Nintendo SIXTY-FOOOOOUUURRRR! I was there, and I was hyped. Games were going to be in three dimensions! Controls were going to be analog! There was going to be sixty-four bits! And most importantly, Mario was back and bigger than ever.
It was 1996. We were entering another console war. Only this time, it was Nintendo vs. a newcomer – the company that made your VCR and Discman. At one time, these two entities were working together; the Nintendo Playstation was being developed. Of course, kids didn’t know anything about that back then. That’s some deep-level nerd shit that we learn later. It’s not even important to the story – I’m just setting the scene.
This was the 5th generation of video game consoles. For most kids my age, it was the 3rd or 4th (4th for me). This generation was special – it had a solid gimmick that clearly made it stand out. The 5th generation was the 3D generation. The NES and SNES used 3D as a buzzword when a game used isometric angles, pre-rendered sprites, or Mode7 to simulate a world with a y-axis, but we weren’t fooled. We prayed for the day we’d be immersed in glorious polygons and we got it with the ’64, the ‘station, and the ‘Saturn.
Okay, I never had a Sega Saturn. I’m adding it to my bucket list. Alright, no more tangents. I promise.
Super Mario 64 was the showcase launch title for the Nintendo 64. I mean, you have to launch a Nintendo console with Mario… except they haven’t really done that since, except for the Nintendo DS, where they launched it with… *checks notes* Super Mario 64 DS.
Super Mario 64 was a milestone. It was the first 3D Mario game. It was the first mainline release where Mario was given a voice. Nintendo had to change the formula and develop a whole lot of new rules and standards with the hopes that they worked with players.
The hype train for the Nintendo 64 and the first 3D Super Mario game hit young Lynk hard. I read this magazine cover to cover several times.
It covered more than Super Mario 64, it showed off other launch titles like Pilotwings 64 and Waverace 64. It spoke of Mario 64 like it was a work of art, comparing the animation to a Saturday morning cartoon, and the level of freedom is “more extensively perhaps than any other game we’ve seen.” This magazine was my grail diary to prepare me for this new generation of gaming, and it gushed over the glorious future that I was only a few months away from. The wait for the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 seemed like a lifetime.
Little did I know that my mom, who despises and refuses to understand video games to the greatest extent possible, fought through torrid crowds at 7 am at our local Wal-mart on the day the Nintendo 64 was released. She was accompanied by my friend C.J.’s mom. I imagine the two of them separated the teeth from other rowdy parents that chilly October morning in order to claim a console for their beloved children.
C.J. didn’t have to wait until Christmas. C.J.’s mom ruled extra hard. I was a little shit about waiting until Christmas, but the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 finally came.
I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who was hyped for the occasion.
Upon booting up the game, you hear, for the first time, Mario’s canonical voice. “It’s a-me! Mario!” No longer the gruff Italian plumber voiced by Lou Albano from the cartoons, or Bob Hoskins from the Super Mario Bros. Movie. Instead, Mario was cheerful and flamboyant. Flamboyantly Italian. Flamtalian? Flambalian? Italoyant? But also kind of like Mickey Mouse? I loved it.
Nintendo loves making you buy their games more than once, and I’m happy to feed that beast, so Super Mario 64 was included in the recently released Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection. I’ve surely played every commercial release of Super Mario 64 (I’ll add that to my dating profile later) but I’m reviewing the game with the All-Stars iteration stamped fresh onto the surface of my brain.
I completed the Nintendo 64 version early on in the pandemic, so you can trust I’m not corrupted by some new version of the game. They didn’t even bother to fix a famous typo in the game for the All-Stars collection, so I can assure you, most people won’t notice a difference. The All-Stars version is essentially the Nintendo 64 version of the game running at a higher resolution. It’s not the same exact rendition I played in 1996. Highly technical speedrunners will glitch through the walls of my house to shiv me in my sleep if I don’t at least mention this. For most of the rest of us though, this new release feels fine.
What I’m trying to say is that you can certainly get your original Super Mario 64 experience from Super Mario 3D All-Stars, provided that you purchase the game before Nintendo takes it off the shelves on March 31, 2021. I’m not even going to get into that. I promised no more tangents.
