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 4 – Cool, Cool Mountain.
Cool, Cool Mountain, though having the same three-star requirement as Jolly Roger Bay, is the fourth course in Super Mario 64. After a trip to the beach in Jolly Roger Bay, the player is again placed in a landlocked level. Although Cool, Cool Mountain represents a return to the norm, it returns the player to a steep mountain with a relatively steep difficulty curve.
Cool, Cool Mountain is either the most self-congratulatory course in Super Mario 64 or the most concerned with conveying its temperature. Either way, it is also the first self-described “mountain” in the game, though not the first to contain mountain-esque architecture. Indeed, mountains seem endemic to early 3D platformers. What better way to demand various forms of three-dimensional movement and show off three-dimensional space than with the ups, downs, spirals, and curves of a mountain? After straightforward flat plane plains, Bob-Omb Battlefield implements a mountain in its back half. Meanwhile, Whomp’s Fortress uses a mountain-esque fortress to tidily pack obstacles into a tight space. In both cases, as in Cool, Cool Mountain, mountain formations encourage linearity in an open environment, limiting player movement so that it is neither totally open nor as linear as a 2D platformer. Perhaps for these reasons, mountains are all over Super Mario 64. Cool, Cool Mountain, however, differentiates itself from many of these mountains by toying with key aspects of the formula. Much like the musical technique of variation (in which a musical segment is reinterpreted with a change to rhythm, harmony, timbre, or another formal factor), Cool, Cool Mountain represents a unique twist on one of the game’s most common architectural formations.
The powdery peak of Cool, Cool Mountain’s namesake serves as the course’s structural backbone. In essence, it is comprised of three flat floors and their interconnections. The top floor features a cabin and a couple of characters central to the course’s stars and is connected to the middle floor via a slide. The cabin is accessible via chimney and features a long slide connecting the top and bottom floors. The middle floor features a headless snowman, several snowman baddies, a bridge that leads to an otherwise tough-to-reach spot, and a ski lift connecting the middle and bottom floors. The bottom floor contains a penguin NPC, the bottom of the cabin located at the peak, and a canon the player can use to shoot to another part of the bottom floor that features some tricky platforming. From the long outdoor slide to the ski ramp, to the mountain’s numerous slippery slopes, the basic topography betrays the level’s penchant for movement and challenge related to changing altitude, particularly for sliding downward.
While the topography of the course might seem commonplace at first glance, Cool, Cool Mountain separates itself from the pack by wholeheartedly running with its theme through myriad touches. First off, the course is packed with a memorable cast of characters that foreshadow the quirkiness of future N64 platformers like Banjo-Kazooie. Between a massive racing penguin, scattered baby penguins, and a headless snowman, Cool, Cool Mountain’s characters quickly establish unique personalities and dilemmas. Second, spawning at the mountain’s peak accentuates downward traversal, especially by sliding.
Indeed, Cool, Cool Mountain is the only course in the game primarily focused on descent, which thematically suits the icy aesthetic justifying the course’s numerous slippery slopes. In emphasizing descent, the course also conveys a strong sense of height, as if it is at the snowy summit of an even larger mountain. In the outdoor portion, the weather effects and gusts of wind that propel Mario upward play into this sense of altitude. And when falling from a significant height, Mario also pummels waist-deep into the snow and pulls himself out, slightly easing difficult while further establishing the setting. Finally, the strategically placed warps and three canons (this is the only course outside of Bob-Omb Battlefield to feature more than one canon), make traversing the mountain less linear than initially seems possible.
As a first star, “Slip Slidin’ Away” eschews the typical goal of familiarizing the player with the level in favor of familiarizing them with a skill crucial to the level — sliding. Star 1 helps hone this skill by offering more challenge than the Princess’s Secret Slide by removing rails, including several jumps, and implementing many turns of varying sharpness. In its forgiving challenge (a 1-up is placed near the start to allow for near-endless retries), Star 1 better enables the player to traverse the less linear but slide-heavy remainder of the course. Meanwhile, Star 2, “Lil’ Penguin Lost,” has the player explore the world outside the cabin, often through sliding. It’s a typical level familiarization star with a twist — deliver the lil’ lost penguin at the top of the mountain to its mother at the bottom. It demands not only the player pass through the level but do so with a penguin in hand, which is never as easy as not carrying a penguin. Star 3, “Big Penguin Race,” is Cool, Cool Mountain’s version of a koopa footrace, in which the player must race Big Penguin down the cabin’s slide. Basically, it’s a remixed Star 1 with a time limit and feathery obstacle. Fortunately, the penguin moves at a neck-and-neck rate until the very end, making for the most thrilling race so far.
