Super Mario 64 Nintendo 64 Box Art

It’s crazy to think that it’s been 25 years since Super Mario 64 revolutionized the 3D platformer genre. Released for the Nintendo 64 on June 23, 1996 in Japan, a North American release followed on September 29 that same year. It was a new way to play Super Mario that took the concepts of the series’ 2D outings and built 3D worlds around them.

Those worlds were the lifeblood of Super Mario 64, and they were insane to witness for the very first time. Each stage offered something unique, challenging players to collect Power Stars by defeating bosses, winning races, collecting red coins, and even saving baby penguins. Of course, like any other game, some level designs are better than others.

Having played through the game in its entirety twice already this year, I decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Super Mario 64 by ranking all 15 of its worlds! So in the infamous words of Mario, here we go!

15. Dire, Dire Docks

Super Mario 64 - Dire, Dire Docks

I want to start out by saying that I truly think all 15 worlds in Super Mario 64 are solid for the most part. Sure, some have aged better than others, but I think every stage offers something unique. Dire, Dire Docks ranks lowest on my list for a few reasons. For starters, the challenges for collecting each Power Star are too simple, and it seems like more thought went into creating Jolly Roger Bay as that underwater stage is just much more complete.

Still, nothing quite compares to witnessing Bowser’s submarine for the first time. It’s an imposing vessel that takes up a huge space in the game world, and it looks super cool, too. Once you collect the first Power Star in Dire, Dire Docks, you’ll gain access to the second Bowser encounter in Super Mario 64. When you defeat the King of the Koopas and return to Dire, Dire Docks, though, the sub is gone forever — that’s, like, the main landmark of that world, and it just disappears!

Alternatively, if you don’t immediately rush into the second Bowser stage and instead go back to Dire, Dire Docks, the submarine will be present until you do take him on. Of course, this won’t allow you to collect the red coin Power Star as the space the sub takes up needs to be repurposed to add some floating poles for Mario to perform crazy acrobatics at the top of the stage. It’s honestly somewhat of a messy world design, even if there are cool things about it.

14. Tick Tock Clock

Super Mario 64 - Tick Tock Clock

Tick Tock Clock is actually really interesting, but it’s probably the biggest victim of ‘90s camera problems out of all the worlds in Mario 64. There’s a lot of vertical platforming, which makes for some challenging and satisfying jumps.

That said, because the level wraps around in quasi-spiral staircase fashion, the camera constantly gets stuck and goes haywire. It’s a pain, and it makes collecting the Power Stars more taxing than it should be. It’s still a pretty clever world, though, and the fact that it utilizes moving gears, platforms, and pendulums is great.

Not to mention, it’s awesome being able to manipulate the flow of the environment depending on how you enter the giant clock from the hub world. If you enter when the minute hand is at or around 12 on the clock, all the gears will stay still for the duration of that run, making for easy traversal for most Power Stars. At 3, the gears move slowly. At 9, the gears move rapidly, which makes the run quite a bit tougher. Enter at 6, though, and chaos will ensue as the gears, conveyor belts, and switches will all move randomly.

Interestingly, Tick Tock Clock feels really different from the rest of the worlds in Super Mario 64, and its placement at the top of Peach’s Castle — as well as its high challenge — make it seem like it could’ve been a bonus world.

13. Rainbow Ride

Super Mario 64 - Rainbow Ride

Like Tick Tock Clock, Rainbow Ride also has a “special world” vibe to it. Stylistically, it’s not in line with the rest of the game’s worlds, and because the majority of it takes place in the sky, it’s hard to shake the idea that this would’ve been an excellent bonus world to play through post-end credits. And I mean, technically, this is one of a few worlds that you don’t even have to visit before taking on the game’s final Bowser encounter.

Rainbow Ride is fun overall, but it’s also somewhat disjointed. The main attraction is the big ship in the sky. There’s also a giant, floating house on the opposite end of the world, as well as some swinging platforms on another side. While Rainbow Ride a handful of cool ideas, everything is so separated that it seems like it may have needed a bit more time in development. Even then, it’s a neat, mostly on-rails world, and I can’t help but feel that the development team might’ve had a blast creating this one.

12. Shifting Sand Land

Super Mario 64 - Shifting Sand Land

As someone who loves Super Mario Bros. 2, Shifting Sand Land is a special little world because it often feels like a nod to that game. You’ve got Bob-ombs, Shy Guys (okay, Fly Guys, whatever), and Pokeys. Even the large, winged Klepto seems like a reference to the Albatross enemy from Mario Bros. 2.

Though the quicksand traps in this world are certainly annoying, the exterior part of Shifting Sand Land is really well designed. Inside the pyramid you’ll find some more challenges too, including a boss battle against the Eyerok. Because the inside of the pyramid is a bit cramped, though, you can expect some fairly pesky camera issues.

Overall, both parts of Shifting Sand Land are solid.

11. Snowman’s Land

Super Mario 64 - Snowman's Land

Snowman’s Land is the second snow-themed world in Super Mario 64. Just like Dire, Dire Docks is the more limited of the two water stages in the game, it also feels like more creativity went into the first snow stage, with Snowman’s Land providing a fun albeit contrived experience. Where Cool, Cool Mountain is actually kind of massive (especially for a game in the ‘90s), Snowman’s Land is much more compact.

