When Nintendo launched Super Mario 64 with the N64 system, it was a pioneering game, launching their flagship franchise into the 3D space and innovating how videogames would embrace new technology from there on out. Every studio in the world would look to how Nintendo handled platforming, camera controls, character movement, world design, and polygonal graphics with Super Mario 64 to help them move the medium forward. Mario itself would continue to evolve through the steps that Mario 64 took, with successors Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy and ultimately Super Mario Odyssey all utilising that original formula.
With the recent 2020 release of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, it’s never been more accessible to play Super Mario 64 than it is today. Below, we have rated every single stage of the original classic, from the stinkers to the shiners, from worst to best; those that really show up the limitations of the N64 in 1996, through to those levels that hold up even by today’s lofty standards.
15. Tiny-Huge Island
Highlighting the sheer subjectivity that goes into lists like this, and also the true depths of Super Mario 64’s level design, I’ve seen Tiny-Huge Island literally #1 similar lists ranking the game’s various stages. For me though, I spent twice as long on this level as I did on any other; its missions are a frustrating mess of insta-death precision platforming and boring trial-and-error grind. The scenery isn’t even interesting to look at, a repeat of green grasslands and goombas you’ll find in dozens of levels in any other Mario game. Its theme is non-existent and its unique mechanic of growing and shrinking is a wasted potential of what other games elsewhere have achieved much better since.
14. Dire Dire Docks
Water-based levels are one of Super Mario 64’s biggest weaknesses. (I’d wager they’re one of video gaming’s biggest weaknesses, period.) Dire Dire Docks is their epitome, and a fitting name to boot, featuring little more than an almost empty swimming pool and a docked submarine. It doesn’t fit even Mario’s eclectic theme, it’s not interesting to explore, and it involves a lot more oxygen-management simulator than any level should. The highlight is the red coin challenge that sees you timing some pretty precarious pole jumps above the stage, asking that you momentarily act more like a certain primate frenemy of Mario than the plumber himself.
13. Whomp’s Fortress
Whomp’s Fortress introduces the giant stony-faced blocks to Super Mario 64, but its biggest sin is that it’s just kind of… blah. The Mushroom Kingdom is known for its fancy castles and cloud-scraping towers, but Whomp’s is a forgettable abode of plain brown bricks and uninteresting challenges. It appears early in the game so it acts as something of a warm-up, but even that doesn’t forgive it when compared to the vastly superior tutorial level that is Bob-omb Battlefield earlier in the game, and even old brick-face himself poses minimal challenge. Sidestep and hop on his back, and it’s game over. Sorry, Whomp, you got plenty of better use in Mario Maker.
12. Jolly Roger Bay
I mentioned the problem with water levels, and Jolly Roger Bay is where Super Mario 64 introduces that mechanic. Whilst there is definitely more going on here than in Dire Dire Docks, thanks in no small part to a sunken pirate ship and an overly aggressive giant eel, the problem of the thumb-workout that is the swimming mechanic, and constantly having to surface for air, remains a bummer whenever playing the level. Rather than looking forward to hunting down every last hidden star, it quickly becomes a chore.
11. Snowman’s Land
Bonus points for the word play in the title, Snowman’s Land still suffers only a little for being the second time we see the winter wonderland theme played out in Super Mario 64. It doesn’t entirely ruin the charm, with the centrepiece here being a giant snowman and the level’s main puzzle being how to circumvent his wind breath. A hidden maze holds most of the level’s answers, and there’s a charm to skating the deadly ice-cold waters on the back of a koopa shell, but most of what Snowman’s Land has to offer is done better elsewhere in the game.
10. Hazy Maze Cave
Hazy Maze Cave really gives the feeling of exploration by being the only truly labyrinthine level in Super Mario 64. As someone who gets lost easily, and with no minimap or checkpointing in the game at all, this hurt the level a little for me personally, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here. The elevator puzzles are unique to the stage, and the level features one of the only truly fun uses of the Metal Cap power-up. Plus, the level features the first appearance of Dorrie to the series; from here-on-out each stage on this list has something to enjoy.
9. Shifting Sand Land
Some lists might rank Shifting Sand Land higher and I can understand that; there’s a lot going for the stage, but the biggest blemish against the map for me is the use of the Wing Cap, which I found to be a constant blight every time I had to use it. Outside of those star challenges, the stage features an awesome pyramid zone which is a joy to climb up, some excellent tumbler cubes which would inspire similar puzzles for years to come, a boss fight with a giant… hand… monster… and a swooping condor that steals Mario’s hat years before losing Cappy was a thing.
8. Wet-Dry World
The mechanic to raise and lower the water level was probably revolutionary in 1996 when Super Mario 64 released, and went on to inspire copycats in dozens and dozens of games since. How did a stage with so much water make it this high on my list? It’s just that well designed! The puzzles to acquire each of the six stars genuinely have you wracking your brains to make the best use of the water mechanics, and that’s before you even realise there’s an entire other level hidden within the stage, as the hidden “downtown” area reveals itself to you through one of the submerged pipes.
