Although the launch of the Super Famicom, known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) internationally, was a success, sales were affected by two factors. While the Famicom (NES) went a majority of its life unchallenged, the fourth saw the rise of a fierce challenger in the form of Sega. Owing to a successful marketing campaign revolving around their mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, and his eponymous 1991 debut game, Sega successfully tapped into the zeitgeist of the era, proving they could keep pace with the ostensibly out-of-fashion Nintendo. This could be seen in how Super Mario World was received. Though popular even when it was released in 1990, with no fewer than three predecessors, people dismissed it as another Mario title. On top of this, a failed business deal between Nintendo and Sony involving a CD-ROM player add-on to the SNES resulted in the latter company themselves entering the console race with their inaugural PlayStation console in 1994. Said console proved to be highly popular – especially once prominent third-party developers such as Konami and Capcom, dissatisfied with Nintendo’s draconian licensing policies, began releasing new installments of their big-name franchises on Sony’s platform.
The other factor that caused Nintendo’s sales to slump was something none of these companies had control over: the economy. Throughout second half of the twentieth century, Japan’s economy appeared to be a juggernaut with many Westerners speculating that they would effectively take over the world. This eventually proved not to be the case. In late 1991, the Japanese asset price bubble collapsed, and a devastating recession ensued.
There were numerous causes behind this recession. One of the biggest catalysts was when the Bank of Japan, attempting to keep inflation in check, raised inter-bank lending rates. Before then, the banks were lending more with barely any regard for the borrowers’ credibility. Their drastic actions caused the bubble to burst, and the stock market crashed, leaving banks and insurance companies with several books’ worth of bad debt. The period that followed would eventually be known as the Lost Decade with some economists believing it to have lasted long enough to warrant being called the Lost Score. With Nintendo facing not one, but two companies that were more than a match for them while also feeling the effects of an inescapable recession, they realized they needed to do something drastic to remain in the game.
The Sunnyvale, California-based company Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), had prided themselves by leading the pack in graphics visualization and supercomputing. They were particularly interested in expanding their business, adapting their pioneering technology so that it could reach a higher volume of consumer products. Observing the impressive momentum of the video game industry, they felt it to be the ideal starting point. Their lasted invention had them use the MIPS R4000 family of CPUs as a base, creating something that used only a fraction of the resources. SGI founder Jim Clark originally offered a proposal to Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske. If they declined, Nintendo would be the next candidate in line. The exact details of the subsequent negotiations have been lost. It has been claimed that Mr. Kalinske and a colleague of his were impressed with SGI’s prototype only for engineers to uncover multiple hardware issues. While they were ultimately resolved, Sega decided against SGI’s design. It’s also said that the real reason they partnered with Nintendo was because they, unlike Sega, were willing to license the technology on a non-exclusive basis, thus expanding SGI’s consumer base to a far greater degree if their newest console became a hit. Regardless, a partnership was made, and when Jim Clark met with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi in early 1993, Project Reality had begun. The eventual result would be the console to succeed the Super Famicom.
The first result from Project Reality was the Onyx supercomputer, which was priced anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 USD. The system’s controller was a modified SNES controller outfitted with an analogy joystick and “Z” trigger. The secrecy was such that when LucasArts expressed interest in making a game for the console’s impending launch, the prototype controller had to be placed in a cardboard box as the developers used it.
In June of 1994, Nintendo announced the new name of the unfinished console: the “Ultra 64”. Its design was unveiled for the first time shortly thereafter. The console was so named because it was to be the world’s first 64-bit gaming system. Atari had claimed that their Jaguar console was the first 64-bit gaming system. In reality, it only had a general 64-bit architecture, utilizing two 32-bit RISC processors along with a 16/32-bit Motorola 68000. For good measure, the Ultra 64 was cited in marketing campaigns as more powerful than the computers used for the Apollo 11 mission. Especially controversial was the decision for the console to retain ROM cartridges as opposed to utilizing the superior storage capabilities of the CD-ROM format, which drew much speculation from the press.
