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 2 – Whomp’s Fortress.
According to urban myth, my uncle who works at Nintendo, and a recent Nintendo Treehouse Log entry, the level design of Super Mario 64 was originally premised on the Japanese box-garden (or Hakoniwa), in which miniature landscapes are diligently fabricated in small pots or boxes. While Whomp’s Fortress, in its citadel setting might initial seem less garden-like than either the hub world or Bob-Omb Battlefield, it is the most pertinent manifestation of this miniature gardening metaphor thus far. Driven by a philosophy of presenting platforming challenge through boundedness and verticality, Whomp’s Fortress is a tidily pieced together assemblage of diverse secrets and skill checks from top to bottom. It is a scintillating Snapdragon plot with few weeds.
Although earning more than a few stars dramatically opens up course order, Whomp’s Fortress, with its one-star entry fee, is the second course of Super Mario 64 in both name and spirit. Like several levels throughout the game, it is premised around a single mountain-like structure the player must repeatedly climb to complete objectives typically around the level’s summit. Yet, unlike some later courses, the compact and simplified design of Whomp’s Fortress lends itself to replayability. While Bob-Omb Battlefield is fundamentally a vertically-oriented space adjacent to a horizontally-oriented space, Whomp’s Fortress is an elaboration of the former. The slopes, stairs, elevators, and shortcuts encourage upward momentum along with its many stars that ask the player to make their way someplace higher, by jump, cannon, or raptor ride.
Much like the elegantly escalating challenges of Bob-Omb Battlefield’s bluff, Whomp’s Fortress is a finely-tuned assembly line of movings parts that push, fall, raise, lower, and turn to test the player’s platforming prowess. In some regards, Whomp’s Fortress is a direct sequel to Bob-Omb Battlefield’s latter half, as it upholds its mission to teach and test more advanced movement mechanics through carefully segmented level design. Following suit, its stars are higher risk-reward, its enemies require more strategy and forethought, and its chasms are more treacherous.
Undergirding this similar but more tightly wound design is the fact that, unbounded by walls on this floating castle in the sky, the player can fall to his death by jumping off the level’s edge.The level’s discretely bounded space provokes a sense of treachery and containment, making the level less about exploring open spaces and more about traversing and learning every angle of a playground. In tone, theme, and character Whomp’s Fortress still strikes a canonical Mario mood, but its close-grained space is more akin to an underground or castle level from 2D series entries. Still, a couple shortcuts and a cannon enable less linear paths to the top if skillful enough.
The enemy designs are a particular highlight of the level. While the goombas and bob-ombs of Bob-Omb Battlefield tested basic offensive maneuvers (jump and attack, or A button and B button respectively), the whomps, thwomps and piranha plants percolating this stage are designed around more advanced tactics. The whomps and thwomps both test player movement and timing, while the ground-poundable whomps presage the first boss fight. Finally, the narcoleptic piranha plants can be either tiptoed or crawled around. In confronting these three enemy types, the player grows familiar with several more forms of movement and attack, with an emphasis on agility. This agility is further tested in platforming, from retracting platforms to a collapsing bridge, to a rotating catwalk, the stage demands more deliberate nuanced movement than Bob-Omb battlefield, and often punishes failure with instant death or a damaging fall from a high height.
Much like in Bob-Omb Battlefield, Star 1 in Whomp’s Fortress, “Chip off Whomp’s Block,” is earned by climbing to the top of the stage and defeating a boss. Keeping in spirit with the level and enemy design, Whomp King tests more complexified movement while certifying the player knows how to ground pound. Again aping Course 1, Star 2 mandates the player go “To the Top of the Fortress,” which retreads Star 1 but sticks a slim turret with sliding platforms where the boss was. Meanwhile, Star 4, “Red Coins on the Floating Isle,” further requires careful traversal of the same space in search of red coins, with some high-risk high-reward aerial platforming at the end. Star 4 is also an excellent opportunity to collect the 100 coin star, which is a smoother experience than Bob-Omb Battlefield’s 100 coin star because compact level layout and enemies that reward a blue coin (worth five coins) make the task less tedious.
