Super Mario 64 is one of those grand feats that at the time when it was performed already seemed to be a pretty big deal, but that in hindsight looks a whole lot like the material of some sort of legend that is too absurd to be true
As refreshing or as groundbreaking as some games may be, not many of them can claim to have marked the beginning of an era. From a purely practical standpoint, Super Mario 64 is leagues away from having been the first tridimensional title to hit the market. Firstly, because during the generations of consoles that preceded the coming of the plumber’s 3-D debut, developers had already conducted a number of experiments in that realm, with some of them yielding good results. Secondly, because inside the generation of platforms that included the Nintendo 64 itself, one can find dozens of examples of efforts that, coming out up to a couple of years before Super Mario 64, took advantage of the fact that, at long last, the technology to effectively reproduce tridimensional spaces was massively available.
Yet, despite not being the first polygonal creation to materialize or to please a large crowd, Super Mario 64 has, firmly attached to it, the perception that it is some sort of big bang for 3-D gaming; the point to which all adventures that happen in that perspective – whether they are role-playing quests, open world extravaganzas, or anything in between – would converge if one was to travel back in time in an attempt to figure out where it all came from.
The existence of such notion can, of course, be attributed to Mario himself. After all, long before Super Mario 64, the character was already a major force in the gaming market, with major releases starring his unmistakable mustache always serving as fantastic showcases of excellent design and as displays of significant new features. As such, it is only natural that his initial venture into 3-D would call more attention and feel of greater importance than those containing other protagonists.
However, accepting that narrative as the sole explanation to why Super Mario 64 is occasionally seen as the gaming equivalent of the first color film is overlooking the most important part of the achievement that it represents. After all, being the big launch title of the first Nintendo console to produce tridimensional scenarios without any sort of technical trickery would have done it little to no good had it come off as a poor representation of what the Super Mario franchise has always been about: sheer straightforward fun. And given the success of the game can still be felt resonantly through time and space, it is needless to say that it fits that description just right.
Super Mario 64 starts when the hero gets a letter from Princess Peach, who invites him over to her castle in order to have a piece of cake. Out of everything that takes place in the game before players are able to control Mario, that invitation is – however – the least important event of the bunch, as it is outranked by two far more impressive scenes.
The first, preceding even the selection of a game file, is that of the plumber’s face, in all its polygonal glory, appearing on screen and taking up most of the visible space; more than an introduction to the character’s greatly revamped look, it is a welcoming sight from the world of 3-D, allowing gamers to get in touch with the new dimension by playing around with Mario’s facial features.
The second, meanwhile, triggered after Peach’s invitation has been recited, is a series of swooping first-person camera shots of the castle grounds that let players – then accustomed with the left-to-right ways of sidescrollers – absorb the wide open nature of 3-D before zooming in on an emerging pipe from which Mario pops out. After doing so, he will quickly learn that even though the perspective has changed, Bowser has not abandoned his habit of disturbing peace, for the villain has once more kidnapped Peach and taken her to the highest tower of her home.
With a new perspective in place and a need to take advantage of the freedom found in a scenario that expands in all possible directions, it is only natural that Super Mario 64 give the plumber a whole new set of abilities. Punching and kicking are introduced as easier ways to deal with foes in a 3-D environment. However, jumping is, of course, still Mario’s bread-and-butter and the adventure sees the character gain stunning athleticism, as other than performing a standard jump, Mario can execute a double jump, a triple jump, aerial backwards and sideways somersaults, a wall jump, a ground or midair dive, a long jump, and a ground pound.
It is, unquestionably, a lot to take in, but the game – in a delightfully hands-off approach – guides players’ learning of those moves by providing plenty of signs, scattered around the exterior of the castle, with clear instructions on how to perform them. And as a testament to how Nintendo absolutely nailed the set of jumping skills given to the character right on their first attempt, not only are all of those maneuvers intuitive to perform and absolutely necessary when it is time to explore the world, but they have also been used – without any significant alterations – as the basis of the various Mario platformers that would follow, even if the ease with which the wall jump and the sideways somersault can be pulled off has been, for the better, tweaked since then, as in Super Mario 64 they can sometimes be inconsistent.