Some time after this, the console was to be called the Ultra Famicom domestically and Ultra Nintendo 64 abroad. It’s rumored that the name was changed to avoid legal action by Konami. They had ownership of the Ultra Games trademark, a shell corporation used to circumvent Nintendo’s strict policies limiting the number of third-party releases that could be published in the United States during the NES era. Nintendo themselves claimed that the trademark issues were not a factor. However, they wanted to establish a single worldwide brand and logo for their third console, so these names were discarded. The name they chose, the Nintendo 64, was proposed by Shigesato Itoi, a famous copywriter and creator of two beloved classics: Earthbound Beginnings and its sequel, Earthbound. With a collective of elite developers nicknamed the Dream Team, the Nintendo 64 project was ready to begin.
The console was formally unveiled in a playable form in November of 1995 at Nintendo’s seventh annual Shoshinkai trade show. As the hordes of schoolkids huddling around in the cold outside indicated, the anticipation for Nintendo’s newest console was extremely high. The Nintendo 64 was originally slated to be released by Christmas of 1995, but during the previous May, Nintendo delayed the launch to April of 1996. They claimed they needed more time for the software to mature and for third-party developers to become interested in producing games for it, though an engineer cited the hardware’s underperformance in playtesting sessions. As a result, the console’s launch was delayed again – this time to June 23, 1996. To placate potentially impatient fans, Nintendo ran ads with slogans such as “Wait for it…” and “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!”
Similar to the case with their previous console, Nintendo knew full well that, as impressive as the new machine might be, it would be nothing for want of a selection of impressive launch titles. Once again, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, the two most important names behind the Mario franchise were willing to step up to the plate. Joined by Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had recently cut his teeth writing the scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the three were determined to make the Nintendo 64’s launch impactful.
As early as 1991, Mr. Miyamoto conceived the idea of a 3D Mario game as he worked on the SNES rail shooter Star Fox. He had considered using the Super FX chip to develop a game called Super Mario FX. It was to have gameplay revolving around an entire world in miniature similar to that of miniature trains. He reformulated the idea as the Nintendo 64 was being developed, though not because of its superior graphical capabilities. Instead, he observed the controller’s greater number of buttons and felt it would allow for more advanced gameplay. In accordance to the global branding of their newest console, the new game was to be called Super Mario 64. The scope of the project spanned three years. One year was spent designing the concept while two were allotted to directly work on the software. Guiding Mr. Miyamoto throughout this game’s development was the drive to include more details than any of its predecessors. He felt the style made the game play as a 3D interactive cartoon.
Information about Super Mario 64 was leaked in November of 1995. A playable version was presented days later. Because the game was only halfway completed by this point, Nintendo of American chairman Howard Lincoln once said that Mr. Miyamoto’s desire to add more to the game was a factor in the decision to delay the Nintendo 64’s launch. Indeed, Mr. Yamauchi, realizing just how observant players are, didn’t wish for the integrity of Mr. Miyamoto’s game to be compromised. When asked for an additional two months to work on the game, he granted the request without questioning it.
Super Mario 64 was released on the promised date of June 23, 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64 itself. While the Mario franchise had been no stranger to critical acclaim, the reception of Super Mario 64 seemed to trivialize that of its predecessors. As one of the medium’s first successful 3D platforming games, Super Mario 64 is considered one of the medium’s most important benchmarks. Such was the scope of its influence that it could be said to have singlehandedly effected the 3D video game leap. As the title often cited as ground zero for 3D gaming, was Super Mario 64 able to stand the test of time?
Analyzing the Experience
Princess Peach has invited her good friend Mario to her castle, for she has baked a cake for him. He arrives on the scene shortly thereafter.
When Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985, it revolutionized the 2D platformer. The genre had existed before 1985, yet it was Super Mario Bros. that signposted to any future developer what they needed to be successful. In other words, it was a de facto style guide. Because a majority of gaming took place in arcades, one of the first things to which the proud, new owners of an NES had to adjust was the controller. While arcade cabinets labeled each individual button’s functionality, the NES operated with a square controller bearing four buttons labeled “SELECT”, “START”, “B”, and “A”. The controller also stood out from that of the Atari 2600 or Intellivision by featuring a directional pad rather than with a joystick, meaning many enthusiasts had difficulties simply trying to move Mario.
