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Revisiting: Super Mario 64 (1996)

It’s hard to believe but 21 years ago today, Nintendo launched it’s Nintendo 64 console in Japan. The company’s first true 3D gaming machine, the N64 would go on to amass a sizable following – a huge part of that down to the strength of Nintendo’s first party support. Arguably though, no game on the console was more important than the one which launched alongside it. A game that is widely beloved to this day, the game served as the blueprint for 3D platformers moving forward. That game of course, is Super Mario 64.

The aim of the game is simple, collect 120 Power Stars and save the Princess. You do this by leaping into one of the fifteen paintings dotted throughout the castle (as well as a few secret one) and completing the requirements within. Some of these levels will see you collecting coins, others will see you navigating platform sections – while others will see you racing turtles. There’s enough variety on offer to keep gamers engaged, each level presenting its own spin on a standard idea.

Adding to this is the fact that Bowser’s presence looms large over the castle, with menacing laughter and pop up text helping to further your sense of progress. You’ll be needing to get as many of those stars as possible if you want to make progress – as the game locks away essential areas behind numbered doors. Luckily you’re not forced to complete each level outright, instead you can move between worlds and capture stars as you see fit – even out-of-order if the feeling takes you.

It’s this sense of openness that really helps to make Mario 64 feel bigger than it really is. Princess Peach’s castle isn’t all that big (it’s actually quite limited through modern eyes) but the non linear structure of the game encourages gamers to tackle requirements as they see fit. Can’t beat that big penguin in a race? Skip it. Failing to find that final red coin? Leave it. The game allows you to tackle it in any way you see fit. The destination is fixed, but the journey is yours to mold.

Each world is vibrant in its execution, managing to feel distinctive while teaching gamers new mechanics throughout. From the opening plains of Bob-omb Land, through to the deserts of Shifting Sand Land; there’s always a sense of discovery and excitement when you break into a level for the first time.. You’ll see Power Stars in the distance that you can’t quite reach yet, but can return to later to capture. This gives the gamer incentive to explore, learn and find ways to achieve goals..

The overall quality of these levels varies – though some feel less inventive than others. Some levels come with gimmicks – with varying degrees of success. Tiny, Huge Island is hugely fun as it flips the games core experience on its head, forcing you to think across multiple versions of the same level. Meanwhile Tick Tock Clock makes clever use of its clock idea, forcing you to move between a number of moving gears.  Sadly not a;; gimmicks are born equal in Mario 64 Wet-Dry World in particular serves as a showcase of an interesting idea woefully executed – with arguably the games least interesting level (both in terms of aesthetic and gameplay). Of all the levels in Mario 64 – Wet-Dry World is far and away the most avoided for me.

Another notable letdown is that some levels suffer from the a touch of the “Reused assets”. Cool, Cool Mountain is amazing fun the first time round, which makes the later level Snowman’s Land feel like a pale imitation. Jolly Roger Bay serves as the games swimming showcase – but gets an awkward imitator in the form of Dire Dire Docks – which lacks originality across the board (Effectively homing in on the games weakest mechanic long after its novelty has worn off). Of course we can’t be too critical of Miyamoto and his team for this – this was 1996.

Age is arguably the biggest issue for this game. It’s the thing that draws most attention to the games failures. Sadly some of the mechanics in this game have aged like bread. Swimming, for example, is nightmare. There’s very little you can do to fight back if an enemy takes you on underwater – leading to more than one awkward retreat. The tank controls also make meandering round underwater feel like a chore, as getting coins underwater becomes a perilous task. The games camera also seems to hate swimming, regularly parking itself behind scenery, enemies or into the levels walls – making it impossible to see whats coming.

Not that the camera itself deserves much praise through modern eyes. Back in 1996, Mario 64 set the gold standard for 3D cameras in platformers – but in 2017 it feels every bit as old as the game is. Relegated to the C-buttons, camera controls effectively require you to move the camera as you see fit. 90% of the time this isn’t a problem, the game effectively does the hard for you, but in the heat of combat or in sections where pin-point accuracy is required, the camera all but abandons its obligations to help.

Suddenly it parks behind anything it fancies, or it moves awkwardly out of position, hiding vital jump points. This wouldn’t be an issue, if the game didn’t arbitrarily stop you from controlling the camera for seemingly no good reason. It means there’ll be moments where the games difficulty is inflated unfairly – and really sticks out as a weakness all these years later.

Really, I’m not here to laugh at the old game. No game from this period stands up well to modern scrutiny, and it speaks of the legacy At its core, Mario 64 plays to the strengths of the Nintendo 64. Being one of the two launch titles on offer, the game effectively serves as a tech demo for the console. This means the game does a lot of different things in very unique ways, not all of them brilliantly.

But we still cherish it because despite not doing everything brilliantly, it darted to dream. It brought fluid 3D controls to consoles at a time when it simply wasn’t being done. The fact that you could fly around a full 3D level without compromises in 1996 was just mind-blowing. There was nothing else like this on consoles.

I have so many fond memories of Super Mario 64. It was my introduction to Mario as a character – and helped drag Nintendo into the 3D age of gaming. This was a game of its time, an excellent game that earns the praise around it. Few games have the cultural impact or success that Mario 64 enjoyed – and it’s well-earned.

Even we can admit all these years later, it’s not aged all that well across the board.

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