With Super Mario Odyssey charming the gaming public by way of playable dinosaurs and big city flash mobs, that plucky little plumber (he'll always be a plumber to me, Nintendo) is seated firmly on the brain. Excited though we may be for any new Mario exploit, we feel it is a biological imperative to divert attention back to our favorite Mario entries in Nintendo history. For me, that means Super Mario 64. But while I have few reservations about declaring the game one of the most fun and enchanting I've ever played, picking and choosing the most fun and enchanting parts of Mario 64 is a tougher challenge.
But if I've learned anything from Mario, it's that any challenge can be bested with the right hat. As such, I've taken on the task of ranking all of Super Mario 64's 15 levels—just the standards; no Bowser courses or secret slides—from worst to best. My only criteria: fun. Surely a more proficient gamer than I could delve into the technical highs and lows of every stage between Bob-omb's Battlefield and Rainbow Ride, but I mounted this endeavor judging each of Princess Peach's castle's varied worlds based only on how good a time I had playing them.
Without further ado, in the words of our generation's greatest adventurer: Here we gooo!
15. DIRE DIRE DOCKS
Not to toot my own warp whistle, but I’ve got a pretty acute memory when it comes to the varied plains, pipes, and remarkably dense cumulonimbus channels conquered (admittedly, less often by me than by my older sister) during my younger years in the Mushroom Kingdom. But for the life of me, I can’t seem to draw to mind much detail about Super Mario 64’s basement-level water course Dire, Dire Docks. I remember the submarine, likewise the looming threat of the penultimate mission’s eponymous manta ray. But having already spent the sum of my amenability to waterborne gameplay on the superior Jolly Roger Bay, and finding no friend in the course’s unsettling theme music, I maintained a resilient aversion to Dire Dire Docks, braving its current only when I really needed another star.
Best mission: Board Bowser's Sub
14. LETHAL LAVA LAND
Lethal Lava Land, on the other hand, I remember perfectly. I remember every agitating slip into the course’s boiling sea, and every infuriating toss of poor whimpering Mario, derriere ablaze, high up into the air and right back down into the lava once again… and again, and again, and again, until the guttural chortling of King Bowser ushered us both back into Peach’s castle basement. Even when I did manage to reach a mission’s conclusion, none proved fun enough to justify the headache incurred getting from one point in this course to another. Sure enough, graduation from the castle’s basement to its second floor couriered no greater satisfaction than being able to put those banana-eared bullies behind me for good.
Best mission: Elevator Tour in the Volcano
13. WHOMP’S FORTRESS
The low ranking of Whomp’s Fortress has less to do with any especially frustrating characteristics—most of its missions were kind of a breeze, as a matter of fact—but with the fact that it really didn’t offer much in the way of unique charm. The course’s kickoff mission was something of a rehash of Bob-omb Battlefield’s inceptive brawl, while subsequent challenges shared more than a forgivable degree of overlap. All that said, I’ve always liked the owl.
Best mission: Fall onto the Caged Island
12. JOLLY ROGER BAY
As I may have hinted at earlier, I’m none too keen on water levels in general (chalk it up to a paralyzing fear of drowning), and Super Mario 64’s especially. Still, I appreciate the classical bravura of Jolly Roger Bay, which ran the gamut of everything you’d want in a sea adventure: pirate ships, sunken treasure, terrifying sea creatures, and underwater caves. Granted, some love is lost in trading in the fast-paced fun of the game’s landlocked courses for the more deliberate gameplay of its underwater lark, but Jolly Roger Bay earned some good will in the abstract.
Best mission: Plunder in the Sunken Ship
11. RAINBOW RIDE
Per Super Mario 64’s linear narrative, Rainbow Ride marked our hero’s final treks before his one last face-off with Bowser. In turn, the game seized its premier opportunity to pull gleefully from the Mario franchise’s rich history, all in the interest of an especially enchanting finale. The very nature of the course shared an aesthetic with everyone’s favorite level from the Mario Kart series, and Rainbow Ride’s flying vessel hailed from a tradition first introduced in the seminal classic Super Mario Bros. 3. Truth be told, gems of the sort were charming enough to make up for the fact that Rainbow Ride didn’t have too much going on, mission-wise. Though the conceptual whimsy of Rainbow Ride well outweighed the functional delights of its gameplay, the merits of conceptual whimsy shouldn’t be discounted altogether.
Best mission: The Big House in the Sky
10. SHIFTING SAND LAND
In contrast to something like Whomp’s Fortress, Shifting Sand Land packed plenty of frustration—traversing its quicksand landscape could drive you damn near batty—but boasted a nearly unparalleled caliber of diversity among its missions, unlike what you’d find anywhere else in the game. Though every one of the dizzying course’s obstacles proved at the very least interesting, the single-minded nature of a handful of its challenges made for incredibly irritating repeat attempts. As such, frequent detours elsewhere in the castle were necessary for patience reboots between endeavors to mount the four pillars or get my damn hat back from that freakin’ vulture.
