Super Mario 64 (1996)

Super Mario 64 is one of the most influential games of all time. It may not technically be the first 3D game created, but it certainly began the trend that would dominate the industry for decades. Nearly twenty-five years later, does this cornerstone of gaming history still hold up? The short answer: somewhat. There are certain aspects of Super Mario 64 that I wish its successors adopted, but there are bound to be some age-related issues. As gaming has progressed through the years, we have become accustomed to certain trends.

One more modern trend that I glad Super Mario 64 was not subject to was on overly lengthy tutorial. The absolute worst part of any game is the painful amount of time spent reading text on how to play and trying to decipher all of the games intricate systems. I prefer a more natural learning curve, let the player figure it out on their own. Super Mario 64 does just that, it provides a couple paragraph textbox that tells you what each button does, then it lets you jump right into the game. The exterior of Peach’s Castle serves as a playground for the player to become accustomed to running and jumping around in 3D space, something that was probably very new to anybody playing this game on release. This lack of handholding is also wonderful for players who are already familiar with the control scheme, as it lets you jump right into the game without going through a lengthy tutorial.

The premise of Super Mario 64 is the same of any other Super Mario game: run and jump around some obstacles to beat levels, and eventually face off with Bowser to save Princess Peach. What made Super Mario 64 so revolutionary was that it was in 3D, which is a technology that not many games had utilized previously. Not only was the game in 3D, but it made major strides to make movement in a 3-dimensional space feel fluid, natural, and fun. Compared to its contemporaries, Super Mario 64 was extraordinary when it came to just controlling the main character. The development team spent a ton of time fine-tuning Mario’s speed, momentum, weight, and mobility options. The end result is that just the act of running and jumping around is fun, rather than the cumbersome nightmare that many other games from the early 3D era are.

The hub of Super Mario 64 is one of the most memorable in all of gaming. Peach’s Castle contains portraits which the player can jump into to access the individual worlds. There are plenty of secrets scattered throughout the castle for the player to uncover. Each world contains seven levels, each rewarding a star. As you collect more stars, you can access more parts of the castle. Levels can be a variety of challenges, ranging from straightforward platforming gauntlets to boss battles to collecting 100 coins. My favorite feature in Super Mario 64 that is absent in its successors is that you can collect the stars in whatever order that you like. Once you enter a world, all the stars are available to be discovered. It’s up to the player to figure out where each star is and how to reach it.

Most of my issues with Super Mario 64 are a result of the game’s age. While the controls were revolutionary at the time, they can be a bit tricky to get used to compared to more modern 3D platformers. Mario is a bit slippery, and his momentum can often get you into trouble. One thing that I never figured out was simply turning around. Sometimes, when turning around Mario will just instantly face in the direction you point, which feels natural. Other times, he does a weird 180-degree rotation that often got me killed. When I’m facing a ledge and want to turn around, the last thing I want to happen is for Mario to move forward and then right to complete his turnaround. Lastly, the slopes in this game are absolutely brutal. If you do as much as come into contact with a slope, be prepared to start slipping and sliding away for what feels like an eternity.

Some other issues I assume are due to technical limitations. Every world has a star in which the player must hunt down and collect 100 coins. The problem is that regular coins have an awful draw distance, meaning you can’t see them if you are more than a few meters away. It can be frustrating to find coins when you can’t even see them unless you are close enough. As an early 3D game, Super Mario 64 is a bit ugly truthfully. Some of the game’s worlds and obstacles lack character. There are lots of big grey rectangular concrete platforms. Many areas just seem contrived, like they were solely made to be platforms to be jumped on rather than a coherent world. I appreciate the more natural environments of this game’s successors.

By far and away the largest issue with Super Mario 64 was its camera. While having camera that the player can rotate in 3D space was absolutely brilliant at the time, the technology was obviously in its infancy. I grew infinitely frustrated with how the camera would often get stuck in unsatisfactory angles, or it would refuse to rotate when I needed it to. Many jumps became orders of magnitude more difficult simply because the camera was in an awful position. Again, it’s hard to fault the game too much as this was brand new technology. Nevertheless, people who have never played this game before will inevitably struggle with the camera.

Truthfully, I never played Super Mario 64 in its heyday. In fact, the game is a few days older than I am. By the time I played Super Mario 64, all of its groundbreaking design ideas just became standard throughout the industry. In all honesty, Super Mario 64 is probably the least enjoyable 3D Super Mario game for me to play. The wonky camera, occasionally slippery controls, and a few boring environments made it so I was often wishing to play the game’s successors instead. Yet as I revisited the series as a whole, I found myself appreciating Super Mario 64.

The fact that each world was an unchanging arena in which the player could discover stars in any order is something that I found myself longing for in the other Super Mario titles. The sense of discovery and exploration was something that wasn’t matched until Super Mario Odyssey. Not to mention that Peach’s Castle is a magnificent hub, which seems to be a relic in the series now. Only Super Mario Sunshine had a comparable hub to hangout in. I vastly prefer the open-ended mission structure in Super Mario 64 over the more railroaded linear levels in Super Mario Galaxy. The game just feels like a genuine adventure. You visit themed worlds and explore them to collect stars and save Princess Peach. There is no fluff, there is no filler, it’s just pure fun.

Overall, if you grew up with Super Mario 64 it is definitely worth a revisit for nostalgia’s sake. Even if you’ve never played it, I do recommend giving it a shot just to experience it. Super Mario 64 may be outshone by more modern games on a technical level, but there is a level of care and effort put into the game that is difficult to describe. It’s obvious why this game was so revolutionary, and many modern games could learn a thing or two from Super Mario 64.

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