably do that to get coins, anyway. You also get blue coins for ground pounding ( or sometimes just jumping ) under certain slot machine levers, which is actually clever.

I feel like you’d also need to be paying close attention to find the “M” graffiti mark in the casino, which only appears on episode 5, which feels like a particularly rude form o’ Sunshine’s infamous blue-coin episode limits.

While not bad in theory, the timed triangle & X blue coins are made a bit unfair by the screwy camera. You literally can’t see the blue coin that spawns on the 2nd floor ’cause it isn’t loaded, showing just a black void ceiling. Serious developers would’ve looked @ this conspicuous visual glitch & not kept these here, but Sunshine’s developers clearly didn’t give a fuck when they were making this game. ’Cause the camera forces itself in a weird angle as you go up the stairs, you basically have to get the blue coins blind while going up, ’less you’re able to quickly rotate the camera while moving & diving forward, which requires either tremendous dexterity or 3 hands.

Most o’ the rest o’ the blue coins are spread throughout the hotel rooms & vents. I think my favorite 2 blue coins are the 1 on the roof ’hind the hotel & the 1 you get for spraying a blank portrait, revealing a shine picture.

Most o’ this level analysis was description rather than analysis, ’cause there wasn’t much to rant ’bout, save the same kind o’ problems every level has. This is o’erall a solid level with a few instances o’ very clever design.

Honorable Dishonorable Mentions

Corona Mountain

[ Insert obligatory topical reference to coronavirus that will date this post. ]

Ah, the infamous. This is a widely reviled level ’mong e’en fans who love Sunshine. Something you could definitely say ’bout the level is that there’s not much to it. You jump from fire platform to spike platform, quickly spraying out the fire platforms ( or just hovering o’er them & hoping you’re high ’nough to not get hit by the flames — which, with this game’s wonky hit detection, is ne’er a guarantee ) before the spikes spring back up. It’s also a severely linear level for a game that was still rather open. Still, the quick platforming is rather fun for a game wherein platforming was rarely fun.

Despite being simple & linear, the level isn’t very coherent, with 3 completely independent sections. After the simple platforming ’tween spike & fire platforms, we have the infamous boat section. You have to spray your water ’hind the boat to make it go forward, & spray to the sides to rotate whiche’er end you’re nearest, which means if you’re smart you’ll stay on 1 clear end, so turning isn’t a surprise, as the game gets confused as to where you want to rotate it when trying to rotate it from the center. Honestly, the boat’s not hard to navigate if you’re not charging forward. Despite all the struggles I had with many things I didn’t expect to struggle with thruout my playthru o’ this game, I didn’t crash this boat once. That said, the game doesn’t prepare you for this boat much, ’less you happened to use the fully optional boat out o’ the way in “Noki Bay”, nor does it ’splain how the boat works, so players will likely die a few times just trying to figure out how this gimmick works, & have to redo the previous section each time. This is why you don’t mix completely different gimmicks into the same level, dumb shits.

Also, there are blue coins near the end, which you’ll want to use the boat to get — tho, ’cause blue coins save when you collect them, you could always just dive @ them without the boat & take the death. For some reason, they waste a full 3rd o’ Delfino Plaza’s 30 blue coins in this 1 area. That’s right — this game expects you to collect 10 blue coins in just this small circle round the last platform o’ “Corona Mountain”. If that doesn’t convince me the developers o’ this game were as lazy as they could be ’bout blue-coin placement, I don’t know what you’d consider lazy placement.

Far worse is final section, wherein you have to take the rocket nozzle & rocket up a bunch o’ moving cloud platforms. Now, after 2 very tricky sections, e’en for this point in the game, ¿why do they end with a trivial section that not only “challenges” you to do simple versions o’ much harder challenges you must have done before — ¡as far back as “Bianco Hills”! — without e’en the threat o’ death for missing — you just land on the ground & take damage?

People also widely pan the final boss for being too easy & having a sitcom dad voice: you just rocket up & ground pound 4 corners while avoiding Bullet Bills & fire. Or don’t, ’cause you can easily tank most hits. Actually, tho I surprisingly aced the boat section 1st try, I died, like, 4 times trying this boss. The 1st time I ran out o’ water & couldn’t get any mo’ ’cause Bowser would ne’er give me blue Bullet Bills & I committed suicide; ’nother time I fell thru the crumbling floor, ’cause ’course hit boxes don’t always work; ’nother time I launched straight upward o’er the red mark on an outer platform & when I fell back down I was magically far forward & off the platform, leading me ground-pounding in utter bemusement to my death. By this point I had become numb to the terribleness.

This level’s the apex o’ mediocre — specially if you compare it to Super Mario 64’s excellent final Bowser level, which did a lot better job o’ being a linear challenge level without being boring.

Super Slide

I love how Super Mario Sunshine’s development team didn’t have anyone there to say, <Hey, guys, maybe we should only include actually designed levels, & not a few thrown-together setpieces we left in the corner>. I also love how they start by making it seem as if you should avoid the far left with a big gaping hole, only for the level to require a sharp left turn after that that you can’t make. What you need to do is aim straight for that gaping hole, which you can jump o’er. After that there’s, like, 1 mo’ relatively easy turn & a thin slope, & then the level’s o’er.

This level is found on a random pipe on a hill in a series o’ hills off the coast o’ “Gelato Beach”’s entrance. Honestly, the arrangement o’ these hills took mo’ thought than the level itself.

Red Coin Field

You have to collect 8 red coins in a field full o’ large grass that makes it hard to see — ’cept you can just move the camera ’bove you, making things much easier to see. You basically just defeat all the enemies, including this game’s only red bird, break some random watermelon block in some random place, fall into 1 o’ the many holes with a red coin hidden in it, & spray some guy running round on fire for hours & hope you don’t run out o’ water, ’cause there’s no way to refill your water. ’Cause the developers hate you & are laughing @ you for being dumb ’nough to play their game, they put a fire, which you’d think gives you a red coin for spraying it out, but it actually does nothing but waste your scarce water.

You find this stage by crossing a series o’ palm trees growing out o’ the wall spreading out from the cannon entrance to “Pinna Park”.

Pachinko Game

Ah, yes, e’en mo’ infamous than Coronavirus Mountain. & for good reason: this level is absolute shit. While other levels sometimes give you annoying bugs, this whole level is a bug & is exhibit A in my proof that this game wasn’t bugtested.

The gimmick is that you jump onto a bouncing platform & up a tunnel ( which has 3 red coins, since they couldn’t e’en find mo’ than 5 places to hide red coins in the machine itself ) & try to aim yourself with the hover nozzle o’er a slot with a red coin while invisible walls & magical, unintuitive physics push you round for no reason. If you play this level ’nough you may develop an inkling for how these alien physics work as well as my unending sympathy that you spent so much o’ your precious time playing shit & not an actually good game. You can’t see the slots under you, so this is effectively “Blind Jumps, the Level”. If you don’t land in a slot, you go toward the bottom, where you’re destined for death.

I’ve heard some say that this was a good concept, just badly implemented, but no, this could ne’er be good. @ its best, if this level were designed in a way that was fair & controllable, it’d be negligibly easy, since aiming for big slots is a simple task, which is what most Mario games probably would’ve done. For some reason, Sunshine preferred unfair hard o’er negligibly easy, so they hacked together invisible walls & made you aim for slots you can’t see to manufacture fake difficulty. So ’stead o’ a pointless trifle most would forget, we get possibly the most infamously bad level in all Mario games. ¿Is this black mark better than being completely ignored for eternity like, say, the average Super Mario Galaxy level ( or that dumbass “Super Slide”, which wasn’t e’en “super” in the slightest )? You decide.

Lily Pad Ride

This secret level’s infamous not ’cause o’ the level itself, but its inane method for reaching it. You have to get Yoshi, jump onto a boat, spend minutes standing round doing nothing, jump onto an island, eat fruit to avoid letting Yoshi die o’ dehydration, wait for minutes doing nothing till ’nother boat arrives, jump onto that boat, ride it for minutes doing nothing, jump onto a platform with bananas lying there for no reason, — ’cause bananas regularly grow on metal platforms with nobody on them — wait for minutes doing nothing for a 3rd boat to arrive, jump onto it, & then ride it for minutes doing nothing before jumping onto a final island to spray ’way that stupid yellow slime covering a pipe with Yoshi’s fruit. This is mo’ like a parody than a real challenge. ¿Did Beat Takeshi disguise himself as a developer & manage to get himself hired by Nintendo & sneak this shit into the game? Only someone who truly despised their audience would develop something like this. I couldn’t e’en stay mad @ the developers after this: if after this, you still continue to play Super Mario Sunshine, you’re the one who has the mental problems.

Pictured: exciting gameplay that people actually try to claim is better than Super Mario 64.

The course itself requires you to ride a lily pad o’er deathly toxic water & hope the lily pad passes by red coins in a way that makes it physically possible to grab them. You can try to control the lily pad with your spray, but since the lily pad moves so fast with such strong momentum, these sprays are slight suggestions. If you do reach the end without collecting all red coins, there are 3 options:

1. You can kill yourself ( in real life, too, which you may want to do if you’re wasting your summer playing this game & typing up a novella ’bout how unbearably bad it is ’stead o’ doing something productive with your life ).

2. You can jump into a pipe some asshole developer laughing his ass off put in that sends you back to the beginning o’ Delfino Plaza, which means you have to wait on those 3 boats with Yoshi ’gain. If this does not convince you that this game’s developers actively despise their audience, & perhaps all o’ humanity, you pretend e’en a glass half full is full. If you do fall for this troll & jump into the pipe, my recommended remedy is to shut the GameCube off & throw the game disc into moving traffic. Luckily, I played this game before, so I didn’t. Just remember that I played this game a few times as a kid, so as frustrated as I am, imagine how much mo’ pissed off some poor newbie who didn’t already know ’bout this troll job & actually fell for it would feel.

3. You can take the “Walk o’ Shame” ’cross the very thin winding path ’long the edge o’ the level back to the start, where ’nother lily pad will be.

Turbo Track

Compared to all the other secret levels, this 1’s excellent simply by being functional. You charge forward with the turbo nozzle & jump… a li’l before the edge, ’cause there’s a weird delay & if you try to jump right before the edge you’ll just fall off. ¿Did I say “functional”? I meant “halfway functional”, which is the best we should expect from this game. Hopefully, when you land on the final platform you don’t land past the shine & can jump immediately ’pon landing to grab the shine, as that last platform is so small there’s no chance you’ll be able to stop on it before falling off from the gradually-decreasing momentum. It’s also likely you may only hit the front edge o’ the final platform & grab the edge, stopping you immediately, which is usually what happens to me. It’s a pleasant surprise that the game is lenient & doesn’t just bonk me off, like most games would.

You find this level by breaking thru a door with the turbo nozzle — the 1 ’tween the 2 cops who apparently don’t care that you’re going round destroying property. [ Insert obligatory topical reference ’bout George Floyd riots that will date — O, ¿who am I kidding? White cops killing black people for no reason is as timeless as death ( specially for black people ) & tax loopholes ].

Delfino Airstrip

It’s cool they let you return to the intro level & give you an extra shine to get, tho I wish they’d done mo’ with it than yet ’nother red-coin collection shine ( ¿is this what Sunshine fans call being mo’ oddball than Super Mario 64? ¿Exacerbating its worst vices? ). O well, a’least you get to use the turbo nozzle for collecting red coins.

They could’ve a’least taken some o’ the 10 blue coins all round the end o’ “Corona Mountain” & added some mo’ to this area. I think all this area has is a blue coin in an ice cube you melt by spraying with water.

Delfino Plaza

& last but definitely not least, ’cause unlike Super Mario 64, whose hub actually had contenders, “Delfino Plaza” is the only non-main area that isn’t @ best underwhelming in Super Mario Sunshine.

But we must credit Sunshine here: “Delfino Plaza” is a contender gainst Super Mario 64’s hub, & possibly better ( & it’s certainly better than Galaxy’s joke o’ a hub & Galaxy 2’s lazy map screen that’s e’en mo’ primitive than that found in Super Mario Bros. 34 ). While “Peach’s Castle” had some interesting stars, like grabbing MIPS, specially the DS remake, which had that secret white room in the mirror room, most o’ them were gotten in secret areas or just by talking to 3 Toads in random rooms. Sunshine does o’eruse the “wash thing — whether it be 2 bells or the shine on the gate” or “find shine picture in the sand”, & while its crate-breaking minigame isn’t particularly interesting, it’s something.

Howe’er, “Delfino Plaza” does have the cleverest use o’ Chuckster, who throws you into a broken window for a small fee so you can break into that building & collect the shine inside.

Plus, we have some interesting blue-coin challenges, such as getting the fruit into villagers’ baskets, specially kicking the durian ’cross the river. My only problem with these are that the programmers stupidly made it so that you have to talk to the villagers before giving them fruit counts. If you put fruit into their basket before you talk to them, the fruit disappears, but it doesn’t count toward anything. Also, I think it would’ve worked better if they kept them to just 1 fruit, since requiring 3 is just repetitive. If spraying a random M or finding a blue coin in a random place underwater is worth getting a blue coin, I don’t see how just kicking 1 durian into a villager’s basket or e’en just throwing a coconut in a villager’s basket is too easy.

I do feel many o’ “Delfino Plaza”’s oddball blue coins or shines would be better if they were actually unique. I remember when I was a kid I was always fond o’ finding the blue coin by spraying the blue bird on the rooftops; but now that I’ve learned that that same mechanic is in almost every level, I can only shrug in boredom. Perhaps the developers should’ve taken a page from Super Mario Bros. 3 with its Kuribo’s Shoe & realized that weird gimmicks are better when they’re rare, as their freshness is what makes them interesting, & they can’t stay fresh after the dozenth iteration.

Also, the golden bird, which falls into this same problem, adds pointless padding by putting the shine it spawns all the way on the hill islands near “Gelato Beach”’s entrance. This doesn’t add any challenge; it just forces you to slowly swim o’er to that area. ¿What was the point?

I do feel like the level entrances aren’t as memorable or interesting as Super Mario 64’s. “Sirena Beach”’s, which requires you to eat the giant pineapple, is the most interesting; but then once you’ve done that, it’s just a pipe you jump into. Similarly, I like the way “Pianta Village” “requires” you to unlock the rocket nozzle to reach it — or not, if you’re clever with your jumping. Howe’er, almost all the rest are just M’s or a cannon you jump into, & “Noki Bay”’s is just a rehash o’ Super Mario 64’s entrance to the wing cap stage. None o’ these entrances have any way to change how the stage works based on how you enter, like “Tick Tock Clock”’s, “Wet-Dry World”’s, or “Tiny-Huge Island”’s.

Honestly, I still think “Peach’s Castle” is better. “Peach’s Castle” pushes its hub with many secrets, while still staying concise, specially in the DS remake. Nothing in it felt like padding, ’cept for the Toad stars, & nothing felt missing. “Delfino Plaza” looks concise compared to the kind o’ bloated monstrosities modern video games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild subjects the player to, but still has some setpieces that could’ve been exploited mo’, like the underwater hole near “Pinna Park”’s entrance, which holds a useless 1-up mushroom ( competent developers would’ve put a blue coin there & taken 1 o’ the — let me remind you ’gain — 10 blue coins round the end o’ “Corona Mountain” ). On the other end, I feel there were many mo’ opportunities for hiding blue coins that were missed — they could’ve put many mo’ hiding places in the buildings — & the level entrances were just underwhelming in comparison. It’s still a great hub, tho, — specially by the low standards Sunshine set with most o’ its other levels — & the fact that it comes very close to “Peach ‘s Castle” says something.

Posted in Great Stages, Sucky Stages, Video Games

Great & Sucky Stages — Super Mario 64 Levels from Worst to Best

Super Mario 64 has a rare level design style that stands out from most other games, including other Mario games. It’s 1 that, unfortunately, is looked down ’pon for that difference. The general gaming community, who have a tendency toward philistinism stronger than in other media ( which probably contributes to the reluctance o’ many still to respecting video games as an art ), find Super Mario 64’s level design weird & off-putting.

For instance, Reverse Design’s long, pretentious guide that attempts to narrow Super Mario World’s level design into pseudomathematical graphs, completely ignoring such criteria as creativity or immersion ( or speed vs. padding, which ’splains why they talk favorable ’bout “Donut Plains 2”, which is unplayably awful ) in favor o’ sterile sequences o’ challenges, bashes Super Mario 64, claiming it “has not aged very well” ( which is strange, since the original question is whether the “lessons” they teach for a game that came out half a decade before it apply to it — I would say, to the contrary, that it’s Reverse Design’s view o’ level design that is ol’ & Super Mario 64’s which was ’head o’ its time ), while complaining ’bout its “big, open and awkwardly-shaped levels”, which are “irregular” & “confusing” ( p. 206 ) to players ’cause they essentially make players actually think & explore ( as they’re s’posed to do ), while praising Super Mario Galaxy for constructing levels from sequences o’ “discrete challenges”, for just slapping together indistinct, generic “challenges” together in a string & calling them “levels”, with barely a concept o’ environment.

That Reverse Design claims Super Mario Galaxy’s lists o’ challenges are mo’ coherent than Super Mario 64’s is bizarre. Neither being big, nor open, nor “awkwardly-shaped” or “irregular” ( kind o’ like how real environments are ) imply “incoherence”. “Cool, Cool Mountain” has many paths & directions you can take ( ’gain, like real, living environments, ’cause going in only 1 straight direction was a relic from when games were stuck in 2D, not a conscious design choice of ol’ developers; it’s only games like Super Mario Galaxy, designed with an ignorance o’ this progression, that lead one into believing this rewriting o’ history ), but everything still sticks to the snowy theme. Meanwhile, Super Mario Galaxy has levels like “Gusty Garden Galaxy” wherein the 3rd star is just on a random floating ? Block that could be in any level & has nothing to do with the garden galaxies1, — in fact, is as far ’way from the garden theme the level sets up as it could be — but this is “coherent” ’cause the player doesn’t have to think ’bout where they’re going2.

Super Mario 64’s levels definitely still comprise challenges, which do evolve, as challenges in all games do. But what sets Super Mario 64 apart from much o’ its brethren — including from Super Mario Sunshine & Super Mario Galaxy, whose level designs fall back to the simplistic level o’ early 2D games ( & not e’en with the coherency or speed that made those early 2D games good ) — is its ability to balance these evolving challenges with open, free worlds. Super Mario 64 doesn’t just have a sum o’ artificial challenges but breathing environments — & this is what separates truly great level design from the kind o’ amateur artificial spike rooms that so many modern hack indie platformers have, whose genericism had unfortunately begun to creep a tiny bit into official Nintendo platformers in the 2000s, like Super Mario Galaxy or the Donkey Kong Country Returns games.

To be fair, Super Mario 64, due to time & system limitations, could oft fall into pedestrian platforming & padding; howe’er, when you consider the games people praise in comparison, it’s clear that “not as creative” is not a common criticism gainst Super Mario 64. The truth is, no 3D Mario game has reached the heights that they could in terms o’ level design, specially by today’s standards; Super Mario 64 a’least has the ’scuse o’ being from primitive times, when the competition was Crash Bandicoot, whose ’scuse for level design truly shows the depths Super Mario 64 could’ve fallen in. But if you sift through the sand & crust like an archeologist, you can find interesting ideas & design philosophies that will be subsequently lost in the coming dark age o’ Mario the same way the works o’ Aristotle was lost to medieval Europe.