Best mission: Inside the Ancient Pyramid
9. SNOWMAN’S LAND
Snowman’s Land held distinction as the Super Mario 64 course I always most wanted to love but never quite could. How could the likes of a gigantic talking snowman or an igloo obstacle course not make for a regular riot? But Snowman’s Land suffered gravely from the erosion of its own novelty; though early expeditions may well have lived up to the joys of its frostbitten follies on paper, repeat plays quickly hit a point of diminishing returns. (My friend Matt would like you all to know that this was one of the best courses in the game and that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.)
Best mission: Snowman’s Big Head
8. BOB-OMB’S BATTLEFIELD
I’ve wrestled with the misgiving that it may be a copout to rank the game’s introductory course, its simplest and broadest, above more polished and pointed successors. But damn it if Bob-omb’s Battlefield wasn’t just a powder keg of joy. The typically safe terrain allowed for easygoing exploration, which was made all the more fun by vibrant coloring, stupefying sideshows—gotta love Chomp Chomp—and a small but resourceful community of friendly pink Bob-ombs. Basic though the game’s first adventure may have been, its generous sprawl and varied nooks and crannies kept it well outside the blast radius of the dullards.
Best mission: Footrace with Koopa the Quick
7. TALL, TALL MOUNTAIN
I’ll be straight with you, everybody. I really just liked this one for the monkeys.
Best mission: Mystery of the Monkey Cage
6. HAZY MAZE CAVE
The closest thing Super Mario 64 offered to its plumber protagonist's longstanding tradition of surveying the pipe-peppered worlds down below, Hazy Maze Cave went the extra mile to live up to its subterranean lineage, laying down a hybrid of grit and funk rivaled no place else in the game. The course also set out to introduce new kinds of challenges to Mario 64 players with poison gases, unnavigable terrain, and unique monsters for a one-of-a-kind adventure. Hazy Maze Cave may not have been the best level in Super Mario 64, but it certainly earned rightful claim to the title of "coolest." (Well, by one definition of the word, anyhow...)
Best mission: Swimming Beast in the Cavern
5. COOL, COOL MOUNTAIN
The classics are the classics are the classics. Cool, Cool Mountain is the first great level we were treated to in Super Mario 64, and moreover the course we all seem most inclined to grace with repeat visits. Why? The combination of stunning design, fast-paced gameplay, feasible and teeth-gnashingly-tough challenges (it always took me ages to get that poor snowman his head back), and—of course—that delightfully annoying baby penguin with the infectious caw. God only knows what kind of damage those relentless “Ah! Ah! Ah!”s did to the collective grey matter of the children of the ‘90s.
Best mission: Li’l Penguin Lost
4. WET-DRY WORLD
Far and away the strangest and most brand-divergent course in the game, Wet-Dry World felt like it’d have been more at home as an Ocarina of Time temple than as a Super Mario 64 level. Nevertheless, this haunting tribute to amphibious living was always a welcome corner of the castle’s otherwise sun-basted second floor, swapping out merriment for mystique and challenges in hand-eye coordination for those in puzzle-solving. Plus, the chilling implications of Mario's excavation of an underwater city in ruins really let the imagination run wild.
Best mission: Top o' the Town
3. TICK TOCK CLOCK
Tick Tock Clock matched the likes of Wet-Dry World, Shifting Sand Land, and its third floor neighbor Rainbow Ride in conceptual ambition, but topped the lot by so expertly weaving its concept with dynamic gameplay. Even in absence of its standout feature, the creative bent to the course's conditional speed, Tick Tock Clock would rank as one of the most charmingly idiosyncratic stages in Super Mario 64. As a side note, the epiphany accompanying my discovery of which hand positions corresponded with which tempo ranks to this day as one of the most exciting moments of my life.
Best mission: The Pit and the Pendulums
2. BIG BOO’S HAUNT
Ever since they were first introduced to the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario World (with precedent as boss forts in Super Mario Bros. 3), Big Boo's ghost houses have reigned as some of the most titillating, challenging, and sincerely spooky elements of the Mario canon. Super Mario 64's take on the trope carried the torch with pride, employing the same kind of brow-raising trickery (and then some!) we had come to expect from the protoplasmic kingpin. The combination of Big Boo's ostensibly omnipotent eye and impromptu interjections with a few classical horror elements, like a ravenous piano and eerie carousel music, made for the game's most unpredictable and invigoratingly unsettling course.
Best mission: Secret of the Haunted Books
1. TINY-HUGE ISLAND
What exactly made Tiny-Huge Island my favorite of Super Mario 64's 15 levels? Was it the perfect marriage of Mario classicism with the (then) new flare of 64-bit design, or the fantastic application of a relatively simple core concept to a bevy of inventive adventures? How about the existential mind-warp that came with exploring the same territory from two strikingly different physical perspectives, or the carnal rush of stomping flat an oversized Goomba? Yeses across the board. Every facet of Tiny-Huge Island called me back to play again and again, always delivering on the craved dose of pure joy you'd want and expect from any Mario outing. It may not have been the toughest, the strangest, or the most intriguing of Super Mario 64's courses, but it sure was the most fun.
Best mission: Five Itty Bitty Secrets
What do you think our final standings? You've no doubt got gripes, so chime in with your own preferences!
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.
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