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.
Many of Super Mario 64's levels were mountain climbs weren't they? Also I'd probably have Lethal Lava Land in there myself. Particularly once you open up the koopa shell and are lava surfing all over the place.
Yeah, I never realized just how much of them were mountain-like until I made this list. Either they were mountains, or hollow mountains (such as Tick Tock Clock). In fact, Lethal Lava Land, which is definitely a fun one, has a volcano which then takes the premise of the mountain into it's hands again. Mountain's everywhere! For Mario's first 3D outing, I suppose it made sense.
I agree except for the part where I totally disagree. Cool Cool Mountain should be near, if not at, the top of every "Best Level" list ever made ever. And it's higher (lower) than friggin' SHIFTING SANDS?! What are you smoking?
What, no Wet-Dry World? BLASPHEMY! That stage is about the only time I've ever liked a level with water in it, it was neat to raise the water to various levels and see where you could swim, and then completely draining the water and trying to see where you could get to from the bottom was a lot of fun. And then later you discover a sunken city, which is the landscape for the best Red Coins star in the whole game. Such a memorable level.
The later levels in Super Mario 64 really ramped up the awesomeness with sweet gimmicks and other tricks, they were where the designers stopped holding back and unleashed the full force of their ideas. At least you have the other four on your list, as they're all great stages. My fave before that point is Whomp's Fortess, that was a fun one to explore and climb around.
You know, for me, I both love and hate Wet-Dry World. I don't know what it is about it. Depending on the day, I could go either way. It's certainly a good level overall though, whether I get grumpy with it or not.
Pet peeve time, though: why does everyone always credit Dire, Dire Docks' music to that stage? That song will always and forever be the Jolly Roger Bay theme to me; it shows up six stages earlier, and it fits the atmosphere of that level much, much better! Plus, "Dire Dire Docks" is sort of a silly name for that song, don't you think?
Otherwise, good picks. Tall, Tall Mountain is a fun stage for sure, but it wouldn't be up there for me simply because it feels a little too linear to me. Like, you're scaling the mountain in a very similar way each time (especially during the first part), whereas a stage like Cool, Cool Mountain gives you several different options from the get-go.
My favorite has always actually been Tiny-Huge Island. It's a crazy cool concept that I think could have full games built around it, and it always feels kind of...I dunno, surreal stomping around the Tiny Island after spend a good amount of time in the Huge one. Massive lakes become puddles and such.
EDIT: Wet-Dry World isn't one of my favorites, but it does have one of my favorite sequences in the game, and in the N64 era--exploring the sunken city was eerie and magical.
I really miss the mountain-style stage designs in newer Mario games. Even in Sunshine, the levels were sprawled out a bit too far. 3D Mario is way more interesting with vertical platforming than horizontal traversal.
I'm not big on Jolly Roger Bay myself, too swimming-centric. Wet-Dry World was my favorite water level in the game, thanks to its cool puzzle mechanics, interesting use of enemies, tough platforming challenges, and the eerie sunken city. I'm not patient enough to appreciate the pole-hanging of Dire Dire Docks, either, though at least it had that cool Metal + Invisible Cap star.
I would also definitely sub in Lethal Lava Land for Shifting Sand Land. Like Zero mentioned, the koopa shell surfing over lava was so cool, and as far as flat, barren levels go, the lava made it a lot more interesting.
But yeah, solid list. I think Cool Cool Mountain and Whomp's Fortress would be my top two...today. Tomorrow it might be totally different. I'm fickle, and most of the levels are equally fantastic. What a game.
I was always under the impression it was called Dire Dire Docks but I kind of remember it being the Jolly Roger Bay theme also. All these years I assumed I guess that it was for one reason or another related to Dire Dire Docks somehow though. This is what bothers me about the music in the game. They reuse tracks and it's disappointing (but I guess not abnormal for Mario games). It's what I always appreciated so much with Banjo-Kazooie.
Yeah, totally. They need to bring back some of that classic Vertical platforming that Mario 64 pretty much had in every single level! (It was probably due to hardware limitations at the time, so maybe they need to make the next console even LESS powerful, to force them back to that brilliance! Ha ha)
(#FirstPostInAlmost3Years) Right, time for my (very) personal rankings on all 15 stages because why not? Tier 4 - The Bad 15: BIG BOO'S HAUNT 14: RAINBOW RIDE 13: LETHAL LAVA LAND 12: SHIFTING SAND LAND Tier 3 - The Average 11: TICK-TOCK CLOCK 10: WET-DRY WORLD 9: SNOWMAN'S LAND Tier 2 - The Good (All 8 of these following are interchangeable, unreliable rankings! LOL) 8: COOL, COOL MOUNTAIN 7: WHOMP'S FORTRESS 6: DIRE, DIRE DOCKS 5: JOLLY ROGER BAY Tier 1 - The Best 4: BOB-OMB BATTLEFIELD 3: HAZY MAZE CAVE 2: TALL, TALL MOUNTAIN 1: TINY-HUGE ISLAND So, there we have it. The first 7 are ones I didn't particularly enjoy, to be honest. The top 8 are all interchangeable, and were all a ton of fun!
Good list. I actually do feel like playing this game yet again after reading it!
Also, I didn't know about clock-speed dynamic in Tick Tock Clock. That's really cool.
Lethal Lava Land is a favorite of mine. It's got all kinds of different platforms and perils scattered around that together make for a variety of entertainment. It's like a playground set on top of lava! It's also fun trying to get back on a platform after falling into the lava.