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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 6 – Hazy Maze Cave.
Hazy Maze Cave is the sixth course in Super Mario 64, although you’d be forgiven for not knowing that since it opens up at the same time as courses seven and eight. Upon beating Bowser in the Dark World, the player earns the key to the basement, a flat fee for the next three courses. As if smoothing the player into unconventional course entrances (perhaps in case they missed Big Boo’s Haunt‘s uniquely unconventional entrance), the player will stumble across a star door with no stars. Inside is a Toad that gifts the player a star merely for conversing with him and a puddle of metallic goo reminiscent of the mimetic polyalloy from Terminator 2, evoking the particularly amorphous course accessed through it. This is the actual entrance to Hazy Maze Cave, where the player will indeed unlock the metal cap, a power-up that allows Mario to sink in water while cosplaying as a T1000. As a self-described maze, it is the most branching, winding, interconnected course so far — sometimes to its own detriment.
Upon entering the course, the player confronts an indecipherable course map and a branching path offering two possible directions. Follow the path to the right and you’ll arrive in a room with various platforms and a related red coin challenge. From there, you can access a toxic maze (the “hazy maze” of the level’s title) which itself has multiple exits, two of which lead to their own star. Follow the left path at the start and you’ll come across a room with tumbling boulder, connected to the red coin room as well as another room with an elevator. That elevator descends to an underground lake featuring Dorrie the restless sea dragon.
It’s not really worth trying to describe exactly how all of this is interconnected. The course tries to explain itself via map, but it’s indecipherable low-res gobbledygook. But this might be the point — the course is a maze, after all. And as a maze, it succeeds in feeling like a random shuffling of rooms and concepts, each illogically leading to the next. The surprisingly baffling layout can sometimes feel gratifying to grasp by constructing a mental map through trial and error, but it can also be exasperating, as it relies more on blind memorization than chipping away at a more cohesive whole, a la Dark Souls. This labyrinthine layout is both one of Hazy Maze Cave’s defining features as well as one of its greatest gremlins. By relying on its abstruse composition for intrigue and self-definition, it ends up riddled with individual rooms and stars as unintentionally perplexing as the maze is intentional.
Star 1, “Swimming Beast in the Cavern” has the player ride and direct Dorrie toward a platform in the center of the cavern’s lake holding the star. All told, it’s fairly straightforward and leads the player through a solid chunk of the course. However, it’s a big help to ground pound Dorrie so she lowers her head (which the player can then stand on to reach the center platform), but the game does not communicate this ability to the player. Here, even subtle communication like a bulls-eye on Dorrie’s back could go a long way toward giving this star a greater sense of intentionality. It’s also worth noting that because the level is a maze, it’s very likely the order in which a player actually earns the stars will be jumbled.
Star 2, “Elevate for 8 Red Coins,” takes place in the first room the player enters along the right path. Despite all eight red coins being located in the same room, it can be a frustrating challenge because the D-pad-like aerial platform needed to reach four red coins is slow and clunky. While the 100 coin challenge typically pairs well with the red coin star, this one is best attempted later, once the player is more familiar with the course. This is because the player will have to scour most of the course, which can be cumbersome lest the player know where they’re headed.
“Metal-Head Mario Can Move” is a curious Star 3, as it demands access to a cap much like the sixth star of previous courses Bob-Omb Battlefield and Jolly Roger Bay. Fortunately, the player need not venture far to unlock the green boxes holding metal caps. After making their way back to Dorrie and riding her to a platform on the side of the room the player will come across an area connecting Hazy Maze Cave to the castle hubworld. In this room, the player can jump on a green switch that unlocks universal access to the metal cap and use a metal cap to collect eight red coins strewn around stream with a strong current that can swiftly sweep a non-metallic Mario down a waterfall and into the castle moat. Connecting the hubworld to a course is a cunning concept that suits Hazy Maze Cave’s motif of surprising interlocking pieces. Finally, with metal hat in hand, the player can revisit the underground lake to stomp on an underwater switch near a set of doors harboring the third star. In order to reach the star, the player must long jump across two significant gaps. It’s a simple challenge, but by taking advantage of the long jump, it takes advantage of one of the game’s greatest tactical thrills.