Any enthusiast sticking with Nintendo as the Sega Genesis was gaining popularity had to adjust to the more advanced controller used by the SNES, yet to anyone who mastered Super Mario Bros. or its sequels, Super Mario World presented few problems to them. Despite a noticeable presentation upgrade, this installment retained the series’ familiar gameplay. This, in turn, was arguably the prevailing trend for the fourth console generation. Many of the games from this era could easily have been conceived in the third console generation, yet the improved graphics and superior storage capabilities allowed creators to develop overall richer experiences. The fact that the ability to save one’s progress was becoming commonplace punctuated the medium’s evolution. When enthusiasts fired up Super Mario 64 for the first time, they quickly learned that the only thing it had in common with its predecessors was its cast of characters. Knowingly or not, they were about to explore completely uncharted territory.
As soon as you boot up the game, you’ll hear Nintendo’s mascot exclaim “It’s-a me, Mario!” What I like about this is how well it sums up Mario’s character in five seconds. For lending such a standout personality to what was previously a standard, albeit well-known video game protagonist, we have voice actor Charles Martinet to thank. This is far from the first piece of media in which Mario is voiced, having been portrayed by Lou Albano in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and Mark Graue in the obscure, widely reviled Hotel Mario. In fact, Mr. Martinet originally considered affecting a gruff Brooklyn accent similar to Mr. Graue’s take, but decided it would be too scary for young children. From there, he adapted an Italian falsetto that became synonymous with the character. He had previously voiced Mario in Mario’s FUNdamentals, but this is the first time in the main series that he would have the opportunity. With the game making its sense of wonder clear from the get-go, players knew the true fun was about to begin.
Much like Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 64 takes its time before sending an enemy Mario’s way. However, because the developers realized enthusiasts would need time to adjust to their game, it consequently goes a step further in that the starting area is entirely devoid of enemies. While it is possible to lose a life in this area, doing so would almost certainly involve a series of deliberate actions on the player’s part. As such, this is a perfect place to test the controls before you’re thrown into the thick of things.
The Nintendo 64 controller stood out as an anomaly with a look that seemed to defy any and all design sensibilities. While the competing PlayStation controller had two grips, the Nintendo 64’s featured three. It’s not as though Nintendo expected all three grips to be utilized at once. There were two methods of moving one’s character in a Nintendo 64 game: the directional pad on the top-right portion of the controller and the control stick in the center. The directional pad was primarily intended for two-dimensional games. Meanwhile, the control stick was the ideal method of moving a character around in three-dimensional space. Whether the left hand was intended to grasp the left or center grip depended on the game.
The Nintendo 64’s controller has two standard buttons within reach of the player’s right thumb: “B” and “A”. Each hand also has access to a secondary button. While the right hand always has access to the right shoulder button, labeled “R”, the left hand’s option depends on the control style they’re using. If the player is using the directional pad, the “R” button’s opposite, the “L” button can be used. However, should the player use the control stick, they will instead have access to a button on the controller’s back: the “Z” button. Due to typically placing the left index finger to use it, the “Z” button is commonly nicknamed the trigger button.
Using the control stick to move Mario around reveals exactly why there are fewer standard buttons to work with. The directional pad and the buttons of any preceding console had only two states: pressed or not pressed. As such, characters on their own would only have two states in regards to movement: mobile or stationary. This necessitated the use of a run button in Mario titles, for the platforming challenges revolved around momentum and precision jumping. This mainstay was no longer required as the developers were coding Super Mario 64. Instead, the control stick by itself can register precise movements. By pushing or pulling the stick in a given direction, Mario will begin moving accordingly. Due to the nature of the control stick, he is not limited to moving in eight directions. Mario’s speed depends on how far away from the center the stick is. By pushing the stick as far as it will go, Mario will automatically begin running. Walking in Super Mario 64 is a matter of tilting the stick halfway between the edge and the center.
Through the simple act of jumping, you’ll learn that Mario is far more athletic than any of his older incarnations. As usual, the act of jumping is assigned to the “A” button, and the amount of acrobatic maneuvers Mario is capable of is quite astonishing. If Mario jumps three times in succession while moving, his third leap will be much higher than the preceding two. You can tell if you performed it properly if he somersaults in the air and sticks the landing. By having Mario leap at a wall, you can have him rebound off of it to gain extra height. Interestingly, this particular mechanic originated as a glitch in the original Super Mario Bros. Because of the slightly unpolished collision detection, persistent players could jump off of walls if hit from the right angle. Here, in Super Mario 64, the bug has officially become a feature. By pressing the “A” button after quickly turning around while running, Mario will perform a sideways somersault.
