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 15 – Rainbow Ride.
The entrance to Rainbow Ride lies near Tick Tock Clock on the top floor of Peach’s Castle. In order to reach it, the player must jump into a square cut-out roughly the height of the clock and hop into a hole in the ground. Unlike many recent entrances, this always spawns Mario in the same spot regardless of how or when he enters.
Rainbow Ride is comprised of numerous small platforms interwoven to form an open segmented course with three major paths. In a sense, it is a floating and more punishing Lethal Lava Land with an even greater emphasis on platform variety. Mario spawns on a somewhat central platform with a carpet he can ride to the stage’s main hub. From there, the player can turn left toward a series of platforming challenges leading to two stars, keep straight for a two(ish)-dimensional maze housing the red coin challenge, or pivot right to a couple magic carpet paths. One of these carpet paths ends at a flying ship housing Star 1 and central to Star 6, and the other ends at a giant floating house Star 2 calls home.
A perfect counterpoint and companion to Tick Tock Clock, Rainbow Ride is a spacious branching environment that acts as the Super Mario 64’s ultimate outdoor course focusing on the movement and agility not found in the game’s interiors. While Tick Tock Clock focuses on tight movement in cramped spaces, Rainbow Ride is a land of free-wheeling long jumps, dicey shortcuts over massive gaps, and platforms specifically built to test Mario’s most high-flying maneuvers. From the start, the player is given the option to ride a linear magic carpet (which grows repetitious) or take a stirring long jump shortcut to another part of the course. This emboldening decision opens up the course in a manner Tall, Tall Mountain and Dire, Dire Docks could benefit from by not forcing the player to slog through the same humdrum intro time and time again. Because it requires skill and comes with the inherent risk of falling, it remains enrapturing every time — a microcosm of Rainbow Ride as a whole.
More than any other course, Rainbow Ride focuses on the variety and possible implementations of Mario’s jumps. Although other courses may have featured obstacle courses, each of Rainbow Ride’s paths essentially is an obstacle course that emphasizing a unique aspect of Mario’s moveset. While the carpet rides test timed evasive jumping, the swinging platform path tests jumping with momentum and on slopes and the maze tests wall jumping and navigating tighter space. Furthermore, the course’s verticality allows for meaningful mid-air movement while the player falls, possibly saving their life were they to fall off an airborne carpet. This leads to a sense of playful instability – a suiting frisky flippancy finale for a game about kinetic fun.
Star 1, “Cruiser Crossing the Rainbow,” has the player traverse a lengthy path along three obstacle-ridden carpet rides before arriving at a floating ship holding a star. It is as much a standard first star placed at the “end” of the level as can be achieved in an open course with no logical endpoint. The extensive use of carpets makes Star 1 Rainbow Ride’s most linear, as it requires the least decision-making about where to go. This can be disempowering and even a little boring, but the challenging obstacles placed along the route make it engrossing enough for one star. “The Big House in the Sky” is the same as Star 1 except the player must hop aboard the right (instead of the left) carpet at the final carpet-to-carpet transfer. This carpet flies in and around a barebones “house” and features some more challenging platforming than Star 1 before reaching a star atop the house.
“Coins Amassed in a Maze” throws eight red coins around a nearly two-dimensional maze directly across from where the first carpet stops. By demanding an array of jump types, including wall jumps and long jumps, it integrates the red coin challenge with a medium-sized enjoyable platform challenge. Although the Bob-ombs at the base of the maze contribute little and the nearby heart are superfluous, idiosyncratic maze design and clever red coin placement make for a delightful red coin star. This is also a great time to nab the 100 coin star, which can require a fair amount of exploration but is abetted by the forty-odd coins worth of blue and red coins among the maze. Star 4, “Swingin’ in the Breeze,” has the player take a new path, this time to the left of where the first carpet ride ends (or a thrilling long jump from the starting platform). From there, a short obstacle course of falling blocks and swinging platforms leads to a short stairway and final swing that brings the player to the star.
“Tricky Triangles!” involves taking the same path as Star 4 but passing the short staircase to run up a ramp, hop on a moving platform, and hop from one collapsing triangular platform to another. Despite sharing a great deal with the previous star, the set pieces at the end are unique and fun, and the path up to the Star 3-Star 4 branching point is enjoyable enough to do twice. “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is a fittingly epic final star where the player retraces their steps to Star 1’s flying ship, hops in a canon, and shoot through a rainbow circle onto a platform with a power star and a Chuckya. Though repetitive, the memorable finale differentiates it from Star 1. Even if the Chuckya can be annoying and the star title deceptive, the cross-stage cannon shot is a climactic endgame hole-in-one.
Despite its sky-high ambitions, Rainbow Ride occasionally stumbles on its way to the top. Like Tick Tock Clock, the camera can be a little iffy at times, though it doesn’t have as much of an impact here because of the course’s emphasis on external space. It is often most troublesome on the magic carpet paths, which can grow tedious and disempowering enough on their own due to their linearity and lethargic movement. In a sense, these carpet rides conflict with the course’s generally open design. Although the “ground floor” of the course is interconnected, a more interconnected “top floor” could have cut down on some of these carpet rides and provided more movement options. As it stands, the methodical linearity of Stars 1, 2, and 6 can quickly grow stale, especially if the player falls and has to retry a star.
Downsides aside, Rainbow Ride is one of the most challenging, engaging, and surprising courses in Super Mario 64. The red coin challenge recalls 2D Mario platforming in what is my personal favorite red coin challenge in the game, and it features a well-placed hidden Bob-omb Buddy at its top. Even though some additional interconnection between paths would be beneficial, the course is very open, allowing the player to go in two polar opposite directions from the very start and further diverge from there. And the long jump across to the obstacle course path is as exhilarating as anything along any of the prescribed paths. That sense of risk-reward as the player flies across the huge gap underlies the entire level — a level surrounding by insta-death but where most platforms feel so perfectly placed that it is constantly worth the risk of taking the leap over each precarious gorge. As the last course of the game, it feels impeccably balanced, with each path offering distinct and varied challenges focusing on either obstacle-based platforming, exploring a maze, or taking a tour through Mario’s moveset to overcome obstacles blocking the carpet path. The pathway to Stars 4 and 5 is a particular highlight, well-balanced so the player is constantly making split-second meaningful decisions in several novel scenarios. Furthermore, the malleability of the camera is a major boon compared to the constraints of Tick Tock Clock, and in the deliberate camera manipulation the course requires, it feels surprisingly modern.
As the final course in Super Mario 64, Rainbow Ride is a no-holds-bar manifesto about the joy of movement in 3D space. It is the Rainbow Road of platforming — throwing every challenge at the player in a way that embodies the game’s peak thrills while testing every skill the player has acquired and practiced in a high-stakes sky-high arena. As such, it delves deeply into what Super Mario 64 can be at its best, featuring some of the game’s highest heights despite some notable issues with slow-paced carpet rides and repetition. By stretching aspects of platforming level design to its logical extremes, it is arguably the best summation of the strengths and weaknesses of Super Mario 64 as a whole: an inimitable and fearless course to cap off an inimitable and fearless video game.
View all the entries in this series here.