By Jake Rushing
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Platform: Nintendo 64
Release Date: September 26, 1996
Genre(s): Platforming, action-adventure
Rating: K-A for Kids to Adults (updated to E for Everyone)
As one of the kids who grew up with the Nintendo 64 console and having Super Mario 64 as one of my favorite titles, Super Mario 64 is as worthy of a nostalgia nod as Banjo-Kazooie was for Marshall. As much as I felt very nostalgic playing this game for this review, I’m also giving it my professional acknowledgement, as I’m trying to be as objective as I can. Over the years after my N64 broke down, every time I thought about my years playing Nintendo 64, this is the game that I’d associate with the console more often than any other game that I owned at the time. And that’s huge considering I owned other great titles back then, like Banjo-Kazooie and the Legend of Zelda series. As soon as it was announced that SM64 was going to be re-released for the Wii U Virtual Console, I couldn’t contain my excitement, as part of my childhood was being brought back to one of the consoles I currently own, and purchased the game as soon as I could.
Granted, it might not feel the same way as putting that cartridge in the N64 console and playing with the N64 controller, but playing Super Mario 64 for the first time in years made me realize that this game is just a fantastic game on its own. I have played Super Mario 64 and beaten it to 100% completion in my earlier years more often than I have for any of the other N64 titles I owned, and for a good reason too. I feel now that it’s time to take off my nostalgia goggles and explain why this game deserves my nomination for Last Token Gaming’s Hall of Fame review.
The story starts off where Mario gets an invitation from Peach to come over to the castle and enjoy the cake that Peach baked him. Mario accepts her invitation and travels to her castle, arriving in the green fields right outside her castle. With the exception of birds chirping, the outside seems awfully quiet. Mario thinks nothing of it, as it could be a quiet day, and proceeds to her castle. Upon entering in her castle, Mario hears a familiar voice that bellows, “Welcome. No one’s home! Now scram– and don’t come back! Gwa ha ha!” Mario was startled, as it sounded very familiar to him. Slightly disturbed by that voice and dialogue, he wanders around the castle and stumbles upon a familiar face, Toad. Toad doesn’t spare a second to tell Mario that Bowser is back, and has kidnapped Peach and imprisoned her along with 120 stars. Mario decides that Bowser must be taught yet another lesson. Mario marches forward as he explores the castle, jumping in paintings to transport him to different worlds. As soon as Mario jumps in the first painting, he officially begins another quest to defeat Bowser and rescue Peach once again!
Super Mario 64 was released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64, the first Nintendo console that made the transition into 3D. Super Mario 64 also marked the first Nintendo game starring one of the company’s signature characters to make the transition from 2D to 3D. (Link and Zelda would follow suit two years later in Ocarina of Time.) Not only was Mario’s transition successful, but goddamn, his transition was rather revolutionary to all 3D platforming games that followed on what this game established. And think about this: it has been almost 19 years since this game was released to retail shelves, and it’s is still used as a benchmark for how 3D platforming games should function to this day. How can a game as retro as Super Mario 64 set the standards that modern 3D platforming games have to use? Well, I will explain the reasons in the following paragraphs on why this game was so revolutionary.
First and foremost, if anyone had the opportunity to take advantage of the controls for N64 and played Super Mario 64, they can infer that the controls were made for this game. You know that intuition that when you pick up a controller, that your first thoughts of controlling your protagonist were something along the lines of “Analog stick to move, A to Jump, B for Action/Attack, secondary control stick for camera, etc.”? Well this game was solely responsible for establishing these controls that were all mapped to our current games, as it was the first to have these kind of controls. Aside from analog stick to move, A to jump, and B to attack, Z button allowed Mario to crouch. From there, the player could make him crawl by making him move, making him do a backflip (or leap forward with some forward momentum) by pressing A, or pull off the sweet coffee grinder move by pressing B.
These controls not only helped Mario around Peach’s Castle and the worlds seamlessly; this also allowed the camera to be free roaming, as the player could use the C buttons to move the camera around as freely as the space allowed it. Side C buttons allowed the camera to move around Mario, while Up and Down C buttons moved the camera closer to and farther away from Mario, respectively. Pressing the R button allowed the camera to follow right behind Mario. Even though the camera can be a bit troublesome at times, the freedom to control the camera to the user’s content has never felt so fluid as it was originally done on N64. I will say though, the controls aren’t that shabby on the Wii U. Although if you want decent controls on a Wii U, I would recommend using any controller but the Gamepad.
It’s a no brainer that the levels themselves should be the bread and butter of the 3D platforming experience. And yet, Nintendo managed to nail the aspects of the level design that every level should have: creativity, difficulty curve, a good amount of intuition, and just enough fun factor for the player. Each stage is usually a new environment, where Mario will navigate from fields littered with Bomb-Ombs to the stage with too much lava for comfort, to the stage that enlarges or shrinks Mario, and to the innards of a working clock. Even though some themes were reused (like, for example, two snow themed levels), the design of the layouts of these levels made you feel that you weren’t necessarily playing the same level twice.