Without the need for a run button, the “B” button instead serves more of an offensive purpose. While Mario got by with simply jumping on enemies in order games, pressing the “B” button in Super Mario 64 causes him to throw a punch. Pressing it three times in a row has him execute a combo involving two punches and a kick.
Pressing the “Z” button causes Mario to crouch. Being a 3D game, crouching isn’t as useful for dodging attacks it was in the sidescrolling installments. Instead, it’s the basis for many new moves Mario can carry out. Taking cues from Yoshi, Mario can perform a ground pound if the player presses the “Z” button while airborne. By holding down the “Z” button while stationary and pressing “A”, Mario will somersault backwards. Conversely, if one were to hold down the “Z” button while Mario is in motion and then press “A”, he would execute a long jump. By holding “Z” and then pressing “B”, Mario will sweep the area around himself with a kick. If this combination is utilized while he is in motion, he will launch a forward, defeating most enemies in his path. Finally, if you attempt to move while crouching, Mario will start crawling along the ground. Though highly situational, this can be used to circumvent many steep slopes and sneak past unwary enemies.
A lot of important information, including an explanation of the controls and the situations for which these maneuvers come in handy, can be obtained reading the signs littering the castle grounds. Once the player has adjusted to the controls, their next order of business would be to head for the castle posthaste. Before they reach the entrance, they will be interrupted by a familiar enemy: a Lakitu. There’s no need to panic; this one does not intend to throw Spinies at Mario. Instead, as he explains to Mario, he is there to record to proceedings for the benefit of the viewer.
As Mr. Miyamoto, Mr. Tezuka, and Mr. Koizumi developed Super Mario 64, they had to actively consider an aspect that had always been treated as a given: the view. In a side-scrolling game, there was nothing to consider; the screen simply moved along with Mario. It is also not a coincidence that a majority of the earliest games to experiment with the third dimension happened to take place from a first-person perspective. In these cases, the player’s viewpoint into the world was identical to that of their character’s. Because of this, there were no issues when it came to adjusting one’s view. As long as the game was programmed well, it was easy as turning one’s head in real life.
However, Super Mario 64 was a different beast altogether: a three-dimensional game played from a third-person perspective. While having a fixed view worked in a side-scrolling game or one with little emphasis on action, the Super Mario 64 team realized players would need to have some control over the camera to avoid any perspective issues. Therefore, players can control the camera using the four “C” buttons located up and to the right of the “B” and “A” buttons. Imprinted on each of these yellow buttons is a triangle pointing in each of the four cardinal directions. Intuitively, pressing the left and right “C” buttons moves the camera in that direction. Pressing the uppermost “C” button allows players to examine Mario’s surroundings from an over-the-shoulder view. Conversely, pressing the bottommost “C” button zooms the camera out. By pressing the “R” button, you can access a second camera angle that follows directly behind Mario. Pressing the bottommost “C” button zooms out, and from there, the camera will always position itself behind Mario. By pausing the game, you can select an alternate, fixed camera option. By holding down the “R” button, the camera remains where it is, not following Mario.
When Mario has entered the castle properly, the voice that greets him isn’t Peach’s, but Bowser’s. The Koopa King insists nobody is home, though this quickly proves to be a blatant falsehood when you realize one of the princess’s retainers is nearby. Speaking with him, you learn everyone else, including the princess, has gone missing. Using objects known as Power Stars, Bowser has besieged the castle. Because of this, you’ll discover that there aren’t many places Mario can access from the onset. A majority of the doors available to him are either locked or sealed using the Power Stars. With no Power Stars of his own, Mario only has one door he can access, which is on the far left of the foyer.
This room appears to be completely empty other than a large painting dominating the back wall. The painting is actually a portal leading to another world. There is no deep trick to making use of the portal; to take that first step towards retrieving the Power Stars, Mario must literally jump right in.
This takes Mario to the first proper stage of the game: Bob-omb Battlefield. The Bob-ombs Buddies are in the midst of a war against Bowser’s Bob-omb army, and it’s up to Mario to turn the tides for the former. On the summit of the distant mountain is the King Bob-omb. Said king also happens to be guarding the game’s first Power Star on Bowser’s behalf, so Mario must spring into action.
