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 14 – Tick Tock Clock.
In order to access Tick-Tock Clock, the player must first collect fifty stars to open the star door at the top of the second-floor staircase. Once open, the entrance to Tick-Tick Clock lies in a grandfather clock on the opposite side of the room. Depending on when Mario jumps through the face of the clock, the gears and pendulums and other obstacles that make up the course will move at one of four rates. If Mario enters when the minute hand is near the 3, the course obstacles will move slowly. If the hand is near the 6, they will move sporadically. If the hand is near the 9, they will move quickly. And if the hand is near the 12, they will not move at all.
Tick Tock Clock is an interior of a grandfather clock turned playground. The player spawns near a red coin challenge featuring spinning platforming and a spinning heart, and from there must make their way upward for most of the stars. First, the player must dodge swinging pendulums and jump up rotating blocks to a platform with a large clock hand ticking across its surface. Further up are some spinning platforms, a caged Star 1, and a pole with an amp. Above that, the path splits in two directions. The left path features a Heave-Ho, some more pendulums, a blue coin challenge, and Star 2. Climbing to the right leads to more rotating platforms and moving bars. Further up, more rotating blocks and conveyor belts connect to a large platform in the center of the stage. From here, a second ticking clock hand gives access to Star 4.
Tick Tock Clock feels almost like a bonus level, from its strange kooky setting to its difficulty spike, to its location so close to the final boss that the player likely won’t need stars from it to beat the game. In this way, it feels exceptional, like the designers ran with a bizarro concept a la Star World from Super Mario World, but fleshed it out into an entire world. It represents a significant difficulty spike that further makes it the ultimate interior platforming gauntlet it is. Built totally around verticality and obstacles, it requires finesse as well as expert planning and timing, seeming to integrate the inertia of a ticking clock into the gameplay itself. With essentially no combat (there are two Bob-ombs near the start, but otherwise all the enemies are undefeatable obstacles), Tick Tock Clock’s devotion to platforming that is both tight and measured as well as go-for-broke acts as a counterpoint to the equally trying but significantly more open final course, Rainbow Ride.
Star 1, “Roll into the Big Cage,” has the player scale roughly halfway up the course to reach a star tucked inside a cage. Because the level design is so intricately dazzling, this is a particularly enjoyable and challenging star despite being a fairly typical “traverse the level” star. Like most of the stars, Star 1 is made considerably tougher when the course is moving full steam, so it is important the player grasp the time-changing gimmick. The camera can also make things a bit tougher, but it’s not too big a deal in this portion of the course. Similarly, “The Pit and the Pendulums” lures the player a bit higher for another star. Like Star 1, it feels almost like a reward for reaching a checkpoint. Unlike Star 1 it features some star-specific content, including platforming on spinning triangles and dodging pendulums in a tighter space with a problematic camera. “Get a Hand” ups the difficulty of the first two stars by demanding the level be in motion. But since it involves climbing to an area already twice reached, the difficulty curve is quite smooth. Once at the large platform with a Kuromame, the player must hop atop a clock hand and ride it around to the other side of the level where they can jump to a star. It’s a simple but rewarding puzzle that makes clever use of the clock theme and time mechanic.
Meanwhile, “Stomp on the Thwomp,” is one of the most difficult stars in the game, asking the player to climb from the bottom to the very top of the level. Although this can technically be done without the level in motion, the standstill path to the top is less obvious so most players will likely choose a moving loadout. Generally, the higher up, the harder and more dangerous the platforming. Unfortunately, the camera presents more of an issue toward the top as the player weaves in and out of the center area, making it even tougher. Indeed, the platforms up top can require so much nuanced movement that it is one of the few points of the game I am bothered by Mario’s small pivot when turning around. However, the star feels more than earned and since you only have to come up here once it’s a worthwhile challenge. Star 4 is also the optimal time to grab the 100 coin star, which is not much of an issue since there are 128 scattered about the level and the player will run across most of them on their path to this star.
Star 5, “Timed Jumps on Moving Bars” is another “reach this point” star that has the player climb about three-quarters of the way up and then take an alternate path upward and jump across some moving bars to reach an encaged star. It’s an enjoyable romp even if, like most of the stars up to this point, it’s pretty much Star 1 with a flourish at the end. Finally, “Stop Time for the Red Coins” has the player nab eight red coins all placed on spinning platforms near the starting area. It’s a simple star and the star title reveals the trick to making it as easy as possible. The placement of Stars 5 and 6 after “Stomp the Thwomp” is odd because they are easier and more accessible. Furthermore, if Star 6 were, say, Star 2, it could effectively teach the player about the time mechanic. Strange star ordering aside, Star 6 is an enjoyable, if perhaps too simple, red coin challenge.
As the course’s ultimate interior, Tick Tock Clock suffers from the central problem plaguing the game’s interiors as a whole: a faulty camera. Though the lower part of the course minimizes camera issues by running the path along the wall camera that doesn’t need much manipulation, the upper half of the course features smaller obstacles requiring more nuanced platforming and places them in the center of the stage where the ability to rotate the camera around Mario feels essential. In terms of level design, Tick Tock Clock is among the tip top, but its harsh difficulty can lead to many retries. As with the similarly vertical Tall, Tall Mountain, retrying can grow irksome in such a linear level. Although I appreciate difficulty in a late game course, especially when the course is optional, some might argue Tick Tock Clock is too tough. Even Nintendo seemed to recognize this when they significantly altered the course to make it easier in Super Mario 64 DS. Finally, the level lacks a reason to play it at its fastest speed, which feels like a missed opportunity and undercuts the course’s nuanced design by making it seem shallower than it is.
Fortunately, these flaws only weigh down Tick Tock Clock so far, as the superb design and concept combine for one of the most memorable courses in Super Mario 64. From the best course entrance in the game to one of the toughest stars lying at its end, Tick Tock Clock runs the creative platforming gamut. Despite possibly being the toughest course in the game, its well-placed 1-ups and hearts work as checkpoints to allow single-minded focus on platforming. When the player dies, it is not from battle or the collective scrapes of many falls; it’s from missing a jump, plain and simple. And being able to select the speed at which the course churns allows for a flexible approach to play. That the course works so well at any of these four settings goes to show how painstakingly this course was constructed. And although it is tough, overcoming that difficulty is among the most rewarding experiences in the game because success over Tick Tock Clock is paramount proof of the player’s platforming chops.
Tick Tock Clock thoroughly implements an ingenious concept to form an engrossing, unique, well-paced, and challenging course. As the last major interior portion in the game, it borrows from the best aspects of past interiors and ups the ante: obstacles are finely tuned, platforming is demanding but fair, level design is diverse and tight. However, as entirely indoor arena it also suffers from an inconsistent camera and can arguably be too challenging. From nearly start to finish, Tick Tock Clock is a captivating provocation always worth the time of day.
View all the entries in this series here.