Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part Five)

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It's been a while in the making, but here is the fifth part of our in-depth look at Super Mario 64, one of many cases of Nintendo putting their best foot forward with a new console generation. At the conclusion of the fourth update, we're now clear of the basement and its death-trap laden courses and approach the heady heights of the second floor. The courses here are, naturally enough, far more difficult, but seem less intimidating all the same. There's a lot more pitfalls, tricky leaps and mechanically complex courses to come, yet nothing quite as fearsome as lava or quicksand. Well, unless you're terrified of colossal snowmen...

Toad #2

Sneaky! Or... maybe not so sneaky? I mean, he's right here.
Sneaky! Or... maybe not so sneaky? I mean, he's right here.

Before we get to the fun stuff, it's another free Star from a random Toad. This one's even more inexplicable; the guy is literally standing in the center of the room, next to the staircase that takes Mario to the very top floor. You could argue that the previous Toad was somewhat concealed, standing in a corner of the Hazy Maze Cave entrance room and thus wouldn't be immediately obvious, but this Toad's prominence just makes him seem like he'd be the usual advice-dispensing kind. I've got three theories about this: the boring Occam's Razor theory, that the developers simply gave a handful of Stars to random Toads to hand out during the 11th hour of development to ensure they had the nice round number of 120. The second is that this particular Toad is meant to be a double-bluff: Stars either require a challenge to reach or are well-hidden to some degree, and because this one is neither it's paradoxically easy to miss. My third theory is that the courses around here start getting a lot more difficult, and a little confidence-booster Star like this was intended to keep the player's spirits up after getting thrown out of the Tall Tall Mountain or Tiny-Huge Island portrait for the twentieth time. It's either one of the most interesting secret Stars or the most pointlessly mundane, depending on your perspective.

Snowman's Land

The Course

This thing's pretty fun! We need something like this to replace public transit.
This thing's pretty fun! We need something like this to replace public transit.

Recycling stage themes is fairly typical when they're governed by special rules, as is the case for Super Mario 64's two (and a half - the explanation for this half is coming up a little later) underwater courses and its two wintry-themed courses. This is partly due to the amount of extra effort that is required by the designers and programmers to generate all the extra code required to make snow behave like it's meant to (slippery, absorbs falling damage in a unique way) and thus an attempt to get the most of out of this extra workload, and partly because they had more ideas based around these themes, exceeding what could be done with a single course. For either reason, I don't particularly mind that Snowman's Land is yet another ice world. If anything, it's one of the most joyous and interesting courses in the game, and the former becomes a rarer commodity as the game proceeds to get even more difficult and frustrating.

No discussion of Snowman's Land (which was quite the stealth pun for a younger me) is complete without talking about its portrait room. It's one of the cutest puzzles in the game, requiring that the player take in the entire reflection of the wall-length mirror to find an inconsistency: in this case, it's a snowman portrait that only appears in the mirror. The complementary blank wall in the real world is actually the portal to the Snowman's Land course. I remember spending a lot of time in this room, wondering why a room in the castle would have an enormous mirror like this unless it was Disney's Haunted Mansion ride, or possibly where Peach practiced ballet as part of her harsh and rigorous princess training to be elegant and poised at all times (I've come to appreciate the hard work that goes into princess training after playing Long Live the Queen recently). You're also afforded a rare glimpse of the camera Lakitu, which moves around Mario the match way the direction the camera's facing. Having designed 3D levels in UnrealEd in the past, giving the camera perspective a physical presence in the world isn't too unusual, but at the time I marveled at the one-to-one behavior of the little guy as he spun around to match the C-button prompts. Oddly enough, if you look at the Lakitu's reflection, you'll see that the camera bobs left and right on the end of its fishing pole. Probably for the best that this effect wasn't recreated in the actual player view; the camera induces enough kinetosis as it is.

Get back here, whippersnappers! In my day, this was all two-dimensional and flat! (Just like these old man goofs.)
Get back here, whippersnappers! In my day, this was all two-dimensional and flat! (Just like these old man goofs.)

