“Do what you love to do. Follow your heart. Follow your passion. Do what gives you joy and expresses the love that you have for life in your work, y’know.”
“Hello!” the rubbery, disembodied head beams in salutation. The cheerful iconic voice of the red-hatted plumber serves to introduce one of the most widely recognized and beloved video games of all time: Super Mario 64. No, really. There’s no way to overstate the amount of cultural impact Mario 64 has had.
In case you haven’t been anywhere else on the internet for the past week, let me be the one to inform you that the Nintendo 64, the console that spawned a next generation of gamers and was a major contender in bridging the way into 3D graphics, is now 20 years old. That means Super Mario 64 is too, since it was a launch title. If that depresses you, I’m sorry, but remember it’s just a first world problem.Even though the PlayStation was already out by ’94 and the N64 wouldn’t be released for another two years after that, I think it was for many people the N64 that was the more memorable foray into 3D rather than the PlayStation. Consider some of the launch titles for the PlayStation: Ridge Racer… The Raiden Project… Rayman… Battle Arena Toshinden… Wipeout… 3D Lemmings… even a loser like Street Fighter: The Movie. Not exactly a bunch of timeless classics.
But in a show from Nintendo proving that they were indeed the reigning champs, the N64 launched with Super Mario 64. The world was forever changed. It was one small step for Mario. One giant leap for all 3D games.
I had just turned eleven when the N64 came out in the States and I actually have a very vivid memory of walking into a Costco and seeing it in the electronics section on display. The neon colors, the sounds of glee, and the seemingly endless, free-roaming, three-dimensional world of Super Mario 64 were in a word: alluring.
Nintendo didn’t even need to market it to little me. The product itself was every child’s 360-degree gameplay dream come true. I hadn’t seen anything like it. I stood there and watched Mario’s giant head spinning in the void, the star circling around him, over and over and over again as he beckoned to me with all the power of temptation to press start.But really, what else should the world have expected? Everything Mario touches turns to gold. He’s a veritable gold-mine. Heck, I’ll go further than that. He built the modern gaming industry on his hairy, Italian shoulders after the video game crash of ’83. Super Mario Bros. on the NES defined 2D platforming. And now, Mario would again set the standard for a new generation of gaming in 3D as he stepped into this new, polygonal realm. How could it fail? Mario is great in everything!
So what made Super Mario 64 such a standout title, selling over 11 million copies in this new era of gaming? Lots of things. Transitioning into 3D meant that the gameplay emphasis was no longer reaching the end of a linear stage within a time limit. By the very nature of the software, Super Mario 64 boasted entire worlds teeming with enemies and secrets and items. The focus now was upon exploration rather than simple completion.
And Super Mario 64 succeeded not only as a stepping stone into 3D but also it succeeded among 3D games themselves. That’s largely due to its controls and its camera. Much deliberation made them less a frustration than those two elements typically were in early 3D games.
The controls preserved the essence of what made Mario iconic as a character, namely jumping. But now instead of just jumping various heights and/or distances, Mario is able to somersault, spring, pounce, vault, plunge, dive, bounce, hurdle, repel, canter, frolic and prance. Complete range of motion opened up all kinds of level design possibilities, something which the developers wisely took full advantage of. Three-dimensional stages put all of Mario’s shiny new maneuvering abilities to the test and pushed platforming to new heights. Add to all that Mario’s grabbing and punching capabilities and you’ve got a whole new hero that still feels classic.
This game also includes both swimming and flight. In the side-scrolling Mario games, both of these movements were possible but limited to merely tapping the jump button to ascend through liquid or thin air. With Mario 64, both of these movements became magical experiences. Swimming meant a lot to me in a 3D video game environment since I spent a lot of time in the ocean growing up and always wanted to see a game that could capture the weightlessness and 360-degree ease of being underwater.
But it was the Wing Cap in Mario 64 that gave the goosebumps. Eschewing the Tanuki tail of Super Mario Bros. 3 and the yellow Cap from Super Mario World, Mario now donned a red hat inspired by the Grecian messenger-deity Hermes.
The winged cap allowed our mustachioed hero to turn a few well-timed jumps into a leap up into the azure. The flight controls may have been difficult with its diving motions, or even primitive by our standards today, by man, what a delight.Another power up introduced by Super Mario 64 was the steely Metal Cap. Metal Mario involves a physiological change where the plumber’s weight is dramatically increased, as if he were made out of cold steel. That means he is no longer affected by most enemy attacks, and can walk through strong winds and take a stroll underwater. Being metal also has the added perk of not having to breathe, so Metal Mario is also immune to noxious gases. However, his jumping abilities will be severely hindered.The Vanish Cap rounds out the trio of power ups. Transforming Mario into an ethereal, immaterial, transparent specter, Mario can use this temporary ability to avoid damage or pass through certain obstacles like wire mesh fences. Now you get to see what it’s like to be a ghost yourself!