15. Jolly Roger Bay

It’s probably a surprise to see this @ the bottom ’stead o’ “Dire Dire Docks”. Both are, indeed, weak levels, made weaker by their similarity; but thinking ’bout it, “Jolly Roger Bay” just barely edges “Dire, Dire Docks” out. I think since “Dire Dire Docks” comes after “Jolly Roger Bay”, people view “Dire Dire Docks” as a ripoff o’ “Jolly Roger Bay”; but looking @ them equally ( as equal ripoffs o’ each other ), if I had to decide which 1 to keep & which to get rid o’, I would cut out “Jolly Roger Bay”.

While “Dire Dire Docks” arguably repeats the “swim through whirlpools” gimmick with its “Through the Jet Stream” & “The Manta Ray’s Reward”, “Jolly Roger Bay” repeats 2 gimmicks: both the treasure chest “puzzle” & the challenge o’ waiting for an eel to ’scape in the 1st star, “Plunder in the Sunken Ship” ( & since this is the 1st star for most people, it only dampens the power o’ the other 2 stars, which come right after the 1st star to boot ). I s’pose they do differentiate the treasure “puzzles” by having the 1st require a simple platforming section up a slope afterward… if you don’t realize you can just swim o’er the slope before the water drains — which, to be fair, is a clever way to reward quick-thinking players. The 2nd treasure “puzzle”, “Treasure in the Ocean Cave”, takes place out o’ water & its chests don’t release bubbles when you open them, so it’s harder to heal if you didn’t wait to collect the coins scattered round the area. But then, the bubbles have such terrible hitboxes that getting them is a crapshoot, anyway, & this is traded for the 2nd treasure not slowly draining your health from being underwater, giving you mo’ time; & since swimming into the chests & hopping their hitboxes works can take some time, this is likely a greater danger. Thanks to this, the 2nd implementation o’ the treasure “puzzles” is much easier than the 1st, which makes no sense.

This is keeping in mind that these challenges were ne’er all that good in the 1st place. The treasure chest “puzzle” just involves already knowing the order to open treasure chests or just trying & getting electrocuted till you finally find the right sequence, wasting time. The 1st star’s use o’ the eel is stupid: while “Can the Eel Come Out to Play” is weak ’nough by making you wait for the eel to come out, it a’least makes the eel ’ventually come out & challenges you to time touching its tail, which is a clever idea, just implemented poorly, thanks to terrible hit detection that makes you get hit & lose nearly half your health simply by coming near the eel while making you swim straight through the star without knocking it off the eel’s tail. But for the 1st star, the eel doesn’t e’er come out while you’re there so the developers didn’t have to program making it move. It just stays there till you go ’way & come back, which the player wouldn’t expect. Indeed, e’en veteran players may not know this, since the game doesn’t hint anything ’bout it, & they may expect that the eel will come out based on their experience with “Can the Eel Come Out to Play” & end up waiting there till they drown in bewilderment @ what they would probably take to be a glitch o’ the eel just sitting there doing nothing for minutes & minutes.

“Dire Dire Docks”’s implementation o’ other star ideas is better, too. Its use o’ timing jumps on moving poles to collect red coins is mo’ focused than how “Jolly Roger Bay”’s “Red Coins on the Ship Afloat” scatters them all o’er the level, including making this the only use o’ the eponymous risen pirate ship. Meanwhile, “Dire Dire Docks” dedicates a star to its submarine while its up in a way that connects to “Bowser in the Fire Sea” in a far mo’ memorable way than “Jolly Roger Bay” uses its pirate ship. That said, I do like the red coins being hidden inside clams. If they had made the other red coin hiding places mo’ interesting — maybe put some o’ the red coins in niches in the ship ’stead o’ just floating in plain sight & put some o’ the forgettable red coin placements in mo’ interesting places, it could’ve beaten “Dire, Dire Dock”’s repetitive placements. But then, “Jolly Roger Bay” just doesn’t have ’nough memorable landmarks for red coins. Part o’ me thinks it would’ve been better if every red coin were hidden in a clam, with the clams scattered all o’er the level; howe’er, I think “Jolly Roger Bay” would need to be bigger for that to work. I’m not sure if that clams work outside o’ water, but I think they would’ve worked just as well if they could, which would’ve a’least allowed a clam to go in the cave.

Comparing “Jolly Roger Bay” & “Dire, Dire Docks”’s “Through the Jet Stream” ( these levels are so similar they have a star with the same name ) is trickier. “Jolly Roger Bay” just requires you ( casual players a’least — speedrunners don’t follow the rules o’ mere mortals, so we don’t base our qualifications on their obscure experiences ) to grab a metal cap & slowly walk down to the jet stream to grab the star, which requires no skill & is just a lock & key puzzle that demands you get some other thing 1st, something you’ll likely get after 1st playing this level — a borderline fetch quest. “Dire, Dire Dock”’s also requires the metal cap, but also requires swimming through 5 rings in a row, Superman 64 style, before the star appears. While one might be tempted to consider this extra complexity to a “puzzle” perhaps underbaked an improvement, the problem is that this added puzzle isn’t clever, either, & its difficulty only comes from bad controls & the janky way the rings’ hitboxes are programmed so that you oft “miss” a ring you clearly went through. That this puzzle is reused in ’nother star on that level hurts it, too — tho I’ll speak mo’ ’bout that when we get to “Dire, Dire Docks” itself. I’d say that less is mo’, & that a painless halfbaked puzzle is better than a tedious one, since a’least you can get it o’er with & forget it existed. ’Course, that being the case, it’s clear that both stars are blah @ best.

“Blast to the Stone Pillar” not only doesn’t fit this level’s theme very well, it’s done better in “Whomp’s Fortress”, which makes its cannon mo’ than a 1-time gimmick. I s’pose a cannon could fit in with the pirate theme they half-heartedly implemented; ¿but then why isn’t the cannon on the ship like in “Rainbow Ride”? Then we could’ve also gotten more out o’ the underutilized floating ship.

The DS remake’s extra star, “Switch Star of the Bay”, 1 o’ the dozenth iteration o’ the switch star mechanic wherein the player must hit a switch & then race to the area in which it makes the star appear before the timer runs out, has e’en less to do with this level’s theme, which is per habit for the DS remake’s switch stars. They just threw the switch & star in the cave & added a cage round the star so you’d have to come back & complete this mission once you’ve unlocked Luigi. I guess they figured they were adding variety to this level by using the invisibility cap; but since the invisibility cap is used in many other levels, it actually hurts variety by making this level mo’ like others.

If there is anything “Jolly Roger Bay” may have that’s better than “Dire Dire Docks”, it may be aesthetics. One could argue a pirate theme, e’en if not implemented very well ( you’d think a pirate level would have enemies that aren’t just fish, clams, & Goombas ), with its subtle touches o’ seaweed & beach sand & its sandy cove, is mo’ interesting than “Dire Dire Docks”’s ( also not strongly implemented ) mix o’ water & mechanics; but I feel they’re close, & it truly depends on taste. The green fogginess o’ the level also makes it look a bit better than “Dire Dire Docks”’s relentless gray.

“Jolly Roger Bay” has difficulty balance problems as well. “Jolly Roger Bay” & “Dire, Dire Docks” are so similar that they don’t e’en differ much in difficulty, despite the latter being far later in the game. In fact, thanks to the eel & star’s wonky hit detection & the fact that the eel does so much damage to you on impact, added to the health being drained from being underwater, “Can the Eel Come Out to Play” is harder than any star in either & harder than any star in the 1st floor area ’cept for maybe the wing cap stage’s & “Bowser in the World”’s, which are bonus stars. “Jolly Roger Bay” also, for some reason, has only 104 coins, which, added to the significance o’ the change that the sunken ship rising after the 1st star causes, makes it much easier to end up getting screwed out o’ 100 coins after already collecting a significant ’mount, which the developers for some reason kept doing in early-game levels.3

On the other hand, “Jolly Roger Bay” is also probably the smallest main course in the game, which means you won’t have too much exploring to do for coins. But it also makes the level feel barren & boring, & the sluggishness o’ Mario’s swimming makes it feel just as long as the larger levels — it’s just that you spend mo’ time mashing the A button & staring @ empty water than running round doing interesting movement.

In short, there is almost nothing in “Jolly Roger Bay” that isn’t redundant — & that’s the worst offense any work o’ art can commit. That these redundant tasks were ne’er that fun in the 1st place is only worse. I s’pose one could argue that all this repetition creates something o’ a shared theme ’mong these levels; but themes only work if you do something interesting with them. “Cool, Cool Mountain” vs. “Tall Tall Mountain” have themes shared ’mong them, including both having slides; but “Tall Tall Mountain”’s slide is significantly mo’ advanced in its challenge in interesting ways, looks totally different to the point that you would have to pay attention to notice the similarities ’tween these levels, & twists other similarities ( both are mountains, but “Cool, Cool Mountain” has you go downward, “Tall Tall Mountain” has you go upward ). These 2 levels’ repetitions add barely anything to make them worth repeating.

While the English versions o’ Super Mario 64 have “Jolly Roger Bay”’s portrait show a pirate ship, the original Japanese version just shows a bunch o’ bubbles. I’d presume they were short on time when they 1st released the Japanese version & later while working on the English versions decided to take the time to make the portrait less boring. Surprisingly, they didn’t keep the pirate ship portrait in the DS version, leaving it as just bubbles ’gain not only in the Japanese release, but also the English releases as well.

14. Dire Dire Docks

’Course, the unfortunate fact o’ repetition is it brings all iterations down. It doesn’t matter which is the copy o’ which: 2 copies just morph into the feeling o’ playing a level that’s been stretched too long.

E’en if “Jolly Roger Bay” didn’t exist, “Dire Dire Docks” would probably be near the bottom. I praised some o’ its star implementations, but only in comparison to “Jolly Roger Bay’s”. While the moving poles are mo’ interesting than finding red coins on the ship ( tho not mo’ interesting than finding them in clams ), you’re still forced to wait on moving poles, & it’s not as if pole mechanics aren’t in many other levels — tho, to be fair, since these move, these are the most dynamic, & since this is a mechanical level, they fit better here than, say, inside a volcano or… whate’er “Bowser in the Fire Sea” is s’posed to be.

“Collect the Caps…” is a great idea, expecting you to mix the invisible & metal cap where otherwise caps are ne’er combined, that isn’t truly implemented well, since you don’t actually need the metal cap to get inside the cage. Still, given that it a’least tricks the vast majority o’ players into thinking one should get both caps, — ¿& isn’t what the vast majority o’ players will do mo’ important that what one could potentiall do? — this is still stronger than every other star in this level, e’en if only on an aesthetic level. When your competition is all weak, it’s easier for the weak to win.

Worse, the DS remake, due to limiting each powerup to a specific character, makes it impossible to mix powerups, turning it into a basic invisibility-cap star.

’Nother star that only wins by aesthetics ’lone is the 1st star, “Board Bowser’s Sub”, which is notable as the only star necessary to beat the game ( barring glitches ), as you need to collect this specific star to unlock “Bowser in the Fire Sea”, & thus the last 3rd o’ the game. It is purely that quirk & how memorable it is that the sub disappears after beating “Bowser in the Fire Sea” that makes this star notable in any way. That “Jolly Roger Bay” did something similar with its sunken ship — tho in a less interesting way — makes this worse. Otherwise, it’s just a slow swim & a simple climb ’cross cork blocks with no penalty for failing this simple platforming, despite much earlier levels having far higher stakes. Imagine playing through “Shifting Sand Land” & “Lethal Lava Land” & then unlocking “Bowser in the Fire Sea” by swimming for several minutes & then jumping ’cross a short bridge — nothing but a letdown.

& then we have “Through the Jet Stream” & “The Manta Ray’s Reward”. I mentioned under “Jolly Roger Bay” how the Superman 64 mechanic o’ swimming through rings is repeated twice & badly implemented, tho not in complete detail. The rings have buggy hitboxes that cause you to oft “miss” them when you clearly go through them due to a physics bug that causes the Manta Ray & ( less oft ) the jet stream to produce rings ’hind you while in front o’ you, which is hard to see, since the rings are sprites, not true polygons, which was a prevalent trick employed to hide the N64’s weak handling o’ 3D — an unfortunate case wherein Super Mario 64’s terrible graphics outright harm its gameplay. So these are akin to a Donkey Kong Country 3’s “Rocket Run”: gimmicks that are interesting, but badly implemented so that they’re not fun. ’Cept in “Rocket Run”’s defense, ’twas a 1-time gimmick, while this gimmick is repeated, sapping it o’ what might’ve been its only strength, its freshness, ’specially since the developers didn’t e’en bother to spread the use o’ these gimmicks so that you might forget you’d already done it after a while — ¡the stars come right after each other! So these stars are mo’ like a Donkey Kong 64 “Beaver Bother” — & nobody wants to bother with that.

1 major pain with “Dire Dire Docks” is that you have to swim through the long tunnel to the 2nd area for half the stars. It’s just wasting time for cinematics, an unfortunately common trope during the N64 era. It’s also a bizarre trope, since N64 games ne’er looked good, e’en in their own time ( the Donkey Kong Country games on the Super Nintendo look better than all o’ them ). “Dire, Dire Docks” isn’t e’en a nice-looking level, being mostly blue water & gray walls. ¿Why would I e’er want to linger on looking @ that?

The quick o’ it is: “Dire, Dire Docks” has interesting ideas that aren’t implemented well, while “Jolly Roger Bay” has fewer interesting ideas that are generally implemented worse. Still, the 2 are close, & my frustration with “Dire, Dire Docks” & its dumbass Superman 64 rings almost made me want to slip it below “Jolly Roger Bay”.

“Dire Dire Docks”’s level entrance isn’t a portrait but a weird wall o’ what I guess is s’posed to be gravity-defying blue water, which starts out in the way o’ the entranceway to “Bowser in the Fire Sea”, only to move & allow you access to “Bowser in the Fire Sea” after collecting “Board Bowser’s Sub”. Tho part o’ me wants to complain ’bout forcing the player to collect a certain star to beat the game, when they don’t require any other star, it’s a simple, easy ’nough star that I can’t complain much. ’Sides, I like the exciting twist that ’hind the star door, which the 1st star door has already established per pattern hide Bowser levels, hides ’nother main level, too. I just wished they’d picked a mo’ interesting level to guard ’hind it.

13. Rainbow Ride

This is the level I most wanted to like due to its creative twist on the sky theme, but is ruined by that constant foe o’ mine: autoscrollers. “Rainbow Ride” is 1 o’ the worst autoscrollers thanks to its dearth o’ impediments: you’ll spend ’bout 8% o’ the time dodging static blocks you have to be asleep ( which is likely, considering how boring this level is ) to be unable to get round, 2% o’ the time dodging legitimately tricky dynamic objects, like the Amp & firespitter round the big house in the sky, & 90% o’ the time just standing round hoping we don’t fall asleep just as Mario likely has. There is 1 section that is ’bout a minute or 2 long that has just a single coin floating in otherwise empty air.

Pictured: EXCITING LEVEL DESIGN

That this is the final main level o’ the game makes this all the mo’ depressing — tho, thanks to this game’s open-ended hub, it’s just as likely the player plays the far superior “Tick Tock Clock” or any other level after this, & the last level the player actually plays is “Bowser in the Sky”, which is also, thankfully, much better than this.

Worse, “Rainbow Ride” is a linear level, so it falls into a problem most other levels were free from: repetition. That’s right: not only do you have to wait in boredom on moving magic carpets, you have to do it for 4 whole stars. ( not including the coin star, which we could defend as a sort o’ challenge where you have to do just ’bout everything in 1 life — ’sides, this level has so many coins that you don’t actually have to go to either the airship or the big house to get 100 coins ). Unlike other levels, like “Lethal Lava Land” or “Wet-Dry World”, which offer ways to abbreviate much o’ the level on some stars, there is no way to avoid the long carpet rides for each o’ these stars, with the exception o’ the 1st ride, which you can bypass by taking a detour round the area with the triangles. Thus, this is 1 o’ the few times Super Mario 64’s mission system feels like repeating the same thing multiple times. O, ¿& the aforementioned long wait doing nothing with the single coin? That’s before the fork ’tween the airship & the big house, so you have to go through that nonsense 3 times @ minimum.

’Cause “Rainbow Ride” is so linear, it falls into ’nother problem that Super Mario 64 usually avoided, but is common in Donkey Kong 64: splitting stars into clearly-separated hub areas — so separate that they may as well be separate levels. The red coin star has the stone maze, which is only used for red coins & finding the cannon Bob-omb; the big house & the long trip after the carpet fork that leads to it is only used for “The Big House in the Sky”; the back area with the swinging platforms are only used for “Tricky Triangles!” & “Swingin’ in the Breeze”; & the airship & the path to it is only used for “Cruiser Crossing the Rainbow” & “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. & unlike “Hazy Maze Cave”, the level doesn’t branch back into other paths as a way to hide its linear nature. Quite to opposite: unlike every other level, ’cept the explicitly linear Bowser levels ( which don’t have multiple missions, so they have a good ’scuse ), most o’ these paths, like the big house & the airship, lead to explicit ends that are awkward to go back from ( which is probably why the developers made it so that you could get 100 coins without going down either o’ those paths ).

“Rainbow Ride” is a level that seemed to be made either before the developers decided to make the game exploration-based with multiple missions & had them awkwardly forced in afterward.

Out o’ the stars that require taking the carpet ride, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, where you have to use the cannon on the airship to shoot thru a rainbow ring to get to a small floating platform with a star, would be the most interesting if it didn’t feel too much like a copy o’ “Cruiser Crossing the Rainbow”. Other than the detour puzzle @ the start o’ finding the Bob-omb who opens the cannon & the short shoot thru the rainbow ring, the bulk o’ the star is just getting to the airship ’gain. A’least they made this the last star so it’s as far from the 1st star as possible. Still, I think this should’ve been the 1st star & “Cruiser Crossing the Rainbow” should’ve been removed.

Surprisingly, “Rainbow Ride”’s red-coin star, “Coins Amassed in a Maze”, is 1 o’ its stronger stars. For once I’m glad a level doesn’t scatter its red coins all o’er, since this level’s aforementioned linear branches would make going back & getting coins on a different branch a pain. Tho this star isolates its red coins in 1 area, it does a good job o’ a’least spreading them round that area, while keeping some coherence to a star type whose other iterations usually show a perplexing lack o’ coherency ( while also not having much variety ). My only qualm is, one does have to wonder what relevance it has to a sky level. Then ’gain, it does have a castlelike flavor to it, & the level in general seems to have a castlelike theme to it, what with the “big house in the sky”. If the developers had strengthened the castlelike elements in the level so that ’twas an outright sky/castle hybrid theme, it’d strengthen both this star & the level theme as a whole — & would fit great, since this is the last regular level o’ the game.

