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‘Super Mario 64’ Level by Level: Course 10 – Snowman’s Land



Over twenty years later, Super Mario 64 remains a top-notch example of bravely innovative and masterfully fluid game design not only for its groundbreaking three-dimensional gameplay that was a tipping point for the entire industry but also for the design of its intricately crafted and sweepingly diverse fifteen courses. In this continuing feature, I will examine each of these fifteen courses in detail, attempting to pick apart each course and evaluate its accomplishments and inadequacies. With the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey being only the third Mario game in the same vein as Super Mario 64 (following Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine), it is high time to reexamine one of the evergreen staples of the video game canon. In this installment, I’ll be taking a look at Course 10 – Snowman’s Land.

After beating Bowser in Bowser in the Fire Sea, the locked door up the foyer stairs can be opened to reveal a long spiraling staircase that opens into a circular rotunda-like room adorned with portraits. Inside an adjacent room, a giant mirror flanks the wall opposite the door. This mirror’s reflection reveals a discrepancy between the reflected and unreflected: a portrait of Cool, Cool Mountain’s course entrance hangs in the mirror, but in actuality, it is a blank wall. Perhaps this is a veiled nod to the “no man’s land” pun in Course 10’s name. Or a tacit acknowledgment of how much this course borrows from Cool, Cool Mountain. Either way, this is the entrance to Snowman’s Land, the game’s second wintry world and the first course of the game’s third act.

From a bird’s eye view, Snowman’s Land looks a bit like a donut. In the center stands a monolithic snowman, around him is a circular band of land constituting the bulk of the course. The player spawns behind the snowman, and for most stars will progress along the donut path in a counterclockwise direction, facing several obstacles along the way. Some notable possible obstacles include an ice version of Big Bully, a tiny ravine, and a slew of enemies, primarily Spindrifts and Moneybags. After completing a near-complete circle around the donut, the player can hop past some moving slopes to reach the massive snowman’s scarf. Scaling the scarf, a penguin paces in front of a constantly exhaling snowman, whose breath can blow Mario off the walkway. After using the penguin as a barrier by letting him take the brunt of the breath, the player can reach the top of the snowman’s head.

Under the snowman’s scarf lies a small igloo the player can crawl inside. Like the volcano in Lethal Lava Land and the pyramid in Shifting Sand Land, this serves as a smaller interior zone that complements the larger exterior portion. However, this igloo is comparatively minuscule, comprised of only several translucent ice walls that form a maze. The player must navigate this maze to unlock the course’s canon, reach a vanish cap, earn an objective star, and collect enough coins for the 100 coin star.

On the whole, Snowman’s Land feels a bit like a warped sequel to Cool, Cool Mountain — the Majora’s Mask to Cool Cool Mountain’s Ocarina of Time. It reuses the central themes and assets of Cool, Cool Mountain but appropriates them in such an idiosyncratic fashion that it stands on its own feet as a solid and disparate course. It is also as much a spiritual successor to Shifting Sand Land and Lethal Lava Land, in its interpretation of a classic Mario theme across a plain-like area with an interior portion.

For the most part, this all works out well enough. The snowman in the center of the course is a memorable centerpiece, the difficulty is appropriately balanced as the first course in the game’s third act, and the ice theme is present in almost every aspect of the course’s design, from slippery surfaces to chilling water to harsh winds to the secret igloo. However, the semi-open design of the donut-shaped segment feels occasionally imbalanced, with some areas significantly more difficult to others. This likely leads to most players traversing the path of least resistance in the same linear manner every time, simply because it is the easiest.

For example, the tiny ravine with an amp buzzing around and strong gusts of wind seems like a nifty topographical feature worthy of exploration. However, it’s so small and so easy to run around that there is no reason to ever enter. It seems deliberately and thoughtfully designed, and it’s a shame there’s not a reason to engage with it. Because of features like this, playing Snowman’s Land isn’t as open as it looks, since the optimal path forward remains invariably optimal.