The first Power Star in this world requires you to climb a giant snowman. Once you’re at the top, he can blow you all the way back down to the start of the level with his powerful breath, which mimics harsh winds. In order to keep from falling, you have to walk next to a fat penguin. Unfortunately, this penguin walks back and forth and makes the task a lot more annoying than it has any right to be. As such, it’s a total pain trying to collect this initial Power Star.

Once you get past that first annoying hurdle, though, you’re treated to some really fun challenges. You’ll battle Chill Bully, snow surf using a Koopa shell, and enter an igloo maze.

10. Tiny-Huge Island

Super Mario 64 - Tiny-Huge Island

There’s a lot to love about Tiny-Huge Island, as well as a little you might hate. You can access this world from two different paintings in Peach’s Castle. Depending on which painting you jump into, you’ll either face smaller-than-normal enemies or giant baddies. You can switch between tiny and huge variants by entering warp pipes that are scattered around the island, making for a decent amount of diversity as both the enemies and the world will scale accordingly.

Running around the giant island is cool, and back in 1996, this was the larger-than-life adventuring Nintendo 64 fans completely dug. The tiny version of the island is also enjoyable, as it allows a towering Mario to crush miniature Goombas and Piranha Plants. This world ultimately puts you up against an angry Wiggler in a super simple boss battle.

The outskirts of Tiny-Huge Island can be a bit annoying to traverse when you’re a giant, as it can be easy to fall off the edges, but seeking out every Power Star is still a mostly enjoyable endeavor.

9. Hazy Maze Cave

Super Mario 64 - Hazy Maze Cave

Part of the fun of looking back at Super Mario 64 is trying to figure out what classic 8-bit and 16-bit levels Nintendo was trying to replicate or pay homage to. Hazy Maze Cave could’ve very well been a tribute to the underground levels from the original Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3, as well as Vanilla Dome in Super Mario World.

There’s a lot of variety in Hazy Maze Cave, which is evident right from the start of the level when you’re greeted by a fork in the road. There are elevator challenges (which can be annoying at times but are still kind of decent in a weird, punishing way), giant rolling rocks, a toxic cavern, and even the friendly Loch Ness Monster-esque Dorrie!

A couple Power Stars in Hazy Maze Cave also require you to don the Metal Cap power-up. Because Mario 64 is less power-up-centric than other Mario games, taking control of Metal Mario makes for a fresh and fun experience in this world.

8. Jolly Roger Bay

Super Mario 64 - Jolly Roger Bay

Video games — especially retro games — don’t have the best track record when it comes to underwater levels. While you could argue that the swimming controls in Super Mario 64 aren’t exactly perfect, the world of Jolly Roger Bay still succeeds at delivering a largely enjoyable experience.

Part of the reason this level works is because rather than give you a quickly depleting oxygen meter, Super Mario 64 simply repurposes Mario’s standard health meter whenever he’s underwater. So while being below the surface lowers your life over time, it’s easy to replenish it: Just grab some coins or come up to the surface for air. (Of course, this could be exploited, as taking damage near any body of water in any world meant you could take a dip and come up for air to completely heal Mario.)

Despite being a good early example of a 3D underwater level, Jolly Roger Bay has very few flaws. Collecting the Power Stars here is awesome because you’ll explore a sunken ship, discover a lost cave, and even swim with a giant eel monster. Super Mario 64 is often credited with helping innovate the 3D platformer thanks to its wide open spaces, but you simply can’t ignore that this game nailed it when it came to this underwater world.

7. Big Boo’s Haunt

Super Mario 64 - Big Boo's Haunt

Big Boo’s Haunt can be considered the 3D reimagining of the Ghost Houses from Super Mario World on the SNES. It’s a spooky level filled with ghosts, giant eyeballs, and other creepy crawlies. It features an ominous exterior area that gives you a look at the imposing mansion as you hear the powerful winds howling in the background.

Admittedly, a lot of the objectives for collecting the Power Stars are pretty basic, with three of them requiring you to defeat Big Boo, and another having you running circles around Big Mr. I. Still, exploring Big Boo’s Haunt is exciting thanks to the design of the world, which includes a library, hidden rooms, and even a haunted carousel.

6. Bob-omb Battlefield

Super Mario 64 - Bob-omb Battlefield

The very first world in Super Mario 64 just misses the top five, but it’s still one of the best stages in the game overall. Bob-omb Battlefield introduces you to a lot of the gameplay concepts and mechanics you’ll utilize for the duration of the adventure, but it’s also just a really well-designed world. It’s a wide outdoor space with lots to see and do, and it’s super inviting.

The very first time I played Bob-omb Battlefield, I admit I was a bit overwhelmed, but I was also really intrigued. Obviously, this world isn’t all that huge by today’s standards, but even if we’re comparing it modern level design, it’s still a well-crafted environment with plenty variety and great objectives. Bob-omb Battlefield encourages the player to explore, with coins and enemies sprinkled throughout and even a couple secrets to stumble upon.

