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 3 – Jolly Roger Bay.
Locked behind a door requiring three power stars, Jolly Roger Bay is the third course of Super Mario 64, and the first of its three water levels. Upon entering through that door, a series of aquariums frames the course’s entrance painting, foreshadowing its underwater setting and serene ambiance. After the fundamental mechanics introduced in Bob-Omb Battlefield and expanded upon in Whomp’s Fortress, Jolly Roger Bay softly launches the player into a new type of environment and its constituent control scheme. Fortunately, this gameplay transition away from twitchy platforming challenges and into deliberate deep diving is smoothed over by a placid aesthetic sensibility and candid level design.
Spawning on the bank of a bay shrouded in a blanket of fog, the clearest path forward is straight into the water. This use of weather and lighting, which changes after the first time the player has entered the course, conveys a contemplative tone mirrored in Jolly Roger Bay’s understated musical theme and underwater gameplay mechanics while beckoning a path forward. Typical of the subtle genius at the heart of Super Mario 64, the entrance into Jolly Roger Bay is as much about establishing a sense of place as it is establishing a sense of purpose. In moments like this, Jolly Roger Bay feels as much a successor to Myst as Mario.
The underwater architecture of Jolly Roger Bay can be divided into two main sections. The first is a horizontally-oriented inlet with several clams strewn about the seafloor. This area acts as Jolly Roger Bay’s kiddie pool, prompting the player to learn the basic rules of swimming with little risk of injury before diving in the deep end. Like dive sticks thrown by a swimming instructor, the clams invite up-close examination, and each holds a gift of varying value to reward exploration.
The second underwater section is a deep trench holding over half the level’s stars. This portion constitutes a greater threat by housing an eel enemy named Unagi and asking the player to dive far deeper. To replenish oxygen far below the surface, the player can rely on air bubbles from clams and scattered coins. Near the bottom of this trench is an underwater channel leading to a cove with Goombas and falling pillars.
This underwater area comprises the core of the level and its calculated topography enables the learn-by-doing ethos manifest in much of Super Mario 64’s design. Consider how the level layout moves the player from a horizontal underwater passage to a vertical one and then to a diagonal, thereby testing swimming fluency in increasingly difficult circumstances. Or how the long-distance underwater visuals compared to the foggy above-water visuals encourage underwater exploration and allow the player to plan their descent into the deep. Or how an audio cue that increases in tempo as Mario runs out of breath conveys urgency while communicating important information without visual distraction. These understated touches undergird a belief that careful design can communicate clearly enough that a player can be placed in a new environment and be required to move about in a new way, without relying on text. It is a philosophy gamers prize today in games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Dark Souls, and we see it surprisingly fully-formed here in Super Mario 64. This thoughtful design is on brand with the Super Mario name, but it wouldn’t chalk up to much without finely-tuned swim controls.
Personally, I find that the simple deliberate swim controls (hold A to flutter kick, press A to breaststroke) suit the slow pacing of Super Mario 64’s underwater environments. They eschew the springy responsive underwater controls of Super Mario World and opt for a sluggishness better suited for careful exploration than platforming challenge. Much like in scuba diving, the slower pace contributes to exploring the riches of the environment. It also evokes a more accurate sensation of swimming than in previous Mario games. This methodical pacing can make retreading old waters more monotonous, but Jolly Roger Bay’s changing level layout and alternate routes keep the level fresh. I enjoy timing my breaststrokes to their own pulse, enjoying a simple tactical pleasure that feels like the child of a rhythm game and exploration adventure. Its sense of flow and intuitiveness is a remarkable first attempt at emulating swimming in three-dimensional space. Though swimming might be less acrobatic, diversified, and empowering than Mario’s land movement, it is at least better than Super Mario Sunshine’s shallow, cumbersome swimming (despite the game ironically taking place on an island). I even prefer it to the swimming in Super Mario Galaxy, which I find feels sloppier when transitioning from water to land. Super Mario Galaxy also features a spin move that can be spammed to turn swimming into brute force traversal through mindless Wiimote waggle.
