GAMING GREATS: Super Mario 64 (1996)

Walter gets to grips with Super Mario’s classic debut on the Nintendo 64. 

Who made it?: Nintendo EAD (Developer), Nintendo (Publisher).

Genre: Platformer.

Platforms: Nintendo 64 (Original), iQue Player,Virtual Console (Wii).

Format: Cartridge.

Released: June 23, 1996.

In 1996, different developers were scrambling to put out the first fully 3D game in the vein of the sidescrolling genre. Around the same time that America’s Naughty Dog were trying to convert the platform formula into 3D, Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis and Development (EAD) was hard at work creating their own three-dimensional platformer with Mario as the star. While Naughty Dog can be commended for conceiving a 3D game with these elements without having an example to riff on (Crash Bandicoot), EAD had been planning to create their’s as far back as the Super Nintendo’s inception. The game wouldn’t be published until mid-’96, becoming one of just two launch titles for the Nintendo’s N64. Released alongside Pilotwings 64Super Mario 64 is leaps and bounds ahead of anything that came before it, and through those leaps and bounds, Mario can be heard shouting “Wa-hoo!” and “Yippee!”, respectively.

The Super Mario Bros. world has never had an involved story to back it up, and the games aren’t connected with one another very tightly, as is the case with 64. Mario receives a letter signed from Princess Peach to come to her Castle for cake. Upon entering, Mario is told by an evil voice to leave. Toad then tells him that Bowser has seized the Castle and locked everyone inside, and is abusing the Power Stars’ abilities to create and rule his own worlds that can be entered through portals (mostly in paintings). Mario knows his duty, and sets out to rescue the princess as he always does.

Even though the concept of a 3D platformer was brand new to Nintendo gamers, EAD made the experience as intuitive as possible. Mario’s controls are unmatched – the N64 pad was literally made for him. The player can move Mario by holding the analog stick in any direction, and not just forward, backward, left, right, and the hybrid directions of these, but directions that result from minute changes in the degree to which Mario is guided. Mario jumps with “A” and punches/attacks with “B,” and there are combos he can perform. By jumping in the same direction three times in a row, he’ll do successively higher jumps until the third one, when he shouts a joyful “Ya-hoo!” By clicking the attack button three times whilst standing still, he’ll do a punch with one arm, another with the other, and a kick whilst exclaiming “Yeah! Wah! Hoo!” as he does so. By jumping and then clicking attack, he’ll dive forward, sliding on his belly when he hits the floor. By running and then clicking “Z,” he will jump forward a long distance. Hit jump at the exact moment he touches a wall, and he’ll kick off of it a la Mega Man X. Instead of tapping his foot impatiently as Sonic would do, Mario simply falls into progressively deeper states of sleep when left idle for a while. His acrobatics are simply blissful to execute.

The problem that immediately presents itself when trying to convert the platformer formula into 3D is how to do the camera, and EAD did not have as easy a time doing this as Naughty Dog did with the much more linear Crash Bandicoot. This is a totally 3D game with the ability to explore its vast areas in all directions. The camera automatically readjusts based on Mario’s position in relation to walls and the direction in which he’s pointed. By clicking up and down on the “C” buttons, the camera closes in on and draws back from Mario, respectively; clicking left and right rotates it in the expected direction. If the player faces a mirror, a Lakitu riding on a cloud can be seen as the one following Mario and recording him with a camera hanging from a fishing line. The camera is thus successfully executed and is even accounted for in the game itself.

Rather than Mario being losing a life after two hits, and gaining enhanced super forms via mushrooms that he must guard, quite literally with his life, Mario has eight hit points here. They can be replenished by collecting coins and swimming in water, while he attains temporary upgrades such as the ability to fly, invisibility, and a fully metal body by grabbing the Wing Cap, Vanish Cap, and Metal Cap, respectively.

The player will start out with access to the foremost regions of Peach’s Castle, and will be able to access more of them by collecting more and more stars. These will be done in each of the game’s eight sandbox levels (contained in the Castle’s many dimension-hosting paintings) as well as the hub Castle itself, each level containing seven stars and the hub harboring fifteen. In all, there are 120 stars to collect, which will require the player to reach certain locations and complete certain tasks in situations varying in procedure and skill level. The worlds themselves are all refreshingly unique and allow the player to choose to go in any direction, except the Bowser stages. Bosses will be fought in several of the worlds, and the Bowser boss fights (which present the occasional additional requirement for beating the game to collecting stars) get progressively more challenging until the final beat down.

Super Mario 64‘s soundtrack is fully orchestrated, yet it was fresh out of the era when simple, catchy tunes were created due to the lack of time to spend  om overproducing a game’s music. The tracks have a classic feel while benefitting from live instruments. The songs loop quickly, but they don’t get old. And in pioneering 3D platforming, EAD of course had to create three-dimensional graphics. The polygonal, mildly textured result is the one dated aspect of the game, although because Nintendo only had such a cartoony world to bring to life, the result isn’t as dated as it would have been if EAD had gone for  something more realistic. Besides, compared to many attempts at 3D of the mid-90s, Super Mario 64 is quite aesthetically pleasing.

Super Mario 64 was a success for Nintendo EAD in not only being the first 3D platformer with an actual emphasis on three-dimensional exploration (instead of Crash Bandicoot‘s linear level structure), but setting the bar for just about every one that followed – Banjo KazooieSpyro the Dragon, Sonic AdventureGrand Theft Auto III. All were formed from the basic structure set out in Super Mario 64, albeit given a new and different life. Moreover, it’s simple, innocent, glorious fun – a great game in its own right. And it’s only the first in a series of similarly formatted 3D Mario games, which would all be formidable interpretations of the format.

Useless Trivia

  • Mario was created by Shigeru Miyamoto and first appeared in Donkey Kong (1981).
  • Super Mario 64 has sold over eleven million copies.
  • An enhanced remake called Super Mario 64 DS was released for the Nintendo DS in 2004.
  • The game had become the second most popular title on Wii’s Virtual Console by June 2007, behind Super Mario Bros.




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