This world kicks things off with a boss battle against King Bob-omb. That’s kind of rad when you think about it, because most games tend to build up to a boss battle. Not Mario 64, though. Nah, this game was like, “Welcome to the very first 3D Mario game! Here’s a giant bad guy for you to fight!”

Mario games are known for their smart level designs, and they do an excellent job of pulling the player in with expertly designed introductory worlds. Super Mario 64 is no different — Bob-omb Battlefield is the perfect first world for this type of 3D platforming experience.

5. Lethal Lava Land

Super Mario 64 - Lethal Lava Land

Lethal Lava Land isn’t the biggest world in Mario’s N64 outing, but it packs in a ton of variety into a compact space. The whole thing is set on a sea of lava, with Power Stars spread out in a way that makes you explore the entire area. You’ve got a boss battle against a Big Bully, a shifting Bowser puzzle with red coins on it, and even a tricky log rolling section with one of the more secluded Stars.

In addition to a cool exterior, you also get to explore the inside of a volcano, where you’ll find two more Power Stars. Lethal Lava Land makes it into my top five ranking of Super Mario 64 worlds because it’s a perfect example of short but sweet level design that’s able to challenge and satisfy the player.

4. Wet-Dry World

Super Mario 64 - Wet-Dry World

Out of all the worlds in Super Mario 64, Wet-Dry World probably inspires the most exploration and curiosity for the player. It’s a somewhat strange level that features multiple water levels, clever platforming, and a good amount of climbing. It’s also split into two separate areas — you can only reach Downtown by blasting out of a cannon — each with their own layouts and Power Stars.

As you run through Wet-Dry World, you’ll constantly change the water level by triggering switches, which in turn requires you to both run and swim as you hunt down Power Stars. In addition, depending on how you enter the world through its painting in Peach’s Castle, you’ll start out with either a higher, lower, or medium water level. So if you jump particularly high as you enter the zone, you’ll come into a fully flooded stage.

Wet-Dry World definitely feels like the most experimental level in Mario 64, both in terms of its mechanics and aesthetic. It has a lost city vibe to it, and seeing the pixelated ancient buildings in the background makes you wonder about the mythos behind this bizarre land.

3. Whomp’s Fortress

Super Mario 64 - Whomp's Fortress

Bob-omb Battlefield is a great first world because it introduces players to the open-ended design of Super Mario 64. On the flip-side of that, Whomp’s Fortress is a great second world because it’s your first glimpse at the type of verticality that you’ll find in the game.

Whether you’re collecting red coins, climbing the top of the fortress, battling Whomp King, or grabbing hold of a friendly owl to soar over the entire level, this world is all about reaching great heights. Also, in what can only be considered 1990s game design ambiguity, one of the Power Stars requires you to fire Mario out of a cannon into the corner of a wall. Doing so will break a chunk of the wall and reveal the Star. What a sense of discovery!

There’s a bit of a Super Mario Bros. 3 feel to this stage, and you’ll find a few classic enemies such as Thwomps, Piranha Plants, and Bullet Bills. In addition, this is the world that introduced Whomps to the lore of Super Mario. Due to its aesthetic layout and colorful design, Whomp’s Fortress feels much more like a classic Mario level than even Bob-omb Battlefield, making it a wonderful marriage of old-school and new-school.

2. Cool, Cool Mountain

Super Mario 64 - Cool, Cool Mountain

The first-ever 3D snow-themed level in a Mario game is also one of the absolute best in the entire game. Cool, Cool Mountain is an incredibly designed world that’s more than just a winter wonderland — it’s also a challenging stage with a great deal of variety in how you collect each Power Star.

You’ll race against a penguin on an ice slide, reunite a mother penguin and her lost baby, and guide a giant snowball to a body-less snowman head. You’ll also blast out of a cannon, perform wild acrobatic moves to find a hidden Star, and slide down the slopes to collect red coins.

Cool, Cool Mountain is an awesome world to dash and jump through, and exploring every corner of it is just so much fun.

1. Tall, Tall Mountain

Super Mario 64 - Tall, Tall Mountain

Everyone has their favorite Super Mario 64 world. For me, it’s Tall, Tall Mountain. Here you’ll do a lot of climbing, and because the stage isn’t too tight or cramped, there’s very little in the way of camera problems. What you get essentially feels like a modernization of the tall mushroom platform levels from the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES, albeit with some dope scenery that wraps around a massive mountain.

Climbing to the very top of the mountain is both tough and enjoyable, with Goombas, Monty Moles, and Bob-ombs between you and those precious Power Stars. There’s no boss battle in Tall, Tall Mountain, but this world really doesn’t need one because it’s all about exploration and a sense of wonder. There are even a couple monkeys for you to interact with, one which will lead you to a Power Star.

There’s also a secret entrance along the mountain wall. This leads to a really fun slide challenge where you’re rewarded for reaching the end with another Power Star to add to your collection.

The best worlds in Super Mario 64 do a fantastic job of giving you loads of variety and level diversity, and Tall, Tall Mountain stands above the rest in that regard. It’s beautifully designed world and it shows the incredible heights that a 3D Super Mario game could reach, literally and figuratively.

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