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 13 – Tiny-Huge Island.
The entrance to Tiny-Huge Island lies in a room connected to the second-floor rotunda. Upon entering the room, three seemingly identical hallways appear to feature the same painting of a Goomba at the end. But this is an optical illusion called forced perspective, 3D trickery used to convey the course’s size-changing theme. In fact, the left path leads to a short hallway and small painting, the right to a long hallway and large painting, and the middle to a medium hallway and nonfunctional average painting. If the player enters the painting on the left, Mario will be large and the course tiny. If the player enters the painting on the right, Mario will be small and the course about the size of a typical mountain course.
Tiny-Huge Island comes in two flavors: tiny and huge. The huge island is a fairly standard mountainesque course partially surrounded by water. The player spawns on a platform with three Big Goombas, two other platforms visible in the distance, the second containing a shrinker pipe the player can use to access the tiny island. Through the doorway on the right is a beach with a Koopa, Fly Guy, Lakitu, and a Bubba that can one-shot Mario in a single gulp. Past that set piece the winding path up and around the mountain begins. This portion including a couple of platforming sections that use wind and Big Steelies as obstacles and a couple of plateaus featuring more enemies, Koopa the Quick, and two more shrinker pipes. The path continues to the top of the island, where the player can access a boss fight against Wiggler. From the top, the player can also jump down to a plateau with a narrow catwalk that leads into a cave containing a red coin challenge.
The basic layout of the small island mirrors that of the huge island. However, now that Mario is too large to fit through the doorway near the starting spawn, the player must jump to the shrinker pipe two platforms away and from there and decide whether to hop up to the middle portion of the course or sneak around the back. While large, it only takes a few seconds to reach any given point on the island, making for quick (if awkward) traversal. Although many of the huge island enemies disappear in tiny island, the three shrinker pipes and some key NPCs remain. There is also a giant Bob-omb Buddy that will unlock a canon on the large island.
Tiny-Huge Island’s expressed key theme is its central gimmick: size. I say “expressed” because neither the size-changing mechanic nor the idea of size feels thoroughly integrated into the course. Very few challenges are actually addressed by strategically shrinking or enlarging the stage. Instead, the course feels as though it houses two similar worlds that are not the same, in part because the player rarely meaningfully impacts one through their actions into the other. For example, enemies defeated in one world still appear in the other, but the player can drain the water from the small pond atop the island with a ground pound. Because of this, I prefer to say the Tiny-Huge Island’s specific ambitions and troubles lie in a theme of (mis)translation.
This also applies to the course’s stars, the majority of which feel borrowed from other levels. Stars 1 and 4 are appropriated from Wet-Dry World and Star 3 from Bob-Omb Battlefield. The DS version even features a star the player must nab from Klepto, nearly identical to Star 1 of Shifting Sand Land. Meanwhile, the other three stars are all staples: a “climb to the top of the mountain” star, a boss battle back up at the top of the mountain, and a red coin challenge. None of this is necessarily bad, but it does feel as if the concept of changing island size was implemented in a slapdash fashion without any meaningful challenges or objectives built around it. Because of this, the gimmick and the level design both come across as half-baked, neither as wholeheartedly followed through with as its parent levels in Super Mario Bros. 3.
“Pluck the Piranha Flower” has the player defeat five piranha flowers near the start of the big island. The simplest way to reach the piranha flowers is to start on the tiny island and use the shrinker pipe next to them. Star 1 effectively ensures the player has come to grips with the stage’s size-shifting mechanic. Although the star name is helpful in suggesting how to combat the plants, it can be a bit confusing because there is only one plant Mario easily stomps out on the tiny island, and it doesn’t make much sense there would be an additional five that show up on the big island. Star 2, “The Tip Top of the Huge Island” is a typical mountain scaling star that teaches the course layout of the huge island. If climbing from bottom to top of the big island, this star’s biggest problems are the course’s biggest problems — especially an uneventful beach at the beginning and inconsistent gusts of wind that can lead to plenty of deaths.