I mean, it’s a mainline Super Mario game. Shigeru Miyamoto’s main focus for Mario has always been to make it fun. Super Mario 64 brings a whole new level of playfulness, to the series. Super Mario 64 isn’t a Mario game with an added third dimension – instead, it explores just what a 3D game could offer and tries to solve some very complex complications in fun and interesting ways.
I see three major principals working in tandem here; challenges that Nintendo needed to come up with solutions for:
- Movement and Controls
- The Camera
- Making a World Worth Exploring
Movement and Controls
Obviously, with the addition of the y-axis, Mario doesn’t just move left and right. He’s now able to scamper around in whatever direction you tilt the stick. Since the Nintendo 64 uses an analog stick (something most households haven’t seen since the Atari 5200), the distance that you tilt the stick also decides how fast or slow Mario moves. Tilting a little causes Mario to slowly walk or tiptoe, and tilting all the way sends him sprinting. It takes practice to turn a concept like that into muscle memory, but it’s something that most games across a wide variety of genres have been using since. To this day, when a game doesn’t allow you to control movement speed based on how far you tilt the stick, it feels lazy.
Movement in Super Mario 64 is a lot of fun. Mario is quick to respond and lateral movement is extremely fluid. This becomes a bit of a curse in certain parts of the game when you want to carefully march Mario across a narrow bridge, but you will almost always have to blame your own thumb, not the game itself. Oh, or the camera. We’ll get to the camera.
This time, Mario comes with a whole assortment of moves, ranging from punches and kicks to somersaults to belly-dives. You mostly manage Mario’s move set with two buttons; one button jumps, the other attacks. All of Mario’s moves differ depending on what he’s doing or how he’s moving at the time. Standing still and hitting the attack button punches, but if you press it while running, Mario will dive forward and slide on his belly. Press the attack button while in the air and Mario will kick, and gain just a tiny bit of altitude. If he’s in the air while moving quickly, he’ll resort to the dive.
Add the Z-button, which was the trigger underneath the Nintendo 64 controller, and Mario crouches. This also acts almost as a shift-key, giving you another entire set of moves while holding it. Attack while crouching and Mario will perform some sort of roundhouse kick, but jumping while crouching gives you a high-altitude backflip unless you are running, in which case it’s a long jump.
Most moves have their own unique “ya-ha” or “whoopee” giving the player an audio cue to associate with it. This additional sensory element helps players learn the movements. I’m no psychologist but it probably helps with the muscle-memory side of the brain.
If Super Mario 64 just took the same basic idea as all of the previous Super Mario games – running through the level until you get to the goal, all of these moves would be wasted. To take advantage of 3-dimensional areas to explore, Nintendo changed the core tenets of Super Mario this time around.
Instead of simply making it to the end, each stage instead has seven stars hidden within. Many stars can be gathered at any time, in any order. Occasionally, a star can only be found when you select that star on the menu that comes up when you enter a world. This sounds really confusing, but the game does a great job showing you how to anticipate this, because the first two stars work this way, and if a level does pull something like that on you, it’s only done so on the first star it tells you to find.
I made this sound way more complicated than it really is, so let me try again.
In Super Mario 64, you play as Mario. You have to find stars. There are 15 stages and each stage has seven stars. There are also 15 hidden secret stars, for a total of 120 stars. Your job is to collect stars so you can make your way through the castle, defeat Bowser, and save the Princess.
The bane of all 3-D platforming games, the camera was a major concern during the development of Super Mario 64. When I mention the camera, what I’m referring to the player’s point of view. The reason we call it a camera is because Super Mario 64 actually treats your perspective like a camera, and calls it such. To explain how to control the camera, the game plays it off as if Mario is being filmed during his adventure.
In fact, later on in the game, you come across a large room with a mirror that lets you see this in action. It’s an amazing detail and something that I feel didn’t get enough credit at the time, nor gets enough credit today.
Super Mario 64’s camera system is far from perfect. It’s a little cumbersome, and it will take some time for new players. Modern players will hate it even more because over the years developers have gotten much better at camera controls.
