When I found the undersea cave in Jolly Roger Bay and the hidden pirate's treasure at the very end of it, that was the exact moment Super Mario 64 first truly "wowed" me. My mind had been opened to the limitless possiblities of 3D games: The thrill of discovering worlds (and sometimes worlds within worlds) and the joy of being rewarded for it.
Since Super Mario Bros. invented and defined the standards for sidescrolling platform games in 1985, it's fitting that Super Mario 64 should do the same for 3D platformers nearly 10 years later. It showed us what the Nintendo 64 could do, and though many games with more sophisticated 3D graphics have followed, Super Mario 64 still stands up surprisingly well, and has few equals in gameplay.
By using the power of special stars, Bowser has imprisoned Princess Peach and her mushroom retainers within their own castle, and now Mario must recover these stars to set things right. The castle's rooms are lined with various paintings that act as portals into Super Mario 64's strange and colorful worlds. Within these worlds, Bowser has hidden the power stars, and the game becomes a series of skill tests and mini-games as you try to find them. While it is necessary to collect enough stars to advance further into the castle, and sometimes you are required to collect certain stars to open the paths for others, the world is essentially your oyster. You have the freedom to go anywhere in Super Mario 64 and collect whatever stars you want.
Super Mario 64 is a game that is about the discovery of its wonders. While we've been through pirate ships in many games before, they were mostly backgrounds (even when they worked especially well.) But Super Mario 64 isn't about completing a stage with a pirate ship background; it's about diving down hundreds of feet into murky water and discovering a pirate ship half buried in the ocean's floor, then getting into that pirate ship, looting its treasures, and later seeing that the ship has risen to the surface, bobbing eerily on the waves. Super Mario 64 is full of such moments, where I was amazed by something I was not expecting to find: An abandoned yet inviting town submerged underwater, a tiny igloo in the midst of a gigantic snowman, a wall that curiously ripples when touched, and a ride on a magic carpet into a floating sky house.
However, the adventuring sometimes takes a backseat to the game's desire to be an action platformer. Many levels, such as the Bowser stages and the last few worlds, will restrict your freedom by forcing you to run one straight path to the goal(s). This is where the game both shines and falters. Although Super Mario 64 is not as ridiculously easy as Super Mario World, it isn't very difficult, either, and most of its challenge comes from one of two factors: faulty camera angles or Mario's momentum. There were many times when I'd like to center the camera directly behind Mario or get a straight "sidescrolling" view, and it just won't go. Problems like this should've been ironed out, but I'm more forgiving of it here since Super Mario 64 was the first game of its kind (and it's not as bad as in some games where taking a single step causes the camera to swivel around uncontrollably).
Learning to control Mario, particularly his momentum after landing from a jump, is something that will take time and practice. Mario often takes several extra steps or slides forward, causing him to tumble over the sides of objects, often into bottomless pits or lava pools. While this does increase the difficulty of the game and give the control a "realistic" feel, I've been spoiled by the "stop-on-a-dime" controls of games like Dark Savior and Alundra 2. Those games got their challenges purely from their level designs. Without the momentum factor, Super Mario 64 would be frighteningly easy.
But the good of Super Mario 64 far outweighs the bad, as the game has moments that are truly breathtaking. Just as breathtaking are the wide variety of tasks that must be completed to earn the stars. For some you'll run a gauntlet of obstacles to reach the goal at the end. One of my favorite examples of this are the two paths inside the volcano of Lethal Lava Land. Both are a series of jumps across platforms and poles, as you climb ever higher above the pit of lava below you. Other stars require you to find secrets hidden within the stage, such as when you explore the inside of the vast pyramid of Shifting Sand Land. Still others are acquired by winning footraces, taking rides down dangerous slides, or making sense out of cryptic clues. Acquiring the game's most well-hidden or hardest-to-get stars should provide at least a moderate challenge. I beat the game in about a week, but it took me almost a month to find all 120 stars, and that was without any outside help (save for one really cheaply hidden star on the Princess's Secret Slide that a magazine spoiled for me). My least favorite stars are the ones that you receive for collecting 100 coins in a stage, and yet I acknowledge that they serve a purpose: You must know the level well enough to get all 100 coins without dying, and it can make you feel really nervous because you have so much more to lose if you do.
Although the level themes are standard video game environments (a water world, ice world, lava world, desert, cave, sky, etc.), Super Mario 64 does them very well. One of the more interesting levels has Mario running through the inner workings of a clock. Depending on where the "minute" hand was pointing when you entered the clock, the mechasims, which make up the level design, will speed up, slow down, or stop moving altogether. Much of the clock can be scaled with the mechanisms stopped, but it will take incredibly good jumping skills to do it. The entire clock can be explored with the machines moving, but you'll still need skill to time your jumps across the moving platforms and through swinging pendulums.
If there's anything I'd want to nitpick about Super Mario 64, it's that the boss battles aren't that good. The stage bosses, like the Bob-Omb King, Wiggler, and Whomp King, are all much too easy to beat (though I did like Eyerock, the hand-smashing boss of the pyramid who seems a predecessor to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's Bongo-Bongo). The Bowser battles are unique in design, but sometimes rely more on luck than skill to conquer. You must grab Bowser by his tail, spin him around, then throw him into the air so that he'll land on a bomb. For the first two Bowser fights, it's a simple matter of grabbing Bowser when he's right next to a bomb, so that it's easy to land him on it. This isn't possible in the last part of the final Bowser fight, so getting him onto that third bomb will either depend on having good enough skills to let go at just the right moment when he's lined up with it or getting a lucky break. Usually, I feel it's the latter.
Super Mario 64's graphics are some of the most bright and colorful on the N64, and the style lends itself well to the overall experience. Instead of trying to put Mario into a "realistic" environment, the design is based more on what a Mario-like game world would look like if viewed from different angles. The result is a very surrealistic place that appears to be made in part out of Lego blocks. My favorite areas are the water worlds as they tend to be the most visually impressive. I love the Manta Ray that glides around Dire Dire Docks and the eel that haunts Jolly Roger Bay. The music is not quite as impressive as the graphics, as it doesn't sound much different from typical Super NES music, with one very notable exception: The Dire Dire Docks/Jolly Roger Bay theme. This is an amazing piece of ambience that not only sounds great to start with, but it gradually changes as you explore around the stages, eventually being accompanied by a percussion beat. It's one of my favorite videogame songs.
But whatever its shortcomings, Super Mario 64 is still unique and worthwhile, and one of the few N64 games to have done something completely new and different. It may not be quite the quintessential classic that Super Mario Bros. is, and it certainly is not proof that 3D is automatically better than 2D, but it was a bold step in the right direction for 3D platform games; a footstep that many would follow in, but few have surpassed.
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