High Scores: Dire, Dire Docks

The “Dire” in Super Mario 64’s “Dire, Dire Docks” is false advertising—for the song, at least, which sounds anything but grave or ill-boding. At worst, it sounds like very nice hold music. At best, it sounds like “the composer [Koji Kondo] just went to heaven and recorded the ambient sound,” per YouTube user Josh Hibberd. If that’s too jokey or Judeo-Christian for you, listen to the folks over at Decade, who in all seriousness call the song “one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.” I am skeptical of such superlatives in a field as ancient and various as musical composition, but I can confidently say it’s the best song in the game. It also feels emblematic of a shift from the early to the late ’90s, of a piece with the Windows 95 opening fanfare. At once a gift to the user and a humble-brag from the producer, this is the optimistically ambient music that would inspire chillwave and vaporwave music of the 2010s. “Feel how smoothly this software runs,” the music seems to say. “Don’t you feel pampered?”

If “Dire, Dire Docks” sounds celebratory of the developers’ achievement, the celebration is earned. Super Mario 64 turned 25 this month (its original release date, in Japan, was June 23, 1996), and it has aged remarkably well. More time has passed between Mario 64 and the present day than had passed between Pong’s release (November 29, 1972) and Mario 64’s. And yet Mario 64, while obviously blockier than current-gen graphics, still looks, sounds, and feels like a modern game. As the Decade article points out, it is the most played game in the history of speedrunning, which speaks to its enduring and broad replay value. Experts find it worthy of the most painstaking optimizations, while novices appreciate its approachable difficulty and intuitive controls. If only we could all age so gracefully.

I first wrapped my hands around an N64 controller in the basement of a Colorado Springs McMansion owned by the parents of Brandon, my friend first and foremost because of his N64. My parents had just moved to what my mom dubbed “Fashionable Briargate,” a bougie subdivision of an already bougie city, and a neighborhood we couldn’t really afford. Brandon must have bragged about his possession of the coveted new console in 6th grade homeroom, and I must have overheard this information and slowly insinuated myself into his good graces.

All the houses in Briargate were disorientingly similar, with their bay windows and two-car garages and siding in covenant-approved hues of grayish blue or yellowish taupe. The streets were all suffixed with “wood”—Barrelwood, Yellowwood, Hickorywood—though the only trees in the neighborhood’s sandy soil were spindly, tied-down saplings. When I did manage to find Brandon’s house (on … Ramblewood?), his mother showed me to the basement, where Brandon was playing Mario 64 while two other boys from our grade watched. I remember not particularly caring that Brandon hogged the controller; the game was as almost as fun to watch as to play. Mario swam around the deep blue cenote of Jolly Roger Bay, shinnying up stalagmites and plucking red coins from snapping clamshells. It was a feast for the eyes and, because of “Dire, Dire Docks,” the ears.

But why “dire”? Like “Dr. Wily Castle Stage 1,” the song takes its name from one of the two levels in which it plays, though, strangely, it’s the second of the two. But even the level Dire, Dire Docks isn’t particularly dire. Sure, there’s that nasty vortex that sucks you into some unknowable subaquatic oubliette. And yes, there is, as in all water levels, the danger of your air meter running out. But DDD doesn’t even have this famously nightmare-inducing eel, who haunts Jolly Roger Bay, the first of the two water levels. Somehow, it’s even harder to imagine the song as “Jolly Roger Bay,” a title that would seem to demand the trappings of a sea chantey. “Dire,” on the other hand, is perfectly mismatched to the music, a perhaps intentional irony on the part of the English translators. In Japanese, World 9 is known simply as Wōtā Rando, or “Water Land.” The direness was added in the West. Maybe they just liked the alliteration.

This contrast between the title and the music is analogous to a more general belief about videogame water worlds: they have the best music and the worst gameplay. (Alex Alusheff writes about this belief persuasively here.) In most cases, videogame water subtracts power from your character. It slows you down. You cannot jump. You cannot run. You can only swim, dive, and surface. Since water physics govern only a minority of the stages in most games, the controls of these levels can feel like an afterthought, not as fine-tuned as the default, land-lubbin’ physics. Mario 64’s ground physics are especially fantastic, which I cannot say of its swim controls. They’re not awful—just a bit boring in comparison, and occasionally frustrating. Swimming to collect a ring of coins is like drawing a circle with your nondominant hand. Jumping out of the water is difficult, perhaps duly—I couldn’t do it. But the point of Mario games was never verisimilitude. They’re supposed to be fun, and swimming through these levels, while it may look fun, doesn’t always feel fun. When Brandon did allow me a brief dip in Jolly Roger Bay, I swam past the sunken ship and up into the underwater cave, drawn to its terra firma, oxygen, and electrified treasure-chest puzzle as if by instinct.

Much of the pleasure of controlling a videogame character comes from the friction of that avatar against the game’s surfaces. Think of the palpable bop of Mario’s feet against that first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. In Mario 64, Mario becomes a master of friction, a gymnast executing triple somersaults in the air and sticking each landing with a celebratory “ha-ha!” He grabs onto walls, parkour-style, and leaps off them onto even higher surfaces. He slides on his polygonal butt down massive underground slides. The friction throughout is sticky and delicious. Water levels take away this friction, along with gravity. A frictionless playground just isn’t as fun as a frictional one.

Frictionless music, however, can be a treat: relaxing, immersive, chill. My other favorite water-level song, “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country, accomplishes something very similar. Friction in music is perhaps best conveyed by percussion, which “Aquatic Ambience” incorporates so sparingly that a few cymbal taps feel tense. “Dire, Dire Docks” has it both ways. When Mario is swimming in JRB or DDD, the music’s rhythm is determined mainly by the piano that plays the melody. However, once Mario alights on the cave floor of JRB or the docks of DDD, we get a bass drum, a snare, and a hi-hat. This layering on of percussion feels like a reward for finding new ground, discovering a world within a world.

I don’t fully agree that water levels are the least fun to play, even in Mario 64. The snow levels never really thrilled me and have, in my opinion, the game’s cheesiest music. But I do agree that “Dire, Dire Docks” is better than Dire, Dire Docks. It’s a level I’d rather watch than play, as long as you hand over the controller eventually.