Image of Mario, Peach and two Toads standing in front of Peach's Castle. (Super Mario 64 Clear Guide. 1996. Media Factory: Tokyo)

Analysing the Level Design of Super Mario 64

As part of my Honours Project - I wrote a case study on platformer level design in an attempt to see how I could incorporate classic 3D Level design tropes into my procedural systems. One of the main games I focused on was Super Mario 64 - so this is an adapted and expanded analysis based on my original case study!

Whilst not the first 3D platformer - Super Mario 64 practically defined the genre and set up the tropes that both future titles in the Mario series and the entire 3D platformer genre would follow in the future. As such, there are a multitude of different level design philosophies this game follows to varying degrees. There's a slight element of throwing different ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks - but Mario 64 seems to seamlessly blend these different worlds together in a way that makes none of them stand out. In addition, Mario 64 letting you pick and choose which stars you want to do puts part of the level design into the player's hands - if players only want to play the more open levels, they can!

Open yet Linear

There's a pretty even split in levels in Mario 64 - about half of the game is composed of open ended levels in which the player can explore in multiple directions - but these levels are each constructed in significantly different ways. Take the first level in the game, Bob-Omb Battlefield - it's a large level with lots of open space, focused on a main linear pathway up to the top of the mountain with multiple, smaller side areas. For a first level, this is pretty ingenious - it allows players getting used to the game to learn the mechanics taking the main route, whilst having lots of leeway both for error and for distraction and exploration. Whilst most of the course's Stars require the player to climb the mountain, there are a few Stars accessible right from the bottom of the mountain. Because this is the only mandatory level in the game (excl. Bowser levels), it's smart to have multiple stars easily accessible. The first time I played the game, the first star I got was "Behind Chain-Chomp's Gate" - and ended up branching off and trying other levels before going back to Bob-Omb Battlefield.

Artwork of Bob-omb Battlefield. (Super Mario 64 Clear Guide. 1996. Media Factory: Tokyo)

Two of the Stars are located on top of the mountain, one is at the Chain Chomp at the base of the mountain, and two are located on the floating island the player can access with the cannon, with one using the Wing Cap. There's also the Red Coin and 100 Coin Stars that require the player to fully explore the course. This gives you a great idea of all of SM64's level tropes - linear, explorative, secretive. It's probably the most iconic Mario level (citation needed), in large part because it really defines everything that Mario has been so far and lays the groundwork for every avenue that SM64 explores in more detail in its following courses.

Open yet Open

Most of the early game levels are designed similarly to this - providing a linear focal point to varying amounts of open areas. The first level that feels truly open in Mario 64, at least to my count, is Big Boo's Haunt. It's a huge, four tiered Ghost House with a large courtyard. Each floor of the mansion is compacted with many small rooms and there's no real direction focal point other than the mansion itself. The first Star is smartly designed to get the player accustomed to this kind of design - as whilst it's open, it forces you to linearly go through the ground floor rooms and learn the layout. The 2nd floor of the mansion only opens up once you do this, almost as a test for the player of "can you handle open-ended levels?" It might not seem daunting now, but you have to remember that Mario 64 popularised its entire genre.

Mario 64 is filled with 'invisible' tutorials like this - filled to the brim with incredibly accessible progression that makes every aspect of learning it fun. Other Mario games jump you right into a level - SM64 opens with an empty courtyard and tells you to mess around until you figure it out. It could be said that the hub world is an entirely unique form of level in itself; an experiment to see if the player could get a hang of the basics before providing them with any form of advice, and an experiment to see if the character controller is fun enough on a standalone basis.

Whilst not explicitly a level design trope - even the camera has an invisible tutorial tied to it. By having the camera be controlled by a character (Lakitu) trying to "film" Mario, it's an attempt to simplify the concept of camera control to the masses. It's a really commendable thing to try - when I've tried to introduce people to games who are unfamiliar, character control is one of the main headaches they get stuck on. I don't know if this particular endeavour was successful, but it does add to that sort of "throw it at the wall, see if it sticks" approach to design SM64 has. Instead of trying to pioneer the genre by doing one super polished thing, it tries to launch a thousand ships and succeeds with far more than it has any right to.

Hazy Maze Cave is when the game truly takes off the gloves and expects the player to use what they have learned so far. Instead of opening with a linear path - it opens with a split path, where both directions lead to different areas. Structurally, this is an... interesting choice given how Mario 64's missions are ultimately linear, and often need to be tackled in a specific order due to the star unlocks - an issue thankfully alleviated by having each pathway link back to each other with elevators and doors. This kind of level makes more sense in a game like Super Mario Odyssey or Banjo Kazooie where the player can freely explore without picking a set mission and going back to the start after collecting a star. It makes sense for Super Mario 64 to try a level like this - especially given the game's genre experimenting nature - but levels like Hazy Maze Cave and Shifting Sand Land mostly lay the groundwork for what will be improved upon by future games in the genre.

Open, yet actually not Open at all

For a game focused on being open, there's actually a good heap of levels that aren't... actually open. Open-ended, that is. Tick Tock Clock is the most extreme example - it's basically a completely vertical tower for Mario to climb, filled with linear platforming challenges on moving platforms. If you fall down, you either lose a life or land - but either way you need to climb back up. There's a really cool mechanic with entering the clock at the right time - which causes the platforms to freeze or move at different speeds, but some stars are heavily biased towards having the clock move/freeze, and there's no way to change mid-level. Despite having multiple missions, each one (mostly) requires you doing the same thing - climbing the clock.

It honestly feels like the kind of level that could be in the back half of Super Mario Bros. 3., just stretched out over the Z-axis... which isn't a bad thing. Again, Mario 64 is a great experiment, and they definitely wanted to have some levels styled liked previous Mario games for older fans. At the time, this was seen as the new "type" of Mario game, before the 2D type of Mario games had a resurgence with the New series - it made sense to have some major levels mix linearity with new, 3D, open-air platformer.

There's even some completely linear levels, typically side levels directly inspired by the Switch Palaces and side levels from Super Mario World, or side minigames like Slides, or sub-areas like the Pyramid in Shifting Sand Land or Volcano in Lethal Lava Land. The key consistent factor in Mario 64's level design is it's inconsistency - as long as there's 6 stars to collect, everything else can be made up. If they wanted to have a hidden area inside of a volcano - they could! If they wanted to have a hidden city that feels like a liminal space at the end of a huge underwater hallway, and keep that connected to the same map - they could!

Super Mario 64 is less of a perfect meal and more of a well-cooked buffet - impressively presenting a lot of different level design styles, letting the player pick what they like - but the most impressive part about it is that it never draws a hard line between these styles. Linear levels are given the exact same treatment as open ones, for better or for worse. There's this strange consistency to the inconsistency - when I first played the game, I never even noticed how wildly different each level is structured, it just feels normal and no level really sticks out as strangely designed, even 26 years later. It's a huge testament to the game's legacy and consistency.