Scenic Routes: Super Mario 64 (Part Six)

I've been thinking/talking a lot about 3D platformers recently, for one reason or another. I stated at the offset of this particular series that I was compelled to jump into Super Mario 64 after watching the Game Grumps YT channel struggle with it, and how similar games have evolved in various directions from that original source as if they all saw what they wanted to see and went away to craft their mind's eye's ideal successor. Many focused on the collectibles, of course, and the idea of creating a series of big cuboid stages with lots of different areas to explore and puzzles to solve. Fewer tend to exhibit the sheer experimental chaos of this genre originator, however, possibly considering that aspect to be the inevitable growing pains of a trailblazing product that had to throw everything against the wall to see what stuck: the more apparent palatable/adhesive elements eventually becoming the staples of the genre. That's largely why I wanted to cover this game in this much detail: there's a certain depth of unbridled (by necessity) creativity to the game that is so rare to see in any big tentpole release these days, most of which play it safe in order to guarantee a return on their heavy investments.

But then, completely irrespective of my desire to revisit Super Mario 64 after watching some goobers fail to get anywhere with its obtuse hints and as-yet-uncodified controls, the Yooka-Laylee announcement came about. A game developed by a large number of ex-Rare employees to be an overt homage to the N64 era in which the company made a name for itself, producing Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark and their Banjo-Kazooie series, the latter of which being the model for this new Kickstarter project. Rather than just reminiscing about N64 platformers on my lonesome, everyone was suddenly talking about them again. It's a serendipitous coincidence that this Scenic Routes series suddenly became a lot more relevant to where people's minds are at, but then it also feels like the Kickstarter did so well because these games have never wandered far from the thoughts of gamers of a certain age.

We'll explore the last two courses of the second floor today, and then attempt to squeeze everything on the top floor into the last edition of this series. It'll be a little back-heavy as a result, but I'd prefer to stick to some obvious cut-off points for simplicity's sake. I recall these two courses in particular being very stressful, especially for the 100-Coin Challenges, as the game is completely committed to instant-death pitfalls and other terrifying hazards for its final four courses. Of course, that's also what makes them a fun challenge.

Tall, Tall Mountain

The Course

Well, there's the log and there's the flume... think, Mario. How do we build a theme park ride out of this?
Well, there's the log and there's the flume... think, Mario. How do we build a theme park ride out of this?

Like many courses in Super Mario 64, Tall, Tall Mountain is constructed as a vertical spiral, requiring that Mario run around its base and continually climb ever upwards via its slopes and platforms. This also exacerbates the natural party-pooper that is gravity, where failing to make it through one of these sequences either causes the player to drop to an earlier point of the course and lose some progress, or fall off the world entirely and have to restart from scratch. I believe this is where the game came up with the idea of calling these things "courses": though hardly linear in many respects, there is a natural start and end point to each one, usually involving the summit of a taller structure: a mountain; a fortress; a spookhouse; a giant snowman; or the inside of a volcano or pyramid. Invariably there's always a Star to be found by taking this "course" to its zenith (or nadir, in the case of some underwater courses), but you rarely see everything there is to see by sticking to this direct path.

"Anyone can miss Tall, Tall Mountain, all tucked away down there."

Tall, Tall Mountain also hosts the game's third and most difficult sliding sequence and is the home to a pair of mischievous "Ukiki" monkeys and the game's only Fwoosh enemy: a dickish cloud that will blow Mario and his hat a fair distance away, like the Giant Snowman. Tall, Tall Mountain also has the smallest portrait, which feels like some kind of ironic joke about the height of the actual course - though it might also be a trick, to make its portrait seem less significant compared to the many other, larger portraits in the castle's hall, all of which besides Wet-Dry World are fake. I think my favorite element about the course is that the summit has a railing around it, as if it were some kind of tourist observation point. It felt like one of those elements drawn directly from a designer's vacation nostalgia, like Shigeru Miyamoto's stories about how the original The Legend of Zelda was inspired by his exploring caves and forests near his home as a child.

