It’s Debate Day! This week we’re talking about the best fire stage in video game history. To see Aaron’s incoherent ramblings on the subject, check out this link: Kick the Hornet’s Nest: The Best Video Game Fire Level. But if you’re interested in the correct opinion, read on!
Every video game’s gotta have a fire level. It’s the law. Basically every video game since Super Mario Brothers has featured lava as a hazard in some respect. You fall in, you die, or at least get injured. There were a lot of choices I could have picked for best fire stage. Lava Reef from Sonic & Knuckles has to be considered for its music alone. Any stage from Super Mario World with Blarggs automatically gets a mention. I also thought about Hailfire Peaks from Banjo-Kazooie, but that feels like cheating since it combines fire and ice themes into one world.
In the end I settled on Lethal Lava Land from Super Mario 64. This stage epitomizes the best elements of lava stages. It also contains some of the best stage design and funnest platforming in the game. Let’s jump in that painting and take a journey to the best fire level ever!
To get us in the right mood, let’s take a listen to the soundtrack, shall we?
The tune also gets used in Shifting Sand Land, but Lethal Lava Land comes first in stage numbering and you’d usually hear it there first. What I love about this song is how unobtrusive it is. It’s hard to call it music; there’s not even a melody. The ambient flutes, strings, and drums don’t overpower you. It all just blends into a soothing background sound that sets the tone perfectly for hopping around over an endless lake of lava.
Speaking of lava, holy Lemmy’s balls is there a lot of it. The entire stage is a pool of lava with a disparate reef of platforms strewn about its surface. Because lava is such a prevalent feature, the devs wisely chose not to make it insta-death. Instead, Mario burns his butt and goes flying into the air, screaming like a girl.
I love how flat and open the stage is. The first four stars are all available from the start, and the level’s non-linear design means you can tackle them in any order. My favorite stages in Super Mario 64 share this design philosophy. Exploration is encouraged, but it doesn’t take long to run into an objective that yields a star when completed.
The platforms themselves present a huge variety. Among the flotsam bobbing on the lava lake’s surface are spinning rings, fire bars, a sliding tile puzzle, rising and sinking platforms, and a red-hot rolling log. They’re all somewhat challenging to navigate, but none are a roadblock that holds you back long enough to become annoying.
The lava forces players to be creative when traversing the small islands on its surface. The devs designed a path of least resistance that takes players on a tour of the level with minimum chances for Mario to scorch his ass. That’s no fun though. The course features a warp, a Wing Cap, and a Shiny Shell to ease movement. Different traversal methods increase replay value by giving us options — all equally awesome — to get from point A to point B.
Lethal Lava Land is also the first stage that really tests the player’s ability to pull off advanced moves like the long jump, side somersault, and triple jump. You don’t have to use these abilities to get around the stage, thanks to the aforementioned path of least resistance, but they increase the speed you can move around drastically, especially if you’re willing to burn Mario’s butt a few times to cross long stretches of lava quickly. I like that the game allows you to try out wild shortcut ideas without punishing you with bottomless pits, as some later stages do.
The central feature of the course is an active volcano in the center that spews fireballs all around it. The level’s big secret, hinted at on the Star select screen, is that Mario can actually jump in the mouth of the volcano and enter a second part of the stage. It doesn’t seem like you should be able to enter an obvious hazard like a volcano, but it actually widens out into a fiery cavern much larger on the inside than it looks from outside. I like this twist because it serves to reinforce the unpredictable and fantastic geometry of the painting worlds.
Unfortunately, the Stars inside the volcano are two of the most frustrating in the stage. They require precise jumping handicapped by an uncooperative camera. Fortunately, the lava at the bottom and plentiful coins mean Mario can handle falling and getting his butt burned a few times. This is another instance where a hazard floor instead of a insta-death floor makes difficult challenges bearable.
In addition to great platforming and level design, Lethal Lava Land also features one of my favorite enemy types, the Bully. These dudes adorably try to bump Mario off their platforms, hurling their spherical bodies into him until one of you gets burned. The Big Bully looks more menacing, yet still silly, with his big yellow horns, angry eyes, and ball bearing body. Bullies, in addition to looking neat, are one of the tougher enemies to defeat thanks to their relentless aggression and invincibility. This makes it all the more satisfying to knock them in the lava.
I’ve played a lot of fire stages over the years — probably more than a hundred. They can be frustrating, slow-paced, and the source of countless deaths. They can also be boring, by-the-numbers levels that feel like an obligatory inclusion. With Lethal Lava Land, that’s not the case. It’s not an easy stage, but the lava is a forgiving hazard. You can afford to let loose and attempt mad jumps between the haphazard little islands, all cleverly designed to be just the right distance away from one another. There are a lot of stages in Mario 64 I get tired of replaying, but Lethal Lava Land isn’t one of them. I could listen to the music and knock Bullies into lava all day, and that’s what makes it the best fire stage of all time.
So who’s right, me or Aaron? Or are we both full of it? Let us know in the poll below!