Super Mario games are not supposed to be scary. Between the hills with cartoon eyes and the Tanooki Suits, nobody has mistaken the Mushroom Kingdom for Silent Hill. Mario games have DNA built out of pure joy. So that just makes the rare moments of actual horror all the more memorable.
You expect to be scared playing Resident Evil games, but you don’t expect it with a game like Super Mario 64. Now, more than 20 years later, Super Mario 64‘s horror level, Big Boo’s Haunt, is still a great surprise full of solid scares.
Ghostly elements in Mario were nothing new when Nintendo released Super Mario 64 in 1996. The iconic ghost enemies, Boos, first appeared in Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES. Boos might have been ghosts, but they’re adorable, not scary. These round balls would hide away from the player and blush if Mario looked at them. They were more Kindergarten Halloween decorations than actual terrors. However, with the jump to 3D, Mario’s ghost levels went from innocent cartoons to something much darker.
ENTERING THE HORROR
The creepiness of Big Boo’s Haunt begins well before you enter the level. It draws you in a way that seems to break Super Mario 64’s established rules. Up until this part of the game, every level is hidden away in paintings or doors. The overworld of Princess Peach’s Castle so far was a safe breather without enemies. However, as you explore the lower levels, your eye is directed towards a Boo at the end of a long hallway, leading you to a back courtyard. Naturally, you have to follow it.
There’s a whole herd of Boos waiting for you in the bright, sunny outside of the castle. And they will attack and kill if you if you’re not prepared. That’s surprise number one.
Things get stranger when you notice one Boo is holding what appears to be a birdcage. If you beat him, you’ll have to examine the item. Wander too close and you’ll suddenly be sucked down into Big Boo’s Haunt: surprise number two.
Once you land, you’ll immediately realize this isn’t the sunny Super Mario 64 you’ve played so far. This is a dark night world where the wind howls violently. Big Boo’s Haunt is the darkest and most foreboding level in Super Mario 64.
Everything about the level makes you feel isolated and truly alone. First off there’s the music; a deep moaning roar. Then the outside is mostly empty, forcing you to either stay out in the wind or step inside the dark mansion before you. Neither option makes you feel particularly safe.
NEVER FEEL SAFE
Big Boo’s Haunt takes inspiration from the devious style of Boo Houses from 2D games. Those previous levels were puzzles instead of a simple dash from left to right. Yet the SNES “horror” levels were only confusing; they never tried to be scary. This kind of tricky design matches well with Super Mario 64‘s focus on exploration and secrets.
However, while the other levels like Bob-omb Battlefield are built around freely running to find secrets, Big Boo’s Haunt is designed to make you fear exploration. False moves also drop you down into pits, where you have to endure a mocking carousel theme as you try to find your way back up. The interior of the house is full of fixed camera positions unlike the rest of the game. The cinematic framing leads you down corridors or into corners, where a scare is often waiting for you.
You never know what’s behind the doors, and often, you don’t want to find out. Take the Killer Piano, which is one of the best jump scares in any Nintendo game. The fixed camera places the piano within your view as you enter the room. It’s just off the corner, seemingly an innocent decoration of the house. But if you stand anywhere near it, it suddenly attacks with a loud shout. You’ll never walk past that piano ever again without wondering when it will strike again.
LAUGHING AT YOU
Big Boo’s Haunt feels like a Nintendo take on The Evil Dead or Joe Dante films with the same spirit of zany chaotic evil at play. Anything can attack, even chairs or books or pianos. And that tone fits perfectly for where it’s placed. You aren’t supposed to feel isolated and paranoid in a Mario game. Yet you do in Big Boo’s Haunt, and the level laughs at you for feeling afraid.
Thanks to a chilling soundtrack, pacing, and tone, Super Mario 64 scared the pants off players in 1996. And don’t be ashamed of feeling afraid, Big Boo’s Haunt is a solid production of early 3D horror gaming.