The strongest star in this level is definitely “Tricky Triangles!”, not only ’cause it lets you skip all slow carpet rides, but also ’cause timing jumps on the flattened triangles before they pop up can actually be a tricky challenge. The only problem is that this star doesn’t fit the level theme @ all. It feels like it belongs mo’ in “Tick Tock Clock”. The same could be said for “Swingin’ in the Breeze”, tho that star’s far less fresh, being the same basic jumps involving dodging firespitters as you’ve done many times before in “Bowser in the Lava Sea” ( & doesn’t involve breezes much @ all ).

’Stead o’ a portrait, “Rainbow Ride” uses a boxy hole up in a side area o’ the 4th floor. This would’ve been unique if they didn’t reuse it for the “Wing Mario O’er the Rainbow” bonus level right across from the clock room. This always confused me as a kid: while that bonus level has a shiny glow coming out o’ its hole, ”Rainbow Ride”’s doesn’t; as a kid I always assumed “Rainbow Ride” was the mo’ “special” level & always mistook it for the level with the glow, so I’d oft go in the wrong entrance & get stuck either collecting that star, exiting course & warping all the way back to the beginning o’ the castle, or letting myself fall off the level & be cornfielded back to the waterfall outside the castle.

12. Lethal Lava Land

Coming so closely before the mo’ interesting “Bowser in the Lava Sea” doesn’t make this level look good. Like the Bowser levels, “Lethal Lava Land” e’en feels a bit mo’ linear than most levels, tho with outright branching paths, & later on a way to open up the whole level for exploration anywhere you want with a shell that appears next to the start that allows you to move directly on lava, which is a useful way to abbreviate the level for later missions — an important element for a level you have to do many missions in that helps this level feel less repetitious as, say, ’nother linear level with branching paths, “Rainbow Ride”.

Like many o’ the weaker levels in this game, this level is rife with repetition. The 1st star has you travel from the southernmost side o’ the level to the northernmost & defeat a giant Bully. The 2nd star… has you go 1 moving platform farther, defeat 3 regular Bullies, & then defeat yet ’nother Big Bully. Honestly, I don’t think e’en “Dire Dire Docks” & “Jolly Roger Bay” have stars as blatantly copy-paste as this. The developers didn’t e’en bother putting the 2nd star ’way from the 1st star or spread them apart in the main sequence ( though thanks to Super Mario 64 being less anal ’bout their mission sequence as Super Mario Sunshine & Super Mario Galaxy, the player can choose to spread them out if they want ).

Then the 3rd star has arguably the weakest red-coin challenge. All 8 red coins are floating o’er a small sliding puzzle that plays itself. The star sets up the pieces magically moving out from under you, causing you to fall into the lava below as a challenge, but this challenge is nullified e’en for players who couldn’t time jumps on sliding pieces @ all by the unlikelihood that the piece you happen to be on @ any moment happens to be the 1 that slides ’way & the fact that the red coins heal you. There is something to be said ’bout a star that is easy to get in terms o’ raw challenge, but requires exploration, like the red coins in the maze in “Rainbow Ride”, or an authentic challenge, like getting all the red coins in the Bowser levels; this star has neither quality: it is the 3D equivalent o’ a Super Mario Bros. level with a straight flat ground for 1 screen & the flagpole right there, & nothing ’tween it & the star but a bunch o’ Goombas sandwiching Mushroom power-ups.

It reminds me o’ the infamous “Luigi’s Purple Coins” star from Super Mario Galaxy… ’cept that star actually required raw platforming talent, so that star was compelling.

“Red-Hot Log Rolling” & “Hot-Foot-It into the Volcano” are definitely the strongest stars in the level, but they’re still just OK. “Red-Hot Log Rolling” requires the player to spin on a rolling cylinder to make it move toward where they need to go, a mechanic only used ’gain in “Tall, Tall Mountain”. But this challenge is ruined by the fact that e’en a non-expert player could figure out that they could just long-jump ’stead o’ rolling the log, making the log pointless. I s’pose one could argue that it offers a mo’ “training-wheels” version o’ this mechanic, while the “Tall, Tall Mountain” ( which is farther ’way, & thus harder to long jump from ) is the evolved form; but the “Tall, Tall Mountain” version is already evolved in that it’s in the middle o’ a long trek, while this is @ the end o’ a very short path to the star. When your mechanic is the focus o’ your mission, that is the worst time to nullify that mechanic as a form o’ “training wheels”, ’less this is a very early-game level, which this is not — it’s midgame.

“Hot-Foot-It into the Volcano” is just a straight curve round & up the inside o’ the volcano in the center o’ the level, with basic jumps ’long platforms floating o’er lava. ’Gain, the fact that we have a level with much better linear platforming so close after this level hurts this star.

“Elevator Tour in the Volcano”4 has you return to the volcano to ride a checkered platform that doesn’t look like it belongs in a volcano @ all as it slowly moves up. I think there is maybe 1 firespitter you have to dodge to reach a pole, & then you do mo’ hopping o’er platforms, just like the previous star. So this is basically an e’en mo’ boring version o’ the average “Rainbow Ride” star without the better visuals. It sucks.

11. Big Boo’s Haunt

This is ’nother level I wanted to love, since I love spooky levels & love levels that focus on exploring. But while this level, thankfully, does not involve autoscrolling, it does involve repetition: many o’ the stars just revolve round killing a lot o’ Boos. Thanks to every Boo for some reason giving you a whole 5 coins each, the coin star is redundant as well.

The most interesting star is probably “Eye to Eye in the Secret Room”, which challenges you to grab the invisible cap & race up to the top room & into the Boo painting to fight a giant Mr. I. The weakest part is the boss itself, which is, well, a giant Mr. I. It’s not any mo’ dangerous & you still defeat it by the same means, spinning round it till it gets confused, ’cept requiring maybe a few mo’ revolutions. Still, it’s a clever enemy type in itself; just 1 you fight many mo’ times. If anything, I’d say it would’ve been better to keep the boss but get rid o’ the regular Mr. Is, since none o’ the other Mr. Is in this game — specially the ones in other levels, where they don’t e’en fit, do much but offer an easy 5 coins.

“Big Boo’s Balcony” is probably the 2nd best, but the Big Boo fight is weakened by you having to already fight Big Boo @ the end o’ the 1st 2 stars. This star could’ve worked just as well with just the challenge o’ climbing to the top o’ the roof, which is 95% o’ the star’s challenge, anyway.

“Secret of the Haunted Books” promises an interesting, fresh theme revolving round a haunted library — fresh, but still fitting with the o’erall haunted theme — but delivers weak gameplay with it. You run through a short straight hallway ( well, it curves in the middle, but it doesn’t branch ), dodging books that fly @ you from the shelves, which just requires jumping o’er their spawn points. E’en if you do get hit, they only do 1 damage & you have 6 HP, ¿so who cares?

@ the end is that o’erused puzzle in this game: hit the things in a certain order & get hurt if you don’t already know the pattern. It’s basically just the treasure chest puzzle used 3 times ’mong the 2 water levels, but with books. There’s only 3 books, too, so a sane person can only mess up up to 2 times, which is not ’nough to kill the player. Then ’gain, if this were actually challenging, it would be frustratingly unfair.

You can skip the whole thing by employing moderately hard jumps from a balcony from ’nother door, which is faster, but harder than just running through a hall & punching 3 books. Actually involving platforming, it’s funner than the intended route, but it also just falls into a generic jump challenge, which is still weak. You know a star is bad when it’s worse than a generic jumping challenge.

It says something that the red coins star, which players see in every level, is 1 o’ the strongest in this level. “Seek the 8 Red Coins” takes advantage o’ the many hiding places the mansion’s many rooms offers. Thankfully, the developers were wise ’nough to keep them all in the main mansion & didn’t throw any outside or in the weird shed thing out front. The mansion’s rooms offer plenty ’nough variety for the red coins, while keeping them all to the main mansion’s main rooms balances this with a strong sense o’ coherence, giving it the best o’ both. In fact, I would outright say that “Big Boo’s Haunt” has the best red-coin challenge o’ the game.

“Go on a Ghost Hunt” by itself is a strong star to start the level. It, too, challenges you to explore the level, but for ghosts to defeat & only on the 1st floor. After defeating them all, you fight Big Boo, which creates a set o’ stairs so you can climb up to the 2nd floor, where the star appears ( & thankfully it only appears after you defeat the Big Boo, as you can easily just triple jump up to the 2nd floor, anyway ). This complements the red coin challenge in an interesting way: since red coins are scattered through the bottom floor, you will inevitably see a few o’ them as you pass by. So if you remember where you saw them, you can mo’ quickly pass through & grab them & spend most o’ your time exploring the newly opened 2nd floor.

The red coin star would’ve been perfect as the 2nd star, as it follows right after the 1st star. But ’stead the 2nd star, “Ride Big Boo’s Merry-Go-Round”, challenges you to take a detour down into the weird shed into an underground sewerlike passage ( tho those who fell in a hole in the mansion during the 1st star would’ve accidentally stumbled ’pon this area & had to tediously climb all the way back ). There are no platforming challenges throughout this long path — nothing but a long elevator ride downward. The only use for this whole area is the main room where there is a spinning carousel where, if you have the right star selected ( ¿why the developers decided to enforce star order here, I have no idea ), Boos will appear & you have to defeat them all ’gain, but this time without any platforming or exploration to break up the monotony, like in the 1st star — though I s’pose there are firespitters that are brainlessly easy to dodge. After you defeat all the Boos, you get to fight Big Boo yet ’gain to collect the star. Like with “Jolly Roger Bay”, this star not only is not interesting by itself, it hurts the 1st star, which would’ve been great if it didn’t feel repetitive after this star.

The DS remake tries to add a li’l mo’ action in this underground area with “Switch Star in the Basement”, yet ’nother switch star. The only notable thing ’bout it is that they force you to use Wario by putting a black brick, only breakable by Wario, o’er the switch.

Rather than use yet ’nother portrait for this level’s entrance, the developers made this entrance a small cage you need to touch to make Mario magically shrink inside, with the implication that the level is inside the cage. @ the back o’ the stairway ’tween the 1st floor & basement is a courtyard that @ 1st appears empty & pointless; but after you collect 15 stars it suddenly becomes infested by Boos, who hold items that you can collect if you defeat them & can see if you stare @ them, turning them transparent, where their item reveals itself. While most Boos just have a useless coin, 1 holds the cage that leads to this level.

Admittedly, it is a bit o’ a bother to keep killing the boo to unleash the cage — which is why the developers in the DS remake made it so that the cage stays there after you leave the stage after every star. Also, it probably would’ve made mo’ sense to have a miniature mansion ’stead o’ a cage, but I have an inkling that that would’ve required better graphical tech or experience than this new 3D game could handle yet.

10. Bob-omb Battlefield

I commonly complain ’bout games starting with bland-looking “grasslands”5. Super Mario 64 tries to spice theirs up with a bit o’ a war-torn battlefield theme, but they fail to truly add much “military” to the level — just a bunch o’ Bob-ombs & cannons, which are both found in nearly every level already. Compare this to, say, World 8-3 o’ the original Super Mario Bros. with its castle walls in the background. In fact, the level that comes right after this 1, which also has a bit o’ a grassland theme to it, does a better job o’ matching that than this. This level just looks like a bland grassland that could be found in any game.

While not surprising that the developers would want to start with a level with a rather straight path ( though with forks & e’en a dead end @ places to help players dip their toes into exploration ), it is surprising that the developers make the 1st star a mo’ challenge-based star that ends with a boss. Then ’gain, this came after a period when Mario games were mo’ challenging action games. Ironically, people from newer generations who come to this game fresh would probably find free-form exploration less frustrating than dodging the giant Chain Chomp & water cannons & trying to battle Big Bob-omb.

Indeed, while the eponymous Big Bob-omg in “Big Bob-omb on the Summit” makes a great warm-up to a skill you’ll need when fighting Bowser, his janky hitbox makes him harder than he should be. It’s shocking how common it is to grab him when right ’hind him only to grab through him as if he were a ghost & get grabbed by him. Trying to reach his back can also be surprisingly tricky with how fast he rotates on his last hit, tho clever players may realize they can jump o’er him for a shortcut.

The DS remake changes this boss fight by necessity, since they, oddly, make you start as Yoshi, who can’t grab. In that version you just lick up the Bob-ombs Big Bob-omb throws & spit them back @ him, which is very easy. They then make you rematch Big Bob-omb the traditional way for a later star, “Big Bob-omb’s Revenge”, using someone other than Yoshi ( or Yoshi wearing a cap ).

Luckily, Super Mario 64 offers alternatives from the very start: less than halfway through the path to Big Bob-omb’s summit one runs into a Chain Chomp ties to a wooden peg in front o’ a gate guarding a conspicuous star, a star I always make sure to get 1st, ’cause getting stars in the developer-decided order in Super Mario 64 is like player Cuphead on simple mode — it’s almost missing the whole point o’ the game.

“Bob-omb Battlefield” is the most notable instance o’ a level you’ll have to come back to later, thanks to a’least 1 star requiring the wing cap ( & the coin star requiring it if one wants to keep one’s sanity ). Since Super Mario 64 levels kick you out after every star, anyway, it’s not as annoying as in the Rareware 3D platformers.

I like this game’s use o’ the wing-cap in this level, as it offers a safe-from-death, but not free, way to make the player practice flying with it, & it fits the cannon theme o’ the level. It’s also fitting that the 1st level would put so much focus on a power-up so important to the game that Mario has it on the box art.

“Shoot to the Island in the Sky” feels thrown-in & redundant, tho, since you have to shoot to the island to get a red coin & to get “Mario Wings to the Sky”. The developers who worked on the DS remake seemed to agree, since they removed it to make room for the 2 new stars they added.

Demonstrating this level theme’s dearth o’ specific qualities, we have a race with Koopa the Quick, a challenge that could exist in most other levels, too. In fact, I’m surprised the developers didn’t put him in mo’ levels ( the developers o’ Super Mario Odyssey must’ve felt that way, too, since they put a Koopa race in every level in that game ). It basically challenges the player to do what they did in the 1st star ( & unlike “Behind Chain Chomp’s Gate” you have to do the 1st star before this 1, since Koopa the Quick won’t appear ’less you specifically select his star, which requires collecting the 1st star ), but within a very lenient time limit, which is a fair ’nough challenge, & a good way to challenge players to hone their ability to not just explore pathways, but also learn them so they can travel through them mo’ quickly later.

“Find the 8 Red Coins” has that particularly bad mix o’ having coin placements that are arbitrary, but also repetitive & uninspired. 2 are right next to each other round where the star spawns & ’nother’s on a random rock near the beginning o’ the level. ’Nother’s hiding in plain sight on the floating island, essentially just requiring the player to shoot to it for the 3rd time.

The best placements are @ the top o’ the otherwise pointless moving platforms, in the secret gated fort under the bridge, & on the Chain Chomp’s peg, which is the only 1 that adds an actual threat to collecting it. ( Some may consider this latter choice hypocritical after complaining ’bout the island red coin; but this is different for 3 reasons: 1. the Chain Chomp star comes after the red coin star in natural order; 2. while the Chain Chomp red coin adds a quick threat to your health getting it, getting it is fast & doesn’t require tedious cannon work, like the island one; 3. this red coin actually enhances the Chain Chomp star as it adds ’nother indicator that the peg is important ). The red coin on the slope isn’t a lazy placement, just annoying: you either have to know some obscure speedrun technique to get up it fast or you need to slowly walk up it, since jumping, for some reason, makes Mario slide down with no way to get back up till he reaches the bottom, or go round to the top & slide down from there. Neither are compelling challenges; just tedious. If “Bob-omb Battlefield” had mo’ interesting landmarks, there might’ve been mo’ interesting pockets to hide the red coins in.

I have mixed opinions on the 100-coin star o’ this level. I like that the level gives you plenty o’ coins crowded in large areas, making it an easy warm-up for the 1st level. Having the extra wooden pegs is good, too, since the player is likely to play round with them, being in a safer place than the Chain Chomp 1, & realize they can ground pound them, & then remember the Chain Chomp peg & put 2 & 2 together…

Howe’er, I don’t like how the level makes it seem manageable to get 100 coins before getting the wing cap, only to have a lot o’ coins in the sky. I think it’s technically possible to get 100 coins without the cap, but it’s much mo’ tedious, & nothing’s worse than being stuck ’tween the rock o’ abandoning a 100-coin star with 80+ coins ’cause you don’t have the wing cap yet & the hard place o’ tediously shooting yourself @ the coin rings hoping to scrounge as many as you can without being able to fly.

If collecting 8 red coins in uninspired places, 5 secrets in rings, & 100 coins wasn’t ’nough, the developers o’ the DS remake picked the worst level to add 1 o’ their many iterations o’ “collect 5 silver stars” star, generically-named “5 Silver Stars!”. In their defense, they did make Chain Chomp roam round with a silver star @ the end o’ their chain, which is something new & actually challenging. They should’ve just made the new star “Grab Chain Chomp’s Chain” & should’ve just had a real star on its chain: that would’ve been unique, cut out the fluff, & would’ve been easier to implement, since they clearly already implemented the Chain Chomp roaming round & dragging something with it.

9. Hazy Maze Cave

“Hazy Maze Cave” is a well-constructed o’erall level environment tarnished by not-so-great star challenges.

“Haze Maze Cave” is the perfect balance ’tween Super Mario 64’s 2 major level types: linear & open. It has branching lines, like “Rainbow Ride” & “Lethal Lava Land”, but with branches connecting together in mo’ than 1 place, offering many opportunities to loop back into paths missed, which is convenient for collecting the 100-coin star — ’specially for a level notorious for having few coins & being tricky to get them all in6. In short, “Haze Maze Cave” is, well, a maze.

& to “Hazy Maze Cave”’s credit, it does come up with quite a few mechanics that feel different but also feel tied to the cavernous level theme: rolling rocks, underground mines polluted with toxic gas that slowly saps Mario’s health ’way, & elevators, adding a bit o’ a mechanical edge to this level. Howe’er most o’ the challenges revolving round these mechanics are either half-executed or executed with minor problems.

3 stars revolve round a small lake after a slow-falling elevator, 2 o’ which require maneuvering a slow-moving, awkward-to-control Dorrie, which are fine ’nough — in fact, the way the developers hid the metal cap in a section within ’nother level using a mechanic one might s’pose had done its job for the 1st star is a clever twist on the pattern they had set up with cap levels. & to be fair, we should technically subtract 1 from the previous 2 #s, since the metal cap stage using Dorrie technically isn’t a “Hazy Maze Cave” level but 1 o’ the “Castle Secret Stars”.

The 1st star, “Swimming Beast in the Cavern”, is the other star that requires using Dorrie, just to reach the mountain in the middle o’ the lake with a star hanging round in the open.

The 3rd star, “Metal-Head Mario Can Move!” ( “Metal-Head Wario Can Move” in the DS remake ) doesn’t require Dorrie @ all, but requires the player to get the metal cap, race to the switch, & then employ some basic long jumps to get the star. The main challenge o’ the “race”, unfortunately, is that Metal Mario moves slowly in water, which is boring & feels mo’ frustrating than a race where you can actually move quickly.