It is through exploring this stage that the average player in 1996 began to appreciate just how differently Super Mario 64 played compared to its predecessors. Mario, who once could not normally survive a single attack without being defeated, now has a health gauge instead. The gauge’s graphic is a blue circle divided into eight segments embedded in a wood carving of Mario’s face. It only appears once Mario has taken damage; if he is at full health, it will move off the screen. Enemies and the various hazards Mario may have to circumvent do various amounts of damage. Typically, he can take anywhere from one to four units of damage at once. Notably, Mario cannot get away with falling from a great height this time around. He will take somewhat realistic damage from a steep drop with the amount piling up the longer he falls. In a solution befitting a cartoonish game, he can execute a ground pound shortly before hitting a surface to negate or reduce the damage.
You may have learned by swimming around the moat of Peach’s castle that, for the first time in the series, Mario cannot stay underwater indefinitely. Instead, the health meter measures Mario’s oxygen levels when swimming. By reaching the surface of a body of water, Mario will refill his lungs. Notably, the game doesn’t distinguish Mario’s life meter draining as the result of an enemy attack or running low on air. This means that if you find any body of water deep enough, Mario will completely recover his health simply breathing air.
Following a perilous journey to the top of the mountain, Mario must defeat the King Bob-omb. As opposed to his underlings and their rather explosive tempers, the king cannot be defeated by detonating him. Instead, you will need to make use of another mechanic to fell him. By attempting to punch his back, you will pick him up. Pressing the “B” button again causes you to toss him. By tossing him three times, you win the duel. This is how picking up and carrying objects in Super Mario 64 works, though the applications aren’t always dramatic. After defeating the King Bob-omb, Mario obtains the promised Power Star. Upon collecting a Power Star, Mario is removed from the stage and the player is allowed to save. Unlike in the 2D games, a player can exit the stage whenever they so choose. To prevent players from exiting the stage before falling into a bottomless pit, the option to exit a stage only appears when Mario is standing still.
The number of Power Stars Mario possesses is always shown on the top-right corner of the screen. Despite what the scenario may imply, the stars don’t actually aid Mario in any practical way. They are instead used to unlock the doors that Bowser has sealed. Still, collecting them is of utmost importance; even obtaining one opens up two new doors: one leading to the second course and another leading to a secret area.
Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World both featured a high quantity of stages with a simple goal: reach the end of the stage. Even when the latter title introduced secondary exits, the goal was functionally identical. The only practical difference was the number of hoops had to jump through in order to reach these secondary exits. In rare instances, they were easier to reach than the standard ones. None of that knowledge applies to the courses in Super Mario 64, of which there exist fifteen. This may sound like a step down from Super Mario World, but there are quite a few mitigating factors to consider.
To begin with, before Mario enters a given course, you get to select an objective. Every stage in the game contains six objectives. Once they are fulfilled, Mario is rewarded with a single Power Star. The six objectives are presented in a linear order. When an objective is selected, a stage is slightly altered to make obtaining the associated star possible. For example, the first objective of Bob-omb Battlefield is to defeat the boss taking up residence on the summit of the mountain. Only by selecting the first objective from this menu will he appear on the summit; he is nowhere to be found in the remaining five. Despite this, whether or not you can obtain a given star isn’t always set in stone. As long as the level design allows it, you can obtain the stars in any order you wish. In Bob-omb Battlefield itself, there’s nothing stopping you from obtaining the sixth star first. In this regard, it’s best to think of the objective names as hints for obtaining the stars rather than standalone mini-stages.
This emphasis on fulfilling objectives is reflected in the stage design, which is quite a bit different from anything the series had offered by 1996. Though the rare objective simply requires Mario to reach the Power Star, the course design is markedly more open, giving the player freedom to explore it at their leisure. Bob-omb Battlefield sets the standard by which the rest of the game operates. Typically, the first objective marks the player’s introduction to a course. Completing it causes the course to revert to its natural state, making it possible to obtain the remaining five stars in any order the player so chooses.
As one is figuring out how the game works, a savvy player may come to the conclusion that the life system is superfluous. This isn’t quite true; some objectives feature checkpoints, and if you lose all of your lives, you are returned to the title screen. Nonetheless, for a majority of the game, the life system is indeed largely meaningless. As long as you save after obtaining every star, you never run the risk of losing too much progress if you get a “Game Over”. It is quite ironic that in light of this information, coins, which traditionally granted Mario an extra life if he collected one-hundred, are now more vital than ever.
