In the Rainbow Ride stage of Super Mario 64 (1996), there’s a large, grey, stoney cuboid containing a maze of platforms. It’s there to house a red coin challenge: you follow the walkways and magic carpets to that bit of the level, collect all the coins from inside this big concrete thing, then grab your star and you’re done.
But once, I thought, why am I always inside this huge, stone block? I wondered if I could get on top of it. I took a look around the level and I realised that maybe, with a well-timed, blind jump from a higher platform, I could just about catch the wind and scrape my way onto the top of the thing. But why would I do that? Why try to climb it? Because it’s there.
That was George H. L. Mallory’s purported response when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. There is no better reason that can be offered: it’s the drive to quest. In Mallory’s case, it was the drive to climb the highest mountain in the world, enduring barbarous conditions that will constantly oppress the very existence of any human determined enough to press on into them. My case was not exactly the same, but it was quite daring in its own way — and let’s not forget which one of us survived and which one had his frozen corpse found 75 years later. Knowing your limits is a kind of bravery, really. Anyway, I’m not trying to set this up as a competition between me and Mallory. I would only be open to accusations that I look superior just because of the way I framed the matter. And it’s also unfair that, of the two of us, only I have the privilege of defending my position — just because I planned and accomplished my feat in a way that avoided both freezing and death. I really should say, though, superb effort by Mallory. No one likes a bad winner, do they? He did great.
All of Mario 64’s stars require some exploration, but the stars are all part of the core game, so the thrill’s not the same. The adventure you get riding the boat-on-a-rope round Pirates of the Caribbean is not the same as the adventure you get when you hop out onto the fibreglass set and stick your head into the service corridors. The brilliance of Mario’s level design is its acknowledgement of that fact.
The top of that stone edifice on Rainbow Ride is just barely within reach — exactly and specifically within reach, with a gust of wind that blows behind you when you leap into the unknown, and makes the stretch just possible. So what great reward awaits the climber? A secret level? An extra star? No — wait! — nothing at all, because the adventure is its own reward?
A knowing coin that gives a silent nod to a fellow explorer. Within the game, the coin is worthless, but no reward could mean more than the acknowledgement of your achievement by a kindred mind. The designer was ready for you to try that jump — he understands the drive to quest, and had the same inspiration himself.
It has to be a coin — an unremarkable nothing — because that keeps the secrecy, keeps the spot off the map, off the route of the guided tour. If it was a star or a red coin then any player would get it and every walkthrough would list it. If it was Yoshi hiding on the castle roof then it would be a surprise spoiled by a thousand YouTube videos.
But it’s just a coin. Just a knowing coin, just a nod. Which is perfect.