As far as controls go, though, the stars of the show are certainly the analog stick and the camera. The first, allowing freedom of movement in a tridimensional space, gave players the power to not just go into any direction they wanted, but also move at different speeds according to the applied pressure. The second, controlled with the four yellow arrows of the joystick, was such an incredible novelty that the lenses through which the action is seen are treated as a character, for it is Lakitu – the turtle flying on a cloud that was often a mighty nemesis in Mario’s sidescrolling quests – that is responsible for carrying it around while looking for the best possible angle.
In that last regard, Super Mario 64 often clicks, for Lakitu is frequently effective in framing the scene just right, and when the reptile fails, gamers can adjust it as they wish. Nonetheless, given camera problems still appear punctually even in the most well-produced games of eras when 3-D was far from being new, it goes without saying that Super Mario 64 has eventual camera issues. It can get stuck at weird, or even downright broken, angles; and it can, whether due to visible walls or unseen reasons, refuse to move towards directions that would have been ideal for what one is trying to do. Still, even if they do annoy, these hiccups are not present enough to considerably harm the adventure, and the camera work pulled off by Nintendo here is, considering the context, very well done.
If in camera and in the control of a very small portion of its movements Super Mario 64 was not yet fully mature, the same cannot be said about the brilliant way in which the game is structured. Peach’s castle serves as an effective hub; one that is small enough not to be cumbersome, but sufficiently big to house plenty of secrets and instances of smart design. And the game’s fifteen worlds are, with a couple of exceptions, accessed through paintings scattered around the halls of the place.
Where in the 2-D Super Mario games the worlds were nothing but the unified scenario where a handful of independent stages happened, Super Mario 64 abandons that notion for something far more suitable for the 3-D realm. Worlds are, instead, wide open spaces that players can explore as they see fit. In them, rather than looking for some sort of exit to the next level, Mario chases down collectible stars that are hidden in the environment. Upon grabbing one of them, the character pops out of the painting, saves the achieved progress, and gamers can choose whether they want to go back into that same world or look around Peach’s castle for a new sort of challenge.
It is, by all means, a format that has been so reused that it has become clichéd, but that repetition speaks loudly about the kind of gold that Super Mario 64 struck. When translating the simplicity of a sidescrolling platformer to a universe considerably different from the one seen in those flat adventures, Nintendo was forced to reinvent the core of the genre without destroying its essence. And through a mixture of experience, intuition, and experimentation, they achieved not only that, but also the creation of a very effective framework that would go on to be copied over and over again due to its numerous qualities.
Super Mario 64 is delightful because even though all worlds hold six standard stars and a secret one that is unlocked when 100 coins are collected, players are – most of the times – free to look for them in any order they want to. Surely, upon entering a painting, gamers will only have access to a single helpful brief textual clue regarding one of the stars that has yet to be acquired, but – thriving in the recently discovered vastness of its worlds – the game lets them ignore the advice and do whatever they see fit if they feel like it. Moreover, Super Mario 64 is absurdly welcoming to all kinds of players because to clear the game one does not need to get all of its 120 stars, once more gracing those that walk into it with alluring freedom that lets them carve their own path through the quest.
The game achieves that last quality in two ways. Firstly, by generally locking the doors of the rooms where the paintings lie with a certain threshold of stars, and that number usually ranges between being low enough to be comfortable to newcomers and high enough to require that a decent percentage of the previous worlds be cleared. And as a pleasant side-effect of that configuration, at any point in time, it is a given that players will be able to switch between a handful worlds in case they get bored or get stuck in a particular challenge.
Secondly, as a whole, the castle is divided into three distinct areas, each one housing a certain number of paintings, and in order to advance to the next set of worlds, Mario must go through a stage in which his goal will be surviving an onslaught of obstacles and reaching a room where he will fight a battle against Bowser. Given the entrances to those special levels are also only opened once a specific number of stars are collected, the game guarantees that gamers can only move forward if they have a respectable – yet universally manageable – completion rate.