To begin with, coins restore Mario’s health. Each one he collects restores his health by a single unit. Most coins are the traditional golden, but there are two new varieties available: red coins and blue coins. Unlike their counterparts in Yoshi’s Island, the red coins in Super Mario 64 are not disguised as golden ones. Every single course in the game contains eight red coins. Once they are all collected, a star spawns in a fixed location in the course. Furthermore, all of the stages contain a box with a blue coin painted on its top. By ground pounding it, a set amount of blue coins appears for roughly ten seconds before disappearing.
It’s important to note that red coins count as two golden ones and blue coins count as five. While collecting one-hundred coins for an extra life can certainly help in a pinch, there is even more of an incentive to do so in Super Mario 64 than in any previous game. This is because once Mario has collected one-hundred coins, a Power Star manifests. This means every standard course in the game houses seven stars rather than six as the interface would lead you to believe. You start off with zero coins when you enter a course, so you must collect one-hundred in a single session for it to count. Though it may sound overly cryptic, I found myself enjoying this development. The Super Mario 64 team counted on players to apply their knowledge of the series to this new installment only for them to be taken aback when they discover a hidden star.
Meanwhile, Peach’s castle, with its lack of enemies, is the result of connecting these courses using an actual stage rather than a world map. Given the small number of courses present, it’s a much better way of connecting them than with a world map. Even better, the castle itself contains fifteen stars of its own, rewarding anyone perceptive or persistent enough to explore every nook and cranny. The success of Super Mario 64 ensured that many games made within the next few years would follow its lead. Thus, this game invented a subgenre known as the collectathon. They too would feature a relatively small number of stages in favor of giving players a degree of freedom exploring them.
After reentering Bob-omb Battlefield, Mario can speak with a Bob-omb Buddy near the stage’s entrance. The Bob-omb Buddy, thankful for Mario dethroning the tyrant King Bob-omb, will allow Mario to use their cannons. Upon jumping in, you are taken to a first-person view. Simply put, the direction Mario faces is the one in which he will be launched from the cannon. These canons are instrumental to reaching locations Mario couldn’t otherwise, so it helps to observe his surroundings carefully. If nothing else, they allow for excellent shortcuts because Mario usually doesn’t take fall damage using cannons.
Because Mario now has a health meter, the traditional power-up system has been completely eschewed. There is no need to gain a Super Mushroom to bolster Mario’s survivability. In its stead are three different caps that bestow different powers onto him: the Wing Cap, the Metal Cap, and the Vanish Cap.
The Wing Cap allows Mario to fly through the air upon performing a triple jump. The controls operate on an inverted y-axis. This means that pulling the stick toward you will cause him to fly upwards while pushing it away makes him dive. Similar to the Cape Feather, retaining height with this power-up is a matter of diving and using the momentum to fly back up. Players can make use of the cannons to launch Mario straight up in the air for a gigantic boost.
The Metal Cap coats Mario in a film of liquid metal. In this form, he cannot be harmed by enemy attacks and he is dense enough to walk along the bottom of a body of water. It’s wise to use the fact that he is not affected by the wind or strong, underwater currents to your advantage.
Lastly, the Vanish Cap turns Mario invisible. In addition to allowing him to sneak up on enemies, the Vanish Cap grants Mario partial intangibility. While solid surfaces such as walls or, thankfully, the ground prevent him from passing through, he can go right through wire meshes and hidden passageways without any problems. Respectively, these three caps are located in red, green, and blue exclamation mark boxes. Much like in Super Mario World, they can only be filled in once Mario presses their respective switches.
When you have collected eight stars, Mario can open the sliding door with the big star emblazoned upon it. You are taken to a corridor with a painting of Peach on the other side. If you believe that Mario’s objective being within reach after obtaining a paltry eight stars is too good to be true, you are entirely correct. Indeed, as you head toward the portrait, Peach’s visage is replaced with Bowser’s. Before he can even reach the painting, a trapdoor opens, plunging Mario into the Dark World.
