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 7 – Lethal Lava Land.
Unlocked alongside Hazy Maze Cave and Shifting Sand Land after beating Bowser in the Dark World, Lethal Land Land is Course 7 in name only. As the most accessible course of the three, it will likely and should be the first course of the second part of Super Mario 64 many players play. Simpler than Course 6 and structurally similar to Course 8, Lethal Lava Land is an excellent introduction to the second of the four sets of courses in Princess Peach’s castle. Hop inside its portrait of a fiery flame to begin.
The bulk of Lethal Land Land is comprised of about thirty disparate platforms floating in a lava sea. While some of these platforms are flat and fixed, many rise, fall, twist, spin, or tip under Mario’s weight, making for diverse traversal that keeps the player on perpetual edge. It’s an open but orderly layout as if Big Boo’s Haunt’s room were stripped down to bare essentials and sprinkled on tiny islands surrounded by lava. Yet while Big Boo’s Haunt’s tight quarters constrain player movement, Lethal Lava Land is as open as the player is willing to play riskily. In part for this reason, and in part because the course nearly demands it, mastery of the long jump is essential for optimal on-foot traversal, as shortcuts abound when that skill in tow. As a result of this openness, stars can, and likely will, be obtained totally out of order. While the same can be said of Hazy Maze Cave, the more visually clear course layout gives players a clearer sense of the paths they have not yet traveled, translating to minimal backtracking and blind exploration.
Near the center of this lava sea lies an active volcano the player can spring inside. This volcano is more linear than the rest of the stage, but its vertical orientation and direct pathways confront the player with some unique challenges built around precise, deliberate, well-timed movement on foot and pole. It’s almost as if the course’s exterior portion were a jungle gym to train on and the volcano is a set of two undeviating Ninja Warrior-ish obstacle courses.
One central motif of Lethal Lava Land is constant engagement through constant threat. The lava flooding the course is essentially the level’s sole threat, as even the bully baddies cannot directly harm Mario but deal damage by bumping him into the lava. Yet lava always lurks nearby, requiring deft movement and timing to avoid it, so the player never feels totally secure. This constant danger suits the short star length and the level’s open design, as the course doesn’t provide sweeping emotional arcs, but rather a consistent suspense that ebbs and flows depending on the situation, often crescendoing as platforms tend to become smaller and more mobile the further they are from the course entrance. The diverse challenges and platforms ensure this tension never grows stale, instead of enticing the player to take different pathways, keeping navigation fresh and the player on their toes.
Bullies (who are both bully-like and bullish) rush toward the player with abandon, placing Mario in the role of a matador who must judge how to position his opponent for an optimal counterattack. The bull-y play on words is not incidental: though they look and move like bulls, they embody the brute force of a schoolyard bully, bested through strategy. Their design mirrors that of the stage — a focus on deliberate control and timing, on striking with precision when the iron is hot. In this way, the course is not only about endangerment, but intelligently and courageously confronting it head-on. The Big Bully boss battle is essentially a David and Goliath tug-of-war of brains versus brawn. In almost every enemy encounter, on almost every platform, the player subconsciously risk-assesses, knowing the path forward is uninviting but necessary.
And with the course seemingly designed around the long jump, the braver the player, the greater promise of mobility. Many shortcuts lie a risky long jump away, rewarding the player for taking risks but punishing error. Fitting in with this theme of careful movement, lava is no longer the insta-death it was in Super Mario World, but will instead propel you upward afire, allowing for the possibility of recovery if the player can maintain adequate enough control of Mario, a punishment the player can minimize through skill. Lethal Lava Land is about patience, planning, and persistence. Its Chinese translation, “Lava Hell” is telling — this is an aggressive level best countered by playing it cool.
Star 1, “Boil the Big Bully,” leads the player through the course by placing a boss battle far opposite the entrance. Upon spawning, a text box reads “Don’t be a pushover! If anyone tries to shove you around, push back! It’s a one-on-one, with a fiery finish for the loser!” The narrator has been spunky, but never so accusatory. This sets a confrontational do-or-die faux aggressive tone that matches the level’s volatile setting. Though the player can take any of several paths to reach the boss arena, they will almost certainly encounter several platforms demanding punctilious jumping and timing. The boss battle pits the player against Big Bully, a large version of the course’s bully enemy. As the toughest boss fight so far, it demands precise and well-timed maneuvering, like the rest of the level. There is an equal focus on opportune offense, with jump kicks being the most effective tactic for besting the bully and earning the first star. Star 2, “Bully the Bullies“ lies just right of Star 1’s boss battle and features three small bully enemies along with a rehash of Star 1’s boss battle. Though undeniably repetitious, it gives a reason for the player to venture toward the back of the course on a different path, and the thoughtful design of the bully enemies make for a pair of unexpectedly strategic tug-of-war-like battles.