Then there’s the camera. It’s dynamism and control meant that it wouldn’t often leave you blind. In Mario 64, a turtle in a cloud with a camcorder on a fishing rod did a better job with the camera-work than most 3D games of the time could ever hope to do. Early 3D cameras were notoriously aggravating. Mario 64 utilizes the four C buttons of the N64 controller to put as much camera control as possible in the hands of the player.Keeping with the spirit of the series, Super Mario is tasked with rescuing Princess Peach from the vile clutches of that villain, Bowser. Defeating the Koopa king plays out differently than it did in previous Mario games. No more dunking Bowser in lava or jumping on his head, but 3D was not exactly as kind to him as it was to Mario…Mario enters Peach’s castle by invite only to learn from an intangible Toad that everyone is trapped inside the castle walls. Bowser (who else?) has stolen the castle’s Stars and is using their power to create alternate dimensions within the castle paintings. Your object therefore is to navigate through the castle, enter the worlds and recover the stolen Stars. Only then can you unlock the doors that Bowser has sealed in the hopes of finding and rescuing that poor damsel in distress.
So even though Mario 64 is technically an open-world game, you’ll need to collect a certain amount of Stars before you can open all the doors. Many doors are marked by numbers indicated how many Stars must be collected before they can be unlocked. So go get those Stars! Good thing there are only one-hundred twenty of them…
Many of the game’s Stars are hidden within secret courses and mini-stages within the castle walls. Most of the Stars, however, are to be found in the Bowser-generated worlds, which can be entered by leaping into the paintings and portraits scattered about the place. Other worlds have more unusual entrances like the face of a grandfather clock for Tick Tock Clock.The first of these fully explorable worlds is Bob-omb Battlefield, which has six Stars in it. In order to get a hold of said Stars, Mario must tackle various challenges. For example, in Bob-omb Battlefield, a Star can be collected for defeating the King Bomb-omb, grabbing all the red coins, or racing a Koopa Troopa to the top of a mountain. Once you complete a task for a Star in a world, you can always return there for kicks and giggles.
Essentially Mario repeats the same process in each world. Of course there are different challenges in each one. He must collect Star after Star until he’s got enough to move on to the next area and eventually face off against his nemesis and take Bowser for a spin.
Super Mario 64 feels truly timeless. It’s not burdened by the downfalls and detriments that so many of its peers suffered and it stands out as the nominal 3D platforming title to define a new generation. It’s certainly still a joy to play and there are enough collectable Stars and secrets in the game that its universe seems like a veritable macrocosm, big enough that it’s tough to remember all of it. That means returning to this game after several years have passed ensures that it still has an air of freshness about it and surprise at having to rework out all of its puzzles and hidden treasures all over again.
Few games in existence can boast the level of recognition that Super Mario 64 has received. I don’t know anyone who dislikes it. It’s the perfect product for a character who may just be the most iconic character in video games ever: Super Mario. He’s the prototypical platforming protagonist. The equivalent of Superman. It’s a game that captures (and retains) all of the magic of childhood by its emphasis on exploration and discovery and collection, its leisure and cheeriness with Mario’s excitable “Wahoo!”, “Haha!”, “Mama Mia!” and “Ravioli”.
The 8-Bit Review
By today’s standards, Mario 64 is pretty ugly with its low polygon count and blurry textures. But set against the backdrop of its peers, it was easily on the top of the best looking 3D titles at the time.Heck, even 2D aged much, much better than some of those early 3D games. Many of them were visually atrocious. I think what set Mario 64 higher was it didn’t try to combine too many 2D and 3D elements together, as some games tried to, and its environs come off as much brighter and kindhearted and cheery. By the fact of its colors being as eye-catching as they are, it avoided being ugly. It’s hard to dismiss its coloring book backgrounds and sunny skies and lush grassy fields. The N64 couldn’t have shown of its graphics any better, reminding us that this is still a distinctly Nintendo game with lovable and recognizeable characters, despite the change in technology.
In talking about the audio, we can never forget Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario, who is featured here for the first time.