This mini-stage exists as something of a counterbalance to the rest of the game. While Super Mario 64 primarily revolves around open-ended stages that encourage exploration, this area, dubbed Bowser in the Dark World, is a linear platforming challenge akin to something one would find in a classic installment. This is enforced with its default camera perspective, which imitates the style of a 2D side-scrolling game, albeit allotting the player a greater degree of movement of their character. Despite this, there is a fair bit of exploration to be done, for the mini-stage too contains eight red coins. It’s best to procure each one as soon as you can because the star appears near the end of the stage. The end of the stage is marked with a familiar green pipe.
Upon dropping into the pipe, Mario finds himself face-to-face with Bowser himself in a large, foreboding arena. With the 3D presentation, Bowser is quite a bit more intimidating than his 2D counterparts. Even worse, without the benefit of a power-up system, Mario cannot simply shoot fireballs at Bowser until he is defeated. On top of that, this incarnation of Bowser isn’t naïve enough to lob Mechakoopas at Mario, thus supplying his sworn with the ammunition he needs to win. Therefore, in the face of this seemingly insurmountable foe, Mario must adopt a more assertive tactic. Attempting to punch or kick Bowser is futile. Instead, the player must remember their fight with the King Bob-omb and attempt to grab Bowser by the tail. From here, you rotate the control stick until you have enough momentum to throw Bowser a significant distance. Attempting to throw him out of the arena didn’t work with the King Bob-omb, and it will not work here either. Instead, your goal is to throw him into the bombs precariously placed around the perimeter of the arena. Only a single hit is enough to put him out of commission for the time being.
This fight demonstrates what I believe to be the greatest aspect of Super Mario 64. It constantly adds new mechanics with every course, and continues to do so well into the endgame. However, these courses, despite their self-contained nature, actually do a remarkable job building off of one another. In doing so, the entire game is subtly training you throughout. This is demonstrated when you reach the game’s sixth course, Hazy Maze Cave. The first path splits into two; one can simply be walked across while the other must be circumvented with a long jump. A sign near the entrance even makes it clear that the latter option makes for a handy shortcut, though the player may not have mastery of the controls by this point.
If the sign in Hazy Maze Cave was the developers realizing players may not have completely adjusted to the controls, the twelfth course, Tall, Tall Mountain, expects nothing less than complete mastery. In order to access the stage properly, the player needs to perform not one, but two long jumps in succession. In a lot of ways, this makes Super Mario 64 the antithesis of The Legend of Zelda. A given Zelda installment made players collect power-ups that were easy to use, though the gameplay became more complicated with each new one. Meanwhile, in Super Mario 64, the title character starts the game with an impressive repertoire of athletic maneuvers he can pull off, yet the player wouldn’t necessarily have a reason to use every single one from the onset. Only through clearing the increasingly more advanced permutations of obstacles can you have any success.
As you progress, you get a sense of the game’s stellar variety. I would say the greatest aspect of these courses is how elaborately designed they are. Shifting Sand Land, the resident desert stage, features a pyramid large enough to form an entire second stage. Many other courses such as Lethal Lava Land and Wet-Dry World operate on similar principles. In a creative twist, your method of ingress occasionally has an effect on the courses. Wet-Dry World revolves around raising and lowering the water levels, the initial state of which depends on Mario’s altitude upon entering the painting.
Meanwhile, Tiny-Huge Island has two paintings – one large and the other small. True to its name, the stage has two versions of itself – one in which Mario is giant compared to everything else and the other wherein he is utterly dwarfed by Goombas. Which version you get depends on the painting Mario enters, and they contrast each other in interesting ways. While Mario has an overwhelming advantage over enemies in the tiny version, it is much easier for him to fall out of the stage. Conversely, defeating the larger enemies is a bit more challenging, yet doing so typically yields larger rewards in the form of blue coins. Finally, there’s Tick Tock Clock, a stage hiding behind a giant clock face. The time displayed on the clock determines how quickly the mechanisms within the stage move. If you time it right, they won’t move at all, which could be handy in some objectives, yet render others impossible to achieve. Successfully traversing these courses require a degree of lateral thinking that was quite rare for the Mario franchise up until this point.