As for the course itself, it's one of those ones built around a massive centerpiece, which in this case is the eponymous Snowman of Snowman's Land. It is essentially an enormous, immobile geographical fixture, being made of snow and all, and the way various platforms stick out of him at random intervals suggest it's probably not even alive. Once you explore a little higher up, though, you'll realize that it is very much conscious of everything that happens on it, though its titanic perspective is a little different to Mario's. The course also introduces freezing water: the only water in the game that damages Mario instead of healing him. What's unusual is that there are three pools in this stage, all of which have different behaviors attached to them: one is completely frozen, rendering it harmless though tricky to maneuver across; the second is so cold that Mario simply leaps off in pain, like the lava of Lethal Lava Land; Mario can swim in the third, though it drains his health at about twice the usual oxygen depletion rate even if he's on the surface. There's a tricky jumping puzzle or two in this area, so landing in the water is considered a punishment for failing the primary objective (kind of like Wipeout, even).

One last thing: I just want to discuss one of my favorite, easily replicable glitches in the game. When Snowman successfully exhales Mario off the platform, sending him and his hat flying in different directions, there's a trick you can pull here where instead of grabbing the hat (which, adorably, ends up on top of one of the regular-sized snowmen if Mario leaves the course without his hat and re-enters), Mario instead runs to one of the teleporters (in this course hidden underneath two of the coniferous trees in the area) and teleport a few times. Something weird happens to the hat at this point, and when Mario reaches for the many iterations of the cloned hat, he eventually glitches out and is stuck with the hat in his hand. You can now run around swatting enemies with your hat in lieu of the regular punches like a seventy-year-old man admonishing a grandchild. It's wonderful.

The Stars

"A frost mosquito? A tundra beetle? An arctick?"

Snowman's Big Head is the requisite "reach the top of the mountain" Star, though in this case the mountain just so happens to be a sentient snow giant. It's a spiral route, one that requires that the player get past two obstacles in particular: the first is an unusual wave machine that spits out fast-moving triangular prisms of snow with a high ledge that requires at least the double jump to reach, the second being the Snowman's determination to blow Mario off the precarious ice platform with his wintry exhale. The second requires that Mario stick behind an otherwise inexplicable giant penguin to be sheltered from the gale, pacing back and forth along an unpredictable route intended to throw first-time players off. As a Star designed to introduce the player to this course, it does its job well, and having that snowmountain suddenly talk to you (as if you were an insignificant bug, no less) is quite alarming. (All it needs is this theme playing.)

Another contender for
Another contender for "most 90s 3D texture".

The second Star is a little less interesting, as it's taken directly from Lethal Lava Land (which already had two variants of the same solution). There's another Bully around, and the player once again has to knock it off its perch before it does the same to him in classic sumo fashion. The added wrinkle here is the slippery ice platform where the showdown takes place, which makes it harder to press the advantage when the sliding is putting your timing off. There really doesn't seem to be a point for this Star, but then maybe this part of the course would've felt a little empty without it. At least the snow bully is visually distinctive, with one of those tie-dye textures previously used for the spider enemies from Hazy Maze Cave.

Actually, I suppose it looks more like the world's easiest Rubik's Cube.
Actually, I suppose it looks more like the world's easiest Rubik's Cube.

The third Star, In the Deep Freeze, resembles one of those plastic marble games you used to see alongside baseball ball-bearing dexterity toys and those marble mazes with the dials that tilted the board around. (This probably all sounds like gibberish to anyone under 30.) It has a solution, but the player has to determine where the gaps are in the large transparent structure and then work their way towards the Star. It's honestly a little underwhelming as a puzzle, and it almost feels like the developers wanted/intended the ice structure to be a lot bigger and more elaborate. Maybe it's just one of those cases where you have 120 Stars to design around and there's only so much work that can go into each one.

