Ranking the Mario 64 Courses

Despite its age, Mario 64 remains a prime example of excellent 3D level design! Its stages are just the right size, allow for a lot of freedom of movement, and are full of plenty of secrets and shortcuts. Most importantly, the courses are just FUN and comforting. It’s what makes Mario 64 one of the best N64 games of all time, and a joy to play today! But let’s talk ranking the Mario 64 courses.

Mario getting a star in Mario 64

In my opinion all of the worlds in the game are pretty delightful and have at least some strengths. But having just completed the game to 100% recently (in Mario 3D All-Stars), there are definitely some levels I like more than others. So for no real reason other than “it’s fun” and for nostalgia, let’s get into ranking the Mario 64 courses!

15. Tiny-Huge Island

It seems a lot of people love this stage for the unique mechanic. Yes, being able to switch between tiny Mario on a huge island and huge Mario on a tiny island is a clever idea. But for me the idea is far better than the execution. The actual design of the world is a bit cumbersome and I just don’t have fun much in it. I find I’m constantly sliding or falling off the side of the island, or getting eaten by that (jerk of a) huge fish with sunglasses. And none of the stars really give me that “wow, that was really fun” satisfaction!

Wiggler boss from Mario 64
I always feel bad when Wiggler shrinks and falls through the grate!

Favorite star: “Make Wiggler Squirm”. At least the course had a pretty fun boss battle?

14. Rainbow Ride

This is definitely a good choice for the final course in the game. It’s creative, difficult, and pretty punishing if you make an error. It’s HUGE and there’s a lot of variety in the star missions. But I feel like too much time is spent in “waiting patiently on the magic carpet mode”, not getting to use Mario’s moveset. And since deaths are easy to come by, there is a lot of waiting to get back to where you were, which I always find pretty tedious!

Shortcut jump in Rainbow Ride course
I always long jump from the starting platform as a shortcut to get these stars.

Favorite star: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. You have to fly all the way up to where the first star was, navigate a tricky and windy approach to a cannon, and take a “blast of faith” through a rainbow. Admittedly very epic!

13. Snowman’s Land

There’s some cool stuff in this stage. The igloo is neat, cruising on the koopa shell for red coins is fun, and the snowman is a spectacle. But…that’s about it. The course itself isn’t nearly as creative or endearing as Cold, Cold Mountain. I feel like the snowman should’ve been a bigger factor or influence in other stars. Not a bad level, but not too memorable either.

Snowman's Big Head star in Mario 64
Mario’s expression here is about how I feel about this course!

Favorite star: “Snowman’s Big Head”. The “signature star” that has you carefully walk behind a penguin to avoid epic wind. It’s a fun, nail-biting star, and unfortunately the early high point of the level!

12. Dire, Dire Docks

Another course that’s “fine” without being that memorable. The manta ray is kind of cool to swim after, and the red coins are actually really fun to collect. But the “vortex of death” in the first area is frustrating and there’s not much else going on in the level beyond the novelty of Bowser’s sub. It’s my least favorite of all the “basement courses”.

Red Coin star in Dire, Dire Docks
Mario would do well on American Ninja Warrior.

Favorite star: “Pole-Jumping for Red Coins”. A surprisingly fun red coin star! Riding the pole lifts far above the water is pretty exhilarating, and it’s low risk if you fall. Just climb back up! I always forget that you can’t do this star until beating Bowser in the Fire Sea…

11. Hazy Maze Cave

This level is a huge, epic labyrinth! It’s got crazy elevator rides, poisonous mazes, an underground lake with a monster swimming it, and the entrance to the Metal Cap Switch. And on the whole, it’s really fun. It’s ranked a little lower for me because of its difficulty, especially in going for the 100 coin star. It’s a hard one to get and one small mistake can easily cost you a run.

Dorrie from Super Mario 64

Favorite star: “Swimming Beast in the Cavern”. Finding the giant blue dinosaur creature (“Dorrie”) was a fun surprise in 1996, and she still charms now. A very creative star!

