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‘Super Mario 64’ Level by Level: Course 9 – Dire, Dire Docks



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 9 – Dire, Dire Docks.

The entrance to Dire, Dire Docks is hidden behind a Power Star door requiring 30 stars and also housing the second Bowser course, Bowser in the Fire Sea. Upon entering through the door, the player encounters a wall of water blocking the entrance to a hole in the ground that leads to Bowser in the Fire Sea. Jumping into that water wall sends the player to Dire, Dire Docks.

The player spawns somersaulting into a vertical cylindrical cove filled with water. Below, beautiful marine fauna swim about as a small cyclone swirls at the very bottom. A horizontal pathway that snakes up and down is attached to the bottom of this cove, seeming to be a filtration system separating the two sides. A rectangular prism filled halfway with water lies on the other side of the tunnel, with scattered clams and a grate at the bottom, and Bowser’s submarine bobbing at the surface. After earning the course’s first star, placed atop this submarine, the player gains access to Bowser in the Fire Sea. After beating that course, the submarine disappears and is replaced by an overhanging system of moving poles, platforms, and walls.

As the intricately changing course layout indicates, Bowser’s submarine lies at the heart of Dire, Dire Docks. It is where the player earns the first star, and its appearance and disappearance ties the course to Bowser in the Fire Sea, providing a sense of progress through the course and the game at large. In an unusually linear path for this late in the game, the player must board Bowser’s sub and beat Bowser in the Fire Sea to access some later stars in Dire, Dire Docks. This seems to be done to provide a sense of shifting elemental zones in which Bowser must be conquered — first, the player beat him on land, now they must beat him in “water”, and the next battle will be in the “air.” This is also a rare instance of the game conveying plot through level design and the world’s interconnectedness. It’s an ambitious attempt at environmental storytelling for an early 3D platformer, though it will likely go unnoticed by most players since the lava-filled Bowser in the Fire Sea bares little resemblance to the submarine the player boards in Dire, Dire Docks.

This somewhat failed attempt at “transition” is perhaps the dominant theme of Dire, Dire Docks. The course exists in limbo, in between the hub world and a standard course and a Bowser stage. It is divided into three portions, two bodies of water and one tunnel that seems to be designed to keep those bodies of water separate, itself a barrier to a smooth transition between two worlds. And this tunnel, like Dire, Dire Docks as a whole, lacks a clear identity, defined more by what exists on its periphery than in what it actually contains.

In many ways, Dire, Dire Docks is Jolly Roger Bay redux. It reuses that course’s water theme, music, art, star objectives, and even plagiarizes a star name. Though more filled with marine wildlife, the first part of Dire, Dire Docks bears a great deal of similarity to the deepest portion of Jolly Roger Bay. But the tunnel links players to another water world, devoid of wildlife, in which underwater currents are caused by vents and grates instead of naturally occurring cyclones, and either a submarine bobs in the water or machinery grinds away overhead. This change in atmosphere is undergirded by a musical percussion line added to the score when Mario is on land, making the second portion of the course feel less serene and leisurely. The contrast between these two worlds seems to juxtapose two opposing worlds as a direct comparison between the natural world and the manmade, though the point it is trying to make (if any) is hard to decipher. Though conceptually brilliant, the course itself feels torn asunder between two poles — half naturalistic and half mechanical, half original and half borrowed — ultimately coming across as half-baked.

Star 1, “Board Bowser’s Sub” takes the player throughout the entire course, from the spawn point, down the starting pool, through the tunnel, and onto the sub at the end. It both serves the diegetic purpose of pushing the game’s story forward while also serving as an overview of Dire, Dire Docks. Since the course is small, the star does not take long to reach, but by its end, the player will have seen most of what the course has to offer. Meanwhile, Star 2, “Chests in the Current,” asks the player to simply dive to the bottom of the starting pool and tap four treasure chests in the correct order. It is essentially the same as the two chest puzzles in Jolly Roger Bay, made slightly tougher by the vortex the chests are placed around.

