It’s arguable that no developer embraced 3D quite as well as Nintendo did. With the advent of 3D graphics, the rules changed and techniques which had worked so well were rendered redundant virtually overnight. For some it was all too much, but Nintendo were able to make the transition better than almost anyone else. The first generation of 3D Nintendo games are not only good for their era, but often stand up as some of the very best games of all time. Case-in-point, Super Mario 64.
In fact, Mario 64 was almost too successful in its execution. Its sequels, which are now numerous, have failed to make anywhere near the same impact of Mario’s 3D début, because what do you change? There were 3D platforms before Mario 64, but they were often crude efforts which were unable to break free from the shackles of their 2D forebears and grappled with imprecise controls and a lack of camera control. Someone at Nintendo was clearly taking notes, because Mario 64 essentially fixes all of the earlier games’ problems.
The first half hour is the most magical. You’re left to run free in the garden of Peach’s Castle, to play with the new controls and stare, mesmerised, at the world. You push the analogue stick to move, A to jump. Jump at a tree and you’ll grab onto, move to the top you’ll do a handstand, the execute a spectacular dismount. It’s easy to get absorbed in the game before you even start it properly, and how many times can you say that?
When it starts, though, there’s plenty to hold your attention. Having Peach’s Castle as a hub world was a stroke of genius, as it allows varied environments to exist in a place that’s much more alive than just a map screen. Open but directed, easy to navigate but packed with secrets, It’s a place that no Mario game has matched since.
It’s a thoughtful approach which is continued to each of the game’s twelve main levels. Bomb-omb Battlefield starts things off, gently nudging you up the mountain without ever explicitly telling where to go. Want to see what happens when you collect all eight red coins? Want to ground-pound that stump keeping the chain chomp under control? Go right ahead. You always have one specific mission which will sometimes place an exclusive enemy or area on the map, but you’re free to pursue other tasks if you like, or just run around doing nothing. It’s your choice, and that freedom is glorious
Mario 64 is also refreshingly free of items, especially compared to recent games. There’s no FLUDD, Bee Mario, Spring Mario, Rock Mario, Raccoon Mario or Cat Mario, and the game is better for their absence. In fact, there are only three “caps”, which make their debut a few hours in, which offer flight, extra weight or invisibility for a brief period. They add little — the flight cap is the only one to change the mechanics to any meaningful degree — and appear sparingly, and this choice keeps the game focussed.
At the end of the day, Mario games have always been about razor-sharp control, with even the more poorly received games being famed for it. Mario turns on a sixpence, jumps where you want and is infinitely maneuverable, whether running, swimming or flying. Depressingly few games get this most essential aspect right, and even fewer maintain it in the third dimension, which only made Nintendo’s effort, the first Mario game in 3D, more impressive. One only needs to examine Sonic’s difficulty making the jump to see how badly it can go wrong.
The same is true of the camera, which uses the N64 controller’s C buttons to give the player control. Unlike most 3D games before and since, which keep the camera rigidly behind the player regardless of what piece of environment is in the way or whether an out-of-shot enemy is about to blindside you, Mario 64’s camera dynamically moves around to keep the action in view to the point where the C buttons are mostly used for minor adjustments rather than major changes.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence that Super Mario 64 had, and in many ways it’s the sequel maker’s worst nightmare. No sequel could ever have the same impact, and so much has been proved time and again. Only Super Mario Galaxy has come close thanks to its sense of scope, but the underlying game was largely more of the same (though that’s hardly a bad thing).
The package is completed by a timeless aesthetic. For a first generation 3D game, the graphics are remarkably clean, and have aged far better than most from the same era. It’s playful and mature, establishing the look that Mario has retained ever since. The soundtrack is much the same, and though it’s not quite as legendary as the likes of Super Mario World, you’ll likely find yourself humming along to the stage music now and again.
What more is there to say? In one fell swoop, Super Mario 64 dragged platformers into the modern age, created a template for 3D games to follow and became one of the most celebrated games of all time. It’s an historically significant game which stands as a mind blowing experience to this day. Take a bow, Mario, talk about nailing it first time.
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Platform: Nintendo 64 (VC)
Play it now: The N64’s best-selling game, it’s cheap on eBay these days. Alternatively, it’s available on the Wii Virtual Console for 1000 Nintendo points.