That greatness in structure as well as the overall solidity of camera and controls would not, however, amount to much had Super Mario 64 faltered in relation to content. Fortunately, though, as its resounding legacy indicates, that is far from being the case. Across thematically varied scenarios, which include familiar sights (like a desert, a snow-covered mountain, and underwater locations) and new additions to the franchise’s palette (like the interior of a clock), players will encounter a perfect translation of the plumber’s sidescrolling antics to the 3-D world.
Since exploration is necessary, gameplay certainly feels different: rather than being a linear chain of obstacles, the worlds of Super Mario 64 often come off as if those sequences of pits, enemies, platforms, and traps were broken apart and rearranged around a wider space. Yet, it all remains very recognizable, whether because foes and pitfalls that were popular in 2-D were brought over with style to 3-D, or because when stripped to its bare bones, Super Mario 64 is still essentially centered around the execution of jumps, with the squashing of Goombas and the dashing below Thwomps appearing every now and then.
Like most major entries in the franchise, Super Mario 64 finds stunning variety inside the simple scope in which it operates. As such, through the 120 challenges it holds, the game never stops being entertaining. Some stars are acquired after tight sequences of jumps that would have been right at home in Super Mario World; others, meanwhile, require beating bosses, going down slides, winning races, collecting eight smartly positioned red coins, climbing mountains, finding secret spots that are – in a couple of cases – a bit too obscure for their own good, clearing toxic and icy mazes, changing the water level, reuniting a young penguin with his mother, dealing with both gigantic and tiny foes, executing stunning acrobatics, using Koopa shells like awesome surfboards, blasting Mario out of canons, swimming with eels, and more.
There are punctual annoyances that can be cited. Since worlds have no checkpoints, some tough platforming segments can become frustrating due to how they lead to big losses of progress if Mario falls to his death or from a tall structure. Similarly, worlds that are more linearly structured, such as the final one, hold the annoyance of forcing players to repeat the initial segment multiple times as they go after different stars or re-enter the world after losing a life. Finally, the three power-ups the game presents – the vanish cap for moving through walls, the metal cap for walking underwater, and the wing cap for flying – feel somewhat underused, as they only come into play in a handful of stars.
None of those, though, come close to harming the experience provided by Super Mario 64. It is unquestionable that some – or perhaps even all – of the 3-D games of the franchise that followed were able to surpass this initial foray into the tridimensional realm via a greater level of polish and an augmented understanding of the possibilities, strengths, and weaknesses found in the gameplay format.
They look better; have tighter controls; offer superior camera work; and pack even more variety. Still, Super Mario 64 stands; not just as the generally perceived ground zero for 3-D gaming, but also as a title that is – even out of that context – fun and universally recommendable.
Those who will be satisfied with collecting the bare minimum number of stars to reach the ending ought to spend about ten hours with the game, but those striving for full completion will easily double that number and also quadruple the magnitude of challenge that will be encountered. And they will take that trip accompanied by visuals that, although not even among the best in its own platform, are still respectable; and a soundtrack worthy of the Super Mario brand, with unforgettable tunes that finely encompass feelings of joy, melancholy, and danger.
More than its impressive durability, the most stunning component of Super Mario 64 is certainly its almost otherworldly accuracy. Because even though plenty of ventures into 3-D gaming had been executed before its release, Nintendo went into the title’s development cycle with little to no examples to look up to. The transplant of an established and highly popular gameplay format from the world of two dimensions in which it had so greatly thrived to the then mostly unexplored universe of three dimensions had no blueprint, no instruction booklet, and no materialized result of considerable value.
The company headed into uncharted territory and rather than coming out of it with an experience that was enjoyable yet immature, as it would have been expected, they emerged out of the fog of the unknown with a gem so polished and fully developed that its controls, structure, and content would, more than serve as the base to everything that was to come, be copied and pasted multiple times across more than a decade. It is one of those grand feats that at the time when it was performed already seemed to be a pretty big deal, but that in hindsight looks a whole lot like the material of some sort of legend that is too absurd to be true. Yet, Super Mario 64 exists as proof that it happened, and, to top it all off, it remains as purely fun as it was upon release.