Recently on Negative World there has been great debate between two classic platformer-giants of the N64 era. The bitter battle between Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie is not unlike that of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in terms of epic father and son battles go. This debate sparked a desire within me to take a look back at all the great levels these games had to offer in the form of two Top Ten lists. The first of which being for the father of the 3D platformer, Super Mario 64. Super Mario 64 is distinct in that it really paved the way for 3D gaming much in the way Super Mario Bros. paved the way for 2D gaming once upon a time. It's a timeless classic and is loved generation after generation as Nintendo ensures this classic is available on a variety of platforms.
Put on that red cap... adjust those overalls,.... because Here We Go!
We start the countdown with one of the later levels in the game. After many hours a player would make their way to a special room with paintings in three directions. Nothing special would happen if you walked forward, but take one of the other paths… and Mario would find the painting seem to grow or shrink depending. It was a cool optical illusion to illustrate the fact that depending on which entrance you took, or which in-game pipe you used, Mario could be both huge and tiny in this level. The level itself is actually rather significantly small when you're the huge Mario and thus many of the stars to be found were discovered as a small Mario. Some notables about this level were the final race against Koopa the Quick and a nice cameo from a Wiggler. With hidden warps, giant piranha plants, and some pretty dangerous platforming, this was certainly one of Mario's trickiest challenges yet.
Number Nine on the countdown is Rainbow Ride! This level took place high up in the clouds. You see, Mario dies in the 14th level but… oh wait, well no, that didn't happen. Still, Mario took to the clouds and rode some magical carpets for some tricky unforgiving platforming. What makes this level notable in my book is the lack of the safety net in terms of platforming. If you made a mistake, you were falling deep below. It was in many ways the great-grandfather of those awesome challenges in Super Mario Sunshine and then later what the Super Mario Galaxy games would be (though with an added gravitational safety net). One of the reasons this levels is so low on the list is because at times it can be very slow-moving. I remember the carpet rides being achingly slow. Still, the platforming challenge helped keep it a relevant level.
Big Boo's Haunt
Most notable for being the 3D equivalent of the Boo Houses from Super Mario World, Big Boo's Haunt was a really cool level. To enter you had to dive into a birdcage weirdly enough. Once inside you were essentially shrunk down and in the middle of the cage was a huge mansion. Filled with invisible walls, shifting bookcases, and plenty of white but bashful Boos, this level was a great change of pace for players who made it past the first floor's worlds. The music was incredibly moody and dark, almost pulled from perhaps a Zelda game. If that didn't creep you out enough, there was a basement carousel with the expected music, and a Big Boo to tackle in the middle of it. One last thought on the topic of music in this level though… don't you dare touch that piano...
Jolly Roger Bay
The first of the two 'water' levels, this one made a more lasting impression on me. Perhaps it was the discovery of it all but taking your first dive into the open water was rather exhilarating. The first star has you going to find a pirate ship which has since become the home of a giant eel. The whole ordeal was quite mystical and fun. Eventually the sunken ship would rise and more fun would be had on it's surface. It was a rather small level in comparison to the game's other levels but it still left a big impression, more of an impression on me than the latter level would, even with a submarine.
Cool, Cool Mountain
Another first of two levels this level came right after Jolly Roger Bay. Many of the levels have a mountainous feel to them considering Nintendo's urge to push forward 3D gameplay, but this was the first to have you scaling downwards instead of upwards. The neat thing about this level was just how many different ways you could make your way down. Did you climb through the chimney and race a penguin to the bottom? Or did you take a leap of faith and dive off the edge? Perhaps you knew about the secret warp on the bridge-edge? Or probably you just walked forward and slid down the spiraling basic path. Even when you scoured the level at length there was still a hidden nook on one of the sides. You needed a well place cannon shot to get there and once you did, your platforming skills were put to the test. Snowmen, Penguins, and significant depth lead this level into the sixth spot on this list.
When I was initially thinking about this list, I heavily pondered putting this level much closer to the number one spot… but in the end I disagreed. The second level in the game contained a floating fortress with gigantic Whomp at the top and he was pissed! These rocky dudes would attempt to crush you any chance they'd get. It was tricky to dodge them because of the narrow pathways you had to contend with. Eventually a spire would shoot up to make the total height of the level even higher. Didn't want to climb the level? Well hidden in a tree nearby was an owl weirdly enough. You could use him to fly to the top of the level quickly but his real purpose was providing the only ride into a caged platform high in the sky. More cannons. Incredible music. This level had a lot going for it. Why else would they bring back the entire level in Super Mario Galaxy 2?