The Stars

I haaate log-rolling. (Man, right after I made a Canada joke too.)
I haaate log-rolling. (Man, right after I made a Canada joke too.)

Funny I should mention that one Star you always find by reaching the end of the course, because that's the first one for Tall, Tall Mountain too. Like many Stars of its kind, it's meant to introduce the majority of the course's tricks and traps to the player, presenting a goal that's simple to grasp conceptually but not quite as simple to actually reach. No weird tricks here: just ascend past all the boulders, all the narrow paths, the log rolling lifted from Lethal Lava Land and a handful of enemies. There's a shortcut past the ivy vines, but whether attempting to climb that Aggro Crag is easier or faster than the log-rolling is entirely debatable. At least it isn't quite as dangerous.

Mario, pictured here choking the monkey. Wait, that's not the expression, is it?
Mario, pictured here choking the monkey. Wait, that's not the expression, is it?

The second Star features the monkeys, or Ukiki, the first of which the player will have met on the way to the top of the mountain (unless they took the ivy shortcut). The monkeys have different personalities: the first you meet, by the log, will deliberately allow itself to get caught by walking up to Mario and pestering him. Once picked up, it snatches Mario's cap and becomes a lot harder to grab, not unlike MIPS in the castle's basement. Rather than outspeeding Mario, like MIPS, the monkey outmaneuvers him, leaping over his head when he gets close to an edge and always moving directly away from wherever Mario is standing. The second Ukiki on the summit will be in this "hard to grab" mode initially, and will promise to help Mario if he lets him go. This Ukiki is a little less mischievous and is in fact entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, making the fact that Mario has to grab him seem a little unfair, but the game's banking on the player having been tricked previously and treating this second primate with a similar amount of caution. Once let go, the monkey frees the Star from the nearby cage, dropping it to a lower location. The malevolent player can then pick it up again and drop it off the cliff, like the baby penguin of Cool, Cool Mountain (wow, they didn't spend much time thinking up names for these courses, did they?).

Ain't much room for error here. Ha! Mycological humor! I'm such a fun guy. (I should button it already.)
Ain't much room for error here. Ha! Mycological humor! I'm such a fun guy. (I should button it already.)

The third Star involves the red coin rush, their number evenly split between the precarious mushrooms underneath the rest of the mountain and the ivy shortcut where the moles are. The mushrooms, gracefully, are presented first and are the only real dangerous part of this red coin Star. The ones along the ivy wall not only give you a safety net in the form of solid ground underneath, but also serve to inform the player of the possible shortcut here if they didn't already discover it an don't particularly enjoy crossing the rolling log part of the course. Even removed from imminent danger, the wall coins might be harder to get than the mushroom coins, due to the odd way the platforms jut out of the wall and require very careful jumps to reach.

I don't have a good feeling about this decision.
I don't have a good feeling about this decision.

The Mysterious Mountainside Star gives nothing away with its hint/title, other than giving the player an idea that there might be a secret passage hidden within the walls of the mountain. Once the player reaches the right spot, near the cloud enemy Fwoosh, another wobbly transition appears (like the portraits on the outside) and leads to the course's slide. While this slide begins like the others, it pulls a mean trick halfway down by presenting a wood-panel detour off to the side that might be hard to spot on the initial run (and just as hard to reach in time for the subsequent ones). Were the player to ignore it and continue down the slide, they'd quickly reach a dead end, marked by a large skull icon to indicate that they've inadvertently doomed themselves. There's definitely something ominous about this mocking "too bad!" mural, and it's an element that would later find its way into those diabolical "Kaizo" Mario hacks whenever the player misses a difficult timed sequence and loses a life.

Clever girl.
Clever girl.

