Super Mario 64

Developer: Nintendo EAD
U.S. Publisher: Nintendo
Original U.S. Release: 1996
Genre: Platformer

Based on: Mario and his very intimate, personal journey of discovery with his new friend the Z-axis.

Games | Nintendo 64 | Super Mario 64

Article by Parish | June 2002

I really want to hate Super Mario 64.

This is the game whose Toys 'R Us demo convinced me that I should spend all my food money for the month of September 1996 on a game system and one game. Never mind that I couldn't afford it; watching Mario run around within a solid, breathing, interactive 3D world made me feel all gooey inside, weird controller notwithstanding. So despite the exasperated bemusement of the girl I was dating at the time, I dropped $25 for a deposit within minutes of seeing Mario in action. Over the next few months I spent several hundred dollars on games in the hopes that something else would come along and help justify my purchase of a new console. Finally, six months later and facing the ugly truth that the most interesting thing in the immediate future was the rather dismal StarFox 64, I accepted reality and swapped out my N64 and thoroughly played copy of Mario 64 (as well as some other, thoroughly un-played games, like Turok) for a PlayStation. Time spent with Mario aside, my net loss was approximately $180 and 2000% of my USRDA of healthy food.

This is the game that caused NEXT Generation magazine to embarrass themselves by giving the game a sloppy deep kiss in the form of senselessly hyperbolic proclamations. "Best. Game. Ever," they gasped breathlessly, providing a little more fodder for the Comic Book Guy's composite personality and marking the beginning of a magnificent magazine's decline into fanboyish irrelevance ("Blasto! It's the next big thing!" "Turok 2! It's not even close to being finished as of press time, but it's gonna be perfect!").

The game whose supposed perfection became a sort of mantra for media and gamers alike: "x game is good, but it's no Mario 64."

The game which 95% of the world came to accept as the definitive high water mark of interactive entertainment, because, you know, everyone else said so too.

This is the game which began the putridly asinine trend of ending every N64 title with the number "64" - an absolutely pedestrian and idiotic practice. We didn't call Gunstar Heroes "Gunstar Heroes Genesis" nor Final Fantasy VII "Final Fantasy PlayStation VII," so we certainly could have lived without seeing the number 64 plastered all over the place. Worse, this standard resulted in countless people who weren't nearly as clever as they believed saying things such as, "Zelda 64? Shucks, did I miss Zelda 5 through 63? Haw haw!" If Nintendo had given Mario 64 a more imaginative name, like "Super Mario's Jumping Into Paintings Adventure," we probably could have avoided all of that.

It's the game for which a sequel was promised for years, leading us all to hope for some sort of eventual end-of-life redemption for the N64. And while the system was indeed redeemed, our sequel never appeared. And millions of system owners were left bitterly unfulfilled.

Alas, despite the urgent Call of the Wild Cynic which my heart so often obeys, all the annoying facts which surround Mario 64's existence melt softly away when I actually sit down and play it. Because the nuisances above are, ultimately, external to the game itself. Hating Mario 64 because people are dumb is even more pointlessly petty than refusing to buy the latest album by your favorite band because you think their record label is an evil corporate monstrosity. Just as all record labels are evil and always will be, people incapable of reigning in their fanboyish tendencies will always exist to annoy fine, upstanding citizens such as myself. But by crackie, I won't let them spoil Mario for me.

Despite hyperbolic claims to the contrary, Mario 64 has yet to be proven to cure cancer, impotence or chronic bedwetting. Playing it will not give a determined, suicidal depressive sufficient reason to go on living. Owning the game does not, in fact, guarantee one an automatic gate pass for Heaven (after all, in order to play it you have to own an N64, which negates all kinds of good karma). Mario 64 is simply a fun platformer, one which even six years later has yet to be surpassed in a variety of ways. Yes, 3D platforming play control has been refined since Mario 64. Camera controls have come a long, long way since 1996. Sound, graphics and detail have all taken a few strides forward as well. But for sheer pick-up-and-play intuitiveness and creative design, Mario 64 still stands toe-to-toe with any of the dozens of would-be usurpers to its throne.

The key to Mario 64's longevity - something often lacking in other revolutionary games, which tend to introduce new concepts still in need of serious refinement - is the perfect balance of its gameplay. Mario controls with great ease, striking a fantastic middle ground for 3D interfaces. Other 3D platformers tend to be either too simplistic in control to allow real depth (Jumping Flash?, for instance) or else so ludicrously complex that mastering "basic" gameplay mechanics takes a seasoned expert with nimble, spidery fingers (witness Banjo-Kazooie). Mario jumps and swims with the A Button, performs various functions with the B Button, and ducks or stomps with the Z Trigger. As with Klonoa?, Mario's range of commands is limited but perfectly suited to the tasks and environments before him.

The environments as much as our plucky plumber pal are what make Mario 64 work. While far less intricate and varied than the worlds of many more recent adventures, the game's levels are arranged in a brilliant fashion - each world contains six Stars to be discovered, but there are no rigid paths which must be followed. At the same time, the game is never needlessly abstruse; it's easy to figure out where or how to acquire a given Star - the challenge lies in deciding which path to take and, of course, in navigating the obstacles along the way. As more Stars are acquired, more levels become available for exploration, all accessible from within the Princess' castle, which serves as a hub. The result is an extremely open game with tremendous freedom of movement, but with sufficient focus and incentives to keep the player moving in pursuit of just one more, and then I'll quit playing for the night, really.

Another nice element of Mario 64 is that defeating Bowser doesn't require the painful self-abuse many other games demand. Only a fraction of the game's 120 Stars needs to be acquired before the player can face down Bowser and save the Princess, which means it's quite possible to skip several levels entirely if you don't like them. The "100% completion" challenge offers only a tiny bonus for those who complete it, but there's always that marvelous sense of accomplishment one earns from squandering dozens of hours on a near-impossible virtual feat - the final Stars of the game are brutally difficult to acquire. Six years later I'm still missing one from the clock tower and two from the Rainbow Ride stage, and the mere notion of pursuing them further makes me tremble in trepidation.

The game isn't perfect, despite the enormous volume of hot air to the contrary blasted about by various magazines and assorted NOA chairmen back in the day. The camera is tricky to maneuver at times, the control sometimes seems loose, and there are some cheap deaths on hand. And thanks to the N64's pathetic hardware limitations, Mario 64 sounds absolutely terrible. The music is often annoying, the baby penguin is even more ear-splittingly abrasive than Baby Mario in Yoshi's Island, and Mario's voice clips really need to be subtitled, despite the fact that they're in English - the sampling rate is apparently in the single digits. Some people say his comment before each level is "Let's go!" Others say "Wolf pickles." And still more insist Mario's saying, "It tickles!" The truth, of course, is that if you play this sample backwards, you can hear Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi say, "Get a life, you stupid depressing game-freak losers." I miss you, Mr. Yamauchi. Tell us again why we're pathetic for buying Final Fantasy VII. HURT ME MORE!

Despite the adulation and praise heaped upon Mario 64 by scores of sheeple (ha ha! I combined the words "sheep" and "people" just like GameFan used to do! So clever! So... so... oh god so pathetic so alone please someone be my friend), it truly is a fantastic game. That simple fact has a tendency to get lost in the hyperbole and rhetoric. But believe it; future generations of man will someday gather around a pile of Mario 64 cartridges as if it were the Black Obelisk from 2001. Then they'll get stuck at 117 Stars and, in frustration at being unable to fully complete the game, club a rival tribe of ape people to death with a femur. Ah, progress.