There's no doubt in my mind that on almost anyone's list of this nature, the first level in the game makes the cut. Bob-omb Battlefield was how millions of gamers had their first taste of 3D platforming or 3D gaming in general. This was the playground that allowed Miyamoto to find out if the N64 controls worked or not. That they did! Various platforms to climb or jump off of… multiple dangers and types… a koopa shell to skateboard around the level on… cannons… and the introduction of the Wing Cap power up… this level got the ball rolling both figuratively and literally. I still have memories of my first battle with King Bob-omb. I remember being completely baffled initially on how to take him down. Finally it clicked. Circling him and grabbing him from behind only to toss him on his keister. Little did I know that this would be training for the inevitable showdowns I had with the King of Koopas… Bowser.
Shifting Sand Land
After catching a rabbit in a basement, many jumped through a wall of no discriminate image… that blank canvas (so to speak) was the entrance to the dry desert world, Shifting Sand Land. This was a rather unique level that I always had a ton of fun with. You'd start off in a desert fighting off pokeys and dodging giant squares. Then perhaps you'd get your iconic red hat stolen by a persistent vulture. Speaking of red,… The red coins were quite challenging in fact because you'd have to fly around to collect them. It took precision. Then as if this level wasn't big enough, you can go inside a pyramid and there's a ton to do in there as well! More quicksand! More enemies! A lot of climbing! To top it all off, there was a large hand boss which was essentially Nintendo's precursor to Bongo Bongo of Ocarina of Time fame.
Tick Tock Clock
Tick Tock Clock is more simple than some of the other levels on this list and yet way more dynamic. The level is an almost-never ending climb. A majority of the platforms move around or rise and fall. You have to dodge pendulums and the hands of the clock. If you fell off, chances were that you'd fall to your death unless you were able to guide yourself into the right position. Even so, you'd have to climb all the way back up… Tick Tock Clock hands down contained the trickiest platforming in the game, a cross it happily bears. One of the neatest things about this level was the fact that you could change the difficulty of the level with ease. Depending on what time you entered the big clock at the top of Peach's Castle, that would affect the speed in which the clock was moving and thus the platforms. The slower the easier generally but some things actually benefitted from having a faster paced level. Some aspects were completely impossible with the clock stopped (achieved by entering at 12 o'clock). When you finally nabbed all the stars in this level, you still wanted that clock to keep on ticking'. That's why it earns the number two spot. Nintendo later paid homage to this level when they had a clock-themed level in a later Mario Kart game. It's a theme I would enjoy Nintendo revisiting someday.
Tall, Tall Mountain
Something tells me that my pick for number one isn't going to be everyone's. This is yet another mountain level with yet another slide. It doesn't necessarily do anything that different… but that said… I always adored this level. I felt like it perfected the mountain aspect of the Mario 64 levels. The slide was definitely better and trickier than the one found in Cold, Cold Mountain. It was longer, had more dynamic slopes, more chances to fall off… you name it. It didn't need a penguin to get in the way and make things more difficult that way. It was just a pure slide challenge. Aesthetically Tall, Tall Mountain was full of mushrooms, an aspect I always appreciated considering mushrooms are such an icon of the series. It was the one level that made me feel like I was in the Mushroom Kingdom, like Super Mario Bros. World 1-1. To this day I would love to see a whole game designed around that kind of architecture and idea and this mountain would be a part of that. The monkeys in the game also made this level exceptionally charming. Most of the levels in Super Mario 64 can be considered little playgrounds for the 3D Mario to play through and to me, this was one of the greatest jungle gyms the series has ever seen.
I have no doubts that this list will be somewhat polarizing. One of the beauties of Super Mario 64 was that it appealed to each person differently. It had so much variety in it's level themes, level designs, and complexity that despite all of us playing the same game, we all would gain different experiences. That's one of the key reasons the game has always been a shining star to many gamers alike. I did not include any of the Bowser Levels in this list and that was on purpose. Do not suppose that I believe they all just are worse than these three levels. The Bowser challenges are very fun and unique in their own right. Since they have a distinct and deliberate path and are not really worlds for one to enter but active doors to pass through, I decided to keep the considerations and list to the primary fifteen levels in the game. Of course this means that Dire, Dire, Docks with it's submarine and arguably the best song in the game did not make it. Neither did the lava surfing platforming of Lethal Lava Land. The whole game is great and I wish I could give every level their due, but then that would make this a walkthrough and not a top-ten list.
Whichever levels you loved, I know one thing, thinking about this game all over again is probably making you want to grab a N64 controller, swing that nasty Koopa King, and have yourself some cake.
This was fun to reread. It'd be tricky to rank the SM64 levels, but I'll try. As it turns out, my favorite stages are mostly bunched in the front of the game (kind of the opposite of Banjo-Kazooie).