The fifth Star, Breathtaking View from the Mountain, is even more cryptic than the previous. However, we have here another Star that a perceptive player can find before they're given the hint to do so, because it can be clearly seen inside a waterfall on the way to the summit. The trick is finding out how to reach it: it's possible but not easy to jump to it from the narrow ledge at the top of the waterfall, but the solution is once again another "bait-and-!-Switch". The exclamation point switch is a little further back and appears to only create a single corkboard block to reach a handful of coins a few inches away. What it also does, and is secretly the reason it's there, is create a second block at the mouth of this secret waterfall cave, making it way easier to get into it. Like the "Fall Onto the Caged Island" Star of Whomp's Fortress, there's both a hard but obvious way - jump off the cliff (Tall, Tall Mountain)/use the cannon (Whomp's Fortress) - and a slightly better hidden easier way - use the block switch (Tall, Tall Mountain)/use the owl's help (Whomp's Fortress). Sometimes it pays to experiment a little before settling on a particularly circuitous way to do something solely because it seems like the only recourse. It's been a common sentiment expressed to criticize the way Drew plays Metal Gear Solid games too.

It's doable, but...
It's doable, but...

Blast to the Lonely Mushroom is another Star that players might spot early on if they spend some time taking in their surroundings: the mushroom in question can be spotted from the starting location, with its Star out in the open. What isn't quite as obvious is how to reach it, with various red herrings like the nearby bouncing block or attempting to get higher up the mountain and leaping over to it with the height advantage (which is actually possible but extremely difficult). Rather, the player needs to find the secret Pink Bob-Omb, fairly well-hidden this time near where the first Ukiki is, and reach the cannon underneath the ledge that is parallel with the scary red coin mushrooms. The player can once again take the hard but obvious route to the ledge underneath, long-jumping from the mushroom that holds the red coin Star, or use the handy warp that occurs if Mario stands on the smallest of the mushrooms where the red coins are. The latter isn't exactly obvious, but it's possible the player might try to reach that tiny platform for the bragging rights. I remember doing exactly that for that exact reason back when I was younger, so maybe the designer behind the warp took the hypothetical youthful player's swaggering into account.

100-Coin Challenge: The game posits a clever strategy here for anyone perspicacious enough to pick up on it. The slide, which only factors into a single Star, has more than 60 coins up for grabs (though you can realistically expect to get 50). If you die on the slide, it'll send you right back to its start again, so by procuring a decent total of coins here, you can use that as a launching stage for the 100 coins needed for the bonus Star. Once out of the slide area, the player simply needs to hop the railing to be back near the start of the course, and from here can collect whatever coins remain. They won't even have to risk the dangerous mushroom red coins; if they go for the red coins on the ivy wall, the thirteen coins near the start and various lines of five along the route up, it shouldn't be as tricky a proposition as it would at first seem. Mitigating the difficulty of this particular 100-Coin Challenge is still contingent on realizing that strategy beforehand however, which is why I consider this to be one of the better-designed instances of this feature where so many others feel tacked on.

Tiny-Huge Island

The Course

The
The "Tiny Island" entrance.

Tiny-Huge Island is another portrait-determinant course, as its portrait room provides two feasible options: one medium-sized painting or an enormous painting. Depending on which you enter, you'll arrive in either a island full of huge goombas, or a very small version of the same course with miniature enemies. The fact is, though, that this only determines the initial state of the course: there's pipes scattered throughout that will allow you to switch between the two on the fly, and it's often necessary to go from one to the other to acquire Stars. What's cool about the portrait room is that it uses forced perspective: an optical illusion that makes both portraits seem equally near and equally large from the center of the room when one of them is in fact a lot further away and larger than it initially appears. It's odd that very few 3D games ever attempt this sort of visual trick; developers wouldn't discover more gameplay applications for it until Indie games like Perspective or Antichamber. Like the Snowman's Land mirrored portrait room, it's one of those unique scenarios that some bright spark thought to include for no other reason to say "Hey, this is what's possible with 3D world design" and the sort of thing I was talking about in the lede regarding how developers building on Super Mario 64's innovations mostly stopped at the obvious gameplay mechanics like collect-a-thons and the player character's versatile maneuverability.

Or... maybe this was the Tiny Island entrance, and the last one was the Huge Island entrance. I probably should've labelled these screenshots.
Or... maybe this was the Tiny Island entrance, and the last one was the Huge Island entrance. I probably should've labelled these screenshots.