Probably the most interesting star is “Navigating the Toxic Maze”, which says exactly what it requires: hurry & find the exit in the sprawling maze before the toxic gas causes Mario to suffocate to death ( strangely, leaving the gas doesn’t make Mario reheal oxygen like reaching the surface o’ water does ). Like “Lethal Lava Land”’s red-coin star, there are coins, including a blue coin switch, to help reheal lost health; howe’er, unlike that star, which is fast & easy, so the coins only dampen an already easy challenge, this much larger, trickier section can still threaten you, e’en with the coins.

“A-Maze-Ing Emergency Exit” threatens to weaken “Navigating the Toxic Maze”, tho, by forcing the player to do the same thing, but find ’nother exit that isn’t necessarily harder to find than the other. Howe’er, if you want to avoid that, the developers were nice ’nough to provide an easily-telegraphed way to skip the maze & reach the section the maze leads to from the rolling-rocks room. This star’s net-climbing section near the end is also unfair due to wonky hitboxes that make it easy for Mario to just climb off the edge & fall right into a bottomless pit, e’en if it looks like he should still be grabbing the net.

“Watch for Rolling Rocks” is a solid challenge that fits the level theme, but isn’t spectacular. Also, the rolling rocks are a bit random. Then ’gain, it takes 3 to kill you, which is probably the most you need to pass & there’s a coin trail halfway through the short danger field, so it’s mo’ a case o’ very bad luck if you manage to be killed by them. The name is weird in that you’ll probably pass these rocks a few times, — the door ’hind them leads to the 2 maze stars you’ll likely have done before this star — which is probably why the developers didn’t make them a major challenge to bypass. The true trick to this star is realizing there’s a star round the rolling rocks in the 1st place, requiring wall jumps to reach a high-up place you’d need to use the 1st-person camera to find. Howe’er, the name is good in that it hints to you where the star is without giving ’way the puzzle.

This is 1 o’ the few stars that may be better in the DS remake, where you have to grab a Super Mushroom with Wario & break the rolling rocks to make the star appear. While this takes ’way the challenge o’ exploring the area to find the star, it replaces that with a mo’ interesting puzzle that mo’ closely fits the rolling rocks.

Those who were excited by my description o’ “Hazy Maze Cave’s” branching paths connecting together in many places & the opportunities this offers for red-coin hunting ( probably no one, since I’m 1 o’ the few people who actually enjoys exploring & not just holding right & pressing A when the game tells me to ) will be disappointed to learn that “Hazy Maze Cave’s” red coins are all in 1 room, &, as the star name “Elevate for 8 Red Coins” warns, all are gotten by riding slow moving platforms.

The DS remake decides to add to this already well-used room by adding yet ’nother switch star with “Underground Switch Star”, which also requires Wario to break a black brick ’bove the switch, making it virtually a copy o’ “Big Boo’s Haunt” “Switch Star in the Basement”.

Hazy Maze Cave’s entrance isn’t a portrait, but a large hole full o’ some shiny black liquid. It’s unique & fits this level’s cavernous theme better than, say, “Shifting Sand Land” or “Snowman Land”’s weird entrances.

8. Snowman Land

“Snowman Land” suffers a similar problem as “Dire Dire Docks” & “Jolly Roger Bay” in that it feels a bit redundant as yet ’nother snow level after “Cool, Cool Mountain”. Howe’er, “Snowman Land”’s similarities to “Cool, Cool Mountain” are mostly just aesthetics, while none o’ its stars are, gameplay-wise, similar @ all to “Cool, Cool Mountain’s”. While “Cool, Cool Mountain” focuses its gameplay more on its mountainous quality, with just 2 stars focusing on ice or snow, with snow & winter acting mainly as aesthetic flourishes, such as the chimney you enter to reach the slide, “Snowman Land” focuses all its gameplay on its icy state, whether it’s dodging the icy breath o’ the giant snowman, avoiding ice so cold it hurts you on touch or water that’s cold ’nough to make you lose health e’en when your face is o’er the surface, or exploring an ice sculpture and igloo.

The 1st star, “Snowman’s Big Head”, where you have to climb the snowman & then use the walking penguin’s fat to block the snowman’s icy breath, is the most creative & interesting challenge. The only other place you see this sort o’ challenge is partway through “Tall, Tall Mountain”, ’cept that verison, which just made you wait till the cloud stopped blowing, was much weaker.

Like many other stars in this game, if you’re not up to this challenge, there are alternate ways to reach the star. For example, if you find the cannon Bob-omb hidden deep in the igloo ’hind an ice wall requiring an invisible cap, you can use the cannon near the start o’ the level to shoot straight up @ the star or a convenient tree right next to it.

“In the Deep Freeze” is the 2nd most interesting star, requiring you to navigate a 3D maze o’ ice blocks, which are clear, & thus hard to distinguish from empty space. The DS remake replaces this clever challenge with a braindead challenge, “Yoshi’s Ice Sculpture”, that just asks if you can use Yoshi’s half-assedly thrown-in fire-breathing power to break an ice block with the star, which you already did in the DS version o’ “Cool, Cool Mountain”.

“Into the Igloo” challenges you to find the igloo hidden in the side o’ the Snowman mountain using the shell & inside to navigate a maze, find the invisible cap, & navigate back through the maze under a time limit to reach the star locked in ice. The way the invisible cap is hidden ’hind an ice wall that has a space @ the top allowing you to jump up & climb o’er it is particularly clever.

Not content to ruining just 1 star, the DS remake completely redesigned the igloo so that there is no maze, but just flat bridges o’er icy-cold water, so that you just have to jump straight to the power-up box, grab the invisibility flower as Luigi, & then jump back to the start o’ the area, where there’s a grate you can fall through. Since you have to be Luigi, you have godlike jumping powers, making this frivolous star e’en mo’ a joke. I’m mixed on replacing the ice walls with a grate: while the grate is mo’ explicit in that invisible character can go thru it, whereas invisible characters being able to move thru ice walls isn’t intuitive, grates break the icy theme o’ the level.

“Chill with the Bully” & “Shell Shreddin’ for Red Coins” begs for comparison with “Lethal Lava Land” a few levels earlier. “Shell Shreddin’ for Red Coins”, whose name asks you to ride a shell to pick up red coins, reveals a much mo’ interesting red coin challenge “Lethal Lava Land” could’ve employed than just having them all sitting round on a small sliding puzzle. Howe’er, this level, with just a small icy pond under the platform on which you fight the giant Bully, only requires the shell for getting 2 coins right next to each other on said pond, with the rest scattered in seemingly arbitrary places, & not spread well — in addition to this twin pair, there are also 2 red coins right next to each other on the slope after where you find the shell.

The developers for the DS remake apparently also found this star weak, as they replaced it with “Red Coins in the House”, using that ghetto slang straight from Rogueport ( it’s an igloo, not a house, you dumbshits ), a star challenging you to collect red coins floating o’er icy bridges o’er freezing cold water… which, thinking ’bout it, is not unlike “Lethal Lava Land”’s lame red coin mission: the red coins are just there for the taking, & the water pits aren’t e’en a true challenge, since they only slowly sap your health if you fall in them & can just jump right out & grab 1 o’ the abundant coins to heal yourself instantly afterward. The original version a’least requires some exploration.

’Cept, psyche, the interns they threw into working on “Snowman’s Land” for the DS remake were dropped on their heads as children & decided to add “Snowman’s Silver Star”, a silver star star that puts the silver stars… in pretty much the same places as the red coins were in the original’s “Shell Shreddin’ for Red Coins”. I would actually praise replacing 8 red coins, many o’ which are just duplicated next to each other, with 5 silver stars all in unique places if it mattered… but they just moved the red coins somewhere else, none o’ which are in interesting places, & completely destroyed the actually interesting original’s igloo layout in the process. ¿What the fuck were they thinking?

“Chill with the Bully” is yet ’nother “defeat big Bully” mission after you already did 2 in “Lethal Lava Land”. That level a’least had most o’ the level lead up to their missions; this is right after the start. I guess the icy physics does offer some evolution o’ challenge.

“Whirl from the Freezing Pond” is a pointless star that challenges you to do something you have to do to get half the red coins, anyway: get o’er the wall. It would’ve been nice if they could’ve managed to squeeze in an icy section that requires you to ride the shell thru to reach a star, which would’ve made this star mo’ fleshed-out & less redundant & would’ve given the shell mo’ action. But considering how time-strained this game was, I can’t be surprised to see a filler star every once & a while. A’least “Whirl from the Freezing Pond” is short & easy to get o’er with, which is better than, say, “Cruiser Crossing the Rainbow” from “Rainbow Ride”.

The painting itself is a clever idea: it’s just a wall in a mirror room whose mirror shows “Cool, Cool Mountain”’s painting. This is cleverer than “Shifting Sand Land”’s, which is just a wall without any hint that it acts as a painting. But like “Shifting Sand Land”, it’s odd that they chose this for “Snowman’s Land”, as this level doesn’t have much to do with mirrors. It makes me almost wish they gave this level a mo’ exotic mirror-based theme rather than make it ’nother snow level.

7. Whomp’s Fortress

Making thematically similar level come right after “Bob-omb Battlefield” was a bad idea. This level is also harder than a lot o’ the levels that are later in sequence, like “Jolly Roger Bay” or “Big Boo’s Haunt”, with many places where it’s easy to fall off into a bottomless pit.

That said, “Whomp’s Fortress” is a much mo’ interesting level than “Bob-omb Battlefield”. 1st, its fortress theme stands out mo’ than “Bob-omb Battlefield’s” negligible military theme. While that level just threw a bunch o’ bombs & cannons round a generic grassy mountain in a game that already had many mo’, greater mountains, “Whomp’s Fortress” mixes fenced-off floral fields with a stone & brick structures, & e’en included a li’l shallow lake. Indeed, while “Bob-omb Battlefield” might be 1 o’ the least impressive levels visually in a game that already wasn’t going to win any awards for visuals in its time ( honestly, most Super Nintendo games still looked better ), “Whomp’s Fortress” is 1 o’ the better-looking levels in the game with its small flourishes.

1 problem I have with this level is that it also has a lot o’ cannon-based puzzles, making it e’en mo’ similar to “Bob-omb Battlefield”. Arguably, both levels fit the cannon theme all right, tho “Bob-omb Battlefield” fits it a bit better. Howe’er, “Whomp’s Fortress”’s puzzles are better. To be fair, the only cannon-based star in “Bob-omb Battlefield” that doesn’t also make heavy use o’ the wing cap, the island star, I & the developers o’ the DS remake have already established shouldn’t exist.

If fighting a boss for the 1st star in the 1st level wasn’t ’nough, the 2nd level requires it, too, with “Chip Off Whomp’s Block”. Oddly, tho, the Whomp King is far easier than Big Bob-omb. He also makes clever use o’ 3D positioning, but not as clever as Big Bob-omb. Also, they messed up programming the Whomp King’s hitbox, as you can easily just jump through the Whomp King’s stomach as he falls onto you, sapping any threat had.

“To the Top of the Fortress” challenges you to do the same thing as the 1st star, but also climb a tower @ the top ’stead o’ defeating a giant Whomp. I’m not sure why they put this right after the 1st star. Luckily, “Whomp’s Fortress” lets you do all o’ the other stars in any order, so you can save this for last to give yourself a palate-cleanser if desired. The kind o’ diagonal jumps needed to spiral up the tower’s moving blocks are harder than they appear, but not as hard as the version o’ this puzzle blatantly ripped off in Donkey Kong 64’s final main level, ’cause that game’s controls are 500 times worse than this game’s.

“Shoot into the Wild Blue” is a star that’s hard to evaluate, being someone who has know this game since so young that I can’t e’en remember a time I didn’t know its prominent elements. This star name is vague & almost urges players to be suicidally stupid & shoot themselves into the sky, where they will meet only death in a bottomless pit magical ’nough to still show your drop-shadow. The game actually expects you to shoot yourself up @ a brick structure to the side o’ the fortress. In the game’s defense, it’s a prominent structure that you’d have to be oblivious to not notice & be curious ’bout & the cannon, being in a corner o’ the level, only gives you a few places to shoot yourself that aren’t a gaping bottomless pit. ’Course, Super Mario 64 being Super Mario 64, you can easily triple jump up to the structure, which means 1st-time players may be mo’ likely to find the star while exploring after giving up on this star’s puzzle.

“Red Coins on the Floating Isle” is 1 o’ the better scattered red coin placements, with placements that feel similar to how the developers o’ Super Mario World placed dragon coins, rather than the thoughtless placements in “Bob-omb Battlefield”. The only red coin placement I don’t like is the red coin ’hind the piranha plant ’bove the 1st ramp, which is right next to a red coin on a thin passage. I could think o’ much better places to put it, like past the collapsible bridge, which is otherwise useless. I do find the 2 red coins up on the floating islands fine, since a’least they are on different platforms with some challenge to going from 1 to the other, not just right next to each other on flat ground with only a few dreaded Goombas to get in your way. This star’s name is interesting: the “floating isles” probably refers to the spinning tiny platforms up in the air, but most o’ the red coins are scattered throughout the whole level. But, wait, it’s called “on the Floating Isle”, singular. Well, that’s ’cause the whole level is a floating island. I don’t know if that’s intentional, but it doesn’t matter: unintentional clever design is still clever design.

“Fall onto the Caged Island” is a great example o’ what I love most ’bout Super Mario 64: the way most o’ its challenges have many ways you can go @ them, as opposed to a lot o’ modern “pixel-perfect” platformer level design where you’re s’posed to play the level exactly as the developer demands like a robotic slave, which is perfect design for a recreational work o’ art & doesn’t make those games feel like chores @ all. As the title suggests, you’re s’posed to grab an owl & release your grasp when you’re o’er the hole. This, ’course, requires finding the owl, which you can only make appear after climbing up the top o’ a seemingly arbitrary tree @ the beginning o’ the level. Luckily, this star has far mo’ interesting ways to collect it, such as performing a running jump off the top o’ the tower in the 2nd star, shooting yourself into it with precise aim from the cannon, or, if you’re particularly adventurous, doing a double jump off 1 o’ the spinning isles & wall kicking off the cage wall & grabbing onto the cage.

Oddly ’nough, the last star, “Blast Away the Wall” is the easiest star to get. But you can’t say it doesn’t fit the level theme: it mixes the cannon with the focus on the fortress structure. One could consider this star a bonus o’ sorts: your reward for completing all the other stars is a breather star; & if you already know the game well, you can get an advantage by doing this easy star before the game tells you exists. You can do this star @ any point, but ’less you have outside knowledge, you’d need the game to tell you to “Blast Away the Wall” to realize that shooting yourself straight into a wall would do anything but give Mario e’en mo’ brain damage than his incessant infantile exclamations every time he jumps hint that he already has.

This level’s 100-coin star is actually easier than the 1st level’s, without any power-up unlocks needed. In fact, I would oft get the 100-coin star 1st. Piranha Plants & Whomps throw money @ you, & unlike “Bob-omb Battlefield”, this level has a blue coin switch. The DS remake, which expands the garden to surround the back o’ the fortress ( I’m guessing to make it less likely to fall off the back end & die, which is quite easy to do ) & fills it with Piranha Plants who give you a blue coin each, makes it e’en mo’ trivial.

’Course, the DS remake couldn’t add a new garden area without polluting it with ’nother switch star: “Switch Star of the Fortress”. Actually, since this involves a new area that isn’t used for anything else beyond collecting coins, I don’t mind this star. If I were tasked with pruning the excess switch stars, I would keep this 1.

6. Tall, Tall Mountain

“Tall Tall Mountain” stands out ’mong its surrounding levels not by how odd it is but by how normal it is. Sandwiched ’tween an urban-water level with a rising & falling water gimmick & a level where everything is super large or super small, this is just an almost-linear ( tho with a few branches & some other shortcuts to keep it from getting too monotonous ) level climbing up a mountain — in a game full o’ mountains. But while it does comprise mechanics mostly found earlier in the game, it does not so much regurgitate them without doing much interesting with them as, say, “Dire, Dire Docks”, so much as ramp them up in difficulty; & indeed, this level is a notable difficulty spike, with every star being something o’ a formidable challenge, coming after the tame “Snowman’s Land” & “Wet-Dry World”.

The weakest stars are probably the 1st 2. The 1st star, “Scale the Mountain”, as its name indicates, is the all-too-common “get to the top from the bottom” star. It’s weird that this game likes making these the 1st star, as this is usually 1 o’ the most challenging tasks. Howe’er, “Tall Tall Mountain”’s other stars are challenging ’nough that that’s not as certain as, say, the 1st star o’ “Bob-omb Battlefield”.

Unfortunately, like “Whomp’s Fortress”, “Tall Tall Mountain” requires you to get to the top ’gain for the 2nd star, “Mystery of the Monkey Cage”, but this time grab a monkey so they can break open a cage for you. Other than a few extra steps after reaching the top, it’s virtually identical. I guess catching the monkey challenges skills you’ve likely honed trying to catch Mips in the basement. But the game is inconsistent & unintuitive with this requirement: grabbing any other monkey makes them steal your cap, which is a punishment ( which is weird, since you have to go out o’ your way to do it; the monkey won’t try to take your cap if you don’t do anything to it ). So the game teaches you not to grab the monkeys, only for it to turn round & tell you to grab this monkey to get the star. I do remember finding this star disorienting as a kid for that very reason, since I was always ’fraid o’ losing my cap.

“Breathtaking View from Bridge” ( or the mo’ grammatically-correct “Breathtaking View from the Bridge” in the DS remake ) comes dangerously close to copying the 1st 2 stars, too, but not as conspicuously as the 2nd star. You come close to the top, but have to hit a switch & cross thin cork blocks to reach the star hidden ’hind the waterfall. You have plenty o’ time to cross, so the ticking time limit is mo’ a psychological challenge than anything authentic. Anyway, you can rather easily long jump or tripe jump to the waterfall, ignoring the switch completely. Honestly, I feel the developers mainly liked the aesthetics o’ having a star ’hind the waterfall mo’ than having any interesting challenge to go with this.

The DS remake forces you to use Wario to break a black brick block, which I guess adds some challenge to it, since Wario is hopeless when it comes to platforming in that game. But then they nerf the level’s difficulty by eliminating the whole timed bridge & just adding a regular bridge right under it, so that the entire challenge is just “get to the top o’ the level, but with Wario”.

But the other stars are quite good. I like the red-coin placements — tho like in many other red-coin stars, “Scary ‘Shrooms, Red Coins” isn’t entirely accurate: only 4 o’ the red coins are on the “scary shrooms”, while the other 4 are scattered round the viney maze. Still, both offer fun platforming challenges while giving a variety o’ scenery. The mushroom platforms feel like a throwback to the mushroom platforms in classic Super Mario Bros.

“Mysterious Mountainside” is basically “Slip Slidin’ Away” from a level with a strikingly similar name as this, “Cool, Cool Mountain”, but much mo’ challenging. While “Cool, Cool Mountain”’s slide could get narrow @ places, ’twas a linear path with no tricks; this slide twists @ points, challenging you to grind up gainst the wall @ certain parts to avoid falling off the narrow edge, & has a sharp corner @ a fork near the middle, where, if you don’t take it, you get to see Mario slowly slide toward a giant skull signally for him to start saying his prayers. Finally, this slide ends with a large jump that can be surprisingly easy to screw up.