Star 1 of Jolly Roger Bay, “Plunder in the Sunken Ship,” asks the player to dive into the deepest part of the map, entice Unagi out of a sunken ship’s porthole, enter that sunken ship, solve a treasure chest puzzle, and scale the ship’s interior for a star. Like previous Star 1’s, it encourages traversal through the core section of the map. However, its multi-step approach provides an unusually steep challenge for a first star and luring Unagi out feels janky while the treasure chest “puzzle” is superficial trial and error. Star 2, “Can the Eel Come Out to Play?” has the player entice Unagi out of his new cliffside abode and snatch the star attached to its tail. Like Star 1, it demands skillful swimming but improves upon the Unagi-luring by using clearer animations to communicate the eel’s behavior. Star 3, “Treasure in the Ocean Cave,” reuses the treasure chest puzzle in the sea cave, with some goombas and falling pillars as minor obstacles.
“Red Coins on the Ship Afloat,” is a straightforward red coin-er in which coins are scattered across the recently-risen pirate ship, the land connecting the starting area to the pirate ship, and underwater clams. While previous stars emphasized underwater exploration, Star 4’s emphasis on platforming prowess is a welcome change of pace. Per usual, the red coin star is a splendid time to grab 100 coins, which is not particularly difficult or tedious this time around, but the 104 coin total does demand the player thoroughly traverse the level once more. Star 5, “Blast to the Stone Pillar,” channels Whomp’s Fortress’ “Shoot into the Wild Blue” by having the player shoot to a location hinted at in the title and lightly platform to a nearby star. While I find the wordplay and originality of “Shoot into the Wild Blue” more memorable, “Blast to the Stone Pillar” deftly hides a star in plain sight, evidencing the secrets even a seemingly rudimentary level might hold, while also ensuring the player knows the basics of climbing. Finally, “Through the Jet Stream,” like the sixth star of Bob-Omb Battlefield, asks the player to return with proper hat in hand. While using the metal cap to reach the star at the bottom is a clever puzzle, communicating the impossibility of reaching that star in Mario’s normal form could alleviate some frustration for first-timer completionists.
If you’re caught in its misty mystical undertow, Jolly Roger Bay can be enchanting. But its ethereal successes don’t completely nullify its defects. Although I praised the mood struck Star 1’s foggy level variant, surfacing the ship by draining it seems illogical. When playing later stars, I sometimes feel those stars take place before Star 1, as it makes more sense for a boat to sink than rise from the depths. Furthermore, although I like that Stars 1-3 reuse motifs, their ordering makes for a steep learning curve in Star 1 that takes the wind out of the simpler Star 2’s and 3’s sails. As a summary and recontextualization of Stars 2 and 3, Star 1 could have been a great Star 6. Sinking a ship by activating a canon, I feel, makes more intuitive sense than raising a sunken ship by draining it of water and could have been a cool way to cap off the course. As a more nitty-gritty nag, I don’t particularly enjoy luring Unagi out in Stars 1 or 2 and find its fitful AI mind-boggling.
There are also a couple of minor details that don’t quite reach their full potential. The falling pillars in the cave do not feel threatening or interesting, probably because they can be easily run past. If they fell a little faster or existed in greater number, they could pose more of a threat and help make the third star a more varied challenge. Also, the box atop the Jolly Roger that slides with the boat’s sway is a memorable touch, but it would be more interesting if it served a practical purpose, such as needing to be used to reach a red coin. As merely an obstacle, it feels like a clever concept with mediocre execution, kind of like the falling pillars. Finally, the blue coins here, like the blue coins in Whomp’s Fortress, are blandly placed in a line nearby. Why not scatter them around the cavern to offer a greater challenge while also making further use of the falling pillars?
Some might find Jolly Roger Bay is too barren, too slow-paced, deprived of the platforming and combat central to the game’s first two courses. But I feel the deliberate underwater movement undergirds the level’s tone and makes Jolly Roger Bay stand out from the pack. Instead of emphasizing the fun, frantic, seamless flow of land movement, Jolly Roger Bay banks on the potential for three-dimensional environments to immerse their players in an alternate reality, compelled through a sense of place and intrigue. Like landing on Zebes in Super Metroid, Jolly Roger Bay immediately strikes a subdued tone through its intricate visuals and lush but minimalist score. Of all the courses in the game, it’s arguably the most serene, the most beautiful, in its somber mystique; it feels less like a playground and more a Psychonauts interpretation of a mildly depressed seafarer. That might sound like an insult, but it’s not. It’s bold level design for a 1996 video game, possibly bolder in its uncharacteristic mood than any level in any Mario game since. Here’s hoping for a similarly earnest course in Super Mario Odyssey — a course derived from a state of being larger than the game itself, that tries to articulate something as ephemeral as the poetic solitude of the open sea.
View all the entries in this series here.