Star 3, “Pole-Jumping for Red Coins,” must be completed after defeating Bowser in the Fire Sea, as the sub is then replaced with the moving poles necessary to reach the red coins. Because there are only 106 coins on Dire, Dire Docks, Bowser in the Fire Sea must also be defeated to complete the 100 coin star, which should be done on Star 3 since the player will need to collect most of the red coins for 100 total coins. Because pole-jumping is an enjoyable mechanic, Star 3 is an enjoyable star, though a mistimed jump could result in falling in the water and having to restart the entire pole-jumping section. The 100 coin challenge, however, can grow tedious because the course’s dearth of coins means the player will have to scour every corner. The short coin draw distance can become a significant concern (specifically regarding groups of coins at the very start of the stage and at the bottom of the indoor pool), making the search for this course’s coins less enjoyable than it should be.

Stars 4, 5, and 6 are all fairly shallow puzzle stars that can be quickly completed once the player knows their solutions. “Through the Jet Stream” borrows the title of a nearly identical Jolly Roger Bay star, best completed by donning a metal cap and standing on a grate to pass through the hoops emitted by a jet stream. “The Manta Ray’s Reward” has the player similarly pass through hoops, this time while swimming behind a manta ray near the course’s start. It’s certainly uninspired, but the pretty manta ray is worth some extra attention. Finally, Star 6, “Collect the Caps…” has the player use a vanish cap to reach a star hidden inside an underwater cage. Although the star name suggests using the vanish cap and metal cap simultaneously, that is unnecessary.

Dire, Dire Docks is probably the most obviously flawed course in Super Mario 64 so far, though it does sometimes notably succeed. Although the art style and vibe owe a great deal to Jolly Roger Bay, the underwater start of the course is beautiful, and the marine wildlife is always a joy to swim with. I also appreciate the manner in which the level interlocks with the hub world and Bowser in the Fire Sea to convey a narrative and a cohesive world design. It’s a cool concept even if it only partially works in practice. Stars 1 and 3 feel relatively fleshed out and make good use of the relatively constrained and linear architecture of the course. I also really enjoy the wildlife design. It wouldn’t have fit in Jolly Roger Bay, but having it here injects color and vivacity into the course. And the prospect of combining hats for Star 6 is pretty clever, even though it is not necessary. Finally, I like a pair of small touches: the way the player dives into the course upon entering, and the subtle change in music when moving from water to land.

Yet, Dire, Dire Docks comes up short in many, if not most, regards. For one, its lack of identity, (from its reused music and art to similarities to Jolly Roger Bay’s level design) makes much of it feel been-there, done-that. Because much of Jolly Roger Bay’s charm comes from the initial impression it leaves, reworking elements here in a less sophisticated manner falls flat. And despite much of the level being about the transition, those transitions feel diegetically inconsistent, such as Bowser’s sub not bearing any resemblance to the subsequent Bowser level (though I appreciate that level’s bobbing and layout structurally resembles a submarine). And although the variety of wildlife is very pleasant to look at, it also feels like a missed opportunity, since the only meaningful wildlife interaction is swimming through the manta ray’s hoops. I also don’t understand why this is one of the few courses without a warp. A warp placed near the start could have gone a long way to sharpen the experience by cutting out monotonously swimming through the tunnel. Better yet, the player could have been able to determine their spawn based on where they jump into the course entrance, alleviating monotony even more.

Most of Dire, Dire Dock’s stars are similarly lackluster and inconsistent. Star 2 merely reuses a mediocre puzzle format already twice used in Jolly Roger Bay. Star 4 similarly steals a concept from Jolly Roger Bay, even co-opting its name. Star 5, though cool to swim behind a manta, is basically just a horizontal Star 4. And Star 6 poses an interesting premise in its name but can easily be collected by using just one cap, evidencing the unusual lack of refinement seen throughout most of Dire, Dire Docks stars.

Dire, Dire Docks is a course about the in-between, the transitional, the liminal. So perhaps it’s suiting that it never truly develops its own sense of self. Instead, it comes across as half a Jolly Roger Bay knock-off and half a prologue to Bowser in the Sea. Although I like some small touches and concepts, it lacks cohesion, consistency, and a real purpose. It is the most obviously flawed course so far in Super Mario 64 and at times its design can feel as dire as its name suggests.

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.