Unlike “Cool, Cool Mountain”’s slide, which simply takes you to the bottom & allows you to play the rest o’ the level, “Tall, Tall Mountain”’s places you into a small alcove that’s hard to get out o’ & impossible to get out o’ on the DS remake. In the N64 version you can get up into the alcove without taking the slide @ all with well-timed jumps. The DS remake attempts to prevent this with a grated wall, but stupidly makes the grated wall passable with Invisible Luigi, who is also the character with the best jumping to be able to easily get through there.

“Blast to the Lonely Mushroom” is a much harder — & mo’ dangerous, since failure ensures death — version o’ the cannon challenges scattered ’mong “Bob-omb Battlefield”, “Whomp’s Fortress”, & “Jolly Roger Bay”. ’Course, you can also just long jump from many places on the mountain or jump off a flying Shy Guy to spin o’er to it.

In fact, I’m quite certain that’s the only way I’ve e’er gotten this star before; when I insisted on trying the cannon route while playing through this level recently, I was surprised to realize I had no idea where the cannon or cannon Bob-omb were & was surprised by how weird their placements were.

This level is 1 o’ the rare instances where its new star in the DS remake, “5 Secrets of the Mountain”, isn’t just “collect 5 silver stars” or “hit a switch & race to a certain spot”, but implements a slightly harder version o’ the challenge o’ flying through the center o’ 5 coin rings found in “Bob-omb Battlefield”. Unfortunately, unlike the other stars in this level, this star doesn’t do much to ramp the challenge up, making it feel like just a repeat. & honestly, secrets & silver stars are basically the same thing — to the point that I’m surprised the developers didn’t just replace the middle coin in the rings on both stars with silver stars like they did to the coins in “Pyramid Puzzle” from “Shifting Sand Land”.

The coin star in this level can be annoying thanks to 1 mo’ similarity to “Cool, Cool Mountain”: you need to take the slide to get 100 coins. But unlike “Cool, Cool Mountain” it’s much harder in many places to jump & collect the star after it appears on the slide, & it’s much harder to return to the main level after leaving the slide ( & impossible in the DS version ). Also, I found that every time I collect the 100-coin star on the slide, Mario falls on his belly, which makes collecting the “Mysterious Mountainside” star afterward mo’ annoying.

Pictured: me getting screwed out o’ my 100-coin star.

5. Shifting Sand Land

“Shifting Sand Land” has nothing but great star ideas, e’en if a few o’ them are implemented rather poorly. For a desert level, which oft fall into looking like bland, colorless, barren wastelands, “Shifting Sand Land” has quite a bit o’ variety & detail, such as the tiny oasis in the northwest corner. I particularly like the Sonic-like red & gold checkered blocks that make up the 4 pillars & the Eyerok boss chamber.

Outside “Shifting Sand Land” has an odd design. Tho it has a clearly-defined path, spiraling from the southwest to the southeast, up through the north into northwest through the toy-block bridge, the game doesn’t require one to go through there — & indeed, I don’t know anyone who does go through this long tedious path. But the level is not quite as open as most levels, as e’en tho one can bypass the main path, there are still hazards that one must traverse, either through well-timed jumps or using the wing cap or shell on top o’ the stone structure in the southeast section. “Shifting Sand Land” offers what many levels offer, but to the greatest extent: slow, easy paths & fast, challenging paths, which is what makes Super Mario 64 still popular with both casual players & speedrunners.

“Shifting Sand Land” starts with its strongest star, “In the Talons of the Big Bird”, which requires you to climb up 1 o’ the 4 pillars surrounding the pyramid that Klepto the Condor is approaching & jump @ it when it nears you so it drops its star. While many levels start with stars that define their levels but are long & harder than most other stars, “Shifting Sand Land” finds a balance with a star that’s relatively quick & simple, but still level-defining. That this star still involves platform challenge & a li’l puzzle-solving, while also fitting the level theme & having a li’l story to it strengthens it.

“Shining Atop the Pyramid” has the weakest concept o’ all the stars, being just a star in an alcove atop the pyramid, but it works well in execution. I would save this breather star for a bit later, tho — probably switch it with the long 3rd star.

Speaking o’ the 3rd star, “Inside the Ancient Pyramid” is the closest approximation to a “get to the end” star, challenging you to make it inside the pyramid & then while inside climb all the way to the top, going round the perimeter spiraling up — the kind o’ inverse-mountain ( with space in the center o’ the thin perimeter, rather than a mountain with space round it ) formation also seen inside the volcano o’ “Lethal Lava Land” & in “Tick Tock Clock”. I can appreciate the attempt @ creative a balance o’ linear challenge platforming without sacrificing open-ended by still allowing extra paths; howe’er, the challenges this pyramid spreads ’long its path, tho they look nice in all their details, are rarely mind-blowing & are oft slow. Contrast that with the main volcano star in “Lethal Lava Land”, which tho less intricate & interesting had mo’ challenge to it. & yet, I think I’d still prefer this level’s pyramid, since that level’s greater challenge wasn’t much to write ’bout, either.

My only real problem with the inside o’ the pyramid is that the sand is annoying: it makes it hard to jump & get back off the sand, which isn’t a challenge so much as a waste o’ time caused by deliberately gimping my controls.

“Free Flying for 8 Red Coins” is a middle-quality red-coin star: not as bad as “Lethal Lava Land’s”, but not as good as “Big Boo’s Haunt”’s or “Tick Tock Clock”’s. Also, like many other red-coin stars, it has a bit o’ a misnomer: only half the coins are in the air, while the rest are scattered in notable places. Having flight be a notable part o’ this star is strange to me: deserts usually don’t make me think o’ sky mechanics. We already saw what happens when a dumbass romhacker fell into that thinking.7 Furthermo’, this game already has ’nough coin-collecting with the wing cap in “Bob-omb Battlefield” & 2 o’ the castle secret courses. In fact, ¿why not make “Bob-omb Battlefield”, which had many lazy red-coin placements, challenge you to grab red coins in the sky? Meanwhile, I think this level has mo’ notable places to hide red coins, like in ’nother hiding place in the pyramid. This is also a case where it would’ve been great if the developers could’ve let you go back out o’ the pyramid.

“Stand Tall on the Four Pillars” is a fine idea with a slightly flawed implementation. Opening the secret entrance to the pyramid requires going onto all 4 pillars surrounding the pyramid. Howe’er, I’ve found that the game’s detection o’ such is wonky, oft requiring multiple trips back to pillars. As is typical o’ Super Mario 64, tho, you can reach the opening this secret entrance leads to through other means, tho it can be annoying. Interestingly, on the flip side, the secret entrance leads to the top o’ the pyramid, where, if one times their jump right, they can bypass almost all o’ climbing the pyramid for “Inside the Ancient Pyramid”.

This opening leads to a boss that is a pair o’ hands with a single eye on each palm: an interesting design, but a simple case o’ timing punches when they ram into you that is much simpler & much less a creative use o’ 3D space than Big Bob-omb or the Whomp King. The vast majority o’ the time, this boss is a free victory; but on very rare occasions the hit detection on their eyes don’t work & I’ve punched their eye multiple times futilely only for it to succeed @ shoving me clear off the stage. Luckily, due to the level creating a checkpoint ’pon entering the pyramid, you don’t have to redo the pillar nonsense in the case o’ this unlikely scenario.

“Pyramid Puzzle” requires you to get to the top o’ the pyramid & then jump down platforms to a sand aqueduct, collecting all the coins to find all the 5 secrets needed to make the star appear @ the end o’ the sand aqueduct. This either requires you to enter the pyramid from the top doing the 4-pillars puzzle ’gain or climb the pyramid from the bottom & basically do the “Inside the Ancient Pyramid” star ’gain. ’Cause the camera was ne’er designed to look downward, trying to jump down the rather small platforms feels like a crapshoot. The only weak star in this level, which makes it unfortunate that they saved it as its final taste in regular sequence.

The developers o’ the DS remake, in their obsession with silver stars, replaced the secret coins with silver stars. Actually, this is an improvement, since having a few random coins act as secrets makes less sense. & since they only replaced an original star with that 1, they were also able to create a switch star, “Tox Box Switch Star”, ’cause we need yet ’nother switch star. Since this is in an underutilized area, & since maneuvering the maze with the “toy boxes” in the way within a time limit is an interesting challenge, I’m fine with this iteration. It’s far from the 1st switch star I’d cull ( that would be the “Big Boo’s Haunt” 1 ).

“Shifting Sand Land”’s entrance isn’t a painting, but just a wall @ a dead end that you can jump into. Unfortunately, since I was born knowing this game, I have no idea how obscure this was. I’ve heard some complain ’bout it. Yes, it’s a dead end: but that’s not suspicious by itself, since it’s not e’en the only dead end, & anyone playing would most likely assume a dead end’s there to add to the challenge o’ grabbing MIPS the rabbit. Then ’gain, maybe the idea is that the player might accidentally dive into the “wall” while trying to dive @ MIPS & be pleasantly surprised.

I’m mo’ confused by why they’d do this for a desert level. I guess maybe they were thinking o’ mirages… ’cept it’s the opposite o’ a mirage: something’s truly there, e’en if it doesn’t look it. Maybe the graphic artists just didn’t feel like drawing a desert portrait.

4. Tiny-Huge Island

“Tiny-Huge Island” plays with the tiny-huge theme in many ways: while tiny you enter an enlarged garden & fight giant plants; dodge giant fish that threaten to eat you; race the giant Koopa, Koopa the Quick ( who, in an amusing twist on 2 general Super Mario 64 mechanics, becomes a regular small Koopa enemy in the tiny version, who you can kill for 5 coins ); enter a 2 holes in the mountain to collect red coins & battle a giant Wiggler. Meanwhile, while large you… roam round the island finding secrets in random places ( or in the DS remake, hit Klepto the Condor ). Clearly the developers had mo’ ideas for Huge Island than for Tiny Island, & I can understand why: a larger level can be full o’ crevices to hide things, while a tiny level feels unwieldy to move on, — like an adult trying to “explore” a LEGO island, only to stumble o’er everything & probably stub their toes on something — not helped by the wasplike tiny Goombas that shove you round & require perfect timing to jump on.

The perspective tricks the game plays with the 2 paintings that let you choose whether to start the level in Tiny or Huge Island wherein they look the same size & distance from the center, but reveal themselves to be a tiny painting nearby & a huge painting far ’way is brilliant.

The challenges themselves, tho all fitting the theme well, are nothing amazing, but nothing terribly-done, execution-wise. Fighting the giant piranha plants in “Pluck the Piranha Flower” & e’en fighting the Wiggler in “Make Wiggler Squirm” are just basic combat. It’s strange that such a late-game boss would require just jumping on it a few times, while the 1st boss o’ the 1st star is much trickier to deal with.

Meanwhile, we have not only the obligatory red-coin collection star, “Wiggler’s Red Coins”, but also a star gotten by collecting 5 “secrets” in 5 openings on Tiny Island, “Five Itty Bitty Secrets”. The former’s red coins are all in a cave entered through a tiny hole on Huge Island & requires quite a bit o’ platforming prowess. It’s sort o’ like the “Tall, Tall Mountain” red-coin challenge, but mo’ focused & aesthetically less impressive.

While the developers try to spice up the secret-collection star by making you do it on Tiny Island & they do a rather good job indicating the secrets with holes you should be familiar with when collecting other stars but without being too obvious, I could understand one being wary ’bout ’nothing “collect x # o’ McGuffins” in a game already ’bout collecting McGuffins as pushing it.

The developers o’ the DS remake seemed to agree with this concern, as they nix it to make 1 mo’ use o’ the otherwise single-use Klepto the Condor in a star called… “Klepto the Condor”. I guess it kind o’ fits the theme. I like the inclusion, but wish they had it as the new star for this level, rather than insist on having yet ’nother “hit a switch & race to some random spot” star, “Switch Star on the Island”, which is made worse by being in a small cave, rather than challenging you to run o’er most o’ the level.

Then ’gain, we already have a much better race star that does just that with “Rematch with Koopa the Quick”, a much better iteration than the “Bob-omb Battlefield”. After a long period after the start o’ not seeing him, it’s a pleasing call-back to see him ’gain in a late-game stage, & since he’s a huge Koopa, it fits well with the theme.

But you can’t truly describe playing “Tiny-Huge Island” by just its star-concluding challenges as, say, games with much less creative level design, like Super Mario Galaxy. A large part o’ “Tiny-Huge Island” is figuring out how to get round. This is far on the wide-open scale o’ level design; but unlike most other levels like that, which make it easy to go in whate’er direction you want, going in “Tiny-Huge Island”’s many directions isn’t so simple. While Tiny Island is easy to traverse, since Mario is big ’nough to jump o’er the whole mountain, every is so small that you can’t do anything with much o’ anything. Meanwhile, Huge Island makes everything so big that it’s that much harder to get round. Tho you need to be tiny to fight the piranha plants ’cross the water from the start, you can’t reach the high cliff while small, forcing you to get there while huge & enter 1 o’ the warp pipes to turn tiny. The only other direction open when entering the level tiny goes through a large lake, where you are threatened by an instant-kill fish, where you can go all the way down the lake to go ’long the side o’ the mountain, or take a fork @ the beach & figure out how to climb the now-steep mountain using a Koopa shell.

“Tiny-Huge Island”’s greatest weakness is its bland grassland appearance, which is a bit too similar to “Bob-omb Battlefield”’s, which was already generic, e’en for a grassland. Super Mario Bros. 3’s “Big Island” was similar, but Super Mario Bros. 3 had a much mo’ memorable & iconic aesthetic to it with all the wooden blocks, colored rounded-edge blocks with screws in them, & music blocks, so it was much less boring to look @. “Tiny-Huge Island” doesn’t e’en have any mushroom platforms; it’s just, well, grass & mountains in a game where almost every level has a mountain in it.

3. Cool, Cool Mountain

While not having the most refreshing level theme, having both a commonplace video game level theme & also sharing that theme with ’nother level, in terms o’ general challenge construction & theme cohesion almost every star in this level is excellent & memorable.

The o’erall level environment is also great. Tho it revolves round a mountain, as too many levels in this game do, “Cool, Cool Mountain”’s is 1 o’ the mo’ memorable & the 1 that most emphasizes its mountainous qualities. In fact, other than slippery physics affecting the platforming for “Wall Kicks Will Work” / “Mario’s Super Wall Kick” & all the aesthetic elements that make the level feel ’live, like penguins, the wintry house with a chimney you can enter, & the snowman hopping on the bridges, this level focuses on mountain movement mo’ than snow, which helps it stand out a bit from “Snowman Land”.

1 thing “Cool, Cool Mountain” does that no other level does is have you start @ the top & make the main path end @ the bottom. This this level’s mountain is slippery & much mo’ complex than, say, the mountain in “Bob-omb Battlefield” & closer mo’ toward the kind o’ mountain in, say, “Tall, Tall Mountain”, this was a necessary adjustment to keep this level’s difficulty fitting its early sequential position, while also having the perk o’ making it stand out from “Tall, Tall Mountain”. As I mentioned in that level’s review, “Tall, Tall Mountain” in many ways feels like a ramping-up o’ difficulty o’ much o’ what this level sets up.

’Nother perk o’ this level’s downward direction is that it offers many mo’ ways to reach the bottom: you can slide all the way down & take the bridge & go down the slopes to the bottom, you can take the secret warp @ the broken bridge near the start, or you can just jump straight down to the bottom. Similarly, this level offers many ways back up, including a li’l ski lift, the aforementioned slopes littered with snowball-throwing snowmen, & a secret warp on a broken bridge near the bottom. This level has a particularly good mix o’ having something o’ a straight path, while also having many branching off points, like the section with the fire ’bove the middle bridge or the cliffside you’re s’posed to shoot to with the cannon ( tho there are alternate ways to reach it, such as making clever use o’ the spinning glide ability you gain when you jump on a Spindrift ) that leads to the slopes & icy bridge o’ “Wall Kicks Will Work”, the 1st star that requires using the wall-jump mechanic.

Their choice for the 1st star o’ this level, “Slip Slidin’ Away” takes place inside a subroom hidden in a chimney, which the star name doesn’t hint to @ all, while all o’ the previous levels are obvious ’bout where their 1st, as well as most other stars, are. This coupled with the numerous places where you can fall off the level & into a bottomless pit makes this level the point when the game starts taking off the training wheels, in terms o’ both raw difficulty & the need to learn how to explore without the game holding your hand & telling you exactly what to do. & yet, the star heavily telegraphs what you should do, anyway, for the chimney is highlighted by a line o’ yellow coins that stand out gainst the white snow right @ the beginning o’ the level, & which are virtually impossible to get without falling into the chimney. Unfortunately, I can’t remember my 1st experience playing this level; — & if I had to guess ’twas probably watching someone else who already knew the level playing it — but I wouldn’t be surprised if a high % o’ players started this level by jumping into that chimney simply from how noticeable its coins are & the natural urge to collect them.

The other thing the player may notice near the start o’ the level is the baby penguin waddling round. In fact, the player may be mo’ likely to investigate it before the chimney with its coins, since its moving. Trying to interact with it will quickly reveal that one can pick it up, but not what else to do with it. One may either explore the rest o’ the level with it & ’ventually reach the bottom, where they will find the giant penguin & put 2 & 2 together or take the slide down & collect the 1st star, where they will also find the giant penguin, & will put the pieces together e’en mo’ when they see the next star name, “Li’l Penguin Lost”.

Many familiar with this game know that there is ’nother baby closer to the mother who will elicit an angry response from the mother if you try to give it to her10. But I would not be surprised if there are many who aren’t, & I know, despite it being closer to the mother, I definitely don’t recognize it as much as the real baby near the beginning. Once you see that 1st baby it gets locked into your mind, while that other baby gets thrown @ the end as “that other baby that’s not the 1 @ the start”.

The 3rd star, “Big Penguin Race”, would probably be confusing to new players, as the logical assumption would be that it refers to the giant mother penguin @ the bottom o’ the level, to whom the player has just returned the baby. In fact, since one has already ridden the slide down to the bottom &, from appearances, have explored everything that subarea has, the player is unlikely to return. Only as a last resort after exploring everything else or the tenuous connection o’ “race” & the slide might clue to someone that the slide has changed since they 1st rode it. I feel this is a bit unfair & that perhaps the star name should’ve clued the player in mo’ that it is on the slide: “Big Penguin Race Down the Slide”.

Other than that, it’s a useful evolution to the 1st star’s challenge, forcing the player to not only make it to the bottom without falling into a pit, but also do so quickly & without taking any shortcuts. It’s also a way to use a feature o’ penguins, their proclivity for sliding on their bellies, in a way that affects challenges, rather than just a particular paint o’er what might work for any animals, such as the baby & mother penguins, which could have been bears & would’ve still made sense.