In Super Mario 64, you have limited control over the camera. On the Nintendo 64, there were four yellow directional buttons called the C-buttons. Left and Right would pan the camera around Mario, unless there was something in the camera’s way, in which case the camera would buzz and not pan. You could also zoom in and out. Since these were just digital buttons, the camera would snap from one position to the next, as opposed to giving you finite control. You could also zoom in and put the camera right behind Mario’s head, which would stop him from moving, and just allow you to look around.
A tap of the shoulder button would toggle you into “Mario mode” where the camera would get right up behind Mario. It was pretty hard to do anything at such a tight angle, but I remember really enjoying running around and playing through portions of the game like this. Mario mode made it a little easier to handle more precarious situations like narrow bridges, as often the other camera mode would struggle to stay fixed and make it easy for you to veer off a ledge.
Yes, you fight the camera quite a bit. It wasn’t perfect, but it solved some very major challenges that made it workable while still giving players a lot of control over it. Future platform games would continue to perfect what Super Mario 64 laid out.
The camera was critical too – if the camera was fixed, it would reduce the incentive to explore. If the camera were always stuck right behind Mario, it would have majorly limited what you could do. Treating the camera as a separate entity introduced players to a new way of interacting with games.
Making a World Worth Exploring
Nintendo was not new to enticing users to explore when they developed Super Mario 64. Some of their biggest games were wrapped around the concept of exploration. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and even to some extent, earlier Super Mario games all rewarded players when they would take their time and look for secrets, alternative paths, and other things to discover.
Super Mario 64 does this by making the main objective require exploration. When you enter a stage, you are given a title for the star you should try to find. These titles are pretty vague, like “Big Bob-omb on the Summit,” “Can the Eel Come Out to Play,” and “Stand Tall on the Four Pillars.” It’s your job to figure out what the game is asking you to do. Most of the time, it only takes a minute or two to grab any particular star once you know what to do.
Often, while trying to complete objectives, you’ll see other stars and locations to visit. You have the option to diverge from your quest and explore at any time, and you can always jump back into the stage for the next star and check out areas you jogged past. The levels are simple, but designed in a way that keeps you looking around. There are stars that require you to hunt down eight red coins in a stage, and each stage gives you a star if you collect 100 coins, so you essentially need to gradually learn where everything is in order to get all the stars.
The game opens with letter from the princess inviting Mario over to the castle for cake. Of course, there’s no princess, and most importantly, no cake. Spoiler alert, she hadn’t baked a cake for you, but does bake one after you rescue her.
You learn that you have to collect stars in order to make your way through the castle so you can defeat Bowser. It’s that simple.
You don’t need anything else for a good Mario game.
Super Mario 64 doesn’t look realistic. It’s not using ray-tracing or real-time lighting or 4k textures. That said, Super Mario 64 is still playable today, and the visuals are clear and understandable.
The game probably wouldn’t benefit from a graphical remaster either. Nintendo could polish up the textures and increase the draw distance, but the stages are simple polygonal worlds. Adding extra geometry and visual elements would actually be a disservice.
My only real gripe is Mario’s character model (okay, most of the character models in the game are a little sketch, and look like they belong in a Dire Straits music video). Mario’s model is blocky, and each part of him moves about as if the other parts weren’t there. It doesn’t deter from the gameplay, and Mario’s animation is smooth, but looking closely at Mario’s leg joints is the stuff of nightmares. This seems to be pretty common for most of the earlier titles on the Nintendo 64, so it’s mostly excusable for the era.
It’s clear that Nintendo’s developers were new to polygons, as the modern-day modding community has done wonders with Super Mario 64, revamping the visuals bit by bit, while still allowing the game to run on original hardware.
Super Mario 64’s soundtrack goes from energetic and jazzy to somber and relaxing. There aren’t a lot of tracks in the game, so expect levels to repeat the same music. It’s fun that the snow levels have a more Christmas-y version of the main level theme song. It’s fun that the underground stages use a variation of the original Super Mario Bros. underground tune. The music that accompanies Jolly Rodger’s Bay and Dire, Dire Docs is beautiful, and most probably won’t notice the subtle changes in the music as you dive deeper into the level.
The music in the game was created by none other than Koji Kondo, and it’s a lot of fun to see him take totally new approaches to the Mario score as the series progresses.