It's not a big "developer insider knowhow" secret that Tiny-Huge Island is really two courses, rather than one. No weird size transformations are happening here; the pipes simply move you from one course to the other. It's a cool effect though, even if all the game's doing is tinkering with the scale of the geography and replacing the enemies with bigger/smaller versions. There's a few significant changes beyond the size of enemies too, as various "Huge Island" portals adopt different roles and certain creatures, like the Boss Bass, suddenly go from harmless to potentially fatal.

Speaking for enemies, as well as the hungry Boss Bass (which wear those hoodlum triangular shades popular in all the animes), there's the first instance of a hostile Lakitu. The camera Lakitu doesn't seem too phased by the fact that you're killing his kin, and it seems odd to include both a hostile version and the peaceful one that's following Mario around. Then again, if you've bothered to make a model for one, might as well take full advantage of it. The huge goombas and piranha plants will come up later, when I start discussing the course's Stars.

The Stars

These things always creep me out. At least they aren't speaking to me in Levi Stubbs's voice.
These things always creep me out. At least they aren't speaking to me in Levi Stubbs's voice.

Which will be right now. The first Star requires that the player make their way to the piranha plants. In order to reach them, the player has to work out how best to traverse this course: namely, by jumping to the Tiny Island to quickly move to any other point in the course with a pipe, then popping back into the Huge Island. The piranhas only appear in the Huge Island, but you need to drop into Tiny Island to reach the platform they're on and use the pipe there to return to Huge Island and defeat them. There's five in total, and they have the annoying ability to shrink to microscopic size and then grow huge as soon as Mario gets close. They're hard to jump on when fully-sized mostly due to the sticky ground, and Mario's punch is a little too short-range to be reliable, so it's easy to take damage while fighting this quintet. A few creatures pull off this trick of phasing into existence whenever Mario gets close, and it doubles as both a programmer's trick to minimize the number of moving parts active at any given moment and as an effective ambush tactic for the enemies themselves.

Hold me closer, tiny goomba.
Hold me closer, tiny goomba.

The second is the requisite "reach the top of the course" Star. I feel the designers missed a trick here, as the first Star will have already taught them how to skip most of the course by using Tiny Island and the pipes. While it's possible to somersault shortcut up from the piranha island, this path isn't particularly obvious; what's more obvious is using the pipe past the beach area and using that to skip the boulders, jumping up to the next height level where the boulders originate and using the pipe there to hop back into Huge Island. From there, it's a simple run to the peak. The course is not particularly easy to navigate without skipping chunks of it one way or the other, but as the first Star stresses this island-flipping maneuver, reaching the Star at the summit of Tiny Island becomes just that little bit more trivial.

Koopa the Quick is a lot more complimentary than Il Piantissimo ever was. Flab biscuit?!
Koopa the Quick is a lot more complimentary than Il Piantissimo ever was. Flab biscuit?!

The third Star revisits Koopa the Quick, the speed-obsessed Koopa of Bob-Omb's Battlefield. He challenges Mario while on Tiny Island and tasks them with taking a short but perilous race through the "Windswept Valley" part of the course. (If you visit the spot where he's standing in Huge Island, there is a smaller Koopa which can be defeated for coins. Whether that's actually Koopa the Quick or not is debatable, as Koopa the Quick will still be there.) It's not as difficult as it seems, as Mario's running the same direction as the boulders and therefore doesn't have a whole lot of obstacles in his face on the way to the flag. The only tricky part is the plank of wood near the end, where the winds are strong and Mario is forced to slow to walking speed. It's possible for Koopa to simply barge past Mario at this point, either winning the race or pushing Mario off the course to his death. Neither is a good result, as they both mean starting over.

Heeeey, what's in here?
Heeeey, what's in here?

Five Itty Bitty Secrets is another Star that tasks Mario with finding five arbitrary secret triggers on the course. However, there's a big hint with the words "itty bitty" and once the player has found a couple it's not difficult for them to figure out the pattern that links them together. I feel this is a lot better handled than the equivalent "five secrets" Star from Wet-Dry World for that very reason. The hint description suggests that Mario should start searching in Tiny Island, and each of the five are the now impassible doorways and holes in the course. While the door linking the beach area to the start, the cannon pit and the gap that spits out the cannonballs shouldn't be tricky to find, it's the door to the red coin Star (coming up next) and the summit that might take some additional poking around. Fortunately, finding both of these at this juncture ought to give the player some additional inspiration for tracking down the final two Stars.

