14. Dire, Dire Docks
By this point we’ve already played one water level, which is perfectly fine, but not a highlight of the game. Super Mario 64’s second aquatic adventure is a sharp drop from the first, primarily due to its increased reliance on swimming.
For a 24 year old game, 64 handles like a dream for the most part - except when it doesn’t. Swimming is a pain at the best of times, so when you’ve got to do it for the majority of a level, it’s always going to result in a lowlight of the game.
Some of the stars are an exercise in frustration, particularly the one gained by swimming through rings emitted by a manta ray. The camera and shonky controls conspire against you - there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to whether or not the game will register a successful attempt, so the player is judged on fate, rather than skill.
Visually this is also one of the more bland levels, and the coolest star - boarding Bowser’s sub - is the very first one. It’s a good step up in challenge, but takes away some of the momentum from the game’s midpoint.