By Mento 2 Comments
I think the most interesting aspect of this game, after three in-depth looks at how its courses were designed, is how it appears to run on child logic. Child logic is an enigmatic and powerful force of creativity that allows us to make the necessary logical connections to solve puzzles via a sort of tabula rasa logic-governing system: we can no longer make these connections as easily because we "know too much" about how the world is meant to function, rather than some invented world like Super Mario 64 where the rules aren't quite so clear-cut. I came to this epiphany while watching the Game Grumps getting stymied on at least a dozen Stars that, and I'd concur with this as a fellow adult, are far too obtuse and vague considering the actual solution. There's many cases where I have no clue how the developers knew that a player would be able to surmise a solution based on the information given to them. Yet I recall first playing the game through to completion, 120 Stars and all, in 1997: a time of my life when the internet wasn't the omni-presence it is now, and could only be seen in libraries and Hollywood thrillers starring Sandra Bullock as the world's least likely homely recluse or Angelina Jolie with a pixie cut.
Perhaps "child logic" is a tad reductive. I believe it has more to do with a puzzle-solving approach that essentially amounted to trying every idea the player could conceive of. Not necessarily trial and error, per se, but rather a scenario where the player has a puzzle to suss out and an entire afternoon to waste jumping on, punching and ground-pounding every object and peeking around every nook and cranny in the environment until a solution presented itself. It's why I managed to power through the game in a couple of weeks all those years ago, and why the Game Grumps - who are attempting to create a svelte, ten-minute-long daily internet Let's Play show - are left with little recourse than to seek out a solution online to ensure that some, any, progress is made for that day's episode.
It's another worthy reminder that Super Mario 64, more than any of the multitude of formulaic 3D platformers that followed, has a considerable focus on puzzles and problem-solving. It's a 3D puzzle-platformer, and maybe we'd see many games like it on Steam and PSN if more Indie devs realized that. (But hey, we're going to be learning more about what this mysterious Project Ukulele is any day now, so for the time being I'm satisfied that we're seeing the beginning of a 3D platformer resurgence.)
Shifting Sand Land
Shifting Sand Land is where the gloves come off, and possibly Mario's hat. While Lethal Lava Land seemed exactly that, it actually provided ample opportunity for a player to course-correct whenever Mario is sent soaring from a scorched behind. The intimidation factor was high, but the difficulty less so. With Shifting Sand Land the dynamic has been reversed, with an innocuous desert plain that is in actuality mostly insta-death quicksand. It takes very little effort to accidentally find oneself in a patch of this deadly menace, and the game gives absolutely no quarter if you should happen to land in it. It surrounds the course, it surrounds the Tox Box maze, it surrounds half of the red-and-yellow checkered pillars and it surrounds the centerpiece of the stage: an enormous and mysterious pyramid with precarious outer edges.
Let's talk about some more of these surface obstacles, while we're here: the Parthenon-esque pillared structure near the start has both a Flying Cap block and a shell, making navigating the rest of the surface area considerably easier on the player if they're reasonably certain about where they're going - say, the interior of the pyramid or towards the floating red coins. However, these items are on the top of the structure and there's no easy way to get up there, so many players tend to walk on past after a few abortive side- and back-somersaults. It's very possible to get up there with a triple jump; the player just needs to find some space to get a run up. The mechanical Tox Box maze feels a little incongruous next to all these desert ruins, perhaps something better befitting Donkey Kong 64 with DKC's tendency to explore industrial environments, but there's definitely something ominous about all those stomping boxes. They have "safe spots" but it's rarely worth the trouble to get beneath them; instead, there's plenty of space to elude them, or sit around and wait for their routes to pass you by.