Star 1, “Snowman’s Big Head,” is a standard first star that asks the player to get from one end of the course to the other. Here, the player must run counterclockwise around the donut-shaped course until reaching the giant snowman’s scarf, which they must then climb up to reach the star on the snowman’s head. On the whole, it’s a standard introductory star that relies on the success of the design of the course. Dodging snowman breath at the top can be quite tricky, and losing your hat along with falling to the bottom a little too punishing. Thankfully, the player only has to pass this obstacle once, as multiple attempts would be a bother. Meanwhile, Star 2 asks the player to “Chill with the Bully” on an elevated ice platform near the course entrance. Seeing Big Bully with a new frosty texture in an environment so opposite his prior appearance is fun, but ultimately it’s the same boss fight twice encountered in Lethal Lava Land. However, the strength of the bully’s design and the slight variation of playing on a slippery surface make this a brief but enjoyable star.

“In the Deep Freeze” also has the player stick close to the starting area, this time to navigate an ice sculpture holding a star. It doesn’t take much longer than a few seconds to figure out, but I appreciate the attempt to craft a miniature puzzle so reliant on a specifically three-dimensional trick. Star 4, “Whirl from the Freezing Pond,” makes the player trace his Star 1 tracks up until the section with moving slopes. From here, the player must hop atop a Spindrift to hover past a wall. On the other side of this wall lies a box holding a shell, and next to that a box with a star. Discovering and reaching this area for the first time is a rewarding experience, and the star name gives an apt hint without outright revealing the solution.

“Shell Shreddin’ for Red Coins” takes off where Star 4 left off, having the player snatch the shell next to Star 4, and use it to surf along a snowy ridge with four red coins and a frozen lake with two coins (the other two are in the snow, accessible on foot). It’s a smooth progression from Star 4 in terms of course exploration and difficulty, and the red coins are all thoughtfully located. Star 6, “Into the Igloo“ asks the player to discover an igloo under the snowman’s scarf, crawl inside (finally, a use for this underused mechanic!), and navigate an ice maze to find a vanish cap that gives access to a star frozen in a block of ice. It’s a wonderful idea, though the camera is a complete disaster in this section. The 100 coin star is also optimally picked up on Star 6, as 38 of the course’s 127 coins lay inside the igloo. Since so many of the coins are easy to pick up inside the igloo, it’s not too tough or monotonous a 100 coin challenge.

Although Snowman’s Land is a surprisingly inventive course for rehashing a theme and reusing so many of Cool, Cool, Mountain’s course, not all of those inventions work well. The course’s two mazes are both incredible ideas (especially for an early 3D game), but each has its own pitfalls. The first is too compact to provide much of a challenge, and the second suffers from a horrendous camera that impedes visibility. Moneybags don’t suit the course’s theme (why aren’t they in Big Boo’s Haunt or Hazy Maze Cave where they would be a better fit), and can ruin a star run if the player bumps into one while shell surfing. Combined with the Spindrifts that don’t regenerate at the frozen pond, Stars 4 and 5 can be rendered inaccessible for little fault.

There are also small sections of the course questionably designed, such as the previously discussed windy ravine. I also don’t understand why the canon unlock is in the igloo maze, the part of the course most players won’t access until Star 6, thereby rendering it useless. Also, the canon doesn’t feel particularly useful, as it doesn’t really allow the player to more easily access any portion of the course. Were the bob-omb placed by Star 4 and that stretch easy to fly to by canon, it could further smooth the transition from Star 4 to 5 and allow for meaningful canon use. As it stands, the canon placement and bob-omb placement seem dubious.

Typically, Snowman’s Land is a course I don’t look forward to playing. I don’t really know why — it’s just a gut reaction. However, after playing through on this most recent run, I was struck by the innovative stars and its clever reinterpretation of Cool, Cool Mountain’s assets and themes. Despite being a second ice course, it forges its own identity in a manner Dire, Dire Docks does not. Despite Cool, Cool Mountain’s precedent, there are a surprising amount of new ice-centric ideas and unique challenges built around them. Although not each of these ideas works as well in practice as it does in theory, and small sections of the course feel questionably integrated into the rest of the course, Snowman’s Land is a surprisingly strong level on the whole.

View all the entries in this series here.

Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he's not playing video games, he's probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn't always playing video games.