The literal translation of the Japanese name for the movie Jaws is
The literal translation of the Japanese name for the movie Jaws is "Cool Delinquent Fish". That might even be possibly true.

With the fifth Star, the player will have hopefully found the cave that goes into the side of the cliff above the beach as part of the Five Itty Bitty Secrets Star. The player must simply find a way back up there while on Huge Island. There's a couple of ways to do this: finding the cannon Pink Bob-Omb (he's on Tiny Island and hard to miss), and using the cannon to blast up onto the ledge that connects to the wooden walkway leading to the cave, or by climbing up the mountain and jumping down to that same ledge from above. It's cleverly designed to be almost impossible to find without the player actively searching for a route to get there, but once they've determined that there is a cave to explore in that area, there's a few paths open to them. Once inside, there's just a few tricky jumps to collect the eight necessary red coins. The player also can sneak a glimpse at Wiggler's home above with its skylight, providing another contextual hint on how to access this area of the map if they hadn't figured it out from the previous Star.

Wiggler's not exactly the most intimidating boss in the game, but he makes up for it in complaining.
Wiggler's not exactly the most intimidating boss in the game, but he makes up for it in complaining.

Wiggler is the boss of Tiny-Huge Island, but his fight isn't particularly difficult. He doesn't go into full red-tint anger mode, like he did in Super Mario World and will do in Super Mario Sunshine, but his increased speed and the odd arena can sometimes make it difficult to follow him. Reaching him is simply a matter of breaking a hole in the summit while on Tiny Island and then running back up there in Huge Island and hopping inside. One odd element of this fight is the idea provided by Wiggler's dialogue that being given a Power Star has somehow corrupted the poor caterpillar, turning him violent and angry against his usual genial nature. He'll also shrink after he gives the Star up, as if to suggest that he's normally the size of any regular bug without its pernicious influence (in fact, he shrinks so much he falls through the grate to the abyss below, which doesn't seem right). The game doesn't really explore this story conceit with any of the other bosses; you simply get the impression from those guys that they were big and mean to begin with, hence why Bowser gave them all Power Stars to look after. It feels like an aborted story arc, if anything. The second thing that's odd about Wiggler is that he's created from multiple yellow-brown spheres, rather than a 2D sprite, which makes one wonder why they couldn't do the same for the Pokeys in Shifting Sand Land. Pokey's really just a vertical Wiggler if you think about it...

100-Coin Challenge: The 100-Coin Challenge of this course initially seems insurmountable, as the player has to cross the various precarious gorges and pits across both Tiny Island and Huge Island (as well as explore that difficult red coin cave again) in order to reach the needed number of coins. Really, though, there's a few hidden tricks that the player will have to be fortunate to discover that'll make this Star way easier. The player doesn't even have to visit Tiny Island if they play their cards right: if they ground-pound the large goombas (and there are many), they'll earn a blue coin every time. Add this to the blue coin from the beach Koopa, the five from the Lakitu, another secret ten coins from running around the two wooden posts in this course and the thirty-six coins from the red coin cave (including the blue coin switch and the five coins leading to the cave), the player can hit the goal target fairly quickly without endangering Mario too much. It makes me wonder if the designers didn't think of some last-minute ways to make this challenge easier without being it too obvious about it, like a blue coin block that spits out a dozen blue coins.

And with that we're done with the intermediate floor of the castle, with only the top floor left to conquer. I'm going to try to squeeze in the remaining three bonus Stars, the last two courses and the final encounter with Bowser in the next update to finish this series off. It's been quite the stroll down memory lane though, and I'll be sad to see it end. Maybe I can start another similar series with Banjo-Kazooie down the line? Possibly closer to the release of Yooka-Laylee? Getting waaaay ahead of myself.

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