With Super Mario 3D All Stars is all the rage right now I thought it would be a great time to discuss what is undeniably a very special game.
Much is spoken about Super Mario 64’s revolutionary camera system, its superbly executed analogue movement controls, and its approach to open level design and objectives. But to reduce the game to a checklist of mechanics that have inspired modern games aplenty doesn’t really get to the crux of what still makes it special today. What makes Super Mario 64 so irresistible to return to today, I think, lies in the core of its game design, which isn’t something that’s easy to copy.
The most important facet to this is Mario’s movement physics, which are extremely malleable with a high skill ceiling. Beginners may find him sluggish to control - he takes time to gain speed if you’re simply running from a standstill and jumping, but there are all these little tricks - the dive, the flip jump, the long jump, the crouching backflip - that enable you to shape and mould his momentum to suit your needs as and when required.
Because of this there are almost endless ways to approach its environments, and this is all by design, because it happens naturally by just playing the game. As you become more familiar with Mario’s physics and what they can do for you it opens up a wealth of new opportunities to make things more interesting, easier, or even more challenging.
Controlling Mario is fun and irresistible by itself, you can have fun without needing extrinsic motivators and rewards - this is best illustrated by how it’s almost impossible not to mess about in the walk up to Peach’s Castle every time the game is booted up! Just playing the game and messing with the controls is extremely rewarding by itself.
I’m currently on what may well be my tenth playthrough of the game, and my mind is still being blown by how many opportunities I’m finding to tackle things differently - as you can see in the videos below. Entering a new world painting, should, in theory, be restrictive, since you’ve only selected the first star on the menu. But it’s actually the opposite, since there’s still so much you can accomplish so long as you’re good. Familiarity with the game adds its own skill ceiling once you’ve mastered the complex movement controls.
What makes this work doubly well are the game’s worlds, which bring level design focused on the mantra of ‘less is more’. Each star carries with it a brief, single-sentence clue to its location. Levels are tiny by modern standards yet this means you’re more likely to remember their idiosyncrasies like the back of your hand, enabling higher level play. Peach’s Castle is a hub world that inspires wonder, its designers having the courage to hide entire worlds and their inner workings behind playful secrets.
Super Mario 64 may well be Nintendo’s finest distillation of the word “play”. Strip away what little rewards the game does carry (Stars), any objectives, even high scores, and the game isn’t any less fun for it. I certainly can’t say that about many games, and this underappreciated quality is what sets it apart today.
But enough from me! What makes Super Mario 64 special to you today?