Super Mario Bros 35th: Celebrating Super Mario 64

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?

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The thing that is really amazing is how hard they nailed it right out the gate; in regards to movement. Sure, if they didn’t do it some other nerd would have but who knows how long it would have taken to have basically the gold standard for 3d movement and controls otherwise.

It’s definitely one of my 2 or 3 favorite games of all time. In celebration of the Switch release, I streamed it as well as the other 2 games in the collection with fairly detailed thoughts and comments. Here are the archived streams I uploaded to YouTube for those interested :slight_smile:

64: https://youtu.be/LPPXp3HAmso
Sunshine: https://youtu.be/rpsJxnUQLWQ
Galaxy: https://youtu.be/8SxuZNMcSD8

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Great thread! I’ve been revisiting the game myself and even on the N64 I have been surprised by just how well the game holds up.

That said the decompilation project was ported to Switch recently and playing a native port at 60fps with an improved camera is a revelation - even for an original hardware snob like me.

This released on my birthday and I got given it as a present today, just listening to some tunes before I start but man… I really forget how much I love Mario 64. It’s such an important milestone game for me. Really looking forward to playing with my kids.

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I feel like I always have Super Mario 64 in my N64. It’s just so replayable for exactly the reasons described in the OP. Part of the fun is finding new ways to use the moveset to get to the stars.

Of course, it was mindblowing back in the day just for the sheer leap in graphics and gameplay that it provided. But in many ways, it’s still mindblowing to me just how much they were able to execute such a new type of game without any sort of compromises that I could see.

The feeling of flight when you first play the wing cap switch level was probably the most magical part of the entire experience for me. But every single level had its secrets and challenges to discover. It’s such a consistent game, yet it has remarkable variety at the same time.

I almost feel guilty about how many times I’ve replayed it. It’s been a constant obsession for over 20 years now. There’s not much more I could say without sounding like a fanboy, but I could write pages and pages on just this one game.

It’s always going to be in the running for the greatest game of all time for me. It’s always going to be the highest standard of what a significant generational “leap” in gameplay should measure up to. And it’s always going to be a fantastic adventure full of magic and whimsy.

Even just the idea of jumping into paintings to get to levels was a stroke of genius, and sets the tone for exactly the type of game it purports to be - a place with surprises, beauty, and magic around every corner. Every single element - the controls, the soundtrack, the hub world, the level designs, the puzzles, the bosses - it all works so effortlessly. It doesn’t get any better than this game.

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Great post! This is pretty much me too.

So uhh… Does anyone else still find the game a bit scary too?

Something about falling off levels and the camera clipping into walls/being able to see behind/underneath the world still kinda spooks me.

Edit: I haven’t even got to the eel yet help lmao

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Yes! Despite the relatively simplistic graphics even by N64 standards there’s something about the floating worlds, the special enemy designs, and those silicon graphics mid-90s CGI texturework, that make many of the worlds feel mysterious, threatening, or both. Koji Kondo’s soundtrack too!

Me too. The funny thing is I didn’t form an appreciation for it until years after I first played it! When I revisited it on N64 after finishing the midjudged DS reimagining it blew me away more than that DS port, before then in my childhood I preferred Banjo Kazooie, presumably because it was more inventive with its level themes, despite its rigid and unimaginative platforming.

Maybe it was also because Super Mario 64 has a much higher learning curve - I was never any good at it when I was a kid, but I did enjoy exploring its worlds and the sense of mystery and intrigue even the castle grounds brought to me. I’m just so glad I went back and mastered the game, it will eternally be a game I’ll never tire of returning to.

Also - they topped the poignant ending of Yoshi’s Island - SM64’s credits music and fly-by sequences of the game’s courses are just perfect. Nintendo EAD was on a roll with their N64 creations.

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It will always be a better game than Banjo for me. By leaps and bounds too.

If it’s one thing that can be considered a flaw that I think could be fixed with Mario 64 it would be giving him the time to make 2 more songs for Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride instead of just reusing the same song that was elsewhere.

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Yeah, same here, after I returned to Super Mario 64 after falling in love with Super Mario Sunshine in the early 2000s, I never looked back.

If you reduce both games to checklists, then Banjo, on paper, appears to have more engaging level themes and objective themes, and more ‘things to do’. Yet Banjo’s platforming is so one-note, that it’s hard to not to get bored starting a new file and playing it for a short while. And the vagueness of Mario 64’s world adds to its appeal anyway. Banjo only has the shallowest of similarities to Super Mario 64.

Crazy!

Haha, those are great.

The second of those videos is actually how I originally got that star way back as a child. I still hadn’t mastered wall kicks. In subsequent playthroughs I got it the intended way though.

Brilliant, it’s a testament to the amount of choice the game offers in gameplay. Even Mario’s reaction to falling in lava can be used to creative effect.

So I, er, went and finished this again. I wasn’t planning on doing so, but it’s so compelling once you get into it!

Must have been about 2-3 hours until I reached the credits, but as usual, it was about the journey, I went for the stars I didn’t go out of my way to challenge last time, and tried to come up with new solutions to get them. I can see why Nintendo dumbed down the challenge in the misguided DS port, the last couple of stars in Big Boo’s Haunt threw me and I’m so familiar with the game already.

It’s definitely reached ‘constant obsession’ status for me too now that I think about how many times I’ve revisited this game over the last fifteen years.

I really wish the game recorded your fastest times for getting each of the 120 stars. It would provide even more replay value.

That’s one of the things I like most about Super Mario 3D Land on 3DS. But, of course, it’s far more linear and the movement is a bit constrained as well. Still, getting my clear times as low as possible after 100% beating my save file was a ton of fun.

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With the camera controls patch landing I couldn’t help myself but play through Mario 64 for a third time in just over two months…this time I went for the most efficient route to 70 stars and the ending.

I’m still finding new things! Didn’t realise there was a warp in the pyramid, and you can get the ice cube star in a single triple jump.

Overall it’s a generally solid piece of emulation that certainly plays fine, but someone with an eye for finer details wouldn’t have let some elements of the presentation fly:

I wish they gave the art back to Nintendo EAD to enhance, since the machine learning upscaling is very hit and miss here. Environment textures are generally great - they look as you remember them. But more detailed 2D artwork, like the HUD, the koopa flag, and the paintings, look oversaturated and oversharpened, sticking out in a bad way.

Also, text is hit and miss. Textbox text looks great, it’s a higher resolution rendition of the font we’re all used to seeing now. But the credits? Not on the mark, really.