I’ve said the word fun a lot. That should tell you a lot about this game.
The rest of the audio is fine. Sound effects are pretty standard. Mario’s voice clips are famously compressed, so the world has been debating whether or not he says “So Long, Gay Bowser” when hurling his nemesis off his throne. Young Lynk remembers each stage starting with Mario (or possibly some other random guy) saying “The Pickle,” but Nintendo intended on us all hearing “Let’s-a go!” I’m the one writing history here though, so clearly a pickle was an important part of this game at some point during development.
Ambient sound effects in this game are weird. Birds chirping outside the castle with a rushing waterfall in the distance is a nice touch, but with everything so compressed it’s easy to be pulled out of the immersion. It’s worth noting that young Lynk was never pulled out of immersion and that Peach’s castle may have well been a real place that had my name on the timeshare.
If you do your own research, you’ll learn that every single commercial copy of Super Mario 64 was completely unique and personalized. Super Mario 64 is said to be a twisted, evil work, malformed by stretching 1996’s technology to the furthest limits. It tests the bounds of human morality, and development has lead to demonic results.
Go to your friends’ house and play their copy of Super Mario 64. It will feel different. Things will be slightly different. Coins may appear in different places, or gaps in the ground may span a little further. That trick you can do perfectly at home is impossible in someone else’s living room.
Actually, it turns out that this is all conspiracy-theory-bullshit. Sort of like how everyone has a crackpot uncle who is warning us of the deep state on Facebook. It’s fun, on the surface, but here’s the thing:
These conspiracies mostly came from 4chan, which is the same origin point of some of the world’s most harmful conspiracies, such as Pizzagate and QAnon. Those fruit-loop looney-tunes dented-head conspiracies that your grandparents share on Facebook originated from the same place that swears that Super Mario 64 is learning about us and making adjustments to the space-time continuum to control us.
No, there’s no multiplayer in Super Mario 64. I just wanted to talk about this. I’m striking the multiplayer score from the official sheet.
Despite a whole new way of playing, Super Mario 64 is a very accessible game. I recall my first experience playing it, and how it took a little time to focus on a task and get my first star. While the game is forgiving, especially early on, the controls are more complex than most other games that came before it. There is definitely a learning curve, and what I found interesting is that this learning curve doesn’t change much if you haven’t played any video games before.
I did a science.
Steph, my girlfriend, has zero experience with video games. She plays some knock-off browser Tetris during zoom meetings, and we played Animal Crossing for a while when it came out. Other than that, she literally is as detached from video games as one can be.
So obviously I made her play Super Mario 64. I gave her the goal of finding just one star. I spent less than a minute helping her with the controls, and she was off on her own while I took notes.
She explored the castle grounds for a bit, tried jumping and kicking (there are a few tutorial signs Mario can read to learn some basic moves), and found her way into the castle. There are four coins in the main lobby of Peach’s castle that have stars on them. She grabbed one and asked if she was done. She was a great sport.
It only took her a few moments to find her way into the first world, and she immediately noticed the star behind the Chain Chomp. While the Chain Chomp did her in, it definitely got her wondering how to get there, but she ended up sticking to the script and working her way up the hill to the Bob-omb King. Taking out the giant walking bomb was frustrating, she struggled running in a tight enough circle to easily get behind him, and ended up slipping through him instead of grabbing him, but she ended up getting her first star in under 20 minutes.
Throughout the journey, she struggled with the platforming a little and did a lot of punching the air to try to pick up the enemy Bob-ombs that march around the first stage. It’s easy to see that Super Mario 64 takes finesse and practice to master, but it gives you time to do that as you play. Again, I remind you, she’s never played a platformer in her life.
I’d say yes, Super Mario 64 is accessible and engaging enough to allow players to continue to learn and feel for how it works. I feel like it would be more on-brand for Nintendo to have created more of a tutorial to show players how to work the camera and movement with specific obstacles that require you to do so – doing so would have been nice, but it’s not entirely necessary.
Super Mario 64 isn’t a slog. I feel there is a pretty steep increase in difficulty towards the end of the third act (I’m looking at you, Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride) but the game rarely throws something at you that can’t be figured out. Your first run-through will take time – hunting down each star is the challenge, and if you don’t look things up, it will keep you pretty busy. Of course, you can finish the game without collecting every star, but what kind of monster would do that?
