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 11 – Wet-Dry World.
Wet-Dry World is accessed via the portrait of a Skeeter in the second-floor rotunda. Due to its size and depiction of a previously unseen creature, it is arguably the most conspicuous painting in the area, and likely the first Part 3 course many players will enter. The course order is dubious given how comparatively hidden Snowman’s Land is, but it doesn’t matter much at this point in the game. What does matter is that the height at which Mario enters the Wet-Dry World portrait determines the water level. This is not only an incredibly clever trick but also a useful navigational tool that empowers the player by giving them meaningful choice before they even enter the stage.
Wet-Dry World’s “uptown” portion is a medium-sized squarish arena with several towering pieces of architecture. The course is built around its central gimmick — the ability to raise and lower the water level by touching Crystal Taps located around the course. Since some pieces of the level float while others do not, changing the water level also changing the topography relevant to the player. Directly north of where the player spawns, some floating platforms lead to a tower holding Star 1 and a canon. East of there lies the bulk of the uptown area, comprised of four floors the player can ascend through acrobatics or Heave-hos, enemies that toss Mario high into the air behind them. South of that region are two fenced-off areas, one an elevator shaft that holds a star, the other an entrance to the course’s downtown region.
Connected to uptown via an underwater passage, this “downtown” area looks like a small town’s city center. It’s supposedly based off the town of Casares in Spain, but to me, it looks like the kind of small well-manicured town that makes a perfect road trip pitstop. A small park-like area lies the center, in front of a castle and surrounded by buildings of various shapes and sizes. Red coins encased in blocks are scattered around, and a fenced-in star entices in a corner. A pair of Crystal Taps allows some control over the water level, though not the same degree of nuance as in uptown.
Wet-Dry World is a difficult course to describe in just a few words, but the term “urban jungle” springs to mind. Seemingly built around two types of city landscapes — one the more vertical skyscraper-likes of metropolitan business districts, and the other an intimate small-town block. In a sense, it seems like a flooded, micro, spiritual predecessor to Super Mario Odyssey’s New Donk City, though much more thematically vague. But while “rising to the top” in most cities is heavily rooted in luck and random chance, Wet-Dry World is centered on meaningful choice and interconnection.
Traversal in Wet-Dry World is not simply running from Point A to Point B, but deliberately planning and shaping your path. It’s a more open, more choice-centered type of play than perhaps any course so far. It’s like a city planning prodigy’s playroom, featuring elements of Rubik’s Cubes, Legos, and Rube Goldberg machines. Traversal, combat, and puzzle-solving are all interlinked through level design, enemy design, and the changing water levels to create a uniquely heady vibe. Even the course’s enemies are best tackled with a special depth of forethought, as they can be manipulated into giving the player access to hard-to-reach places. Perhaps most impressive is that the level feels thoroughly considered at every water level, with each change of the tide changing the course layout to emphasize different paths and challenges.
Star 1, “Shocking Arrow Lifts,” has the player adjust the water level to roughly mid-height in order to access a star box north of the starting spawn. Reaching that star box can involve riding small “arrow lift” platforms that move the direction they point when Mario stands on them. However, Mario can long jump past these platforms and straight to the star. Although the long jump negates most of the challenge, it also opens up possible paths to the star — an openness the entire course is built around. That said, riding the platforms provide a fun ride and are worth the extra few seconds. Although this star does not take the player through most of the level it does teach the player how to change the water level, which is more essential than the course layout. Star 2, “Top o’ the Town,” however, finishes orienting the player to the course by asking them to climb to the top of the stage. The major downside to this star is that the very top of the course features a subpar camera that is not as malleable as it should be, possibly resulting in a punishing fall. All the enemies in this part of the course suit the changing water levels and various altitudes, but the Chuckya at the top deserves a special nod for the sense of progression he gives the player due to his similarity to Bob-Omb Battlefield’s boss.