“Frosty Slide for 8 Red Coins” is this level’s weakest star, which demonstrates how good this level is, ’cause it’s not too bad a star in itself. The red coin placements aren’t the most inspired, but they’re not as lazy as, say, “Bob-omb Battlefield”’s or “Lethal Lava Land”’s. None o’ “Cool, Cool Mountain”’s are right next to each other a’least. Honestly, the only good location is the 1 near the corner round the edge, which challenges the player to make precise movements on slippery ground to avoid falling off the level, & in the DS remake, the 1 encased in ice to use Yoshi’s mostly pointless firebreath ability ( but I’d rather have it usurp 1 o’ “Cool, Cool Mountain”’s unimpressive red-coin positions than a well-crafted star, as in “Snowman’s Land” ). If anything, the star placement just after a broken bridge requiring a precise long jump is mo’ interesting than any o’ the coin placements.

“Snowman’s Lost His Head” is a twist on the penguin race: you need to race ’head o’ the rolling head, but you can’t take a shortcut, not ’cause it’s “cheating”, which the snowman wouldn’t care ’bout, but ’cause you’re s’posed to be leading it. The path is shorter & wider, with safe ground ’neath; but you have to stand in a certain place @ the end to lead the head to the body — simply beating the head to the body won’t suffice.

“Switch Star of Cool, Cool Mountain”, the DS remake’s extra star, is actually a good use o’ their o’erused timed switch star. Unlike most levels, where the switch star is just thrown in some forgettable place, this star is under the ice ’neath the mother penguin, which Wario needs to ground pound to break: a unique interaction that makes use o’ the underused Wario & fits the ice theme. Wario needs to take the ski-lift up to the switch, which is easy, & then race down, which is much mo’ challenging.

While “Cool, Cool Mountain” ramps up the difficulty from the 3 preceding levels ( & the level after it, actually ) a bit, its 100-coin star eases things by putting mo’ than half the coins you need on the slide.

2. Wet-Dry World

“Wet-Dry World” is similar to “Tiny-Huge Island” in that it revolves round a creative new gimmick to spice up exploring a level whose main star challenges are otherwise hit-&-miss. The difference is that “Wet-Dry World”’s challenges are a bit fresher & mo’ creative than “Tiny-Huge Island”’s & its aesthetics are much better.

“Wet-Dry World” mixes a water & urban/electric theme in a way I don’t think I’ve seen in any other game ’cept Sonic 3’s “Hydrocity Zone”. That the skybox is not a generic city, but a particular Italian-style city makes it e’en mo’ refreshing & helps add a bit o’ color to a level that otherwise is mostly gray blocks.

The way “Wet-Dry World” implements its gimmick allowing you to choose how high or low the water is, from nearly flooding the whole area to being all gone, based on both how high you enter the painting & touching the weird rainbow diamonds scattered round the level, is much mo’ creative than “Tiny-Huge Island”’s. Like that level, some stars in this level require the water to be @ certain levels, such as “Secrets in the Shallows & Sky” ( “5 Secrets in the Shallows & Sky” in the DS remake ) & “Express Elevator‐‐Hurry Up!”8 requiring the level to be dry & other stars require going back & forth, such as the downtown stars requiring you to raise the water to the top to reach downtown & then lower it to completely dry to get all the red coins or hit the invisible cap block to reach the gated-off star9.

For other stars, tho, like “Shocking Arrow Lifts!” & “Top o’ the Town”, the obligatory “get to the top o’ the level” star, you can get the star @ most water heights, but it’s much easier with the water higher up. ’Course, getting the water higher up requires either timing your jump so that you enter @ the very top, which can be harder than you might think, or climbing to the top o’ the level to set it higher, which negates the whole advantage.

In short, “Wet-Dry World” is a level that gives the player a lot o’ leeway, but forces them to trade platforming challenges for brainwork to figure out these bypasses.

Like “Tiny-Huge Island”, “Wet-Dry World” has both a red-coin collection star, “Go to Town for Red Coins” ( “Go to Town for the Red Coins” in the DS remake ), & a 5-secrets star, “Secrets in the Shallows & Sky” ( “5 Secrets in the Shallows & Sky” in the DS remake ); & like that level, the red coins are isolated in a 2nd area to make them less repetitive. The DS remake also adds a star challenging you to collect 5 silver stars in the main area, which is very redundant. I guess the developers o’ the remake didn’t want to use a timed switch star as they did in “Tiny-Huge Island” ’cause this level already has a timed star using the invisible cap for “Quick Race Through Downtown!” & it would’ve killed the developers to come up with an actually original idea. While “Tiny-Huge Island”’s secrets are found in openings, “Wet-Dry World”’s are found by shoving metal blocks. I think “Tiny-Huge Island”’s is a bit mo’ logical & works better, as it involves level pieces you encounter normally in other stars, whereas the metal blocks in “Wet-Dry World” are otherwise irrelevant pieces. Still, I’m glad “Wet-Dry World” did something to make their secret star different from “Tiny-Huge Island”’s while still having some pattern to them.

Howe’er, I think “Wet-Dry World”’s red-coin star is better, & is 1 o’ the better 1s in the game. The red coins are call placed in downtown, a place full o’ buildings begging for exploration, giving the coins a coherence, but there’s more o’ an exploration element to having to find the red coins, ’specially those hiding in cork/brick boxes, while still keeping the platforming challenges, while “Tiny-Huge Island”’s are just in plain sight.

“Quick Race Through Downtown!” is probably “Wet-Dry World”’s weakest star, tho it’s not terrible. Downtown is constructed in a way that makes it easy to get lost in, but the path from the invisible cap box to the gated-off area is still not very complex. Once your inside the gated area, you just need to do some simple jumps up platforms with li’l punishment if you fall. It would’ve been nice if they could’ve gated off the star box @ the top so you had to climb the platforms before the cap ran out, too.

“Express Elevator‐‐Hurry Up!” with its dumbass bootleg em dash is middling, trading platforming challenges with a “puzzle” that is mainly just going back & forth, doing it multiple times if you miss a step. You have to climb up to the top o’ the level to lower the elevator so you can ride it back up ’gain, a clever way to force the player to climb the level without using the water level as a crutch. I would’ve preferred it make you wall jump up the cage to get the star rather than just jump on the elevator & stand there for a couple seconds doing nothing. Furthermo’, in the original N64 version you have to make sure you break the cork block in front o’ the cage before climbing up or you’ll have to do it all o’er ’gain to reach the elevator. Someone must’ve been annoyed by that, as the developers removed the block in the DS remake. It doesn’t add any challenge other than a gotcha trap, so I can’t say I miss its exclusion.

“Wet-Dry World” is a “breather level”, ’specially compared to the level that comes after it sequentially, “Tall, Tall Mountain”, which is a noticeable difficulty spike. Howe’er, all the clever quirks this level throws @ you keeps that easiness from being boring & forgettable.

1. Tick Tock Clock

“Tick Tock Clock” is a common target o’ criticism by scribblers o’ “Worst Mario Levels” listicles not for any lack o’ creativity or intuition o’ design but simply ’cause it’s a hard level near the end o’ the game — where hard levels belong — & for some reason people who consider themselves serious critics consider it logical to rank anything they can’t beat ( or e’en just have to put effort into beating ) as terrible without putting any effort into distinguishing valid & invalid difficulty11.

“Tick Tock Clock” may be the apex o’ challenge-based level design in a game that, mo’ than probably any other Mario game12, traded challenge-based level design for mo’ explorative environmental level design. Only the Bowser levels compete with it in that regard; but while those levels match these traditional challenge-based designs with traditional linear designs, “Tick Tock Clock” manages to stay challenge-based while allowing mo’ directional freedom, which is necessary to maintain the multiple star mechanic13.

“Tick Tock Clock” also has a refreshingly rare level theme for a game that too oft stuck to traditional grassland, water, lava, desert, & snow themes with its clock tower theme. Best o’ all, every 1 o’ “Tick Tock Clock”’s well-crafted challenge employs many mechanics that all snugly fit this theme: conveyor belts, wire cages, moving hands you can ride, rotating triangle platforms, moving pendulums you must dodge… weird platforms that push out & in, which with their wired textures look like the belong to the tower, but I don’t know what they would be used for in an actual clock, & rotating knobs which act as platforms.

This is also 1 o’ the nicer looking levels, whose simpler, mechanical textures are less harmed by the N64’s notorious texture blurring that they for some reason considered a feature14, ’specially in the original N64 version with its colorful celedon fog totally not used to hide the N64’s poor draw distance.

“Tick Tock Clock” also has a clever, unique gimmick in the form o’ letting you control how fast the clock’s setpieces move ( or if they move @ all ) by jumping into the clock face entrance while the second hand is @ a certain point. While almost all stars require the clock to be moving ( without extremely tricky maneuvering a’least ) & 1 star heavily encourages stopping the clock, none o’ the stars care how fast the clock moves. Perhaps that’s for the best, as the game doesn’t spell-out all the speeds the clock runs @ & how to get each, so it may be a frustrating case o’ trial-&-error trying to get a certain moving speed. ’Sides, the freedom o’ different speeds creates a great risk/reward trade for those who want the level to be easier vs. those who want it faster. ¿Have I mentioned that this game is remarkably popular with both casual players & speedrunners?

This level is 1 o’ the few times the DS remake improved it mo’ than ruined it by adding extra mechanics that make each star’s challenge stand out mo’. While the N64 version’s “Roll into the Cage” just involves jump into a li’l alcove that leads to a cage, the DS remake’s renamed “Luigi in the Cage” challenges you to get the invisible cap as Luigi to move through the cage bars into the cage, emphasizing the cage as something mo’ than just a solid wall. It’s also a nice detail, encouraging you to dip your toes into “Tick Tock Clock”’s platforming with the character with the best jumping skills, while challenging you to use the character with the worst jumping abilities in late-level star “Timed Jumps on Moving Bars”. The DS remake adds a timed switch to “The Pit and the Pendulums” so you have to wave round the swinging pendulums quickly. Since this star is actually in an interesting, meaningful location ( it was there before the switch, after all ), this is 1 o’ the few good timed switch stars the DS remake added.

Hell, the DS remake implementing their other o’erused new star idea, collecting 5 silver stars, doesn’t e’en feel that bad in this level, since the red coins are kept to a small area o’ the level, so exploring the rest o’ the level for other McGuffins doesn’t feel as redundant as this star in most levels.

The only way the DS remake made this level worse — other than removing the celedon fog, which makes the level look brown & less spooky & colorful — is by removing the rotating triangle platforms, presumably just to make the level easier — as if Luigi’s godlike backflip float didn’t do that ’nough.

The most notorious star in in this level is the innocuously-named “Stomp on the Thwomp”, this level’s obligatory “get to the top” star, commonly considered the hardest star in the game for that very reason. I only wish ’twas the 2nd-to-last star, rather than being near the middle, seemingly arbitrarily. I’d be curious to know what the thought process was to most o’ these levels’ star placements.

I do like that “Stop Time for Red Coins”, the breather star, is @ the end. ’Course, it’s only a breather if you follow the star’s advice & stop time. You can collect all 8 red coins while the platforms are flipping round, & you may want to if you want to double dip into the 100-coin star.

There’s very li’l negative I can say ’bout this level. Literally the worst thing in this level are a few invisible walls that only exist in the original N64 version due to accidental bugs — not e’en a deliberate design decision — & that bloody “Slider” song that plays everywhere. Meanwhile, it has all the ingredients o’ a great Super Mario 64 levels: a refreshing level theme, a creative gimmick, a balance o’ explorative, believable environment & well-crafted challenges, & a variety o’ mechanics that all cohere to the level’s theme. Game critics should spend less time bitching ’bout how they suck @ this level & mo’ time studying how to make a level this well-constructed.

“Tick Tock Clock” is not only the best level in Super Mario 64, it’s also probably its most iconic, helped by its level theme being the most stand-out. Notably, whene’er Super Mario 64 gets referenced in other games it’s usually “Tick Tock Clock”, as in Mario Kart DS or Mario Party 3, with maybe only “Rainbow Ride” ( the only other stand-out level theme ) as the competitor, being its representation in Super Smash Bros.

Honorable Mentions: Bonus Levels

I didn’t want to rank these, since they’re too different from main levels to be comparable — like comparing bananas to coconuts — but I still wanted to talk ’bout it ’cause I’m Scott McCloud & I can’t stop talking.

The Secret Aquarium

( Laughs ). ¿Why’d I include this? This is baby’s 1st level: a cube with red coins in the most obvious places. Some might defend this as a tutorial to swimming; but it’s not as if “Jolly Roger Bay”’s water is full o’ sharks or there’s a time limit looming o’er the player: they can practice all they want in that level.

If this level succeeds @ anything, it’s as a demonstration to an all-too-common pitfall that can come if one falls into the delusion that making good easy levels is easy: easy levels should ne’er be boring or thoughtless, but should find ways to intrigue players without threatening them with punishment for doing things “wrong”.

O well, a’least the level looks nice by Super Mario 64 standards — specially the windows tinted with different colors.

Tower of the Wing Cap

One may make fun o’ this as a tutorial level, since it’s harder than “Bob-omb Battlefield”’s wing-cap challenges; but there are 2 aspects that make this defensible: 1, falling doesn’t actually make you lose a life, it just kicks you out o’ the level, & mercifully, right back @ the entrance, rather than way out @ the waterfall, like in a certain level; 2, it’s a bonus stage, so it’s allowed to be harder, e’en this early in the game.

These stages also fall apart in the DS remake, which simply has 1 switch & 1 color o’ switch blocks, but differs which power-up you get with each character. This is an interesting idea implemented badly, thanks to the developers being too lazy to adjust the many parts o’ this game that clearly relies on there being different switches. I already complained ’bout how “Collect the Caps” was butchered thanks to this change making the original puzzle impossible, but I think these levels get it worse.

¿How much has this stage been broken by this change? ¿You know how you start this stage, as well as every other cap stage, with that cap’s power-up — in this case, the wing cap, already flying o’er empty air? Well, ¿what happens when you enter with someone other than Mario? They can’t have wing caps, after all — that would break the whole idea o’ segregating power-ups by character. The outcome is obvious: all other characters don’t get any wing cap & just fall straight down & get kicked right out.

Since there is only 1 switch in the DS remake, none o’ the other cap stages have switches… the whole reason these stages exist in the 1st place.

Peach’s Secret Slide

Like the wing-cap stage, this stage would be a great introduction to slides without the risk o’ death for falling in a pit, with the secret ( but still intuitive ) extra star for getting a good time on the conspicuous timer they give you ( ¿what player wouldn’t see that timer & think, “Clearly the developers want me to get the best time I can”? ) as a great dessert. Howe’er, like the aquarium stage, this is ruined by the fact that you’ve already likely tried the slide in “Cool, Cool Mountain”, which also has ’nother star based on winning a race — tho this could also act as a hint toward the secret slide’s 2nd star.

Sunshine Isles ( DS Remake only )

Cool Super Mario Sunshine call-back, I guess. Too bad they decided to weaken it with yet ’nother “collect 5 silver stars” challenge & made the level’s design so threadbare I have li’l to say ’bout it.

Goomboss Swamp ( DS Remake only )

I actually don’t know what this level is called. The Mario Wiki calls it “Goomboss Battle”, which is a nonsensical name for a level that I refuse to dignify.

This is unquestionably the coolest new level that the DS remake offers, & the only 1 other than maybe “The Battle Fort” with a unique theme, a woodsy swamp. I like it so much that I wished the developers took less time making pointless levels like “Sunshine Isles” & adding silver star & switch star challenges everywhere & ’stead developed this level into a main level.

The layout is particularly interesting: an open maze, like “Lethal Lava Land”, but far mo’ complex & twisted together. Its vertical focus & the level’s o’erall focus on Mario ( since it’s where you rescue him ) also makes it the only level where Mario’s vore power-up isn’t completely dumb. I e’en like the switch star, which challenges you to be able to do Mario’s wall jumps quickly, which fits with this level’s vertical & Mario-focused theme & makes greater use o’ wall jumps, which are surprisingly not required much in Super Mario 64.

I don’t like how the you need to have unlocked all characters to collect all the red coins, tho, since it makes it likely you’ll go for them beforeso & only later realize you’re screwed.

The Battle Fort ( DS Remake only )

I think this was just a multiplayer level they threw in to pad the remake’s star count, using yet ’nother “collect 5 silver stars” star. It’s surprisingly challenging for its position, specially being near probably the easiest main level in the game, “Big Boo’s Haunt”. But it’s a small level with a small, simple task, & players can avoid most o’ the dangers by going round them.

Big Boo’s Battle ( DS Remake only )

& then when it came to the levels in which you rescue Luigi & Wario the developers got lazy & just reused assets. This “level” could easily just be a section in “Big Boo’s Haunt”. It’s also the weakest rescue levels, since it’s main challenge is a trial-&-error maze where you have to go through the right door or you’ll be warped back to the start. That’s way too much cornfielding, e’en for a fructose-syrup-blooded American.

The mirror mechanic o’ the boss is far mo’ interesting that just ’bout any other boss in this game, tho, & the race to the boo portrait while invisible is probably the best use o’ the invisibility cap. It’s a shame that with such good challenges the level layout itself is nothing worth writing ’bout.

’Cause the level is so small & has nothing to it, the red coins are in arbitrary places, ’cept 1 @ the end that’s under a black brick just so the game can hackily require you to have Wario to get the star. If you didn’t magically guess that you needed Wario before collecting the 1st 7, have fun collecting them all ’gain.

Vanish Cap Under the Moat

I’m surprised this is the 1st time I’ve realized that this level does nothing with the invisible cap ’cept expect you to go inside a cage @ the end to get the red coin star. Otherwise it’s just trying to aim @ red coins on your way down a steep slope using a camera that clearly wasn’t crafted for downward movement, dodging easily dodgeable fire-spitters & Amps & jumping on rotating platforms.

I think this level should also be a great example o’ how claims that later Mario games have so much mo’ “mature” level design is bullshit15, ’cause I swear I’ve seen a level just like this in Super Mario 3D World with the same trite challenge o’ collecting red coins on rotating platforms, something that works just as well in 2D & I’d already done in 2D in many games before this that it bewilders me that the developers would think I’d want to do it yet ’gain in a different genre, much less that developers continued doing this shit up into the 2010s.

The DS remake adds a side section with the 1000th iteration o’ their switch star, which you can float to as Mario ( or someone wearing his cap ) with Mario’s vore power-up, his alternate power-up to the wing cap which he has in certain stages. This is Galaxy-grade level design, with a section so irrelevant it could be in any level &, in fact, by the use o’ a completely different power-up than the 1 on which the stage was built to focus, goes completely gainst the level theme.

Cavern of the Metal Cap

See, now this sucks as a bonus, ’cause it’s stupidly easy — tho perhaps that’s a good thing, since this deep in the basement, if you do find yourself falling into a coma & letting yourself get swept into the waterfall, you will receive a fate worse than death: being warped all the way outside, like Johnny Bravo to the cornfield in that “The Good Life” parody. So the waterfall “threat” isn’t dangerous — it’s just stupid.

Like many red coin stars in this game, half the red coins actually involve this level’s metal cap theme & the rest are in random places. & since this is a tiny, simple, linear level, there aren’t any interesting places to put them, so they’re in just ’bout the only places you could put them without being completely idiotic. It says something ’bout this stage that getting to it from “Hazy Maze Cave” is far mo’ interesting than the level itself.