“Navigating the Toxic Maze” and “A-Maze-ing Emergency Exit” are both accomplished by finding the hidden exits in the toxic maze. The exit for Star 4 is tough to locate, but once found, only an uneventful elevator ride stands between the player and the star. Meanwhile, the exit to Star 5 is easier to find because the blue coin switch spawns a blue coin path that leads directly to it. After exiting that exit, the player must grapple across overhanging latticework to fall onto a nearby platform containing the star. This is likely the first time the player has had to climb. Finally, Star 6, “Watch for Rolling Rocks,” is hidden in an enclave near where the boulders drop. It’s a thirty-second star if the player can infer its location, but with only a title to guide them, many players likely struggle.
Hazy Maze Cave sets out to do more than it actually accomplishes, but its successes are worth celebrating. By being the first course in the game to mandate the long jump, Hazy Maze Cave’s platform topography can be satisfying to navigate, as, for my money, the long jump is the most gratifying and thrilling maneuver in Mario’s arsenal. I also like the metallic puddle course entrance and think integrating the course with the hubworld through the green switch portion is absolutely brilliant. In a sense, the section feels especially hidden because it’s tucked in the indeterminate space between Peach’s castle and a course. The toxic maze is arguably the strongest section of the actual level, as it most clearly integrates the maze theme in a meaningful context, while also offering the best blue coin switch so far, clever level design, and a sense of slow-burning desperation. This is no small feat — both poison and mazes are tough to make challenging in video games without also making them frustrating.
Unfortunately, Hazy Maze Cave is also the weakest course thus far. Although the course design evokes Big Boo’s Haunt in hiding isolated scenarios behind doors, the scenarios in Hazy Maze Cave generally play out in bland spacious rooms lacking the delicate nuanced challenge of the previous course. Furthermore, the pacing of the level can be tediously slow, as the layout encourages getting lost, likely requiring many players to ride the curiously sluggish moving platforms and elevators multiple times in their blind search for their objective. Furthermore, the camera sometimes jilts out in tight passages, making even the tight linear areas occasionally irksome.
Cave mazes are not new to the Mario franchise, but they work better in two dimensions, as backtracking proves less tiresome and the platforming is generally more delicately constructed. And the cave setting feels thematically scattershot, with most of the course more akin to an abandoned construction zone than a cavern worth spelunking. Furthermore, both swoopers and monty moles were more formidable and engaging enemies in two dimensions. It’s also curious that Hazy Maze Cave is the first course not to feature warps, as it could certainly benefit the most from them. On top of all these structural issues, the course’s steep difficulty feels jarring following the comparatively easy Big Boo’s Haunt. Perhaps Hazy Maze Cave should have been placed after Lethal Lava Land (which many players will enter first anyway, due to its more accessible entrance).
On top of its macro and micro level design, I have several contentions with Hazy Maze Cave’s stars. While I enjoy Stars 1, 3, 4, and 5 well enough, the red coin and 100 coin challenge are both the worst in the game so far. Because the level is so slow-going, it can feel like it takes far too long to acquire 100 coins. On top of this, traversing the maze results in a lot of backtracking and dead ends, and unless you nab all the blue coins in time, you’ll have to pass through the vast majority of the level to reach the hundredth coin. Meanwhile, the red coin challenge requires riding a pair of poky platforms, one of which is also finicky. Perhaps the star order is intentionally messy to further integrate the maze theme, but if not, Stars 4 and 5 should be switched since the blue coin path will likely lead most players to Star 5 before they obtain Star 4. Finally, Star 6 is so hidden it requires accurate interpretation of its title or discovery through happenstance, which is not very enjoyable and could easily deflate the players already tired of red herrings.
Hazy Maze Cave is, despite some high points, less than the sum of its ambitious parts. By stringing together thematically milquetoast and disjointed challenges in a meaningless way, its design comes off as hazy and lazy. Despite being a maze, or perhaps because of it, most of the course feels misguided and unfocused. Like a ride on Dorrie, the level is a cool concept that, in execution, lacks direction, accessibility, and adequate communication skills. Although unlocking the cap is incredibly original and the toxic maze is better than one might guess, Hazy Maze Cave marks a low point in a game without many low points.
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.
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