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 12 – Tall, Tall Mountain.
The entrance to Tall, Tall Mountain lies in the same rotunda as the entrance to Wet-Dry World. It’s a conspicuous small painting of amanita-like mushrooms that betrays the course’s lofty setting. Placed between replicas of the Bob-Omb Battlefield entrance and the Cool, Cool Mountain entrance, Tall, Tall Mountain wears its influences on its sleeve, as it takes more than just its name from these two early game courses.
Tall, Tall Mountain is exactly what it claims to be and little more. The player spawns partway up a mountain, at the bottom of a trail that leads to the peak. This winding, spiraling path hosts a wide variety of platforming challenges, including “rock climbing” while dodging rocks thrown by moles, log-rolling above a waterfall, tiptoeing along a catwalk, forging through shrubbery that shortens jumps, and avoiding rolling cannonballs. When outside, the “height” theme comes across clearly, as the entire architecture of the course (including the mountain itself, the vertical platforming challenges, and the tall mushrooms) poses a threat precisely because a long fall is always an errant misstep away. This height can make for some punishing falls that result in boring slogs back up, but also infuse much of the course with an adrenaline rush. Along with its mountainside exterior, the course also harbors a secret slide that snakes through a powered-up fever dream of memorable tricks and treats.
Tall, Tall Mountain’s height theme may seem odd compared to the elemental themes of previous courses, but it has precedent in the upward-scrolling courses of Super Mario Bros. 3 and the mushroom cap stages of Super Mario World. Tall, Tall Mountain also seems affiliated with some of the heavily brown “dirt-themed” levels in Super Mario World, not only because of its similarly hazel coating but also because it features copious Monty Moles. It also borrows heavily from both Cold, Cold Mountain as well as Bob-Omb Battlefield in its mountainesque structure, platforming gauntlet of escalating intricacy, and emphasis on evasion. On the whole, Tall, Tall Mountain borrows from a diverse and rich array of source material in its attempt to etch a unique identity for itself.
Repetition is another major (though possibly unintended) theme of Tall, Tall Mountain’s design. I previously discussed variation on a theme as it relates to level design in Cool, Cool Mountain, but by “repetition” I am referring to inelegant, rote, dreary restatement. Although the level itself features several distinctive scenarios as the player makes their way from bottom to top, the course requires taking this same path time and time again. Although the initial trip up can be charming, the linear main path grows quickly tiresome, making the bizarre request to climb the same mountainside over and over again almost seem like part of the course’s intent — as if they built a lengthy course too linear to be authentically divided up into more open exploratory objectives but not deserving of being replayed numerous times. Let this Groundhog’s Day of a course be a lesson to designers that though it can be hard to “kill your darlings,” it is sometimes kinder to underuse them than abuse them.
Star 1, “Scale the Mountain,” has the player traverse the vast majority of the level by following the main path to the mountaintop. As the first of several stars like this, it the strongest in the course because the path is enjoyable and it is not weighed down by tedium. The camera can get unwieldy at times, but the huge variety of platforming and enemies keep this star fresh and engaging from start to finish. Unfortunately, the new baddies do not measure up to the carefully-carved creatures of past courses. Monty Mole has a strange hitbox, Fwoosh the cloud is too sluggish to pose a threat, and the pesky Ukiki monkeys’ obsession with stealing Mario’s hat is annoying. On that note, “Mystery of the Monkey Cage” has the player catch an Ukiki at the summit. It’s pretty much Star 1 redux except for an additional five-second challenge at the top. The monkey exudes personality and the player could take an “alternate” route up, but it’s still lame to have to do the exact same thing twice in a row.
“Scary ‘Shrooms, Red Coins” requires collecting four red coins placed atop mushrooms and the remaining four at a rock-climbing-like route up the mountain. While jumping between the tall mushrooms, Mario’s shadow momentarily disappears. This minor detail raises the difficulty and tension, but a stagnant camera drags this portion down. Fortunately, a nearby 1-up ensures a fairly smooth experience. “Mysterious Mountainside” has the player (yet again) climb up the mountain, this time to hop into a trick wall housing a secret slide. With its astral aesthetic and tricky design, this slide is an exhilarating highlight. However, I wish there were a way to spawn at the top of the slide after earning the star because it would be an optimal spawn for earning the 100 coin star. As it stands, the course’s punishing layout, one-coin enemies, and tough slide make the 100 coin star incredibly tedious. But spawning at the slide would allow the player a shot at the 62 coins on the slide before sending them outside to collect the remainder among the 75 coins strewn about the main portion of the course.
“Breathtaking View from the Bridge” has the player follow their footsteps up to the very top, step on a switch, and jump inside a waterfall for a star. Like Star 2, it’s essentially just Star 1 with a 5-second frill. Meanwhile, “Blast to the Lonely Mushroom” is among the very worst stars in the game. About halfway up the mountain, the player can discover a well-hidden pink Bob-Omb that unlocks a canon under the starting area. Getting to this canon requires precise jumping and a little luck because the camera is so inflexible the player cannot see where they are supposed to land. After getting to the canon, the player must take a shot in the dark to reach a far-flung star atop a small mushroom — miss by an inch and it’s back to the starting line. Star 6 is among the most bafflingly imbalanced, unfair, uncommunicative stars in Super Mario 64 and marks the low point of a subpar course. It could have been improved by giving the player something to aim at (having the player aim at a particular cloud in the sky could echo the secret slide arena), but it is a major misfire as it is currently.
In its mind-numbing repetition, rigid camera, and a couple outrageously imbalanced stars; Tall, Tall Mountain uses its height advantage to beat the player over the head with its design blunders. Perhaps related to its linear level design (arguably the most linear in the game), most of its stars feel like clones of Star 1 or completely slapdash and aimless. Indeed, if the player picks up the 100 coin star on the red coin star (as is typically the optimal path) and has not yet unlocked the cannon by Star 6, the player will have to climb near the top of the mountain for every star. This alone is way too much retreading but coupled with some inevitable (and often unfair) deaths this level grows tiresome as soon as it finishes introducing itself. In what feels like an olive branch from its designers to the players, the course features a whopping 11 1-ups, which seems both a tacit acknowledgment of how unfair this level can be as well as a last-ditch apology. If in some shroomy pipedream, Super Mario 64 were one-day re-remade, Tall, Tall Mountain would greatly benefit from something that enables movement — a checkpoint system, the ability to select a spawn point, or even just a meaningfully placed canon or warp.
My critique of Tall, Tall Mountain may be fairly scathing, but there are several pieces of it I respect. The first star is an enjoyable, challenging evolution of gauntlets from earlier in the game such as the mountain in Bob-Omb Battlefield or the entirety of Whomp’s Fortress. And I generally enjoy the main path through the course (featuring some notable areas such as the grassy field that limits Mario’s jump) and appreciate the idea of alternate routes even if there isn’t much to them. Once high up, platforming obstacles like the rolling log and long-jumping across the waterfall produce an intense acrophobic suspense unique to this course. On a smaller note, I think the canon unlock bob-omb is cleverly placed (though it should be easier to hop up from there) and I like that pausing zooms out for a better view of the map, revealing how paths connect and where stars might be located.
For a course that prides itself on its height, Tall, Tall Mountain comes up ironically short. Although Star 1 is a lengthy, diverse, challenging star that takes the player through the entire course, too many subsequent stars are characterless rehashes, resulting in the most monotonous and repetitive course so far. Combined with an irksome camera and a couple of the worst stars in the game, Tall, Tall Mountain starts off on a high note before quickly stumbling over itself.
View all the entries in this series here.