If you loved becoming vore Mario in the invisible cap stage in the DS remake, this level also fulfills your fetish by placing a star way up ’bove where the switch used to be & letting you slowly float up. That’s it. I guess since this was a much simpler, easier level than the invisible-cap stage it deserved a simpler, easier implementation o’ vore Mario. Actually, it didn’t deserve yet ’nother implementation o’ vore Mario ’cause it’s a dumb mechanic that doesn’t add anything & slops all o’er the “every character gets their own power-up from the switch blocks” by arbitrarily giving Mario 2 different power-ups. I guess they decided that horizontal flying was useless in this stage, & many o’ the other stages that give Mario balloon powers ’stead; but invisible Luigi is useless in this stage, too, & fire-breathing Yoshi is useless just ’bout everywhere, & I don’t see the developers giving them vore power-ups anywhere.

Chief Chilly Challenge ( DS Remake only )

Adding a 3rd ice level pushes it. & yet, I must credit the developers with coming up with some fresh ideas like the moving block formations & the use o’ wind, including the unique need to use Wario’s metal cap to cross a thin passageway without being blown off.

Red coin placements also seem to create a variety without feeling arbitrary. I don’t know how I feel ’bout the 1 on an island high up in the air requiring vore Mario, which is clearly just ’nother way to force the player to have all 3 players to get the red coin star. Then ’gain, ¿is it e’en possible for the player to unlock Wario without already having Mario & Luigi ’cept for using an obscure wall-clip glitch?

The boss is just yet ’nother bully enemy, but you need to knock them into the freezing water 3 times & they make the huge arena slightly smaller after each hit. Definitely the weakest o’ the new bosses.

“Chief Chilly Challenge” has the most interesting entrance o’ the 3 character-unlock levels, being hidden ’hind the mirror in the room where the “Snowman’s Land” entrance is, which requires you to grab a power flower with Luigi so you become invisible & can move through the mirror.

Wing Mario Over the Rainbow

I want to bash this level ’cause I always hated it as a kid, since it’s so unforgiving. But I have to admit, it is a well-crafted evolution on the challenge the wing-cap stage introduces near the beginning o’ the game — & it is a bonus stage, so one has no right to complain. & let’s face it: compared to collecting 100 purple coins o’er platforms that break or rotate within a time limit, like in Super Mario Galaxy16, flying round for just 8 red coins is tame.

The way the developers constructed what I can only call a web o’ cloud platforms connected by rainbows maintains coherence to the level, while still subtly creating puzzles for the player. They start in the middle & can only go down from there, with a lower-middle & bottom platform holding cannons & the cannon-opening Bob-omb @ the bottom. To get up from the bottom you need to use the bottom cannon & to get up into the higher-up areas, you need to use the middle platform. Getting from platform to platform pretty much requires the wing cap ’cept in certain circumstances with excellent aiming, & the wing cap only lasts so long; & while most platforms have a switch block, the middle cannon platform doesn’t, which means you can’t take fore’er to decide where you want to aim your shot. Then the developers added variety by adding vines sticking out o’ the topmost cloud with a red coin on it.

Truly what makes this level most annoying is that, like with the metal-cap stage, falling off doesn’t kill you, which would allow you an easy way to jump back into the level & try ’gain, but cornfields you à la Johnny Bravo all the way back outside & makes you go all the way back inside & back up to the top floor to try ’gain.

Also, some o’ the cloud platforms are transparent & aren’t platforms @ all, but just make you fall thru them. If I can’t stand on them, they should just be empty air, like everything else that I can’t step on — that’s kind o’ what empty air is for. If I see a transparent cloud, I’m just going to think that it’s a decoration to make it look different, not that that means this cloud is not a platform, but… has no reason to exist other than to trick me into thinking it’s a platform, since it doesn’t make any mo’ sense for me to be able to stand on opaque clouds.

Bowser in the Dark World

1 o’ the reasons I wanted to talk ’bout these side stages is I wanted to talk ’bout the Bowser levels &, mo’ importantly, qualify some o’ the complaints I had ’bout the o’erly linear main stages in this game or in the Super Mario Galaxy games. One might get the erroneous idea that I hate linear levels by principle, which is false: what I hate are linear levels twisted into something they don’t fit. The Bowser stages in this game or, say, the average stage in Super Mario 3D Land or World work ’cause they’re built to be linear levels. Part o’ that is that they have 1 goal, with some extra goals you can accomplish while you’re going after the main goal, so, if you’re good, you don’t have to redo shit. But in “Rainbow Ride”, e’en if you ne’er die, you have to redo shit ’cause you have to get 7 stars. In short, a corollary to my point that the multiple-goal system works perfectly for open-oriented explorative levels is that it only works for these type o’ levels & just falls apart into something terrible for linear levels. “Rainbow Ride”, as well as most levels in Super Mario Galaxy, should’ve been split into multiple levels, since that’s what they essentially are.

These Bowser levels also prove that not only does Galaxy “fail” @ open-oriented explorative level design ( it actually doesn’t e’en try, being a collectathon that’s embarrassed to be a collectathon ), it’s worse @ linear level design than Super Mario 64. One could make the point that Nintendo’s developers “finally” came to their senses when Super Mario 3D Land came round & they stopped pretending their levels had multiple missions & were not just different levels awkwardly squeezed into 1, but which magically changes on different missions, but just had different levels that worked better for linear design; but Super Mario 64 proves that the developers already knew how to do this way back in their 1st collectathon. Despite critics’ complaints ’bout Super Mario 64 being “backward” ’cause its level design is just too unfocused, these Bowser stages prove that Super Mario 64 was able to make levels that were linearly-focused & involved evolving challenges just as much as Galaxy — better, e’en, since unlike Galaxy, these don’t shoehorn in multiple stars, but just 1 secret star you can get on your way to the main goal.

These Bowser levels go the Yoshi’s Island route o’ difficulty by making just getting to the end much easier than going to the trouble o’ getting all the red coins — tho this is dampened much mo’ than Yoshi’s Island, which made you collect many mo’ collectables & made just getting to the end hardly a challenge @ all. For instance, the 1st flamethrower is only truly a threat if you insist on hitting the switch & going out onto the switch-generated cork bridges to collect their red coins — & e’en then only if you didn’t unlock the metal cap ( which is likely if you hate backtracking, since it’s impossible to do before simply beating this level ). Similarly, most o’ the area surrounding the weight platforms near the end can be ignored if you’re not after red coins.

Tho this level is linear in terms o’ getting to the main goal, there is 1 branch to get a red coin midway thru, which involves probably the 1st real challenge o’ crossing a thin beam with this game’s terrible controls. That is, if you’re as incompetent as I have been for most o’ my life & didn’t realize, as I only did recently, that you can mo’ easily long jump from & to the platform before the sliding platforms.

I know the Bowser battle is iconic & is a clever use o’ 3D… but it’s rather badly implemented. For 1, Bowser’s tail has a terrible hitbox. Half the time I dive for it Mario just goes straight thru it right into Bowser’s colon. But the worst problem is just that it’s repetitive, with 2 mo’ iterations that don’t add much to the challenge.

“Bowser in the Dark World” actually looks rather nice for a Super Mario 64 level, particularly the crystal passageway whose shape is crystal-like, constantly widening & thinning.

The entrance to “Bowser in the Dark World” is memorable for leading to a seemingly innocent Peach portrait, only for that portrait to transform into Bowser halfway through the hall, & then for the floor under Mario to open, causing him to fall into a trap entrance. It’s a fun surprise since it gives the player what they came for, anyway, rather than screwing them for not being a fortune teller.

Bowser in the Fire Sea

1 genuine complaint one could give to Super Mario 64’s level design is its bad difficulty curve, which is only made-up for by the freedom it gives you to skip levels & the fact that this difficulty curve problem usually only leads to levels way too easy for their placement, like “Big Boo’s Haunt”, which is probably the easiest level in the game, being the 5th stage — which requires mo’ stars to unlock than the 1st Bowser level & the 2nd area — or “Wet-Dry World”, which is easy ’nough to be a 1st-area level, being in the 3rd area. The only exception is “Cool, Cool Mountain”, which is a bit hard for how early you will likely stumble into it.

But Bowser stages, which are mandatory to gain progress, are an exception to the 1st point, but not the 2nd. While players may find the 1st Bowser stage quite challenging after the easy-going levels in the 1st area, they will be surprised to find the 2nd Bowser stage… is actually easier than the 1st Bowser stage.

The key problem is that this level replaces the bottomless pits all round the 1st Bowser stage with lava, which hurts you, but doesn’t kill you instantly. To dampen this e’en mo’, this level has a whopping 2 spinning hearts that can infinitely heal you ( in fact, due to a quirk o’ how they work, they can also let you temporarily bounce in lava without getting hurt, which is a great way to skip the generic platforming ’tween the 1st heart & the pole ’bove it ).

The red coins aren’t too hard to get, either. There’s certainly nothing close to as difficult as the 2 red coins @ the beginning o’ “Bowser in the Dark World”, with the tight time limit for the 1st & the flamethrower threatening to shove you off the stage for the 2nd. The hardest red coins to get in this level are the 1 in front o’ a flamethrower o’er platforms with lava rising & falling round it, which is on the way to the main goal, anyway, & some side area with zigzagging thin walkways — nothing you didn’t face in the 1st Bowser level. Indeed, most o’ the red coins are simply on the way, & get as easy as jumping into a nonthreatening corner o’ a box. The 3rd most “threatening” red coin is 1 that simply makes you let an elevator rise without you & jump down to get it, forcing you to climb back up ’gain ( which is lame padding, by the way ).

“Bowser in the Fire Sea” also has the stupidest Bowser fight e’er, involving a Bowser who has apparently magically developed teleportation powers, which you have no control o’er & just wastes your time.

Bowser in the Sky

This level is the most visually-appealing this game e’er gets, bringing in rare pinks & purples, with a variety o’ bright colors & patterns on its various platforms — a reprieve from this game’s flood o’ basic greens, blues, & browns that look like they could all come from a 16-crayon box.

This also has Super Mario 64’s linear level design @ its cleverest, with plenty o’ platforming puzzles involving moveable blocks, Whomps in tricky positions, & plenty o’ rotating platforms — all while offering many mo’ challenging ways to bypass parts to speed things up. For instance, this level has a horizontal elevator section reminiscent o’ “Rainbow Ride”; but whereas that level has you go down large gaps full o’ nothing so that you have no choice but to stand & wait, this level’s version has so many blocks that you’re s’posed to “dodge” that a clever player could realize that they could just jump from block to block & skip the slow elevator.

Possibly 1 o’ the most insulting design choices the developers o’ the DS remake implemented ( ’sides maybe having controls so asinine I can make my character walk in figure-8s by just holding a single direction on the crosspad ) is only allowing Mario to beat the final level. This whole remake makes a point o’ opening the game up to multiple characters & has you start as Yoshi, who needs to save Mario’s ass in the 1st place, ¿but the game denies you the right to beat the game with any o’ the others? & all ’cause Bowser just arbitrarily decides so, which just breaks logic on its head. These doors requiring a certain # o’ stars is s’posed to be, you know, gainst Bowser’s control ’cause if Bowser did have control o’er them he would’ve just made them impossible to open & made it impossible to beat him. If Bowser can just randomly say, “Nope, you can’t pass this part ’less you’re Mario”, ¿why can’t he just say, “Nope, you can’t pass this part”, period?

But I can’t talk ’bout “Bowser in the Sky” without reminding everyone o’ its memorable entrance — or rather, the way it prevented you from entering if you haven’t gotten 70 stars: not by refusing to open the door, but by making the staircase past the door go on fore’er while creepy Shepard tone music plays.

I’ve read complaints that the DS remake ruins it, thanks to the touchscreen map, which reveals that Mario just keeps warping back a meter or so. ¿Why didn’t they just make it so the map doesn’t show during this section?

& finally, perhaps the best level in the whole game…

Peach’s Castle

While 3D Mario fans disagree on what the best 3D Mario game is, e’en those who prefer later Mario 3D games usually admit that Peach’s Castle was the best hub world. While Super Mario Sunshine made a valiant attempt with “Isle Delfino”, which is, to be fair, a strong contender, Super Mario Galaxy abysmally failed with its space station full o’ pod rooms, which both lacked variety & coherency @ the same time; & after that Super Mario Galaxy 2 & Super Mario Odyssey just didn’t e’en bother to try.

Like the o’erworld in the 1st Zelda game, 1 o’ the things that makes “Peach’s Castle” strong is that it’s surprisingly small, certainly by today’s standards. But they still managed to pack it with numerous secrets & bonuses: rabbits for you to catch for stars, a secret underwater tunnel that leads to a secret lower door outside in which you can drain the moat, light coming from a high window that warps you to a secret stage, as well as many other secret bonus level entrances. & as my many level analyses showed, many levels had their own quirkly level entrances. & it did this all without getting in the way o’ the player getting from level to level. Contrast that with many modern games with huge worlds with nothing to do in them but hold forward.

Posted in Great Stages, Sucky Stages, Video Games

Great Stages: “Bramble Scramble” & “Screech’s Sprint” ( Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest )

Bramble Scramble

“Bramble Scramble” is 1 o’ those levels like “Tick-Tock Clock”, “Rusty Bucket Bay”, “Grunty Industries”, & the F.L.U.D.D.-less challenges in Super Mario Sunshine that some people hate on simply ’cause it’s hard, not due to genuine design flaws that make difficulty unfair or tedious.

“Bramble Scramble” is lucky in that it gets the least criticism ’mong this list, probably thanks to its aesthetics. Anyone reading this is probably already familiar with Donkey Kong Country 2’s famous bramble theme1 — an uncommon level theme — & the serene symphony music that contrasts with these areas’ reputation for difficulty. This juxtaposition hadn’t been done much @ that time, — the closest I can think o’ is the Lost Levels title screen music in Super Mario All-Stars — probably due to Donkey Kong Country 2’s particular era o’ gaming & its relationship to difficulty. During the NES & early SNES era, video games in general were just difficult with not much focus on certain games being hard & others easy. As for its particular relationship to difficulty, the Donkey Kong Country series had a steep difficulty curve, making it easier to emphasize hard levels. Unlike Lost Levels, where every level is hard, or Kirby games, where everything is easy, Donkey Kong Country 2 could have easily made the easy levels have “Stickerbrush Symfony”; the choice to not do so is conspicuous.

But a good level isn’t just aesthetics ( message to those who call Tropical Freeze’s “Grassland Groove” — or truly just any level from that game — the greatest level in the whole series ). After all, the 1st bramble level, “Bramble Blast”, is not mentioned in this article title. Anyone who has played it will know why: it’s something o’ a slog that requires you to shoot yourself from barrel cannon to barrel cannon mo’ than 30 times. It’s not a terrible level; but the fact that this is, essentially, a gimmick already well-worn in the 1st game & the fact that this level sticks a bit too closely to its gimmick, like a Donkey Kong Country 3 level, knocks it quite a bit down from “great stage” level. Similarly, “Animal Antics” isn’t nearly as bad as people say ( in fact, its wind section is far better than “Gusty Glade” or “Windy Well”’s; a’least “Animal Antic”’s wind follows a consistent pattern so that if you know it, it’s impossible for the game to suddenly zip you by surprise ); but take ’way the wind & it’s just a generic, half-implemented “Bramble Scramble”. & that’s just 1 part o’ the level. ¿Does anyone remember any o’ the other sections o’ that level nearly as well? No, ’cause mo’ than half o’ that level is just Rambi & Enguarde charging through everything & Squitter being able to just skip everything ’cause he can basically fly.

Pictured: “Bramble Blast” in a nutshell.

In contrast, “Bramble Scramble” avoids the polar extremes o’ “Bramble Blast” & “Animal Antics”: it’s much better @ creating variety by interweaving breaks in the main Squawks theme o’ the level with on-ground sections, but still feels like a cohesive level. Succeeding @ both o’ these seemingly opposite ideals is done by having 2 themes: the general bramble theme, which fills the whole level, & the mo’ specific squawks theme, which gets breaks. & peppered throughout are e’en smaller themes, like dealing with Krooks on land, on rope, & on Squawks, or Zinger formations.

In particular, “Bramble Scramble” holds 2 sets o’ Zingers flying in place, crowding space so that the player has to weave ’tween them. The 2nd set packs the Zingers in mo’ tightly with less space ’tween them, but with yellow Zingers that the player can destroy if they can balance shooting with fluttering through tight space. It also has 3 sets o’ Zingers spinning in circles, the 1st o’ which mainly has yellow Zingers you can shoot down ( since the space before it is wide-open, shooting these Zingers is much easier than the packed-together Zingers mentioned before ), the 2nd all invincible red Zingers that force you to fly a half-circle through the space round them, & the 3rd the same, but forcing you to go in a full circle thanks to 1 red Zinger flying in space, blocking 1 direction.

Neither o’ these are unique to this level, ’course; but “Bramble Scramble” uses them just ’nough that they don’t feel thrown in arbitrarily & don’t feel like they don’t belong, but also don’t feel too repetitive.

Something not so oft brought up is the shape o’ bramble levels. Most levels in the Donkey Kong Country series are linear left-to-right paths. In fact, the 1st Donkey Kong Country & Returns only have linear levels, while Tropical Freeze only has maybe 1 or 2. “Bramble Scramble” is notable in that it zigzags all o’er the place, but is technically linear. This apparently tricks quite a few players, as I still regularly read commentators call this level a “maze”, despite the dearth o’ meaningful branching paths: 2 o’ the 3 branching paths are just bonuses that merge with the main path right @ the beginning, no different from half the bonuses in every other level. There is an interesting branch wherein you can choose to either maneuver a particularly tight bramble tunnel or dodge a Kannon’s downward cannon balls; but these, too, only merge with the main path less than a screen afterward.

Despite all the zigzagging in this level’s map, it does a remarkably good job o’ filling in the rectangular map’s space, with only empty space in the top left corner, while still hiding that the map is a rectangular ( by necessity, thanks to how level data is held & the rectangular shape o’ the screen ) & without conspicuously adding padding or having sections that feel awkwardly short. I can say from my own experience trying to do this with a level I’m working on for Boskeopolis Land that this is not easy to do.

While Donkey Kong Country games are known for their gimmicks, Donkey Kong Country 2 could create some excellent setpieces using just the basic mechanics, too. For instance, I always found “Bramble Scramble”’s beginning quite memorable. For 1, the right path is to go left ’stead o’ right for once, with the right just leading to bonus — a harmless trick on the player that still rewards the player a li’l for their trouble ( a lamer game would’ve just wasted the player’s time, giving them nothing, or outright killed them ). Past the small hole in the wooden floor under you with a bramble path ’neath, basically telling you that touching the brambles hurts you, you have a jump that’s rather precise for this early in the game, requiring you to go quite far to make it o’er the short bramble wall, but not so far that you smack into the Zinger just ’bove & to the left o’ the wall, forcing you to weave ’tween them.

The only weak point ’bout this level is its hero coin placement ’hind a bramble wall that you can magically move through safely, with only a wooden platform & a banana on the other side as a hint. The logical assumption would be that you can reach that area from ’nother side in the maze & that this is just a sneak peak, not that terrain that the game up to that point had consistently treated as solid & deadly is suddenly as secure as air. But they couldn’t e’en leave it @ that: you have to go through 2 ghost bramble walls, the 2nd o’ which makes the puzzle mo’ obvious by having a banana inside a bramble wall, which looks janky & rom-hackish.