Star 4, “Frosty Slide for 8 Red Coins” sprinkles red coins all over the map, including some tough-to-reach spots. The name is misleading, however, as none of the red coins are actually picked up while sliding. As usual, the red coin star is high time to nab 100 coins, but with 154 coins scattered throughout the level and about half on the cabin’s slide, it could easily be done anytime. With around half the coins on the cabin’s slide and enemies dropping three coins apiece, this 100 coin star is the least persnickety so far. But beware of netting the hundredth coin mid-slide, as the star will likely spawn in a frustrating location. Star 5, “Snowman’s Lost His Head,” asks the player to lead a snowman head at the mountaintop to its body on the middle level. In a sense, it’s a more difficult Star 2 that has you traverse half the space but with significantly less control over the NPC you’re directing. Finally, Star 6, “Wall Kicks Will Work,” hides a star on the side of the mountain. After using the canon to reach this hidden area, the player must fight a pair of enemies along a narrow ledge and then test their jumping skills against a brief but tricky series of jumps. It’s an acrobatic, isolated challenge that demands more complex jumps (such as the wall jump or “kick”) than have been required thus far, but a heart placed at the bottom ensures the player need not focus on health, only their platforming prowess.
Cool, Cool Mountain is both a fantastic fourth level and ice level. Typically, those two descriptors don’t go hand-in-hand, as most ice levels in Mario games rest in the latter half due to their punishingly slippery controls. However, Cool, Cool Mountain walks this tightrope by delivering a slippery but forgiving take on the formula. Both establishing a sense of place through icing the tactile and upping the difficulty, Cool, Cool Mountain features slippy controls that require careful traversal and contribute to the dread of mismanaging movement through this vertically oriented course, where any fall could lead to your doom and the next change to fall is right around the corner. This makes Cool, Cool Mountain’s aforementioned sense of height even more pertinent and dreadful. Furthermore, it succeeds in fleshing out its wintry theme by organically stringing its world, its characters, and its challenges together. For example, racing a penguin down an icy slide down seamlessly befits the sliding mechanic, the penguin character, and the mountaintop setting without any aspect feeling incongruent.
This cohesiveness goes a long way toward world-building and allows the level to thoroughly feel more like a snowy peak than Bob-Omb Battlefield actually feels like a battlefield. It also allows for the level to lean into sliding as a central mechanic without it feeling shoehorned in. Furthermore, the cabin’s slide is probably my favorite slide in the game. Its intricate design clearly communicates, constantly engages, and allows for a wide array of speeds jumps and turns despite its brevity. And to top it off, the course features some of the best warppoints in the game. Not only does their location allow for meaningful transportation around the level, but their placement at the end of broken bridges seem oddly symbolic of the warp through space-time they offer. They are a great way to reward the player for exploring the level’s nooks and crannies.
However, there are some glaring faults with the level as well as some more minor ones. For one, the names of the stars are often deceiving. Star 3 sounds like it should take place outside but actually takes place in the cabin, and vice versa on Star 4, “Frosty Slide for 8 Red Coins.” How is the player supposed to know which slide is frostier? And as I previously mentioned, none of the coins are actually located on a slide. Finally, Star 6 is the oddest of all, as wall kicks don’t work. Wall jumps do.
Names aside, Star 5 is certainly the weakest in the level. Despite its clever premise, the limiting camera and snowman head “AI” make stewarding the snowman head sloppier than it should be. Furthermore, failing this frustrating task means taking the considerable time to quit and re-enter the stage since there is curiously no option to restart the level. On a smaller note, the overly simplistic blue coins (once again) provide little challenge and satisfaction, begging the question why do they keep shoehorning these things in with seemingly so little consideration. Finally, Cool, Cool Mountain can be challenging at times. Though the game’s nonlinear structure make this less of an issue, I find it a tougher level than Course 5, and it steepens the difficulty curve enough to probably be off-putting to some players.
On the whole, Cool, Cool Mountain is a charming level with fun NPCs that benefits from its diverse array of stars. From a tricky platforming challenge to a race with a penguin to uniting a snowman with its lost head, the level is full of memorable missions. Replaying it recently, I was struck by the level’s modest size, which might be a testament to how successfully it conveys its mountainesque stature. It’s numerous little embellishments in terms of NPC’s, weather-specific animation, and wintry atmosphere gives it unusual warmth for a level covered in snow. Although I find significant fault in Star 5 and have several smaller gripes that run a wide gamut, Cool, Cool Mountain is always worth the hike down.
View all the entries in this series here.