10. Tick Tock Clock

In ranking the Mario 64 courses, this is one I have the biggest “love/hate” relationship with. Being able to control time by when you jump into the clock face is very clever mechanic and leads to a sort of “choose your own difficulty” mode. It’s probably the most vertical course of the entire game, making for some fun platforming challenges. But my gosh, between camera troubles and the unforgiving precision needed with jumps, I die a lot attempting the stars! Especially the 100 coin star, which might be the toughest one in the game.

Tick Tock Clock entrance
Only enter when the minute hand is close to the “9” if you like to live dangerously!

Favorite star: “Stomp on the Thwomp”. You have to travel so high up in the course to get this star! It’s an insanely epic climb with little room for error, and you’ll be a nervous wreck during the last few jumps.

9. Tall, Tall Mountain

Tall, Tall Mountain has a lot of fun packed into it! Monkeys of both a helpful and mischievous nature, epic and tricky hidden slides, and difficult cannon blasts to far off mushrooms. But it can also get a tad repetitive, as you generally take the exact same path up the mountain for each star, which can wear thin after awhile. Still, it’s a charming level and one of my favorites on the “second floor”!

Mysterious Mountainside slide
That happy moon is really underselling how dangerous this slide is. Be sure to turn hard right when you see the arrows!

Favorite star: “Mysterious Mountainside”. The slide hidden in the mountain is insanely fun (as are the other slides in the game) and also a great way to start a 100 coin star run!

8. Wet Dry World

I used to really dislike this course. But playing through it recently, I had a lot of fun! There’s several ways you can tackle each star, depending both on the water level determined by the height you jump into the painting, and the path you take. It’s creative, has fun music, and the hidden underwater city is an unexpected secret!

Wet Dry World red coins star
So cool! Reminds me of Hyrule architecture in Ocarina of Time a bit.

Favorite star: “Go to Town for Red Coins”. Discovering the submerged town, then platforming like a beast to find all the red coins, is a joy! The race through town for the following star is also quite a bit of fun.

7. Jolly Roger Bay

I usually don’t care for water levels in 3D games. But I really enjoy Jolly Roger Bay! You’re not actually required to do too much under the water here, which is nice. The star missions are diverse and fun (The cave! The eel! The ship!), and the music is sublime-one of my favorite themes in the game!

Blast to stone pillar star
Definitely undershot this, if you were wondering. It still looks epic though!

Favorite star: “Blast to the Stone Pillar”. A fun challenge where you have to line up your shot just right, hit a pillar, and make a tricky jump to a small ledge high above the water. If you miss, no worries-swim back to the shore and try again!

6. Shifting Sand Land

I’ve never (and will never) complete all the stars in this course without falling into instant-death quicksand and getting angry. But I still love it! The wing cap and koopa shell are easily accessible at the start, so movement around the level is fast and fun. It’s always dangerous, yes, but you can quickly move back to where you were should you fail. The pyramid is full of all sorts of puzzle and platforming goodness too.

Mario 64 pyramid boss
I lost a lot of health very shortly after taking this screenshot.

Favorite star: “Stand Tall on the Four Pillars”. Using the wing cap to carefully land on each pillar in the quicksand, then battling an ancient eyeball-palmed hand god for a star is just flat out glorious.

5. Big Boo’s Haunt

Now we’re getting into the cream of the crop ranking the Mario 64 courses. This level does “fun spooky” (as well as “genuine terror” with that piano!) so well. Exploring every nook and cranny of the mansion and its exterior yields a lot of neat surprises. There’s really no other course like in the game, which makes it very special and a nice change of pace!

Big Boo's Balcony boss
This is a situation where I much prefer the precision of the original Nintendo 64 controller!

Favorite star: “Big Boo’s Balcony”. Climbing your way up to the top floor of the mansion, battling Big Boo on a tiny ledge, then precariously platforming to the rooftop to grab the star? Yes.

4. Bom-omb Battlefield

The first Mario 64 course is also one of its best. The level gives you plenty of literal space to explore and get comfortable with Mario’s moveset and game mechanics. You can experiment with several different items, and there’s fun characters to meet and interact with. All of the star missions hold up!

Mario wings to the sky star
I remember seeing footage of this star in TV commercials for Mario 64. It had the desired effect!