“Secrets in the Shallows & Sky” is a bizarre but amusing star that asks the player to locate five “secrets” hidden throughout downtown. It encourages a deep exploration of the course that establishes a greater familiarity with the level’s carefully placed crevices. My main issue with Star 3 is that its name is a bit misleading. Since all five secrets somehow concern boxes, I think a box-related hint in the title would encourage more deliberate exploration. Also, this is a decent time to grab the 100 coin star because downtown features 107 coins and the player will explore the level thoroughly for Star 3 anyway. Star 4, “Express Elevator–Hurry Up!” has the player collect a power star at the top of an elevator shaft. It is a unique environmental puzzle premised on the course’s water level manipulation conceit that relies on critical thinking and deft control.
“Go to Town for Red Coins” has the player discover the hidden second part of the course — downtown. There, they gather eight red coins hidden in blocks placed on buildings and barricades. The coins atop the wall are fair game, but some of the rooftop coins require wall jumping between buildings. This wall jumping stretches the game’s camera to its limits, to the point where its jerkiness impacts basic controls. The “town” in the star title is also a bit problematic since a different “town” was referenced in Star 2. Star 6, “Quick Race Through Downtown!” has the player don a vanish cap on one side of downtown and quickly make their way to the other side of the course to pass through grating holding a star. The narrow margin of error makes it the most finely-tuned cap star so far (which have tended to be excessively easy), and shortcutting over obstacles is a better risk-reward balance than the long-jumping in Star 1. Unfortunately, the camera is once again so janky that it can plague player experience, especially unfortunate since the level and objective design are both strong.
Personally, I’ve come around the Wet-Dry World on my last couple playthroughs. I appreciate the contemplative play it inspires, with even a course entrance that lets the player choose how to start a star. It’s an open sandbox-esque toy box that demands attention, exploration, and experimentation. Its stars are generally clever and wacky, and it’s more full of secrets than Gretchen Wieners’ hair. In particular, discovering the second part of the course for the first time is a minor revelation. At its best, it’s innovative and inspiring. Furthermore, changing water levels is a tough mechanic to implement in an empowering manner (even Ocarina of Time fumbled with it), but it somehow works in Wet-Dry World way better than one might assume.
However, at its worst, Wet-Dry World can also be disempowering and aggravating. Although water level is cleverly used as a checkpoint, way to access otherwise inaccessible areas, and a central part of puzzles, the lack of underwater content is a missed opportunity. And if you don’t know exactly where each Crystal Tap is located, raising and lowering the water level can be a little annoying. Furthermore, I could see some more abstruse aspects of the stage, like experimenting to discover the solution to Star 4, induce rage-quitting in impatient players. And the camera, especially downtown, can be borderline game-breaking.
On a smaller scale, the canon seems misplaced. Is it supposed to be used to reach downtown? If so, why not just swim over there and jump in since the canon is unlocked at the highest water level anyway? I also wish there were a way to spawn in downtown once you access it — perhaps diving into the portrait could spawn the player there, negating some backtracking. Also, the Heave-Hos should either deal less damage or not be able to pick Mario up while he is still reeling from the effects of the last Heave-Ho experience since this can result in some frustrating hot-potato-like deaths. Finally, surfacing in the water to restore health is a broken mechanic that makes this course a little easier than it should be in terms of accruing damage.
Similar to my feelings toward Snowman’s Land, I never really want to play Wet-Dry World. Yet I enjoy it each time I do, and sometimes I relish it. It’s a bit like hopping in and out of a cold pool — the anticipation of what I dislike is more intense than actually experiencing it. Parts of it are undeniably rough around the edges, especially the camera. Sometimes, Lakitu, I wish you’d get off your high horse and just do what I ask. But changing the water level is a much more interesting and well-implemented gimmick than it has any right to be, and the course is thoughtfully and thoroughly designed around it. Throw in arguably the most inventive course entrance in the game, some stellar nonlinear stars, a handful of smart puzzles, and a surprise second half of the course, and Wet-Dry World makes for a novel and memorable experience.
View all the entries in this series here.