I remember walking into my local Toys ‘R Us and gazing upon the Nintendo 64 demo station. The console was a thing of beauty. The blocky molds of its predecessors were tossed in favor of curves and waves. Toy-like colors were abandoned for a sophisticated dark gray. The controller was… well, odd, but it worked well enough, and the moment I wrapped my hand around the center handle, Mario himself beckoned me to, “Press start to play!” So I did, and was given free rein over Mario in his new three dimensional environment.
And thus, my life was changed forever… and that’s not hyperbole, either. As my first experience outside of traditional 2D gaming, it remains the staple in which I compare all exploratory games to. Sony may have beat Nintendo to the punch with the Playstation, but because they failed to incorporate something that produced a RANGE of motion, many of their early games felt a little awkward. But Nintendo? They had the foresight to include precision in their gamepad, and as a result, Super Mario 64 was a product that changed gaming forever.
But how does it hold up today?
This comes as no surprise, but there’s very little in the way of plot. Bowser has once again kidnapped Princess Peach – previously known as Princess Toadstool – leaving Mario to charge into the castle and collect a bunch of power stars. After enough has been collected, he’ll kick King Koopa’s butt and rescue the damsel in distress.
No, it isn’t Shakespeare. But hey, when it comes to Mario, nobody cares about substantial plotlines or character depth. Hell, 2015 marks the franchise’s 30th anniversary, and we STILL don’t know how Mario and his brother entered the Mushroom Kingdom… and it’s better off that way. Trust me. I mean, let’s gain a little perspective, here:
Mario Bros.: Not to be mistaken with Super Mario Bros., a multitude of creatures invade OUR world, and it’s up to our favorite plumbing duo to stop them. That’s right! The Mushroom Kingdom never even entered the equation!
Super Mario World 2 – Yoshi’s Island: As babies, Mario and Luigi were delivered to Yoshis by way of stork.
Super Mario Bros. Super Show: The brothers accidentally pipe-warp to the Mushroom Kingdom during a routine plumbing call in Brooklyn.
Super Mario Bros. Movie (I apologize in advance, because your brain is going to hurt after being subjected to this nonsense): Mario Mario and Luigi Mario (the hell?) follow the kidnapped Princess Daisy (who?) through an interdimensional portal. Which leads them to, uh, Dinohattan. A city suffocated by fungus. And ruled by Dennis Hopper with a notoriously bad haircut.
Point is, creative staff have never cared about telling a story that’s worth a damn, so the quality of this game rests squarely on the shoulders of its gameplay… and that’s a tall order to fill. Even more so when those mechanics are analyzed through a 19 year old lens.
Now I’ll probably get flambéed for saying this, but when it comes to gameplay, Super Mario 64 is tops. It isn’t perfect, but strikes such a fine balance between accessibility and challenge, that virtually anyone can play and walk away satisfied.
My son, for example? Beat this game at the age of 3. He was only able to pull off the basics – walking, running, jumping, punching, etc. – but it was enough for him to finish the core experience.
His journey began by practicing in Bob-Omb Battlefield – the first stage in the game – and inevitably worked his way up the mountain to find King Bob-Omb. Intimidated by the size of his foe, my son decided to run and fight another day. But with a bit more practice and encouragement, it wasn’t long before he stood atop that mountain victorious… and with that, the floodgates had been opened. Next thing I knew, he was butt-stomping bad guys, racing penguins and koopas, swimming after eels, evading the jaws of piranha plants and spinning Bowser by the tail. It took some months before he saw the end credits, but he got there.
This obviously begs the question, if the game if easy enough for a 3 year old, where does the fun for adults come into play?
Well, just because a kid can beat the game, doesn’t mean there isn’t challenge to be had. While 70 power stars are required for your final confrontation against Bowser, an additional 50 wait in the castle’s wings for nail-biting completionists. In order to get them, you’ll need to reach new levels of mustachioed plumber controlling mastery. This often means threading the needle of time while combining a series of triple-jumps and wall-kicks. Fortunately, the devs were able to make Mario feel like an extension of the controller, meaning he’ll do what you say, when you say it. There’s no ‘sliding’ or ‘floating’ to get accustomed to here. If you need to pivot on a dime, land on the tiniest of platforms, or circle an enemy at top speed in close proximity, it can be done. If you mess up, you’ll pin the blame on yourself as opposed to the game.
Most of the time.