The fourth and fifth Stars are interconnected, as both require that the player get to the pool of water where the wave machine is and leap on the head of a Spindrift for the sufficient amount of height necessary to reach an area beyond the wall. There's two question mark blocks here: One reveals the fourth Star and the other reveals a Koopa shell necessary to collect the eight red coins on the course. The eight coins are all along a specific path, though the three near the question mark block and the two in the Bully area are the tricky ones. In fact, there's a red coin directly underneath the Bully's platform that is (conventionally speaking, at least) impossible to reach without the shell. While the shell's appeared a few times prior to this course, this is the first case where it's instrumental for collecting a Star. That's largely due to the fact that hitting a single wall will cause it to vanish, potentially making the Star impossible to reach without resetting the course by dying or quitting (or grabbing another Star).

This is the only situation I know of where you have to use the crawl function, though I've been told crawling makes a lot of the slippery slopes easier to ascend.
This is the only situation I know of where you have to use the crawl function, though I've been told crawling makes a lot of the slippery slopes easier to ascend.

The sixth Star involves the igloo, which is one of the less obvious locations on the course. It requires the player either use the turtle shell to chase a row of coins leading out of the wave/pool area, jumping over a green quartz wall a little after the wave machine or by falling off the platform near the snowman's mouth. The second and third paths aren't exactly intuitive, but they work as replacements once the player has managed to catch a glimpse of just where the igloo is and can jury-rig a path to it that doesn't involve the mercurial Koopa shell. As tends to be the case with a lot of sixth Stars, it requires the use of a cap, in this case the Vanish Cap. The Star is stuck inside a block of ice that can only be passed through with a Vanish Cap, though reaching the blue cap block can be half the puzzle. It's another double-bluff: the cap appears to be behind a wall of opaque ice, suggesting that the wall is the way out not the way in, but the wall is actually incomplete: Mario can leap up and over it with a high enough jump. If I were a gambling man, I might wager that the same designer behind the Deep Freeze Star designed this one as well, just so he could get all the steam he wanted out of navigating ice block puzzles.

100-Coin Challenge: The key to this one is the igloo, and trying to find 100 coins without knowing about it will make this an extremely difficult challenge. With the thirty or so coins inside the igloo, the goal becomes trivial, provided you make use of the shell and don't get worn down elsewhere.

Wet-Dry World

The Course

Well... this makes things easier.
Well... this makes things easier.

The eleventh course is the first of three portrait-related entry gimmicks, in which the way Mario enters the course is significant to the course's layout once he arrives. In Wet-Dry World's case, the area begins with a fairly shallow level of water that can be regulated by hitting some multi-colored diamonds (so built, I assume, to stand out even underwater) at various points in the course. The low water level is considered the default, because it's low enough that Mario has to work to reach anywhere further up but still high enough to give Mario that crucial surface rehealing to help him through the various traps and problems the course presents. However, were one to enter the portrait with a high jump, the entire arena is flooded to its zenith, higher still than the most vertically-elevated water level diamond. This not only provides easier access to a couple of Stars, but allows Mario to lower the water level (by simply swimming to the preferred diamond) to whatever depth the player wishes, greatly expediting the path to whatever Star they're chasing after.

Whee! Take this, well-considered puzzle design.
Whee! Take this, well-considered puzzle design.

The best part of all of this is that the Toad that gives you the bonus Star also tells you how this trick works, as well as the trick behind the Snowman's Land portrait. Whoever said those little guys were useless? One might wonder if the game is giving too much away with these little tipsters, but I think people are simply pre-disposed to ignore their advice, much like they tend to avoid the manual. Super Mario 64, as we've established, is a game that depends a great deal on weird tricks and obtuse puzzle solutions, and the various Toads and signposts are their way of balancing this. That people kept walking right past them might explain why Nintendo games have considerably more forced tutorials in this day and age, leading to unfortunate examples like the entirely inconsequential first two hours of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Anyway, back to Wet-Dry World. The water-level raising mechanic, though greatly reviled in Ocarina of Time (what's with all the Zelda references today?), is used to great effect here, making an unusual course more elaborate with its secrets and hard-to-reach areas. Prodding the diamonds as you get progressively higher up feels like hitting checkpoints almost, as it means Mario won't have to fall quite so far if he tumbles off a floating platform. It's also where the "half a water stage" reasoning comes in: while the course can be filled with a variable amount of water, it never really factors into any of the Stars. It's simply there as a device to get around the course, a free source of healing and as the aforementioned progress-saver.

