When you have played video games for the majority of your life you inevitably end up seeking the glorious feeling of nostalgia that they can bring you. Whether that’s the first game you played, your favourite, or one you have blissful memories of. For me, Super Mario 64 has always been a game I can jump back into (luckily I kept my bulky Nintendo 64 system from my childhood, along with my game collection) and each time I do I am reminded of why it is one of the greatest games ever created.
Super Mario 64 is like the ‘Money for Nothing’ of the video game industry. It’s what many people claim to be or remember as their first true 3D video game experience, specifically on home consoles. Of course, PC gaming was way ahead of the incredibly limited home gaming consoles at the time, & the Nintendo 64 although ahead of the competition in its field was a fantastic gaming machine, it was no match for the so called master race. At the time on PC gamers were enraptured by Quake, Diablo, Duke Nukem 3D, Civ II, and so on. Quake & Duke Nukem 3D saw players brandishing a variety of weapons in a first person shoot em up genre that was quickly becoming a new cultural phenomenon, whilst Civ II saw players manage whole (you guessed it) civilisations across continents with endless play styles & tactics. But nothing – not a single game came close to describing the absolutely sensational platformer – Super Mario 64.
Super Mario 64 is One Giant Achievement
“It’s-a me, Mario!” – That’s exactly what you’ll hear every time you boot the game, and it never gets old. You’re then greeted by Mario’s giant head, which I took great pleasure in manipulating with the joystick, stretching his voluptuous nose over his forehead or altering his chin so he was reminiscent of a yellow fin tuna. As a 4/5 year old, there was genuinely seemingly endless hours of fun built into the start screen and what a great way to set up the tone of the game. The start screen music is still to this day built into my internal monologue.
Once you get past sullying Mario’s face the story starts; you’re greeted with a short letter from Princess Toadstool inviting you to the castle, as she has ever so kindly baked a cake for you. However, after you’ve sprinted, jumped and dived across the entire castle grounds for 20 minutes you’ll eventually get to the door, only to find out Bowser has kidnapped the Princess, and your journey to rescue her begins.
Thankfully the Princess is in this Castle!
Everyone starts out in Bob Omb Battlefield, and because of this I think it has some of the most nostalgic gameplay elements in the entire game. The levels in Super Mario 64 are small, but full of enemies to stomp, coins to collect and secrets to be found. In each level are a number of Power Stars to collect, each time you enter a level you select which Power Star to claim, which changes the levels scenario. The first Power Star you’ll collect in Super Mario 64 is after you defeat King Bob Omb who resides on top of the hill in Bob Omb Battlefield. Mainly a tutorial level with an absolutely bopping theme, you’ll learn the basics of movement here if you didn’t dawdle too much after exiting the warp pipe at the very start of the game. Of course, King Bob Omb is very easy to defeat, and you do so by running around him and grabbing his backside, throwing him to the ground to deal damage. As a kid I remember playing this for the first time and not quite grasping what I was supposed to do. You can chuck him completely off of the top of the hill which is what I was doing, however he will jump back up completely unscathed. King Bob Omb only has one attack in which he will pick you up and launch you off of the summit, resetting the fight completely. Once he is defeated, you’ll grab the Power Star and learn that these are the games currency for progressing further.
Your objective is to collect as many as possible, and reach Princess Peach at the top of the castle. There are doors scattered throughout the castle interior with a Power Star icon on with an attributed number, meaning you need to collect that many before entering the door, and then entering that rooms level.
Super Mario 64 contains 15 levels, and a whopping 120 Power Stars to obtain. Only 70 are needed to rescue Peach however, with that number unlocking the final door/staircase to the last Bowser fight. Each level is uniquely designed, with each one having a main focus. Rainbow Ride using the flying carpet, Tick Tock Clock using the clock face to change the in game speed & Wet-Dry World using switches to toggle the height of the water, allowing you to submerge the whole world if you need to.
These small distinctions in each level are what make Super Mario 64 so great, it’s not just the gameplay mechanics getting more complicated, it’s the intricacies of the worlds themselves. Constantly shifting the way you play keeps each new stage feeling new, and creates an individual location identity, which is why for me the game is so memorable.
Show Ya Moves
Super Mario 64s greatest accomplishment though is with its movement system. Mario has always been limited in the 2D games. He has mainly been limited to walking, running, jumping, crouching and using a power-up. Add a triple jump; cartwheel, wall jump, crouch jump, long jump, dive, punch, kick, crawl & ground pound and then you have the moveset for Super Mario 64. The ways you can combine these controls are simply flawless, they feel reactive, fluid and with the then new ability to control the camera in a 3D space, accurate. It’s famously been said by Shigeru Miyamoto that the movement was worked on first before anything else, and was tweaked and perfected gradually over time, and you can feel those results in the way it plays. If a game feels good to play by running or jumping, half the battle has already been won. It’s a shame some developers have forgotten this tried & tested formula like with the soon to be released (26/03/21) Balan Wonderland title from former head of Sonic Team Yuji Naka. That is how to lose half the battle before your game is released.
Super Mario 64 & its Beats
Super Mario 64 has incredible detail for an N64 game, and it’s where my love of music & sound really began to flourish. Each locations music track is perfectly assigned to the character of the level itself; Jolly Roger Bay sees you explore a sunken pirate ship with a calming swathe of strings & bells, with the track growing the further into the level you are, adding more instruments & becoming almost a triumphant anthem by the time you finish the level.
In complete contrast we have the Snow Mountain theme which is played during the levels Cool Cool Mountain & Snowmans Land. This bouncy tune encompasses everything in the level with a festive and wintery theme, and creates a lighthearted atmosphere for the player to explore the snow filled playgrounds.
My personal favourite track in Super Mario 64 is Koopas’ Road. This theme plays just 3 times during the whole game, and is only heard on the levels that lead you to a Bowser fight. It’s a grand masterpiece that fills you with courage & fear at the same time, which is fitting for the inevitable battle that awaits at the end of the level, but also fitting for how it encourages you during some of the more challenging platforming sequences located in these 3 obstacle courses.
The sound in this game is just simply beautiful. But it’s not just about the music & themes, I’m talking about the foley too. Right at the start of the game you begin in the castle grounds, and there is no music. The sun is shining, you can hear the birds chirping away, the waterfall spray whisps in the distance and the only sound you can make to break this idyllic natural ambience is your own footsteps, maniacal jumping/somersaulting and the occasional “YAHOOO!” from Mario himself. Whilst playing Super Mario 64 it was then I discovered little nuances like this, how the footsteps sound different in snow, concrete, and grass for example. It completely immersed me in the game when I was younger, and the castle & levels felt so much more grander because of it details like those.
“So long, Kinga Bowser!”
Completing this game was one of the big achievements in my childhood, and as I got older and better at Super Mario 64, I would repeatedly complete it over and over just to hear the final song play out after the ending cutscene, and of course to see that cake Peach baked for Mario. It wasn’t a booty call after all.
25 years after its original release, Super Mario 64 still feels great to play. The game is an absolute blast from start to finish, and caused a surge in ‘Collectathon’ games to release in the future like Banjo Kazooie & Spyro the Dragon. This game continues to influence game development today, and I can only see that as an amazing achievement. If your game is still being talked about, played & referenced in modern day life, it’s a ‘scarcer than hens teeth’ type game that only comes around once a generation, and will continue to hang about for future generations to come. Please, if you haven’t played Super Mario 64 (very unlikely) & you own a Nintendo 64, do yourself a favour.