Some tasks can be a real chore to execute. For some reason, the devs felt they needed to justify the existence of a third-person camera, so they gave one to Lakitu that dangles from a fishing pole. It’s a cute idea but poorly executed. The ‘cameraman’ isn’t allowed to clip through walls, and this leaves the player to, at times, deal with angles that are awkward-to-unaccommodating. Certainly not ideal, but there’s little choice but to grin your teeth and bare it. Don’t get me wrong, a majority of the predetermined angles worked in my favor, but I’ve found myself having to manually adjust the camera – while it fights me, no less – more often than I’d like. It’s odd they’d allow the camera to be the compromising factor in regards to movement, especially with so much effort put into making Mario control so gracefully.
Now, let’s talk about about the stuff that hasn’t been treated kindly by the passage of time.
Like most other games in the franchise, some new power-ups have been introduced in an attempt to keep things interesting. The colored switch blocks return, this time providing special caps which allow Mario to vanish, fly, or turn into metal, and all three are fun to mess around with. I mean, rising above the land with the winged cap proves to be absolutely breathtaking. Metal Mario is the N64’s answer to ‘star power’, and it’s one of the coolest things you’ll lay eyes upon throughout the game. The concept behind ‘vanished’ Mario is tantalizing but… well, it’s a painful reminder that none of these power-ups live up to their potential. Yeah, flying is fun, but not when it counts. Collecting coins in the sky – which is mandatory if you want all 120 stars – is difficult because of the N64’s limited draw distance. You won’t see the coins until you’re practically on top of them, and by then it’s too late to compensate your flight path. Also, the metal and vanishing caps are so sparingly used, and unimaginatively at that. The sad reality is that NONE of these caps justify their existence. In the franchise overall, it’s easy to make arguments for Fire Flowers, Super Leafs, Cape Feathers, Propeller Mushrooms and much, much more… but these caps are just weak.
Another thing that shows its age? Level design. Simply put, Mario 64 is at its best when we’re able to explore cohesive sandboxes, but those worlds are few-and-far between. Some stages appear to float in a skybox for no good reason. Others felt like their integrity had been sacrificed for trickier platforming. Fortunately, these issues don’t detract from the game’s overall fun factor, but in 2015, they stick out like a sore thumb.
But hey, I understand the development team – which was smaller than what we’re used to seeing for AAA games today – had to overcome a steep learning curve. Without any 3D ‘templates’ to draw inspiration from, they had little choice but to step up and become the pioneers. So, to a certain extent, I’m able to excuse design flaws which stem from an attempt to balance experimentation with progression, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
A lot of folks want to look at the PS/N64 era through rose colored glasses, but why should anyone kid themselves? Most of the games that are regarded as true classics have a slew of both technical and design flaws, and again, it’s because developers were experimenting with new technology in the home console market. Bring any game you want to this table for discussion – Spyro The Dragon, Banjo-Kazooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Donkey Kong 64, Rayman 2, Croc, etc. – and most exhibit the same ‘generational transition’ growing pains.
That while Super Mario 64 wasn’t perfect, I can’t think of a single game from that time period that was. Some were certainly better than others, but very few managed to balance the same favorable mix of enjoyable gameplay, accessibility, challenge, or fun, as Super Mario 64 did… and that says a lot, considering this game was the first of its kind.
So, with all that taken into consideration, how does a seasoned gamer such as myself feel about this title nearly two decades after the fact? To be honest, it’s never been my ‘go to’ when people ask what my favorite game of all time is… but it has, without question, been the most replayed. I tackle it once, sometimes twice a year, and doubt I’ll ever get bored of it. Flawed as it may be, it’s still one of the most fun games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. There’s something almost magical in the game’s overall presentation, between its finely tuned core mechanics, vibrant sandboxes lush with primary colors, not to mention the memorable sound and musical cues. I know, I know… I just went on for paragraphs about all the things that Mario 64 doesn’t get right, but maybe that’s part of a larger commentary we should all think about individually. The current climate in this industry encourages gamers to expect nothing less than perfection, but perhaps we should remember just how fun a deeply flawed game from yesteryear can be, too. I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to focusing on the negative, but video games weren’t always the flawless entities we remember them to be.
In short, if you’ve missed this gem the first time around for whatever reason, and can allow yourself to play a game for fun as opposed to technical greatness (even though this game was quite the achievement at the time of its release), then Super Mario 64 just might be the adventure you, and your family, have been waiting for.