I don't care if it's an unfeeling mechanical construct, this thing is pure evil.
I don't care if it's an unfeeling mechanical construct, this thing is pure evil.

As for new enemies, we have a trio: there's the water skimmer "Skeeters", who can present a problem to Mario if he's currently wading through water and has fewer means to defend himself. The funny thing with these guys is that they're completely passive in the water: if they slide into you, it's a result of randomized movement rather than malicious intent. However, should the player lower the water in such a way where they become stranded on land, they will hone in on Mario as soon as they see him, as if angry that he took their carefree water-skating away. The second enemy here is the notorious Heave-Ho, a mechanical foe that looks like a robotic dustpan and brush that will attempt to sneak under Mario's feet and launch him into the air. The ascent is high enough to cause Mario damage upon landing, but not if he exploits them to reach higher levels of the course (which is a lot faster than trying to find the right water-raising diamonds). If you zoom in on these guys, you can see that they have Dreamworks Face: suggesting to some extent that they enjoy tormenting Mario. They also have a "Koopa Co." logo on their side, so maybe they were just programmed to be bad. (Also, the idea of Bowser as a leader of industry is sort of a sobering prospect.) The third and final new type of enemy is the Chuckya, which is essentially Big Bob-Omb with erratic and quick movement and without the grandiose mustache. All he'll do is grab you and throw you in a random direction, usually off the platform. They're a bit more of a problem in courses like Tall Tall Mountain where falling off (or being thrown off) can lead to instant-death. Chuckyas feel like, again, another instance of the coders spending a lot of time on getting a specific part of the game to work right, in this case having enemies pick up Mario and toss him around, that they don't want to restrict it to a single instance early in the game where there's very little danger attached to it. It'd be like spending days designing a difficult jumping puzzle and being crestfallen to discover that it'll only appear early on, where the game is still gentle enough to put floors underneath of tough jumps to catch players that mess up (which is what the entire first run of Super Mario 3D Land felt like, honestly, leading to its "same but not quite" expert second run).

What's the deal with this enormous sunken temple? This place is seriously creepy.
What's the deal with this enormous sunken temple? This place is seriously creepy.

Just a little extra: the oddest trivia about this particular course is that the skybox is filled with a ruined city that's clearly beneath sea level, as you can see the surface if you look directly up, which almost makes Wet-Dry World feel like it's set in the lost city of R'lyeh. The other is that the course was used in this memorable Got Milk? commercial, which prompts Mario to leave the TV and drink some milk in the real world so he can grow big in the game to get past a jumping puzzle any idiot could get through. Ironically, Super Mario 64 is the first Super Mario game in which he could no longer grow in size (though that probably explains why he needed the outside help).

The Stars

This hardly seems fair. Won't hear me complain, though.
This hardly seems fair. Won't hear me complain, though.

Embarrassingly, for the first two Stars in this course the game anticipates that the player won't yet have discovered the "trick" to entering the portrait with a high jump to flood the course, or that they can simply get around the difficult part of this Star by raising the water level sufficiently high that they can simply swim under the ? Block that holds the Star and jump out of the water to hit it. Otherwise, the player has to make their way across a series of precarious two-directional movement blocks that are too small for their own good. Were I to give the designers more credit, it could be that they purposefully created this "cheat" to help demonstrate the importance of the course's water-raising mechanic. I mean, at the maximum natural level of the water, it is directly beneath the block in question: any higher and the block would be submerged and inaccessible and any lower and Mario wouldn't be able to reach it from the water. Feels pretty deliberate to me.

"Would you guys stop for, like, five seconds?"

As with the prior, the second Star is made considerably easier by raising the water level as it simply involves reaching the highest point in the course. It's a path that involves a lot of Heave Hos and Chuckyas, so keeping the water level raised is fairly essential. It also means walking across a plank of wood suspended in the air, which is one of the harder sequences due to its minimal width. Usually the "top of the world" Stars come first, but I suppose the designers felt it would be easier to reach the arrow platforms one.