Favorite star: “Mario Wings to Sky”. I love the wing cap (and its theme), and this was one of the first stars in the game to require it. It’s still exhilarating to fly through the five rings of coins today!

3. Cool, Cool Mountain

I’ve always loved wintery or holiday themed levels in games. Just the music in this level on it’s own is already pretty jolly, and it gets even better when you explore the level! Penguins, icy slides, snowman reunions, ski lifts, crazy air drafts, icy wall kicks-it really leans into the winter theme. So festive!

Giant penguin after 120 stars in Mario 64
One of many fun Easter eggs hidden in the game!

Favorite star: “Big Penguin Race”. A genuinely challenging star that’s also a ton of fun, even when you fail. If you haven’t, be sure you check out the penguin after you collect 120 stars-he’s huge and much faster!

2. Lethal Lava Land

I always want to head straight to this course when I get to the basement. But seeing as its my favorite down there, I always follow a “save the best for last” approach! I love this course because of how open and freeing it is. Like Shifting Sand Land, the wing cap and koopa shell are near the start, so you can really cruise around the level at your leisure and explore however you’d like! And you go into the volcano. So cool! I still stop to admire the graphics at the lava waterfall as soon as you jump in. Beautiful!

Hot foot it into the volcano star
This is even more fun than it looks!

Favorite star: “‘Hot-Foot-It Into the Volcano”. It’s an epic cruise on the koopa shell into the volcano, followed by an intense climb to an altar at the top, all with little room for error. Amazing.

1. Whomp’s Fortress

It’s entirely possible that this pick is influenced by the glorious remake from Super Mario Galaxy 2. Regardless, this course is insanely fun to play in either game, from start to finish! There are a lot of fun obstacles as you move up the fortress, but you’re still able to move rather fast and acrobatically without falling off. Each star is very unique, and there’s a mix of epic platforming and hidden secrets. Overall, the stage is the best possible blend of all the amazing ideas in Mario 64.

Drop to caged island star in Mario 64
You can also use the owl as a fun shortcut for some other stars!

Favorite star: “Fall Onto the Caged Island”. Hitching a ride on the adorable little owl is as delightful as it is exhilarating! I wish we would’ve seen more of it in the game.

How would you go about ranking the Mario 64 courses? Or if that’s too much work, what are your top 5 or so? What about some of your favorite stars? Please share in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Ranking the Mario 64 Courses”

  1. I largely agree with these rankings.

    There’s a definitely, for me, a major drop in fun as you ascend Peach’s castle. The higher tier levels, while still fun in their own way, don’t have the same “I can’t believe I’m playing this in 1996 on my amazing N64” as the earlier levels invoke.

    The “first” of each type of level are incredibly special: green fields of bom-omb battlefield, snowy peaks of Cool Cool Mountain, etc. As soon as the terrain and any music is recycled the shiny/newness/excitement goes down.

    Mario 64 is an incredible experience all these years (decades!) later. I’ll politely push through the later levels if I have to, but I’ll always come back to those early levels. That’s where the magic, wonder and nostalgia is for me. The amazement of seeing Super Mario 64 at Toys R Us (RIP) before you could preorder an N64 in 1996 will always be associated with those early levels. And eagerly going through EGM and Gamefan previews to learn everything one could about this new “3D Mario game.”

    Also, if were to get a face tattoo, it would be of the Super Mario 64 box. The game is that good.

    Zach let’s get face tattoos. Yours will be of Link, right?

    1. Couldn’t agree more! I’ll sometimes turn on Mario 64 for fun and just absolutely TEAR through the 1st floor levels to 100%, then tackle a few basement ones, and then just kind of stop 😂 The magic does dull on those repeat theme courses, and it doesn’t help some of the stars are a huge pain to get.

      So much nostalgia with all the hype and previews for this game! I remember waiting and waiting for that one kid at Toys R Us that was hogging the kiosk to finally stop playing while my parents shopped 😅

      All in on tattoos 😀 You’re spot on-I would definitely do Zelda! (I’ve actually told my wife several times I would get a Triforce tattoo if I ever got one!)

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