“Rematch with Koopa the Quick” is a footrace much like Star 2 of Bob-Omb Battlefield, this time lasting only 20 seconds. The path to the flag is linear, downhill, and features two main obstacles: Big Steelies and the wind, neither of which is particularly fun. Although the race is brief, losing means having to restart the level, and reaching the starting line is a slog. Star 4, “Five Itty Bitty Secrets” has the player explore the tiny island, brushing up against five apertures a la the five blocks in Wet-Dry World. Because getting around is so quick, it’s a briefer star than Wet-Dry World’s outside of possible restarts that might result from the tiny island’s awkwardly finicky polygonal design.
Star 5, “Wiggler’s Red Coins,” has the player enter a hidden cave by tiptoeing along a catwalk halfway up the mountain. Like many interiors in Super Mario 64’s second half, the camera is problematic. Here, the stiff camera impacts the player’s ability to judge height and distance, making some jumps almost totally blind. Dying from this can be frustrating because getting back to the cave is obnoxious. Still, I appreciate the intricate layout of this interior portion and the varied jumps it requires. The 100 coin star isn’t too terrible, but it nearly requires the player know some coinage maximization tricks — especially running around poles and ground pounding goombas. For example, on huge island, Mario spawns next to three Big Goombas and a pole. If you know to ground pound the Goombas and run around the pole you get 20 coins; if you don’t you get 3. Finally, “Make Wiggler Squirm” is a boss fight against Wiggler inside the mountaintop. Reaching the arena is a bit abstruse since it requires ground pounding a pool at the peak to drain it, then returning on huge island to enter through a newly-formed hole. The butt-stomp-heavy fight against Wiggler is enjoyable enough, but it is incredibly easy for a late-game boss due to Wiggler’s lack of aggression and coins strewn about the arena that allows for easy healing.
Tiny-Huge Island has the distinction of being one of the most maligned stages of Super Mario 64, but there are certainly some bright spots. The central mechanic of changing island size is a clever idea even if it is borrowed from past games. And some differences between the two worlds seem deliberately considered, like being able to jump on koopa the quick for five coins on the tiny island, and getting five coins for ground pounding the Big Goombas on the huge island. There are also several small flourishes I appreciate, such as how Wiggler shrinks and falls through the grating upon defeat, or how the player can see through that grating to get a sense of where the red coin star is (and vice versa), aiding the search for these somewhat obscure areas. I also enjoy the course entrance, and the ability to choose which size island to visit from the outset.
However, even those positives points come with asterisks. For instance, selecting island size is empowering, but there’s rarely a reason to start on the big island — and since the beginning of the big island is awkward and plodding, there’s probably not much of a desire to. And the size-changing gimmick stumbles as often as it succeeds, with numerous inconsistencies (enemy locations, size of certain topographical features, a lack of cause-and-effect between the worlds) detracting from the sense that the two islands are the same. Coupled with this is the fact that there aren’t any stars that meaningfully or sensibly take advantage of this central gimmick, drawing a stark contrast between this course and the similarly gimmick-based Wet-Dry World. On top of this, the level design is also a letdown, with the big island too linear and repetitive (and marred by the inconsistent gusts of wind) and the tiny island too small and polygonally awkward to move around with confidence. It stands from most of the game’s architecture as not feeling built around Mario’s moveset. Furthermore, the beach at the start is boring, with the only movement options being slow movement across sloped terrain or swimming while a woefully beta Lakitu lackadaisically tosses Spinies.
Despite all this, Tiny-Huge Island didn’t feel quite as much of a pain as I remembered. It rarely feels enjoyable because it doesn’t seem to do much right, but it’s not necessarily as obviously flawed as a couple other courses. All in all, none of the stars would break the game’s top half if I had to rank them, and much of the course feels tainted by some subpar wind, water, and slopes. Tiny-Huge Island is not as offensively bad as some might suggest, but it’s disappointing how unremarkable it is, especially because the basic idea of oversized enemies taken from Super Mario Bros. 3 in an open, 3D, puzzle-oriented world sounds so promising.
View all the entries in this series here.