7. Tick Tock Clock
Tick Tock Clock is just pure platforming bliss. If you hate precision platforming and split-second timing, then this stage isn’t for you. I love that stuff, and thrived on every perfectly landed jump. The design of the level is also a lot of fun; essentially the inner workings of a grandfather clock, ticking away as Mario clambers his way across cogs and spindles. It’s a simple stage amongst all of the big open worlds, but for me, a welcome break. The cherry on the top, though, is the discovery that entering the stage when the second hand is at the twelve halts the entire level completely, all of its moving parts frozen in motion, granting access to previously inaccessible stars.
6. Bob-omb Battlefield
I’ve chastised stages previously for being too simple, but with Bob-omb Battlefield that’s exactly what you need. It’s stage #1, and it’s the perfect tutorial; simple enough to let you grasp the controls, beautiful enough to wow you with its aesthetics, interesting enough that you want to explore it, and memorable enough that even after completing another fourteen other stages, I still remember every detail. Bob-omb Battlefield re-introduces all those familiar Mario foes; bob-omb is joined by goombas, koopa troopas, and chain-chomps, and the level spirals upwards taking full advantage of the fact that for the first time, Super Mario is available in glorious (well, at least glorious in 1996) three-dimensions!
5. Rainbow Ride
I’ve seen Rainbow Ride criticised on these lists for being too difficult. Discounting the run to Bowser, it is the final zone of Super Mario 64— of course it’s difficult! By far the largest, most intricate, and most challenging of the stages, Rainbow Ride literally had me swearing at the screen and promising never to play another Mario game again. (It’s not true, I’m already eyeing up Sunshine.) Essentially a magic carpet ride for one, Rainbow Ride actually acts as compartmentalised areas containing its six stars, with some nightmarish platforming to challenge the skills you’ve acquired across the fourteen previous stages if you want those final stars. The stage contains, amongst other things, a platforming maze, a floating pirate ship, a lava-filled house in the sky, a merry-go-round, pendulums, goombas, fly guys, flamethrowers… it throws a lot at you, but it’s a marvel to look at and a joy to experience; despite all the swearing!
4. Lethal Lava Land
Every platformer has to have its fire zone, and Lethal Lava Land is Super Mario 64’s. The centrepiece is, of course, a volcano into which Mario can jump and experience some tricky sure-footed platforming for one of the six stars. The rest of the zone involves a lot of… well, “the floor is lava”, because it literally is. Platforms sink, logs try to roll you off them, “bullies” try to shove you, everything in this level is actively trying to kill you; and that makes it an adrenaline-shot in the arm! The level designers smartly made the six stars fairly straight forward to achieve, because the rest of the level is the challenge in itself, and that made Lethal Lava Land one of my favourites; there was no getting lost, no getting frustrated at a puzzle I couldn’t wrap my head around, no looking up guides online. Lethal Lava Land is core Mario at its basest; survive the platforming, watch your footing, get to the goal, and whatever you do, don’t look down.
3. Cool, Cool Mountain
And if Lethal Lava Land is Super Mario 64’s “hot” level, then Cool, Cool Mountain is definitely its “cold” one. What elevates this level so far above Snowman’s Land, besides it being the first level to introduce the winter wonderland theme, is the sheer scale and elevation of it. As so much of the top end of this list shows, Super Mario 64 is at its absolute best when it’s using that 3D element to full effect and creating levels that tower high and scale in on themselves. As its name implies, Cool, Cool Mountain is a tall scaleable level. My favourite part is the slide that makes up two of its star challenges, but the level also features a gondola, a snowman that’s missing its head, and a penguin that needs reuniting with its mother. It’s a cool, cool level. (Sorry.)
2. Tall, Tall Mountain
Following the theme of repeating an adjective twice is Tall, Tall Mountain, and proving my point about levels having elevation, this one succeeds by once again being a huge obstacle for Mario to climb, packed with challenges to complete in order to earn those illustrious stars. Thematically, Tall, Tall Mountain doesn’t have much going on— loosely it seems to be about mushrooms (aren’t they all?)— but along the way Mario has to interact with a monkey that’s lost its cage, run a log roller, hop along giant fungi, dodge some whack-a-moles, cannon off the side of the cliff, and slide down a hidden mountain slide (okay, I just love those slides, I admit it). It’s a packed level that’s great to look at and fun to traverse, and with minimal insta-death the frustration levels on this one are pretty low, and that puts it high in my estimation.
1. Big Boo’s Haunt
Big Boo’s Haunt is even interesting in the way that you find the level. Almost every other level in Super Mario 64 is found by jumping into its portrait in the main castle. Not so with Big Boo’s Haunt, which is found by attacking the ghost, Big Boo, out in the castle courtyard and then jumping into the birdcage that he was hiding inside himself.
The stage is essentially a three-storey haunted house, which entirely sets it apart from the other stages in the game, and the level designers resisted the urge to reuse the setting and assets for any other level. Areas of the mansion are genuinely spooky, as books leap off shelves to try to bite you, pianos come to life to try to eat you, and ghosts float through walls with their arms outstretched. Giant eyeballs follow you around, and a huge merry-go-round in the basement is home to a giant ghost. Big Boo himself awaits on his hidden balcony perch. It’s still Mario, so don’t expect Silent Hill levels of frights here, but Big Boo’s Haunt would set the stage for what would become Luigi’s Mansion and it is, for my money, the most atmospheric and memorable stage in all of Super Mario 64.