15. Dire, Dire Docks - One of my issues with SM64 is that some of the levels really lack their own identity (due to similar theming and music), a problem BK corrects with flying colors. Docks feels like a weaker, less-interesting retread of Jolly Roger Bay. Swimming isn't all that fun in SM64, so the main appeal of it needs to be in atmospheric value, and this enclosed dome thing doesn't really provide much atmosphere at all. Even the above-water gameplay is kinda dull, with slow-moving poles and one mistake meaning you need to do it all again.
14. Snowman's Land - See the above complaint about identity. It just kinda feels like a weaker, less-fun version of Cool, Cool Mountain.
13. Shifting Sand Land - I'm noticing my bottom three all reuse music. The pyramid is a fun challenge, but this is a stage where it's kind of a chore to get around; the wide layout makes Mario's movements feel kinda slow, and it's pesky to suddenly die to the quicksand on the edges.
12. Hazy Maze Cave - While I'm not a big fan of maze design, this one has some pretty cool challenges, and avoids getting too confusing even with its many hallways. It's a bit like a Zelda dungeon in a couple ways, although it has a few annoying stars (like the moving platform).
11. Rainbow Ride - Didn't like the reuse of the slider theme for two stages in a row. This also has that irritating waiting issue that has been mentioned already for some of the carpet stuff. Otherwise, it's a bit like a Bowser stage with Stars, which isn't a bad place to be. Some of the platforming challenges are solid fun.
10. Lethal Lava Land - I rather like the lava damage mechanic--making it take off a lot of life but launching you up makes the level have some surprisingly fun risk/reward elements for those that want to take shortcuts. Shell surfing is fun too and the volcano isn't a bad challenge either. Not wild about the music track, which I think is one of the weakest in the game.
9. Wet-Dry World - It's a pretty cool mechanic and is done creatively. Almost a proto-Water Temple. This water stage has a good amount of platforming to it as well, so it feels appropriately balanced and not too slow-paced. A few of the stars are unremarkable, but it gets bonus points for the sunken city segment, which is one of my favorite moments in the game.
8. Tick Tock Clock - A good platforming challenge with a refreshing theme and an interesting speed-altering gimmick. What holds it back a bit is that it feels like there's pretty much one trip up that you're making over and over, so it gets repetitive when you go for all the stars.
7. Big Boo's Haunt - Surprisingly intense atmosphere and music for a Mario game. I approve! Also has some fun horror gimmicks like the piano and carousel. The way to defeat Boos is kinda clever and really plays off their shyness and Mario's new moves. At times this stage gets a little too "wander around"-y for my tastes, but it's in the top half of levels for me.
6. Whomp's Fortress - Definitely a fun second stage, which sidesteps the repetition problem by giving Mario a few different ways to scale the fortress. It's the first of many "floating island" levels, so it eases you into the challenge of working without a net, meaning you're less likely to plummet into the endless sky and be forced to re-collect your 100 coins. Whomp is a fun enemy and boss.
5. Cool, Cool Mountain - This one scored higher than I thought. Unlike Whomp's Fortress, you're working your way down a mountain, but like that stage, you have multiple ways to do it. The snowball star is overly finicky, but the rest of them are good fun, from racing the penguin to mastering the wall-jumps. A breezy, wintery take on the main theme keeps you movin'.
4. Jolly Roger Bay - The first of the water stages is my favorite. While swimming's not all that fun from a gameplay perspective and the stage is a bit small, it's got atmosphere in spades. It really feels like you're diving far into the deep and exploring a sunken ship with Mario, which is a big reason I like to replay this one more than most. Also, the eel is appropriately freaky and makes for the scariest monster in the game, by far. Sometimes immersion is the secret ingredient for making a great stage. Also gets big points for its music, which changes dynamically based on what you're doing.
3. Tall, Tall Mountain - One of the best-realized of the mountain-style stages, and one of the most Mario-feeling ones of the game. It's a bit on the linear side, but there are still a few alternate paths here and there, and it introduced numerous mechanics to keep you on your toes. There's a tricky slide, a dangerous mushroom section to prove your derring-do, and a hat-stealing monkey. Actually, the monkey kinda drives me crazy, so I bumped this down a spot.
2. Bob-Omb Battlefield - This level really feels like it's kickstarting the 64-bit era. I mean, the prologue is great and everything, but you're really just getting the hang of the controls and new mechanics. Once you drop into Bob-Omb Battlefield and those awesome big band horns come in, you know you're in for a treat. It's a gentle level but far from uninteresting, with the game's first appearance of the classic Goombas, a fun boss fight, a speed run challenge, some wing and cannon mechanics to play around with, and even a puzzle element with the Chain Chomp's star. Scaling the hill is fun and the meadows around it are inviting in their own ways. And the music is the best in the game!