With more emphasis on puzzles than level exploration compared to Bob-Omb Battlefield, Whomp’s Fortress divides its six stars equally into three “level familiarization” stars and three “puzzle stars.” The first of the three puzzlers is Star 3, “Shoot Into the Wild Blue,” which demands the player locate a sequestered star and use the cannon to reach it. Because of the location of the star around a bend, the player has to critically assess how he might land atop the platform containing the star, and ensure he shoots accurately (as an inaccurate shot could easily result in a fall into the wild blue below). Offering a little assistance with unusual textual nuance, the title of the star subtly indicates the player might want to aim a little higher “into the wild blue” sky. Reaching this star demands exploration, critical thought, and a skillful cannon shot, making it the most deeply considered puzzle star in the level. Star 5, “Fall onto the Caged Island,” asks the player to reach a star placed in a cage near the “floating isle” of Star 4. While experienced players can reach the star via cannon or expert platforming, most players will resort to an owl hidden in a tree at the start of the level, which gives a ride above the caged island so the player can drop in. Finally, Star 6, “ Blast Away the Wall,” nominally hints the player will use a cannon to fire at a wall. Sure enough, there is a nearby destructible wall with a star hidden inside.
While I have few critiques of Whomp’s Fortress’ level design, Throwback Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy 2 (a reinterpretation of Whomp’s Fortress) reveals some possible shortcomings. Most of the changes to the level, such as its larger size and increased amount and variety of enemies, are less of an improvement than a modernized reimagination. However, the addition of a water strider enemy in the shallow pond lends a practical purpose to a waterlogged portion of the map that previously held only aesthetic value. Throwback Galaxy’s greatest improvement is the string of musical notes that replaces the curiously straightforward blue coins, which are neither challenging nor gratifying.
But my major bones to pick in Whomp’s Fortress are with the stars. While Stars 1-4 are fair and clearly explained to the player, Stars 5 and 6 are dreadfully abstruse despite their conceptual brilliance. Star 5 certainly has a lot going for it — the idea of getting a lift from an owl to the top of the stage is exhilarating, and the feeling of doing it for the first time is breathtaking in its upward momentum. Even the intentionally wonky owl controls fit the bill (or beak). However, once in flight the camera angle obfuscates the view directly below Mario, which can make the “fall onto the caged island” an unfortunate crapshoot. But the real crow to pull is the owl’s concealment. With no textual hint or visible rustling, the player must stumble across the owl through blind luck, no doubt making the star needlessly frustrating for those players whose critical thought never led them to consider the possibility of an owl hiding in a tree like an avian ninja. By replacing the metal cap box with a wing cap box, the owl could have been an awesome option secret instead of an arbitrary “puzzle” solution.
Unfortunately, Star 6 is nearly as esoteric as Star 5. While its title hints at how the player might earn the star, the star’s location is solely indicated by a break in the wall difficult to see on a small screen. As this is likely the first destructible architecture the player has run across thus far, the player may not even fathom a star could be hidden where it is. Either a more visible break in the wall or some clarity about destructible environments could go a long way into making this star more than a shot in the dark. Without that clear communication, Star 6’s pitfall is the same as Star 5’s — acquiring the star requires the player bridge a logical gap through luck or tirelessness rather than skill or critical reasoning.
In sum, Whomp’s Fortress is a hard-hitting tightly-packaged course ripe with secrets to uncover and specialized challenges to navigate. It offers a denser challenge than Bob-Omb Battlefield and demands the player expand on the basic skills taught and tested thus far. Fortunately, recent reveals of levels from Super Mario Odyssey exhibit similarly jam-packed design that might take specific cues from stages like Whomp’s Fortress. That’s a good thing, as the densely packed secrets and oddities of Whomp’s Fortress encourages a conjectural style of play rarely seen in contemporary AAA games. Personally, I hope Odyssey is able to bring back the right-under-your-nose tidy puzzles that remain an experiential highlight of Whomp’s Fortress, while also bridging their logical gaps to reward thoughtful play along with boldness in experimentation.
View all the entries in this series here.