It’s impossible to not have a good time when playing Super Mario 64, mostly because of the music comprised of pure extract of optimism. There’s an energy behind almost every track. The kind that propels a full grown Italian through the air with each jump. A lot of the songs are also new themes, rather than updated renditions of the classic Super Mario tunes. Quite the achievement, considering the temptation that must have been there to use the old “desert” and “underwater” and “sky” songs, rather than create new ones. But they did it. The familiar theme plays immediately after the title screen, and a short ditty of it warbles over the Star menu when entering each world, but the soundtrack is essentially new ground. Yet even though these are new and unfamiliar themes, they’re imbued with that sense of inherent fun that made the original songs from the earlier games instant classics. The catchiness and sense of vibrant life grabs you and doesn’t let go, beginning with the bombastic “Bob-omb Battlefield” track.
Besides for successfully finding new musical ground, another thing that stands out to me is how different each track is from the other. They aren’t even in the same style of music. “Bob-omb Battlefield” sounds like a big band, open air concert. “Dire, Dire Docks” is a mellow piece as if played on a piano. Other songs are far more muted, or are full of danger. The desert track particularly sounds jarring and dissonant compared to everything you’ve heard before it. This wide range of songs highlights the diverse settings of the Star-created worlds of Mario 64.
With scores of worlds and 120 Stars to collect, Super Mario 64 taps into a vein that Nintendo has long known how to suck dry. That vein would be the vein of addictiveness. That’s maybe nowhere clearer than with their Pokemon series. From day one of Pokemon Red/Blue, that game was addictive. I think that’s because of its emphasis on collecting. The same thing is present in Mario 64 and it’s easy to say “Just one more Star before bed!” And by varying the difficulty of some Stars over others, the essential feeling of accomplishment and bragging rights are made available to those who cleared the game not by beating Bowser for the final time but by getting every last one of those Stars. Is that not how people today continue to reflect upon this N64 classic, by asking whether the other person ever got all of the Stars or not?
Sadly, not all things are perfect in the Mushroom Kingdom. As good as the camera is, it’s still primitive and there are moments where it can be relentlessly frustrating to wrestle with that stupid Lakitu and his camera-fishing pole. It can make some of the jumps, particularly in the Bowser stages, infuriating if you miss. It’s not a huge complaint, but there it is none the less. And it’s not like they threw out the old Mario format to replace it with something that was just mediocre. Camera angle problems aside, the developers stumbled upon something great with Mario 64. Please don’t send me hate mail.
As stupid and ridiculously overcomplicated as the N64 controller was (seriously, three handles?), Super Mario 64 is supremely easy to get into. It doesn’t overload itself with so many aspirations to perfect 3D platforming. It’s still basically jumping with a few punches and a few new power ups. It’s the same Mario you’ve always known since you were a kid.
Some Stars are a real pain to get. I particularly remember dreading Tick Tock Clock, Rainbow Ride, and Lethal Lava Land. Tricky timing and the contribution of poor camera control at certain points made breezing through the game on cruise control an impossibility. Not that completing it was impossible. 120 Stars is doable. But it may require some practice and patience on the part of the player. I love this and find it’s a characteristic of a lot of Super Mario games, that they begin easy enough but can really pile on the difficulty when necessary.
Because of the nature of collecting the Stars, Super Mario 64 has inherent, built-in replay value. You can put it away for any length of time and then come back to it only to find that you can just pick right up where you left off. Setting the game into small, neat segments built on clearly defined goals (get a Star by doing this) makes the game easy to return to.
As the ninth game in the Super Mario franchise, Mario 64 isn’t exactly breaking new ground. Sure, the 3D was a new novelty and the open world gameplay is a huge change from the traditional fare of 8 worlds, collecting coins, switching off with Luigi, etc, etc. But it’s still Mario fighting Bowser to save the Princess. However, this was really an entirely new direction for the series. The game immediately preceding Mario 64 was Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, an amazing but dramatically different product that Mario 64.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Super Mario 64. It’s in the Top 3 Super Mario games of all time spanning three generations of consoles, so far as I’m concerned. Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES at the number one spot. Super Mario World for the SNES in second. Super Mario 64 is a close third place, for me. Each of these games are some of the best of their respective generations. I really don’t know anyone who has never played Super Mario 64 but that’s as it should be. It’s so well-beloved there are hundreds of ridiculous ripoffs and hacks out there floating around:
Why isn’t Super Mario 64 “required reading” for every gamer? You want the heart of what made Nintendo once the greatest game developer and publisher of all? Look no further than the low-poly red cap of the friendly mustachioed man. Mario laughs through his own game, like when he lands a back-flip. Even he can’t help but have a good time in Super Mario 64. Take a trip back in time to a simpler age when games were just magical fun.Aggregated Score: 9.6