1. Tiny-Huge Island - Still my favorite! I've always been a sucker for this stage's mechanic; it's got some tricky platforming when it's huge, making getting around a puzzle in and of itself. There's some surprising nostalgia here with the enemies, featuring the returns of Micro-Goombas, the Big Bertha-esque Boss Bass, Lakitu + Spinies, and a Wiggler! And the island feels extra-surreal when it's tiny, seeing all these familiar locales shrunken down to a much smaller size. I distinctly remember stomping around its tiny beach and feeling like a giant compared to the first form of the stage. I dunno, it's just a neat, interesting gimmick that I really like.
My top three all share my favorite song. I wonder if that tune helps me have more fun with the game...? 9 < 10 < 8 < 6 < 15 < 7 < 11 < 14 < 5 < 2 < 4 < 3 < 12 < 1 < 13
@TriforceBun You know, I'm not sure I ever noticed that the Cool Cool Mountain music is a take on Bob-Omb Battlefield until you pointed it out. And now it seems so obvious.
Let's give this a shot:
15. Jolly Roger Bay -- I think SM64 does swimming better than most games...but it's still not fun. At least Jolly Roger Bay has that great music, and that fun but pointless koopa shell... 14. Dire, Dire Docks -- More swimming! But following the manta ray is a more fun swimming challenge than anything in Dire Dire Docks, plus the Metal + Invisible cap is a nice powerup mix surprise. 13. Shifting Sand Land -- Quicksand, bleh. Outside the pyramid is a bit too flat, inside it's kind of overly large. I like the tornadoes and the rolling-block area, at least. 12. Hazy Maze Cave -- Nessie is the game's top "atmosphere!" moment, I'd say. Otherwise the stage is sort of a hodge podge of various challenges, none of which are especially good or bad.
11. Tiny-Huge Island -- Huge island is too big! Tiny island is too small! The return of Koopa the Quick is great, and it has some decent platforming challenges, but I've never really cared for most of the stars in this stage. 10. Tick Tock Clock -- I want to like this stage a lot more than I do. Cool theme, but it's pretty repetitive for the most part. 9. Rainbow Ride -- The titular carpet trips are dull (though still quite challenging) but I like the individual stars. The ant-farm red coin area is a lot of fun, as are the obstacle courses on the opposite side.
8. Wet Dry World -- My favorite water level, probably because the water is largely optional. The individual stars are kind of odd, but traversing the level is a nice mix of platforming and puzzle. Neat sunken city tucked into the corner is great too. 7. Big Boo's Haunt -- Ugly stage to look at (and listen to). But I really like how you "unlock" the top floor with the first star, and it's surprisingly varied throughout. 6. Snowman's Land -- I'd agree that it feels like a Cool, Cool Mountain knockoff, but Snowman's Land still has some really fun moments: bouncing off the flower enemies, over to the Koopa shell hidden in the corner, then using that to swipe the red coins in the frozen lake under the Bully...and the mountain climb is okay, too. 5. Tall, Tall Mountain -- There's only one or two branching paths up this mountain, but there are a handful of fun distractions along the way.
4. Bob-Omb Battlefield -- Stage 1 is a great intro to Super Mario 64. Really hard to ask for a better one. But it's still just the beginning. 3. Lethal Lava Land -- The exception to my mountains-rule preference, this one's flat as a pancake. But the ability to "skip" through the lava makes it feel less linear if you're willing to sacrifice some HP. And I think the sumo matches against the Bullies are the game's best "combat."
2. Cool, Cool Mountain -- Who knew starting at the top and working your way down could be so enjoyable? So many ways to get down the mountain (and back up!), and most of the stars are exceptionally fun. 1. Whomp's Fortress -- This one level showcases two things I absolutely love about Super Mario 64: freedom of progression, and freedom of maneuvers. Both with an economical use of landmass that proves less is usually more in 3D platforming.
Nice list! I like how everyone's thoughts on these stages are pretty varied.
Regarding Cool, Cool Mountain's main theme variant, the Slider theme (aka Tick Tock Clock/Rainbow Ride) is another variant. I think the Mario series kind of embraced a "main theme" around each of its individual games around the time of Super Mario World (which similarly used its main theme in at least six different types of stages).
I don't mind the remixes, but I'd prefer if SM64 didn't reuse actual tracks in its different levels. The entire back-half of SM64 reuses songs (levels 8 through 15, maybe not counting Tick Tock Clock if we ignore the bonus stage music), as well as level 2.
Banjo-Kazooie really took music in a 3D platformer to the next level...!