“8-coin Puzzle with 15 Pieces” is an innovative take on the red coin leitmotif that is also an undercooked cinch. Though red coins placed atop a sliding puzzle feels ingenious enough to foreshadow elements of Super Mario Galaxy, its implementation is a bit out-of-whack. On one hand, the puzzle pieces move too briskly for the player to make a meaningful premeditated decision about their next move. On the other hand, the pieces are too small to pose a threat, as the coins can easily be collected in fewer than ten seconds. While a red coin challenge in the form of a concise puzzle is a welcome change of pace, larger, slower puzzle pieces could have upped the challenge while empowering the player, smoothing over the star’s overall frivolousness. “Red-Hot Log Rolling,” on the other hand, is an ace example of a physics-based puzzle demanding careful, strategic movement through its delicate design. Here, the player must roll a log across lava by standing on top of it and using Mario’s weight to propel the log forward. It borrows from the lead screw platforms of Super Mario Bros. 3 but emphasizes the world’s physics while amply testing movement timing and accuracy. The log’s size and speed along with the length of the track it rests on coalesce to form a brief but rewarding physics puzzle with a tangible sense of weight and momentum. It is unfortunate nuanced physics-based challenges of this sort are few and far between.
Stars 5 and 6 are both earned inside the volcano in the stage’s center, each requiring a series of platforming challenges. Hiding the stars inside the volcano helps organize the star order in an organic way, without feeling stilted. While stars 3 and 4 each ask the player to tackle discrete unique challenges, the course’s final two stars each ask for careful traversal of several smaller challenges. Star 5 winds the player upward around the volcano’s perimeter, throwing bullies, a falling platform, and some pole-jumping at the player. On the whole, limited camera movement can be a hurdle, but its run-the-gauntlet style offers a change of pace still built around scrupulous platforming. Star 6 has the player ride a pair of platforms, pole jump, and hop along a few tiny platforms to the star. It is more tense and thrilling than Star 5 but also feels truncated. Finally, the 100 coin star is optimally acquired Star 5’s and Star 6’s loadout because the player is given access to a crucial koopa shell. This koopa shell can be used to swiftly surf around the overworld, helping procure as many coins as possible in a fast and fun fashion. It’s a fantastic 100 coin challenge, in part because the level is so enjoyable, but also because shell shredding is arguably the most kinetically engaging form of movement in the game.
I have few complaints about Lethal Lava Land, none too scorching. The inconsequential warp sends the player to a location two long jumps away and only one long jump away from the course start. Warping across the level might be more worthwhile, but a level this open and accessible doesn’t need a warp. Star 3 is severely imbalanced and Stars 5 and 6 are very short, but none aren’t enjoyable. The level also seems to think it’s more difficult than it is, being placed after Hazy Maze Cave, featuring eight 1-up mushrooms, and placing a spawn point and spinning heart in the volcano. I wish the coin that bullies drop homed toward Mario because it often arcs into the lava, irretrievable. Finally, more enemy variety could spice up combat and character. The NPCs that populate Cool, Cool Mountain are so endearing and smartly linked to the level’s theme, an appropriate equivalent would be fun.
On the flipside, Lethal Lava Land accomplishes its objectives admirably. It fully integrates its fiery theme into the course layout, obstacles, enemy design, and overall tone in imaginative and deeply realized ways. It’s a fantastic example of how to thoroughly proceduralize an elusive theme like “heat” from several angles. Little touches, like allowing the player to restart from inside the volcano if they perish inside, betray the course’s foregrounding of player experience through its design. For example, it would have been easier to make lava the deathtrap it was in the 2D Marios, but it instead works as a stepping stone toward Shifting Sand Land’s more punishing quicksand terrain. It smooths a difficulty curve while also being a brilliant solution to the problem — if you weren’t moving carefully enough to star on the platform, we’re going to make you especially tough to control for several seconds to see if you can earn your recovery. The level is also admirably open — you can reach almost anywhere via any of several paths, on foot, shell, or wing. Even objectives can be tackled in different ways, such as flying to Star 4 to bypass log-rolling or using any number of moves and tactics to take down Star 2’s bullies.
Lethal Lava Land is an obvious course. It doesn’t take long to figure out, see most of its sights, or encounter most of its challenges. But it’s also genius — so secretly genius it can be deceiving. Its cunning lies in its intricacies, like the perfect placing of its platforms or the finely-tuned speed at which its log rolls. And it’s built with an openness in mind that embraces taking your own path, in any direction, on foot, shell, or wing. Despite the potential for its hostile terrain to limit mobility, it embraces the openness of the third dimension more wholeheartedly than any other course so far. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Jolly Roger Bay and Big Boo’s Haunt in its artful design. Even if it might not seem as blatantly distinctive as those two courses, it plays as its own unshakable beast, subliminally perfect.
View all the entries in this series here.