As for enemies, there's the fan-favorite Pokey, rendered as a stack of 2D sprites. It's one of the few enemies to be rendered as such, and I have to wonder how much strain it would've been on the N64 hardware to just stack a bunch of orbs on top of each other. Maybe the developers couldn't figure out how to make a tower of spheres do Pokey's trademark jiggle? We also see a flying Shy Guy, or Fly Guy, and these guys and their fireball strafing runs will be a persistent menace for the rest of the game. The most apparent of the course's antagonists, at least on the surface area, is Klepto the giant vulture. We'll discuss him in just a moment.
We also have the pyramid's interior, which like Lethal Lava Land's volcano is an entirely separate part of the level and shouldn't be overlooked when searching for 100 coins. Of course, there's no way out once you've gone inside, and the player once again has to either quit out of the stage or find a Star before they can return to the surface area. It's predictably vertically-oriented, and players have to navigate their way to the top for most of the Stars in this area.
A few more notes here: The "portrait" of Shifting Sand Land is actually a featureless wall at one of the basement's handful of dead ends. A Toad gives you a hint about checking for "ripples", which the wall still exhibits if struck, but it can be a tricky find all the same if the player has no idea that an eighth course exists down here (which they should be able to figure out after entering the ninth, also in the basement). MIPS the rabbit will actually help out here, as the player might find themselves diving towards him, missing and smacking into the wall face-first which will give away its ripple-y secret. Shifting Sand Land gets a bit economical with its music, taking Lethal Lava Land's Indian rhythms for its surface and the Hazy Maze Cave's enigmatic SMB World 1-2 remix for its pyramid interior. We'll see this musical recycling with the next stage as well: a possible downside to giving these themes dynamic elements is that it doesn't leave much space for additional tracks.
The first Star involves taking Klepto's treasure away from him, turning him into a scorned nuisance for the rest of the course's Stars (half of which are thankfully indoors, away from the bird). Klepto takes a circular route around the course, staying out of Mario's reach for much of it. The best chance Mario has is when Klepto starts circling one of the pillars: Mario can simply run up these pillars (once again exhibiting his remarkable Sherpa-esque climbing ability) and leap in the air at its apex to knock the Star out of Klepto's grasp. After procuring this Star, Klepto will begin to dive bomb Mario once he's in visual range and attempt to steal his hat as due payment: A hat-less Mario takes more damage, and will remain without a hat until the player has recovered it - in other words, losing a life in this state will eject Mario out of the portrait without his hat, and he needs to go back to the correct course in order to retrieve it. It's the closest thing the game has to a persistent negative status effect.
The second's a little more straightforward and may well be the first Star that the player intuits from taking in the lay of the land: they simply need to reach the peak of the pyramid, where the Star hides in a tiny alcove. The danger here is falling off one of the many ledges that circle up the pyramid, which almost always result in instant death by the quicksand that surrounds the triangular tomb like a moat.
Third Star requires that the player enter the pyramid. It's simple run to the top, and the player has a few tricks to get to where they need to go faster. Climbing the mummified Thwomps with the rictus grins (they're apparently called Grindels, which is a weird place for a Beowulf pun), for example, or finding an idea spot for a triple-jump. Shifting Sand Land takes a different approach when it comes to going in and out of their second area: with Lethal Lava Land, the last two Stars were in the volcano, giving the player no reason to go inside while chasing the first four. With Shifting Sand Land, the Stars seem to have more a random order to them, though I prefer to think of them as "least obvious to most": the first two Stars are actually visible on the surface, depending on where you're standing, and this third Star simply involves entering the pyramid and climbing it to the top. The next three get a little more abstruse.