For example, one snow level puts you on a floating snow mountain with a cabin that encases a really fun slide, while another snow level puts you in a field with a colossal snowman occupying the middle of the snow field. The objectives in each level managed to differentiate one from another (with the exception of 100-coin and red coin missions in every level), which made for a really nice touch to the each level. These differentiating objectives forced the player to explore every nook and cranny, given that you’re set out to complete every objective. While it is not required to complete all of objectives to beat the game, each level is rather fun to play to the point where the objectives themselves motivate the player to complete the game as much as they can. The combination of stellar level design and flawless camera was so legendary, that it gave the player a great sense of agency, to where the player truly feels that they look at a tower ledge and believed they can make it up there with a well-timed high jump and wall jump.
Another thing that made the levels memorable was the overall difficulty curve, with each level placed perfectly along the curve depending on how far along the game the player is at. In the first area of the game, the player gets exposed to a battlefield, a snow level, a floating castle, and an underwater level, where the overall difficulty of each of them was around beginner difficulty with some minor differences among each of the levels. As the player proceeds to following areas, the difficulty curve makes a reasonable spike to show that it has reasonable expectations of the player’s skills. The later levels would get tougher, as one of the final levels has little ground for Mario to walk on and carpets to ride to where the player would have be careful to keep Mario on the carpet, or they’d have to watch Mario as he falls to his death.
The level design and controls were legendary to the point to where they’d make other aspects of this game look bad. Not to say that they’re terrible, as they are decent on their own. The graphics were pretty decent at the time of the release, to where the colors were pretty livid and the graphics didn’t look so blocky back then. However, as graphics have gotten better over the years, the graphics of Super Mario 64 show their age now. However, the color palette remains nearly as vivid, making up for the outdated graphics. It’s still not as bad, but the graphics overall just aren’t as good looking as they were in 1996. The music, on the other hand, ages better than the graphics did. It has been weeks since I finished the game, and I can’t seem to get the Bomb Omb Battlefield theme out of my head, in a good way. It’s a nice tune, and is fortunately used in other levels. The music that plays in secret missions or in sliding missions sounds just as fun as it is chaotic. Just listen to this track.
Nintendo wanted to ensure that Nintendo 64 would have a solid launch title, and it shows through their care and attention to turning Super Mario 64 into the masterpiece that it is. Here is one primary example of this: Did you know that they tested the 3D camera feature in Super Mario 64 by making the camera go through the worst possible scenario that any 3D camera can go through? Care to take a guess what it is? I’ll give you a hint: it involves the rabbit in this game. They tested the camera by having Mario chase the rabbit through the tight corridors and allowing the camera to follow Mario. The camera usually performs well in any given open area, as it is not too hard to pull off. But managing camera in tight spaces, on the other hand, ain’t the easiest thing in game development world. By having the camera follow him through the worst area possible for the 3D camera, they were able to do a lot of tuning to the camera function to the point where they don’t need to make many more adjustments to perfect the camera, which ended up being one the most vital features in today’s 3D platforming. Also, making the camera-wielding Lakitu act as the 3D camera was a nice touch.
Speaking of nice touches, adding that face manipulation mini game after the player powers on their console was a fun treat, as the players are able to morph the face of our beloved Nintendo mascot into something slightly more horrifying. Yet, at the time this game was released, this was one of the first opportunities that the players had to play around with 3D models. Back in 1996, the words “virtual”, “3D” and “model” sounded foreign to everyone when these words were put together back in the day. And yet, we never had so much fun as playing around with the virtual 3D Mario and discovering the weird and odd combinations of morphing different parts of his face, which each and every one of them turned out to have some charm, as weird and creepy as they could be. This feature alone displays the characteristic of exploration which is dominant in this game, which is what we loved (and still love) about it.
Is Super Mario 64 the best game of all time? I wouldn’t count on it. Is it the best Mario game ever? I wouldn’t say that it is. However, this game deserves a great nod from Last Token Gaming because it is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most revolutionary games to date, if not the most revolutionary. Not only because it takes the cake for being one of the best 3D platformers for the N64 console, but it became the cookie cutter template for what every 3D platforming game should be. (Red Button Entertainment, why didn’t you take notes from this when making Sonic Boom?). A lot of N64 3D platforming titles that succeeded this game became some of the most memorable titles that we all loved (like Marshall’s HOF inductee, Banjo-Kazooie) because they integrated what Super Mario 64 has successfully established.
Altogether, this game made such an impact, it indirectly made great 3D platforming titles! The foundations for what made this game a masterpiece made a ripple effect which continues on to the games of the current console generation today. Hell, it even got mentioned in some of the Game Design courses that I took during my school years at UC Santa Cruz for giving players a lot of agency! If you own a Nintendo 64 (or a Wii U) console and you don’t have this game in your library, I honestly can’t figure out what is wrong with you.
Original commercial for the game: