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‘Super Mario 64’ Level by Level: Course 8 – Shifting Sand Land

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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 8 – Shifting Sand Land.

shifting sand land

Unlocked alongside Hazy Maze Cave and Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land is nominally the eighth course of Super Mario 64. Its entrance is around the corner from Lethal Lava Land’s, disguised as a solid wall at the end of a brief hallway. Although I like the hidden entrance, it doesn’t seem to match the course’s theme or be otherwise linked to Shifting Sand Land. For optimal thematic consistency, this course entrance could have been swapped with Hazy Maze Cave’s, and the liquid pool turned into quicksand. That would more optimally gel with the theme of each course and encourage the player to enter the courses in the recommended order, though stumbling across the course entrance is still rewarding as it is.

shifting sand landShifting Sand Land is a sprawling desert roughly divisible into larger regions, a bit like Bob-Omb Battlefield. Spawning on an isolated corner of the map, the player’s potential path gradually widens as they encounter Bob-Ombs, a Fly Guy, and a Pokey. Then, the course opens up exponentially, giving the player access to a shell and flying cap (not unlike Lethal Lava Land), and allowing them to use these means or travel on foot to either a pyramid surrounded by quicksand, an oasis in the far corner, or a nearby maze-like pathway with Tox Boxes. The course’s openness and piecemeal challenges are reminiscent of the previous course, Lethal Lava Land, though the lava has been replaced with quicksand and there is more open space to run freely.

Like the volcano in Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land’s pyramid encloses an obstacle course-like interior. Featuring several new baddies and manifold platforming challenges, the pyramid is a more robust and difficult upgrade of the previous course’s volcano. In its branching paths, shortcuts, hidden secrets, and unique scenarios, it is more intricately designed than the exterior part of the course, even harkening back to the design of Whomp’s Fortress, as the exterior does Bob-Omb Battlefield.

shifting sand landIt’s tough not to compare Shifting Sand Land to previous courses, as it seems to mix and match some design mantras of its predecessors. However, it seems most like a remixed interpretation of Lethal Lava Land, underscored by the fact that it directly succeeds Lethal Lava Land in the course order. Like Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land features two portions (an exterior and interior accessed through a structure in the exterior portion), dangerous terrain that limits mobility, a shell and flying cap to diversify movement, the integration of a classic Mario theme, and a seemingly open, rectangular, mostly flat plane constituting most of the course.

Despite the parallels, Shifting Sand Land carves out its own identity through its vast sense of space and thorough integration of its desert theme. Unlike Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land’s treacherous terrain is less ubiquitous, making for what initially seems to be a more open design and a greater sense of mobility, though it actually outlines a more linear path forward. With the shell or hat in tow, most of the course is much more accessible than it is on foot. In fact, the entire exterior seems designed with the cap in mind, as it is much more engaging and well-balanced to fly through than to run through. The core problem with this is that there is ultimately not much to explore nor reason to explore it, rendering most of the map fly-over territory. For example, in the oasis, Klepto the Condor (the NPC raptor who apparently suffers from an irrational desire to steal Mario’s cap) hovers over and is woefully underdeveloped, as are the nearby sand dunes. Similarly, the sixth or so of the course taken up by Tox Box pathways feels vacant, a shell of what it could have been. Indeed, most of the course revolves around the central pyramid, with each star found inside, atop, or close by.

This pyramid is especially noteworthy because it is the only mountainesque structure of the entire second part of the game. Between Hazy Maze Cave’s navigational curveballs and Lethal Lava Land’s precision-based platforming, the level design of the “basement” courses have primarily been variations of flat terrain. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to the pyramid on the outside, minus some slippery slopes and the unfairly punishing (and borderline indecipherable) quicksand puddles around its perimeter. Per usual, flying around it is much preferable to navigating it on foot.

On one hand, Shifting Sand Land feels like it fails to measure up to Lethal Lava Land because it is less fun to traverse, less open than it initially appears, and the tedious starting spawn ensures a repetitious first thirty seconds. On the other hand, Shifting Sand Land desert theme feels more thoroughly explored, featuring seven new stage-specific enemies, a handful of staple desert locales, and an intricate pyramid interior with several secrets on its sleeve. While the bafflingly repetitious starting spawn gets old fast and the barren outdoor portion gives little reason to pay it mind, the pyramid interior is a highlight, featuring some of the game’s most captivating platforming so far.

shifting sand landStar 1, “In the Talons of the Big Bird” has the player nab the star in Klepto’s grasp. It is a very brief star best acquired through flight, but it gives the player a brief aerial overview of the course and incentivizes discovery of the essential wing cap. Star 2, “Shining Atop the Pyramid” is both easier than Star 1 and similar enough to warrant questioning its existence. Again, flying completely eschews the challenge, but since running around the pyramid is not very fun, flight (or even better, shell-shredding) is the way to go.