Secrets in the Shallows is another one that, I feel, appeals more to the younger mindset than the elder. The goal is to simply find five secret spots around the course, which are prompted by the usual hidden triggers previously found within rings in Bob-Omb Battlefield or Dire Dire Docks. They tend to involve hitting ? Blocks with coins and moving the larger red blocks around, but the way these things are spread out it's impossible to find them all without lowering and raising the water levels a lot, making it the first Star that can't be quickly resolved with the portrait high jump trick. The reason I said this was a course more intended for children is because they have more free time to spend searching random nooks and crannies for triggers, while adults probably prefer something a little more overt and challenging. Then again, maybe that's just me.

Thanks game, this makes it super easy to see what I'm doing.
Thanks game, this makes it super easy to see what I'm doing.

The express elevator Star is downright difficult to pull off, and the only truly challenging Star in this entire course. It requires pushing a switch to lower an elevator from the outside, and then dropping to the ground floor, getting inside the little chamber and then riding the elevator back up again to reach the Star. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the water level needs to be at its nadir at all times to pull it off, which means a long climb back to the top of the elevator should the player fail to reach it, and the elevator itself needs a wall-jump within an enclosed location where it's not always easy to see Mario. He also needs to do this jump within a very short window of time. It's one of the Stars made legitimately difficult by its high bar of required precision, rather than due to how easy it is to misjudge a jump and fall off the world midway through.

"This is the shrine where we pray to Cthulhu to drown the world of men and send them all to their eternal sleep. The gift shop's around the corner." - Tourism sign just outside of this shot.

The next two Stars involve taking a cannon over to the far side of the course and swimming through a tunnel to a flooded town. The town's curious because it's a group of buildings with completely closed off interiors. (The locked doors here would be reused for the Legend of Zelda, where they're a little more accommodating.) There's eight red coins scattered around, almost all of which are contained within breakable blocks: the reason for this is so Mario can't simply swim around and collect them all while the water level is high, requiring the player lower the water and run/jump to them the hard way. With the sixth Star, the player is tasked with making a three point "race" around the town: first to the Vanish Cap block (and so is, once again, another sixth Star that has a cap switch requisite), then to a ! Switch to create a block inside the meshed portion of the area. Then Mario has to run into this mesh area before the Vanish Cap wears off, and then up the blocks before they disappear also. It's actually possible to wall jump if the player gets as far as the mesh area's interior, as if to give resourceful players an out if they find themselves in there but are too late to use the blocks to reach the Star, as they would be unable to exit and retry the race.

100-Coin Challenge: Once again, this course requires prior knowledge that an entirely separate area exists to make the 100-Coin Challenge easier. Really, though, it's one of the most generous courses in the game for coins, and pretty much the last "easy" 100-Coin Challenge as we head towards the conclusion. The ? Blocks involved with the "find the secret areas" Star provide a huge number of coins and there's three of those. There's also the obvious blue switch block near the bottom of the course that leads to an quick-and-easy 30 coins, plenty of enemies (though the Heave Hos are invulnerable, alas) and just an abundance of currency all over the place.

The Bit at the End

Why so glum, chum? Tall Tall Mountain's not so bad...
Why so glum, chum? Tall Tall Mountain's not so bad...

All in all, Snowman's Land and Wet-Dry World are the two last courses in the game that are breezy and mild and don't have much in the way of instant death traps, or an abyss waiting underneath the course to devour a klutzy Mario. That isn't to say that the next four don't have their charms, enjoyable challenges and interesting mechanics, but they're all considerably more difficult, especially with regards to their 100-Coin Challenges. I recall the next two in particular being the bane of my existence while on that initial playthrough, though there's aspects about them that I like as well. They're not quite as dispiriting as Dire Dire Docks, at least.

I'll hopefully find a spare moment or two for the last two updates for this series later this month, though I can't make promises as these May Mastery entries are taking up a lot of my free time right now. I'll see you next update, where we find strange mushrooms and discover the world getting bigger and smaller around us (yet, oddly enough, these two events are entirely separate and unrelated).

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