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 5 – Big Boo’s Haunt.
Big Boo’s Haunt is a miniature haunted house, inside a birdcage, recently inside a ghost. As a space within a space within a space, perhaps it is fitting that it is the most claustrophobic, compacted course the game has offered so far. While this might seem the very antithesis of a game in which free-wheeling movement provides so much unadulterated joy, this tightly wound, interconnected level design plays into the level’s spooky theme to form a level steeped in ambience, filled with engaging challenges, and built around baroque discrete spaces.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the facade of Big Boo’s haunted house resembles that of the mansion from Luigi’s Mansion, a GameCube launch title that blends aspects of Mario with slow environmental exploration and an emphasis on inspection over motion. In a sense, Big Boo’s Haunt is a step in that direction (toward building architecture best tip-toed through), as the mansion that serves as the course’s centerpiece is comprised of ten rooms that scarcely give space for Mario to break into a run. Thankfully, each of those rooms is packed with its own miniature challenge, puzzle, or obstacle best encountered from the reluctant pace the mood and level design both encourage. From flying chairs to a collapsing bridge, to mobile coffins, to a raging piano, a memorable set piece lurks behind each door. Meanwhile, the fixed camera evokes survival horror games of the era while its restricted view provokes a tantalizing dread of the unknown.
Outside of the mansion, the course features a fairly desolate outdoor area and a shed with an underground merry-go-round connected to the mansion. These sections feel dull and secondary to the mansion, and thankfully the designers seem to recognize this. By placing only one star in this portion of the level, the player’s brief visit here feels more an act break than a distraction.
Much of the level’s success lies in its integration of theme with gameplay and architecture, its wholehearted attempt to craft a kid-friendly haunted mansion in sight, sound, and feel. However, as one of the most combat-heavy courses in the game, the strength of the enemy designs plays an equally integral role. Boos respond to the direction the player is facing and ground pounding, helping the player learn a new skill and hone an old one. By the time the player faces Big Boo on the mansion’s balcony, both skills should be and likely will be honed through repetition, as the compact balcony allows minimal room for evasive movement. Like the boo, Mr. I tests close-quarters directional movement through communicative design that is always fun to engage with, in baddie or boss form. These two enemy types, combined with some flying books and furniture, comprise most of the combat in this surprisingly pugnacious stage, but their deliberate and varied implementation ensures brawling never grows tiresome.
Star 1 spawns the player face-to-face with the mansion, its imposing figure looming overhead, beckoning entrance as if in a horror film. Throughout “Go On A Ghost Hunt,” the player weaves in and out of the five rooms comprising the bottom floor, ground-pounding five boos along the way while encountering homing furniture and a terrifying grand piano. After stomping the boos, the Big Boo boss spawns in the foyer, demanding an additional three stomps. It’s a fun and imaginative star that serves as the primer to a fun and imaginative stage. Star 2, “Ride Big Boo’s Merry-Go-Round,” follows in this explorative vein by having the player traipse through the shed. Unfortunately, the shed is less compelling than the mansion, in part because it lacks ambience. For example, the pristine water Mario wades in knee-deep could have conveyed a grotesque atmosphere were it impure, but crystal-clear it feels out of place. On the flipside, the merry-go-round emanates a more distinct vibe and battling five boos and Big Boo on its rotating platform slightly ups Star 1’s challenge. While inoffensive, Star 2 is the somewhat uninspired carrot on a string that simply asks the player to explore the less indelible remainder of the level. Meanwhile, Star 3 “Secret of the Haunted Books,” is hidden behind a facile bookshelf puzzle (not unlike the chest puzzle from Jolly Roger Bay) in a room on the second floor. It’s enjoyable while it lasts but it hardly lasts at all, making it one of the shortest and easiest stars in the game.
Star 4, “Seek the Eight Red Coins,” offers the most enjoyable red coin challenge so far, without the tedium often part and parcel with red coin collection. Coins scattered both floors of the mansion offer a reason to explore almost all the mansion’s rooms, and their shrewd placements stress each room’s strengths. As a matter of course, the 100 coin challenge couples well will the red coin challenge. Fortunately, procuring 100 of Big Boo Haunt’s 151 coins isn’t too tough, as most enemies drop blue coins, further stressing the combat-centric nature of the level. Only because of my endearment for Cool, Cool Mountain’s slide is this my second favorite 100 coiner as yet.