This isn’t to say the level design in Super Mario 64 is perfect. If it’s one thing I found slightly disappointing, it’s that many themes were reused. On occasion, recycling these themes creates an interesting juxtaposition between worlds. The two mountainous courses, Cool, Cool Mountain and Tall, Tall Mountain start Mario at the summit and the base respectively. This radically changes how one goes about exploring stages that otherwise boast similar design sensibilities. Most of the time, however, it has the unfortunate effect of making seem as though the team ran out of ideas midway through development. There are two snow-themed courses: Cool, Cool Mountain and Snowman’s Land. Similarly, there are three water-themed courses: Jolly Roger Bay, Dire, Dire Docks, and Wet-Dry World. While the first is a perfectly fine water stage and the third boasts an interesting gimmick, Dire, Dire Docks almost comes across as an afterthought. It boasts a linear design that wouldn’t have felt out of place in one of the Bowser stages, yet still has six stars – most of which are within close proximity of each other.
I also have to comment that Super Mario 64 is decidedly light on boss fights. The initial two courses, Bob-omb Battlefield and Whomp’s Fortress, have Bowser’s minions guard the respective first stars. After that point, the rest of the encounters are very well hidden to the point where many people could go entire playthroughs without ever knowing of their existence. This is a shame because starting with Super Mario Bros. 3, the Mario franchise began having progressively better boss fights. The trend came to a head in Yoshi’s Island, which featured some of the greatest boss fights of its console generation. Though Mario has been more about platforming than combat, it’s still disappointing how few bosses there are.
The biggest reason I say it’s disappointing is because the Super Mario 64 team provides ample evidence of their aptitude creating boss fights when Mario squares off against Bowser for the last time. Everything about this encounter is executed flawlessly from the music to the dark aesthetical presentation. It is quite possibly the single most difficult final boss fight the series had known by this point in its history. Your objective is exactly the same as it was the first time around, but you must throw Bowser into three mines. This is challenging because Bowser can exhale a rain of fireballs that scatter every which way and stomp on the ground, thereby producing shockwaves. What’s worse is that after two successful hits, he transforms the arena into a star shape, significantly reducing the amount of room you have to work with. If you got by throwing Bowser a few centimeters into a bomb, this is where your free ride ends. The new platform shape ensures you will have to throw him quite a distance to reach the bombs. The ideal endgame encounter should serve as an exam that pushes everything you’ve learned to their absolute limits. Under these parameters, I can say the final fight against Bowser in Super Mario 64 passes with flying colors, making for one of the medium’s finest moments.
Drawing a Conclusion
When I played Super Mario 64 for the first time, I thought it was one of the best games I had ever experienced. At the same time, I ended up taking what this game achieved for granted. Nintendo had always made great games, so why wouldn’t I expect them to reign supreme in the third dimension? It wasn’t until I became a fair bit older that I realized just how much of a marvel this game managed to be in 1996.
Mr. Miyamoto, Mr. Tezuka, Mr. Koizumi and their team were all exploring entirely uncharted territory. Even with Super Mario Bros., they knew what a sidescrolling platforming game was; all they did was signpost to future developers how they should be made. With Super Mario 64, they were writing a rulebook for a game nobody had dared attempted to seriously play. They had no personal experience to tell them what did or didn’t work in a 3D platforming game – and neither did anyone else. A friend of mine put it best when he likened Nintendo succeeding to the extent that they did with Super Mario 64 to somebody who doesn’t know the rules of baseball hitting a grand slam the very first time they swung a bat. Though Nintendo had their fair bit of detractors by the mid-nineties, there’s no getting around that like with Super Mario Bros. before it, they revolutionized the medium once more upon dropping Super Mario 64. With 3D quickly becoming the standard, every successful AAA title made after 1996 owes at least part of its success to Super Mario 64 – whether it directly took inspiration from it or skipped multiple generations.
After discussing Super Mario Bros., I concluded that, as a rulebook destined to be followed by every 2D platformer for decades to come, it was ultimately rendered an average effort in the grand scheme of things. Based off of this, I can imagine some readers believing that I would draw a similar conclusion about Super Mario 64. While it’s admittedly not as impressive now as it was in 1996, I can’t say the passage of time has been unkind to it. Part of what makes Super Mario 64 such a miraculous effort isn’t just how impressive it was upon release, but the extent to which it has held up. Future 3D titles boasted a greater degree of polish, yet none of them could claim to have outright defeated Super Mario 64 at its own game. It stands not only as a remarkable technical achievement that continues to impress programmers to this day, but also an essential part of gaming history absolutely worth experiencing firsthand.
Final Score: 8/10