Finally, I like the subtle subtext o’ the darker palette this has from “Bramble Blast” from the previous world, as if trying to warn you that this would be much harder than a cute li’l barrel maze. Embarrassingly ’nough, I only just realized that this level was probably s’posed to take place @ night, — or a’least twilight — since it’s in the nighttime “Krazy Kremland”.

Screech’s Sprint

While “Screech’s Sprint” also balances its gimmick with mo’ traditional platforming, it does it in the opposite way, focusing the 1st “half” ( in truth, the section before the midway point is mo’ 1/4th the size o’ the level — but then, flying is faster than monkey movement, so it doesn’t feel that much smaller ) on traditional platforming, while the 2nd half is all dedicated to racing through the bramble maze gainst the eponymous Screech.

Howe’er, like “Bramble Scramble”, “Screech’s Sprint”’s traditional platforming isn’t boring. In fact, it requires some o’ the cleverest, trickiest maneuvering in the game to pummel into your mind that this is the final level. Right after the 1st jump you’re faced with a Cat-O-9-Tails in an alcove too small to jump, forcing you to rush back into the open space without letting the Cat-O-9-Tails grab you ( where it will definitely throw you into brambles ) so you can get space to go round it. After that we have what I think is probably the only time a Donkey Kong Country game requires you to roll off a platform & jump in midair to simply beat a level. Then you have to jump rather high up to avoid hitting a bramble wall, but not too high so you don’t bonk your head on the ceiling dipping down, & you have to not go too far forward so that you bonk a Klinger hanging on the 2nd rope on the row o’ ropes. After this, you have to jump ’tween a bramble wall & Zinger, jump o’er ’nother high wall, zip past 5 Zingers going up & down in a horizontal line, dodge 2 Cat-O-9-Tails without smacking into the low-hanging bramble walls, & finally, after a simple climb past a bunch o’ Mini-Neckies, make a couple tricky jumps ’cross the small wooden planks floating in the sea o’ brambles, including ’nother jump that requires rolling & jumping while in midair if you’re Diddy.

Other than maybe the rope climb past the Mini-Neckies ( which is a clever breather if you realize you can just rush forward & the Mini-Neckies will ne’er be able to touch you before you pass them, but already done in “Bramble Scramble” ), every 1 o’ these mini challenges is a clever twist on challenges you’ve experienced since “Topsail Trouble” that test your platforming aim without being unfair.

The bonus is well constructed, too: you have to pay attention to your surroundings & notice the wooden plank platform near the top o’ the screen as you go through the last land section & throw your partner ( which means getting through the whole 1st half o’ this level without getting hit, as the only DK barrel before the midway point o’ no return is @ the start o’ the level ) up @ the plank with precise aim to avoid throwing your partner into brambles, & then you have to jump ’cross wooden plank platforms while holding a canon ball weighing you down. The bonus itself is the ultimate challenge to using Dixie’s helicopter twirl to weave through thin passages ’tween bramble walls.

& all this great level design is just the build up to the main attraction, the ultimate squawks challenge. Yes, e’en mo’ than “Animal Antics”. While Squawks sections are notorious, they can all be rendered much easier with 1 simple trick: move carefully. What makes squawks hard to control for those not used to him is his traction ( very similar to novice’s negative reaction to Luigi’s controls in Lost Levels ). But with slower, mo’ careful movement, the slowdown delay is reduced, making Squawks easier to control. This applies to “Animal Antics”’s wind section, too. People oft get screwed by the wind ’cause they just rush through the level, leaving them vulnerable to sudden wind changes throwing them in its direction. Howe’er, if the player doesn’t crank down the arrow button in any direction, wind changes won’t be so extreme, making it easier to adjust to them.

Pictured: Most players’ experience playing “Animal Antics”.

“Screech’s Sprint” doesn’t allow these mitigations, howe’er, ’cause you can’t go slowly — you’re in a race. So you have no choice but to sharpen your flying aim.

Much like the rest o’ the level, the ensuing maze is full o’ clever twists. For instance, the designers threw in a few risk/reward sections with narrower shortcuts, including 1 right after the midway point, that is harder to squeeze through, but will give you mo’ distance in front o’ Screech ( or get you closer to him if you’ve fallen ’hind ).

In contrast, you have the devious placement o’ the hero coin, which requires you to go through a detour, losing you time in the race. ’Course, Donkey Kong Country 2 is nice ’nough to allow you to keep the hero coin once you grab it, whether you die or not, so you can just grab it, die, & then focus fully on the race hereafter. Still, there’s always that urge to challenge oneself to grab the hero coin & still beat the race in 1 try.

Round this point, in the middle o’ the race, the designers introduce an actual mini maze with dead-ends with banana coins. These would be unfair if the designers weren’t merciful ’nough to put trails o’ bananas leading you through the correct passageways. Howe’er, some “wrong turns” are, in fact, shortcuts; so while it’s easy to avoid dead-ends to beat the level by following designated paths, the level still offers rewards to those who risk unmarked paths.

The last 3rd o’ the maze begins throwing in “Bramble Scramble” Zinger challenges, culminating in 1 area full o’ Zingers flying in place with thin space ’tween them — but now the player has to weave through them while still racing forward.

In terms o’ aesthetics, “Screech’s Sprint” is the best-looking bramble level, & probably the best-looking level in the game, applying an autumnal brown-orange to the brambles & making the sky purple. Autumn, being associated so well with endings, works well for this end-game stage.

Posted in Great Stages, Video Games

Great Stages: World 4-3 ( & 6-3 ) o’ Super Mario Bros.

What stands out most is that, despite this game taking place in the Mushroom Kingdom & having plenty o’ mushrooms in ?-blocks, the terrain is rarely composed o’ mushrooms, but more oft those contradictory blocks that are a mix o’ natural cracked rock & unnatural perfect square shape ( or grass, if playing Super Mario All-Stars ). Having much mo’ red & yellow & a li’l less brown & green certainly makes the level feel mo’ colorful than most other daytime levels, ’specially in All-Stars with the mushroom platforms in the background.

But graphics aside, this level’s arrangement o’ elements seem mo’ modern than most other levels in this game. Other than the green hill levels ( World 1-3 probably being the most well-known example ), most o’ this game’s levels are flat land with a few walls & holes here & there. But e’en most o’ those levels are just a horizontal line o’ hills going from left to right, with slight variances in height, such as the other level with prominent weight pulleys, World 6-3, or merely use multilayered hills to create proto-Sonic alternate routes, like World 1-3, 5-3 ( which is just a clone o’ 1-3 ), & 3-3. But World 4-3 uses multilayered mushroom towers not as a means for alternate routes, but as a challenge itself. Just after the 2nd mushroom, you see a mushroom tower @ just the right height to stymie you. It grants alternate routes, but unlike the other levels, the alternate routes aren’t arbitrary, but have different challenges: if you go below the mushroom tower, you have to jump low ’nough not to bonk your head on it, but high ’nough to make it to the next platform under it; to go ’bove the tower, you must run & jump high ’nough to reach it.

& in this level, the red Koopa is, for once, a greater hindrance than the green Koopas, as you have to time jumps so that you don’t run into them during their patrol back & forth o’er the mushroom. Thanks to the timing & placement o’ the red Koopas on the 2nd mushroom, the jump to it will leave li’l space & time to jump o’er them before they reach you ( which is very tricky to pull off in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, thanks to its much smaller screen, allowing e’en less reaction time ).

& then there’s the weight pulleys, an early version o’ a “level gimmick” that makes this level feel like a proto Super Mario World level, which used just ’bout every type o’ moving blocks or platform you could think o’. Their key strength is how much control they give you. The most obvious way is that they let you move them up & down all o’er; but the subtle version o’ this strength is how they don’t force you to slow down, a problem with many level gimmicks in games. If you know what you’re doing & have the maneuverability to do so, you can pass pulleys onto the rest o’ the level without stopping.

I also like the way the mushroom block is positioned on the edge o’ a mushroom platform with a thin platform just below. It’s the 1st time the game truly threatens you with destroying your mushroom before you can get it. Compare this with 4-1’s 1st mushroom position: it has a much larger plot o’ land to move before falling into a pit, & the Spinys offer a greater obstacle than gravity. The lower mushroom platform softens the challenge, which fits this level’s placement difficulty just after the middle o’ the game.

The ending is 1 o’ the few without the iconic staircase, replaced by a platform moving up & down. This does not make reaching the flagpole harder in the slightest, but it does make reaching the top o’ the flagpole a bit harder, & makes doing so while getting 6 fireworks much harder, which those gaming for the score medal in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe’s challenge mode will know all too well.

’Mong the pulley levels, this is the weakest ending, with 3-3’s pulley @ the end with the end closer to the flagpole lower down the best. A platform moving up & down doesn’t have much to do with this level, which only has 2 other vertical floating platforms, thrown in the middle so that they’re easy to forget ’bout. 6-3 focuses much mo’ on these types o’ platforms & ends with a series o’ vertical platforms leading to a hill seen in almost every other world’s 3rd level, just wintry white. I think 4-3 should’ve had a series o’ mushroom hills leading to the flagpole while 6-3 should’ve ended with a vertically rising & falling platform, but with a gap ’tween the platform & the flagpole to add some actual challenge ( since we’re moving 2 worlds later, after all ).

Honorable Mentions

In fact, 6-3 is a strong competitor to 4-3 — perhaps e’en better, looking @ it with fresher eyes. Its wintry white & gray blocks o’er a black background is arguably rarer than 4-3’s red mushrooms, since they also appear in the warp zone in 4-2 ( though you can’t see both in the same playthrough ), though you do see this same palette in every castle level, just with a different tileset.

Sadly, this level loses this special color scheme in the Super Mario All-Stars, whose Super Mario Bros. remake otherwise had superior graphics & music — though inferior gameplay, thanks to errors the programmers made with the brick-breaking physics, ’less you use the brick-fix rom hack. Why they didn’t make snowy graphics for the hill tileset like they did for evening levels that weren’t e’en wintry-looking in the original, like 3-1, I have no idea. Super Mario Bros. seems to be a game destined to be plagued by imperfect remakes.

It also arguably has a mix o’ mo’ exotic elements, replacing common red Koopas with a few red springs & Bullet Bills. Howe’er, the red Koopas allow for mo’ fine-tuned jumping challenges, while the Bullet Bills just come in @ random places, which can make certain circumstances outright unfair, rather than clever. The use o’ the spring is well done: the 1st is just for bonus coins & a higher vantage point, which you can still reach with careful jumping without it, while the 2nd is, save for some particular expert maneuvering, mandatory to reach the next platform high ’bove. They don’t do much else with this element, which, quite frankly, is only meaningful as a challenge in how janky timing jumps off it can be.

6-3’s mushroom block is e’en better than 4-3’s, & fits its moving platforms theme well. It is positioned just under a horizontally moving platform, upping the challenge from 4-3’s mushroom by making it much easier to make the mushroom fall into the pit without a safety platform below to give an extra chance.

Like 4-3, you can race through the whole level without stopping if you know what you’re doing. Like Sonic games later on, if you keep to the top the level goes smoothly, but if you let yourself fall to the bottom, you can run into tricky jumps, such as those wherein the weight pulleys are so high that they’re hard or impossible to reach, but are still low ’nough to threaten to bonk you as you try to jump under them & interrupt your jump.

I’m also quite partial to 6-2, though it’s definitely a 3rd to 4-3 & 6-3. It’s a rather long long full o’ tricky arrangements o’ pipes with Piranha Plants — usually only emphasized in underground levels. This makes this probably the greenest level in the game.

Level that emphasizes Piranha Plants all o’er the place shows every other enemy in that level ’stead.

Piranha Plants are the most common enemy in the game ( yes, they are mo’ common than Goombas ), making this level feel less fresh than the 4-3 & 6-3 with their rarer weight pulleys, & Piranha Plants, who are slow & easily-telegraph their moves are not nearly as tricky. Worse, if you don’t have a fire flower, they can easily delay you, ’specially in this level.

Still, this is definitely the most interesting Piranha Plant level, which calls to mind the clever arrangements found in Lost Levels levels like 5-1, 7-1, A-1, & C-1.

I also like the nighttime twist on the coin heaven, with a slightly trickier arrangement o’ cloud blocks, making it harder to collect all coins — though this coin heaven appears in 3-1 1st.

I also like the way the ending staircase adds both a hopping Paratroopa & a Piranha Plant.

Posted in Great Stages, Video Games

Great Stages: World 6-5 o’ Super Mario Bros. 3

Introduction

I’ve always been interested in appraising level design for various reasons:

  1. Levels were always my favorite part o’ video games & level design was the part o’ game development that interested me the most.

  2. It’s not focused on as much by most reviewers as what seems to me much mo’ shallow elements o’ a game, such as story or aesthetics ( ne’er mind the fact that the average video game praised for its story comes nowhere close to the storytelling quality o’ great literature, while literature can’t come close to doing what well-designed levels can ).

  3. A lot o’ the work I find online is, not to poison the well to make my own pitiful work look good, not good. I don’t mean that they have bad opinions — that their conclusions are “wrong” — but that they don’t bother to go into detail on the “why” — the most important part. Most just say their favorite or least favorite levels & leave it @ that; others give shallow reasons like “too hard / too easy”.

The problem is, whenever I try to make some grand series appraising every level o’ a game, I can ne’er finish it. Mainly ’cause, honestly, most levels in every game aren’t worth writing ’bout. ¿What’s there to say ’bout that 2nd tank level in Super Mario Bros 3.?

Thus, I’m cadging a chip from some random YouTuber & just writing ’bout particular levels worth writing ’bout, ’cept with words ’stead o’… words o’er video, ’cause video-editing is ’bout as palatable as having my wisdom teeth yanked out. Technically, I already did that with my hyperbolic article ’bout that terrible level, C-3 o’ Lost Levels, eons ago. So let’s balance that out with a good level.

Super Mario Bros. 3 – World 6-5

Map courtesy o’ KingKuros @ The Video Game Atlas.

I’ll start by defending an oft-criticized level. World 6-5 is that infamous cave level wherein you have to get a Raccoon Leaf ( if you don’t already have 1 ), grab a Koopa shell, & fly up into an alcove & throw the shell to kill some Nipper Plants blocking the way to the pipe to the end o’ the level. This is 1 o’ those levels that’s “bad” ’cause it’s challenging. Worse: it’s not challenging in the typical “keep trying pixel-perfect jump till you robotically learn it through muscle memory”, but a puzzle that requires creative thought.

But it’s 1 that’s perfectly fair & intuitive. Once you find out the level wraps round, you know there’s an alternate way to win. There’s also a high chance that just before it loops, you’ll get a Raccoon Leaf; if not, there’s ’nother respawning ?-block with a Raccoon Leaf just after where the pipe drops you off @ the start o’ the cave. The game has consistently taught you that you can reach different areas by flying; ¿why shouldn’t it finally expect you to have to fly to beat a level by now? Eventually, flying round, you’ll find the alcove with that tantalizing other pipe, blocked by Nipper Plants. Whether you already realize you can’t attack them with your tail from ’bove or learn it the hard way, you’ll ’ventually run out o’ options up here & ’ventually have to go back down to search for mo’ answers, & ’ventually you’ll notice that conspicuous lone Koopa in a sea o’ Buster Beetles.

This Koopa lived a cruelly monotonous existence ’fore Luigi took him out o’ his misery.

Despite this level’s challenge, it’s nice ’nough to ne&rs

Actually, e’en the many Buster Beetles & the weirdly special throwable bricks they toss @ you work well. In addition to providing many ways for them to make you lose your Raccoon Leaf, challenging you to defend 1 o’ the keys to victory, they focus the level on the issue o’ throwing, which hints to you that throwing something @ the Nipper Plants is the answer. You may e’en try flying up with a throw block & fail, — or maybe succeed: I’ve ne’er tried, actually — only to later stumble ’pon the lone Koopa.

Despite this level’s challenge, it’s nice ’nough to ne’er completely screw you out o’ it — ’less you die, ’course: @ the end o’ the main path there’s a perpetually-respawning ?-block with a Raccoon Leaf before a pipe that leads back to the start. So e’en if you get hit & lose a Raccoon Leaf, you can always get ’nother. Koopa shells, ’course, also respawn ’pon entering & exiting a pipe, in case you accidentally kill the only Koopa.

I think this level shows a prototype for Super Mario World’s generally superior puzzle-based level design. It feels right up there with the kind o’ memorable puzzles like Yoshi-jumping under the goal post o’ “Cheese Bridge Area” or bringing a Yoshi to the end o’ “Valley of Bowser 4” so you can lick the key through the solid blocks. But it also has Super Mario Bros. 3’s brevity & focus, whereas Super Mario World levels sometimes had a tendency to be o’erly long & have jarring, unfocused, irrelevant extra parts — you know, those side rooms that don’t fit, like that pointless coin snake in “Donut Ghost House”, that P-balloon cave section in the underwater level, “Donut Secret 1”, or that outside section with the single flying Hammer Bro in the otherwise underground level, “Chocolate Secret”. Thus, this level combines the best elements o’ Super Mario Bros. 3 & Super Mario World’s level design.

It can also be rather fast-paced if you know what you’re doing. E’en if you start small, you can pop in the pipe near the beginning to grab a Mushroom, & then grab a Raccoon Leaf in the ?-block in the cave. Then just dodge all the enemies to the Koopa & fly up to win. Super Mario World, & some levels in Super Mario Bros. 3, infamously had a tendency to have ploddingly slow levels, as Sonic ads relished pointing out, ’specially Super Mario World’s puzzle levels. The fact that the aforementioned puzzles from World required you to get to the end o’ relatively long levels a 2nd time to get the 2nd exit doesn’t help. I almost mentioned the secret exit to “Valley of Bowser 2”, with its subtle clue that you can stay on the edge o’ 1 o’ the rising blocks you’re s’posed to be running from to reach a secret area ’bove the room… but that exit requires you to go through a direly long & slow autoscroll section, which should ne’er be encouraged. That this level was able to have a creative puzzle without needing to bog down the player’s momentum makes it deserve extra puntos.

If this level has anything you could call a flaw, it’s that, other than the graphics, it doesn’t truly fit the icy theme o’ its world. I guess the throw bricks look kind o’ icy… but these have appeared since World 3, & they don’t make sense as ice blocks. ¿What ’bout ice makes it mo’ susceptible to being picked up & thrown? & if they’re s’posed to be ice, ¿why aren’t they affected by fire when other ice blocks are?

But that’s the most anal-retentive o’ complaints, & there’s something to be recommended in a li’l mid-world variety. It’s not as if this level is jarringly contradictory to the ice theme; it’s just theme-neutral & could fit in any world.

I probably mentioned it already in my big article comparing Super Mario Bros. 3 & Super Mario World, but I consider World 6, ’long with 7, to be the high point o’ Super Mario Bros. 3’s level design, with tricky, clever block arrangements, so it does fit in that way. A’least it fits better than the 2 underground water levels in this world ( whose existence admittedly undermines my “high point” point before ).

Swimming while taking pictures is bad for your health.

Posted in Great Stages, Video Games