Star 5, “Big Boo’s Balcony,” has the player wall-jump to the third floor of the mansion and face Big Boo once more, this time on a small balcony. Although I like the idea of hiding an entire floor, I think there should be some hint of its possible existence. For example, seeing Big Boo on the balcony at the start of the level could at least plant the seed that there may be some part of the mansion the player has not yet seen. While the boss fight is fine (it’s a little tiresome to fight Big Boo a third time, but the change of location adds some diversity), the star slings up to an awkward spot on the mansion’s roof. This might seem like a trifling detail, but having to long jump multiple times hindered by a far away static camera and poor lighting is a ridiculous ask, especially right after beating a boss. Furthermore, if the player falls, they’ll have to make their way back up from the ground floor, impacting the quality of the star more than a couple of jumps ever should. Finally, Star 6, “Eye to Eye in the Secret Room,” is also located on the third floor, this time behind a portrait of a boo. The player must acquire a vanish cap, hop up to the third floor while invisible, and hop inside the painting to fight another boss. Indeed, Big Boo’s Haunt features four boss fights, more than any other course. Thankfully, this time the boss is a big Mr. I unexpectedly named Big Mr. I, who is merely a dilated version of his small brethren. As the other main enemy of Big Boo’s Haunt, it’s nice to see Big Mr. I briefly steal the spotlight from Big Boo, even though he’s an unfortunate pushover. That said, Star 6 ensures the level goes out with a mix of close-packed platforming, light puzzle-solving, and a boss fight — three qualities that define its design.
Following up the knotty, intricate design of Super Mario World’s ghost houses is no small feat, but Big Boo’s Haunt carries the torch admirably. Though not as deceitful or sticky, it evokes a similar shock and awe in its imposing, claustrophobic, menacing ambience and layout. Its haunted house setting is among the most engaging environments in Super Mario 64, and it delivers heaps of frightful fun nearly every step of the way. Despite keeping the player in close quarters for most of their run, it implements delicately designed enemies in intriguing combat scenarios and features some nuanced platforming. Along with the basic baddies, the bosses are top-notch despite being larger versions of normal enemies. Although the player Big Boo battles account for three stars, battling him in increasingly difficult environments rids the battles of monotony. Even the star names have rebounded from Cool, Cool Mountain’s garbled rhetoric to straightforward star names that guide the player without spelling out the mission.
Big Boo’s Haunt feels like a haunted house not only in aesthetic but also in design. With numerous inspired rooms (including an attic and basement typical of classic haunted houses), brilliant Halloweeny enemies, and myriad surprises; Big Boo’s Haunt has so many astute tricks up its sleeve, it’s little wonder Nintendo delved deeper into this theme with their launch title the following generation. That nightmare fuel Mad Piano still packs a punch twenty years after the game’s release is a testament to the eerie mood and clever character designs that define the course. Indeed, the Big Boo’s Haunt’s strengths are so potent that its lack of unencumbered platforming is somehow not a negative. Instead, the slower, more deliberate exploration the course encourages helps the player see the course as it is — not only fun but a carnivalesque curiosity, with as many architectural tricks up its sleeve as the Winchester Mystery House. On top of that, no stars are outright unfair or frustrating, and the red coin and hundred coin stars are particularly strong.
Truth be told, I have few complaints about Big Boo’s Haunt. I find almost every aspect of it eerily engrossing. However, the clever Star 3 runs so short it feels lackluster, and Star 5’s post-boss home stretch is a tad ludicrous. In terms of level design, the main mansion is marvelous, but the merry-go-round and its surrounding space could be more intriguing. The same could be said about the external area, but the player spends so little time in it, it isn’t much of an issue. Finally, stomping the courtyard boo to access the level after each star grows tiresome. The course demands so much boo-ty-stomping that it doesn’t feel necessary after first entering the level.
Over the years, I have heard varying opinions of Big Boo’s Haunt, and I think most of them directly relate to each person’s appreciation for haunted houses. While not everyone’s cup of tea, I think translating the haunted house theme into the third dimension allows for a unique spin that combines Mario’s ghost houses with classic haunted houses and the survival horror video game genre. The atmosphere is one-of-a-kind, and the cramped, labyrinthine, surprise-packed design translates horror into the procedural language of 3D platforming. Big Boo’s Haunt is one of my favorite courses in the game, and it rounds off the first third of Super Mario 64 on a high note.
View all the entries in this series here.