Although the game doesn’t feed you extra lives like they are Reese’s Pieces, it’s pretty easy to remain stocked up even if you take a few falls. Getting a game over simply lets you start back on the castle grounds, so within a minute or so, you’ll be back in the level, ready to make another attempt. The only stars that really put some extra pressure on you are the 100-coin stars (you get a bonus star in each stage for collecting 100 coins in a single visit). It can take a lot of adventuring to fill your purse with 100 coins, and it’s a real shame when you fling yourself off a ledge when you’ve reached 99.
Finishing Super Mario 64 with all 120 stars and saving the princess feels great. You feel accomplished. You get some fanfare, and you get your obligatory kiss from an (I’m guesstimating) eight-foot-ten princess. I’ve earned that kiss dozens of times in my life, and I don’t think it’s problematic.
This is a huge category for a game like this. Something brand new and huge, designed to sell consoles, has the chance of giving you the whole nut at the beginning and then phoning it in. Super Mario 64 keeps it interesting, and you can tell the levels were carefully designed and vetted to ensure the game continues to be fun and challenging as you go. There is plenty of variety in the puzzles and plenty of gimmicks that are deployed to keep things interesting. Just when you get comfortable, the game throws something new at you to explore and master.
I mentioned a couple of times that Super Mario 64 isn’t exactly on-brand. It’s not. It hardly looks like it belongs in the same world as the other Super Mario titles that came before it. That’s not really a dig; the point I’m trying to make is that it creates a whole new aesthetic and feel that is so consistent and confident that it expanded what it is to be a Mario game. This would be like if McDonald’s started making pizza that was so good that nobody would say “McDonald’s shouldn’t make pizza.” Super Mario 64 is the best pizza you’ve ever had, and you got it from McDonald’s?
One hundred percent. It’s a fun game, it can be finished in half a dozen hours for the casual return player (much fewer for speedrunners) and I always have a great time coming back and grabbing all 120 stars.
Super Mario 64 is a milestone in gaming – it took one of the world’s most popular video game franchises and successfully drove it into the third dimension. Some might not like 3D platformers, and that’s fine. Some people will prefer the sidescrollers. Some people will prefer later 3D Mario titles. Still, thanks to the ingenuity and care Nintendo put into solving difficult challenges that 3D gaming presented, Super Mario 64 set the precedent and gave a pretty solid template for how 3D games could be executed.
That felt like a lot of buzzwords. Sorry.
Play Super Mario 64. It’s fun as hell and you’ll be a better person for it.
Super Mario 64 was developed by Nintendo.
Super Mario 64 is also available on the WiiU Virtual Console, a remake was made for the Nintendo DS, and it is a part of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection on the Nintendo Switch. Get it now, Nintendo is pulling it off the shelves in March 2021.
Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64- 1996)
Game title: Super Mario 64
Game description: Super Mario 64 was develp[ed by Nintendo and released for the Nintendo 64 in the United States in 1996. Play as Mario and jump, punch, kick, and slide through 15 stages to collect all 120 stars and rescue the princess from the evil clutches of Bowser.
- Gameplay - 9/109/10
- Story - 9/109/10
- Visuals - 7/107/10
- Audio - 8/108/10
- Accessibility - 10/1010/10
- Challenge - 10/1010/10
- Consistency - 9/109/10
- Replayability - 10/1010/10
Super Mario 64 is Lynk Approved!
Ya! Wah! Hoo! It’s Super Mario 64. Mario is no longer a three-framed avatar of fun but a 3-D polygonal avatar of fun! It created a whole new genre of games (the 3D platformer) that spawned plenty of sub-genres and paved the way for many to improve upon its formulas. It’s charming, fun, and worth playing.
- It’s-a me! Mario!
- Incredibly fun controls.
- Fun puzzles and challenges and secrets.
- Koji Kondo nails the soundtrack with some new tunes.
- Still holds up to this day – something many games of the era can’t claim.
- Too many bunnies.
- Rainbow Ride doesn’t respect your time.