With the fourth Star, the player is given an imperative ("stand tall on the four pillars!") without knowing what might result. The initial goal is to simply stand on the four pillars surrounding the pyramid, as instructed, and see what happens. Given that at least one of the pillars is surrounded by quicksand, it's a fair idea to use a Flying Cap to quickly reach the four tops without dropping to the ground. Once the player has done this, the top of the pyramid blasts off to reveal a second entrance to the pyramid interior. This leads directly to a boss fight against the Eyerok pyramid guardian, which feels like something right out of a Kirby game. It's not a terribly difficult boss, but it is one of the most involved in terms of behavior patterns. The idea is to punch the eyes on the palms of each hand when they open, which a player will observe happens alternately with the two hands: one hand slides forward to push Mario off the boss's platform while the other opens its eye to get a bead on him. You get a sense at the internal logic of the boss in this regard, as once a hand is gone, the other resorts to desparate attacks with its eye open as it no longer has any other way of seeing you. The timing isn't quite right to support this little theory - the hand swipes forward at you moments before the second hand's eye opens - but it feels like that's what the boss's designers were going for. It's fair to say that a Nintendo boss's weak spot is usually of the inexplicable "band-aid on their stomach" variety and we should just accept that, but I'd like to think Eyerok had a strong reason for occasionally making itself vulnerable.
With the crazy twists of the fourth Star, the fifth is relatively sedate, requiring simply that the player find the eight red coins. Four are scattered across the surface area of the course while the other four are hanging around in the air and require the Flying Cap to reach. I've got two theories why this Star came after the Eyerok fight: the first is that it's incredibly easy to stand on top of the four pillars while chasing the airborne coins, revealing their secret ahead of time. The second is that it's another Star that requires a cap to complete, and the further down the hint list those are the less irritating they become for players who have yet to find the related cap switch. There is one red coin on the ground that might cause players some grief: it's directly behind where they start and is at a intersection so far from the player that it sits outside the draw distance. If you were to glance over there from the starting area, it'd just look like a steep sand dune next to the deadly course terminus with no remarkable features. I don't know exactly what ratio of cocky-to-diabolical it is to use your own game's draw distance limitation to bamboozle the player, but it's quite a mean trick.
With the sixth, we have again one of the obtuse Stars in the game. I don't think it's any accident these tend to appear at the end of the lists: if anything, they feel like bonus Stars for the most experimental of players to find. Given little direction other than "pyramid puzzle", the player has to suss out that the secret is hidden in a sand aqueduct that flows down the center of the pyramid's interior. It's possible to hit one of the five secret activators while making their way up the pyramid, but it requires a leap of faith at one point high up to find the first three. I feel the "secret trigger" Stars only work best when the player has easy access to a handful and can deduce where the rest are, but there's nothing obvious about falling into a sand sluice and hearing that telltale chime. In fact, it might just convince players to follow it down to the base of the pyramid, forcing them to start climbing back up again. Anakin Skywalker might've had a point about these irritating sand worlds.
100-Coin Challenge: Honestly, not too difficult in spite of all the death traps. If the player can find a decent number of coins from the surface area, including the red coins and the blue coins from Pokeys, and then reach the pyramid entrance they can breathe a sigh of relief. The interior of the pyramid has far fewer instant-death fuck-yous, instead depending on the usual damage dealing traps like Grindels and those shock orb things. There's also a blue coin switch very close to where the player is dropped off inside the pyramid which provides another 15 coins. I appreciated the difficulty curve of this one: all too often, and this was especially true with the musical notes of Banjo-Kazooie, I get around 95% of the way to the total and then start choking and making too many errors as I'm running around frantically searching for that last handful of collectibles. Having the second half of this coin rush shift to a less hazardous environment greatly ameliorates the issue of psyching myself out inches from the finish line.
Dire Dire Docks
Dire Dire Docks, true to its name, might be the least liked course in all of Super Mario 64. There's a lot of bullshit inherent to some of the more difficult courses to come, but Dire Dire Docks suffers by being both a challenging underwater level and being decidedly uninteresting with its level design and Star tasks. The concept of Dire Dire Docks is to tie in the second Bowser Road encounter, allowing the player to come across Bowser's submarine (was he planning on escaping? Or was this how he entered the castle in the first place? And if so, why does the castle have a secret submarine dock?) which then activates the trigger that reveals the next Bowser Road stage: Bowser in the Fire Sea. The submarine won't leave the dock until this Bowser Road has been completed, which actually prevents a Star from being reached.
Beyond the Bowser sub, there's not a whole lot to Dire Dire Docks. The initial whirlpool area has some interesting sealife, including a very passive shark and an enormous manta ray which might be the best-animated polygonal creature in the game along with the moray of Jolly Roger Bay. The whirlpool at the bottom will persistently suck in the player if they hang around it too long, making navigating this area a little annoying unless the player is ready to mash the swim button at a moment's notice. Past this initial area are the docks themselves; an enormous square room with a bunch of motorized poles on the ceiling (conspicuously absent if the sub is still in dock) and really not much else.
I will say that the portrait for Dire Dire Docks, essentially a blue rippling wall that shifts to reveal the Bowser Road entrance, is a bizarre enigma. It's as if the Stargate has opened up under Peach's Castle. While I'm somewhat torn on how necessary Hazy Maze Cave's inky pool was, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than a wall of rippling water. (I suspect someone wanted to show off the N64's ripple physics some more and ran out of subtle ways to do it.)
The first Star is the only necessary one. It's odd to think that there are "story essential" Stars in SM64 because the vast majority are just as vital as the next, but not so vital that you actually need to grab them to continue the game. Perhaps due to its importance, this one is a complete cinch: just swim to the docks and find a way to get on board the sub where the Star is waiting. After this, you need to leave Dire Dire Docks and play Bowser Road, otherwise the third Star will be inaccessible. Another curious aspect of this first Star: once you've completed Bowser in the Fire Sea, the sub never comes back. The submarine's now-unreachable Star is just floating in mid-air over the docks, far from any of the moving poles.
Chests in the Current marks the return of the trial-and-error sequence puzzle, only this time it's four chests surrounding the swirling vortex that kills you instantly. One chest in particular is close enough to this deathtrap that it becomes really untenable to keep going back to it, because of course it's also the last chest in the sequence. I believe that was a deliberate decision by the developers to inject some difficulty into this course, because it's the only Star with any challenge (depending on your skill with the pole-jumping, anyway), despite the fact that it's really more irritating than anything else. Laziness and recycling will be a recurring theme with Dire Dire Docks, if I've not made that clear by now.
This third Star is the pole-jumping Star, and while I've tried not to get too walkthrough-esque with these Star descriptions, this is absolutely the Star where you want to chase after the 100-Coin Challenge simultaneously. Gathering all the red coins, as well as the blue coin switch, is essential to earning the 100 coin total necessary for the bonus Star, and it's such a tiresome pain that it's best to do it once. While I could never admit to being wary of the things prior to Super Meat Boy, Team Meat's nonpareil Indie platformer really taught me a few things about platformer impatience, and that especially includes sequences that require waiting for a pattern to complete: whether that's a platform going side to side or a group of them turning in a circle, if a platformer is forcing the player to wait for a pattern to reset it's doing them a disservice and disrespecting their time. It's one of those deeply-entrenched design faux pas that platformer game developers need to stop themselves doing, very similar to how modern video game writers are trying to avoid using "mixed bag" and a number of other overused clichés in their reviews. Once upon a time, we wouldn't have noticed instances like this, but now we've become savvier and reneged against the status quo.
The fourth Star is curious because the tactic it requires is identical to the fifth Star, which somewhat devalues it. Or, you might consider this one to be the warm-up, as it doesn't require the extra wrinkle of following a moving target around. The player needs to sit inside the rings that lift from the jetstream, and then repeat the Jolly Roger Bay Metal Cap Star in order to grab it from inside the stream. I've been reliably informed that a savvy player can catch these jetstream Stars with the right swimming angle/speed, though I imagine it takes a lot of practice. Fortunately, the game is here to help you out by giving you multiple instances of the same instance to train with. Clearly helping speedrunners was the intent all along for this creative bankruptcy. (I'm probably being too harsh here. Maybe Dire Dire Docks was the very last course they developed.)
The fifth Star is the same as the fourth, only the player is chasing the rings the manta ray leaves behind. Remember the lede, where I talked about child logic? I feel this is one of those occasions where a younger player might just ignore what the game asks of them and just follows the manta ray around a while because it's a cool creature. In that case, they might just luck upon this particular Star, which requires swimming through the rings that the manta leaves behind. It's a bit tricky, as the manta moves slower than Mario at his faster swimming pace (which is why it might help to assume Mario's medium speed pace). The rings also restore health, so there'll never be a point where the player has to break off after three or four successful rings to go catch their breath real quick. I can't tell if it's deliberate, but the opaque rings do a weird flickering effect that might either be the engine struggling with transparency filters or the developers trying to make sure they're visible to the player by causing them to flash. It wouldn't be the first ultimately serendipitious glitch in video gaming.
Collect the Caps isn't too interesting besides the fact that it involves wearing two caps at once, which doesn't really make a whole lot of sartorial sense outside of Team Fortress 2. By being both metal and noncorporeal, the player can drop to the bottom of the docks and walk through an iron grate where a Star awaits. The player needs to grab the Vanish Cap first because the Metal Cap is behind another grate, but either way it's not a huge struggle. It does demand that the player has found both cap switches though, which is why it's a suitable final challenge for the basement area as both are found down in this part of the castle.
100-Coin Challenge: While not exactly filled with instant death traps, there are two areas in the course where Mario can get dragged by the current. One loses him a life and the other unceremoniously spits him into the pond outside the castle. Avoiding these two deathtraps, and the entirely apathetic sharks and ray, ensures that you only need to worry about Mario's oxygen and the boring task of following the poles around the upper part of the stage for all the coins. There's a real dearth of possible coins here, and some are pretty hard to spot like the row of five right at the surface where Mario starts, so it presents one of the hardest challenges in the game.
Bowser in the Fire Sea
Bowser in the Fire Sea, true to its name, is another Bowser Road obstacle course but this time with a heavy influence of lava-based traps. It reuses a lot of ideas from Lethal Lava Land, naturally enough, but has a few interesting ideas of its own as well. My particular favorite is a group of connected platforms that rise up and down like an accordion. There's also more platforming involving poles, something the player will be used to soon enough in Dire Dire Docks - which, of course, require that the player defeats Bowser here first before they become available.The course ends with a strange exit that looks like a ray gun, which warps Mario to his encounter. In the other two Bowser Roads, the entrance to the Bowser fight is a regular pipe, so why the developers felt that they needed to mix it up with this weird structure that looks better suited to an Ape Escape game is anyone's guess. I forget if I've mentioned it before, but the Bowser Road track is my favorite in the whole game. It's eerie and rousing in equal measure, much like the Bowser's Castle theme of Super Mario World.
The Bowser fight is identical, but for one surprise Bowser drops on Mario: he ground-pounds, causing the entire arena to shift precariously on his axis and causing Mario to slide feet-first into the lava. It can be counteracted if the player's reflexes are quick enough of course, and Bowser won't pull it again for a while, but it's a neat little trick to keep players (literally) off-kilter. Bowser always leads with this move for this fight, so it's easy to assume the rest of the battle will be completely different as well. Nope. Just gotta grab him by the tail and heave him into a bomb again. Still, it's good practice for the final encounter, which does require a little more skill to pull off. Or throw off, I suppose.
This marks the end of the basement Stars and our trek into the castle's upper floors, where more dangers await. The courses from here on out stop being quite so gentle, though they're also a lot more interesting to boot. Super Mario 64 is thankfully not one of those games that stops innovating past the halfway point, choosing instead to simply emphasize the difficulty of extant mechanics and puzzles already in place - something later Mario games, especially 3D Land and 3D World, unfortunately depend a little too heavily on.
Next time, I'll be covering the first and second of four courses that are accessible after the second Bowser Road but before the last milestone of the game. They're also two of my favorites, so I'm looking forward to scrutinizing them. See you then.