shifting sand land“Inside the Ancient Pyramid” requires the player enter the pyramid they scaled the last star, but this time scale it from the inside. Fortunately, this proves more fun than the past two stars, as new enemy types percolate the path and the varied platforming is comprised of climbing, pole-jumping, and even hiding in a crevice as an enemy rolls past. Passing through this lengthy, detailed part segment for the first time is a lot of fun and a decent challenge full of mummified whomp-y and thwomp-y enemies. For the first time this course, the star feels truly earned. “Stand Tall on the Four Pillars” requires the player… to stand on the four pillars surrounding the pyramid. Doing so blows the pyramid’s top off, giving access to an elevator that descends to a boss battle against Eyerok, a pair of hands with eyes. Between the initial surprise of trimming the pyramid and the intricate, involved, punishing boss battle requiring precise movement and combat, Star 4 is an unexpectedly unique experience.

shifting sand landStar 5, “Free Flying for Eight Red Coins,” is a decent red coin star where the player scours the overworld. Exploring the course’s crevices is enjoyable, but it also highlights the wasted potential of the first two stars, as Star 5 is the only reason to visit most of the map. However, this leads to feeling like the map is designed around this star, which makes it feel less tacked-on than many red coin stars. Unlike most stages, the one hundred coin star is best not collected on the red coin star because the player must enter the pyramid for some coins and will not be able to return to the exterior to collect the red coin star that spawns outside. With 136 coins scattered across the map, there is no shortage, but some finicky coin placements may result in what feels like unfair quicksand deaths. Star 6, “Pyramid Puzzle,” asks the player to once again climb the interior of the pyramid. From there, the player must drop down to small platforms to collect five coins. The first-person camera can help determine where to fall, but the difficulty of judging depth, the sometimes erratic camera, and the finicky close-quarters controls mean most players will fall before collecting them all. Once fallen, the player must trek back up to the top in what can feel like a tedious journey.

shifting sand landOn one hand, Shifting Sand Land has a ton going for it. It’s packed full of interesting characters, it fully embraces its desert theme, and it features some great stars. Stars 3 and 4, in particular, are among the most involved and surprising stars in the game so far, packing in more star-specific content than almost any other. Furthermore, the interior of the pyramid, where both of those stars take place, is probably the most intricately assembled and fluidly diverse interior in the second part of the game. On top of all this, little thrills like running up the stone pillars, shell riding across quicksand, chopping down Pockys, nabbing a stolen cap from a kleptomaniac condor, and blowing the lid off a pyramid to enter a boss battle are all satisfying left turns specific to this level — little special spins I look forward to each time I play.

However, Shifting Sand Lands also falls short in many arenas. In broad strokes, the exterior of the course is bland, barren, and lacking character. Although the desert theme rings aesthetically true, the oasis, sand dunes, and ToxBox pathways over quicksand portion all feel half-baked. The DS remake seems to acknowledge this in a seventh a star placed near the Tox Boxes. The questionable starting spawn combined with some boring enemies (what do the bob-ombs at the start add to the experience?) make for a rote entrance, and the deceptively constraining level design rewards the player for flying or shell surfing past all of its obstacles as quickly as possible. On top of this, Stars 1 and 2 lack depth and length, feeling barebones even for entry-level stars. Meanwhile, Star 6 seems almost deliberately abstruse, a failed first-person experiment in an interior section with an already sticky camera. Although the wide enemy variety is noteworthy, their placements feel too top-heavy, with many of the course’s new enemies strangely thrown together at the course’s start. And once again, the blue coins are nothing more than a facile, meaningless cash grab. Finally, I find the different ground textures in the level’s exterior portion difficult to differentiate and not very communicate, inciting cheap deaths that only further incentive abuse of the wing cap.

shifting sand landOverall, Shifting Sand Land is a fairly strong course with roughly as many bulls-eyes as missed marks. While the course’s enemy variety and strong integration of theme connote a desert locale in numerous fashions, its bland overworld and some repetitious sections make it needlessly tedious at times. Although a couple stars are quite clever and involved, just as many feel superficially rushed in or irritatingly erratic. With high highs and low lows, Shifting Sand Land is the course I’ve felt most ambivalent about so far, torn between its equal measures of thoughtful design and rash implementation. Were the designers as focused on granular details as it seems they were in Lethal Lava Land, Shifting Sand Land could have had some of its rough edges sanded down. As it stands, it plays second fiddle to its fiery brethren, despite some remarkable highlights.

View all the entries in this series here.

Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he's not playing video games, he's probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn't always playing video games.

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