Super Mario 64: A Retrospective


Super Mario 3D All-Stars features Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy.

As most gamers well know, the Super Mario franchise just celebrated the plucky plumber’s 35th anniversary with a slew of content, from new LEGO branded merchandise, to a theme park opening in Japan, as well as a HD re-release on Switch of three classic games in the form of Super Mario 3D All Stars. In this collection is Super Mario 64, a landmark title that almost singlehandedly proved that gaming could succeed in the third dimension and provide an evolved experience compared to its 2D predecessors. Just as millions of other Nintendo Switch owners have done, I recently revisited the title, and walked away with ten worthwhile impressions, some giving me improved reflection on how far we have come in gaming in the past quarter-century, and others that reaffirm why this title remains one of my favorite titles of all time.

“Bob-omb Battlefield” is the first area of Super Mario 64, and remains one gaming’s most spectacular areas to explore.
  1. Surprisingly, Super Mario 64 Still Holds Up Graphically.

I know what you’re thinking, and yeah Super Mario 64 could be the poster child for the sharp, jagged polygons that defined early 3D games. Still, for the very first N64 game, Mario doesn’t look half bad at all. In no way is the game fooling anyone as a recently released game, but it’s not a complete eyesore, either. HD technology works remarkably well in bringing Super Mario 64 up-to-date: Bob-Ombs appear mostly rounded; trees are complete with bushy limbs; and most enemies, while blocky, remain as menacing as they always have. Environments are also bursting with color, creating courses that beg to be fully explored. This game is a prime example that despite hardware, great art direction can more than make graphics stand the test of time.

2. Levels Aren’t Nearly as Huge as I Remember
When Super Mario Galaxy came out for the Wii, one of the major complaints I frequently heard was that levels weren’t as massive as they were in Super Mario 64. Indeed, the Wii game mostly consisted of maneuvering across small planets, and the N64 title featured levels with several objectives in one large playground. Still, even the largest of levels in Super Mario 64 can be completed in a matter of minutes, and many of the stars can be picked up shockingly fast if a gamer knows what to do. For instance, my wife watched me play some of the early stages and kept asking “Why do you keep replaying the level over-and-over?” While each course has many more stars than Galaxy’s, most of them require the player to traverse the same areas, making levels feel larger than they may seem. At least Galaxy has new areas to explore most of the time for new stars in same courses.

I also can’t ignore that this is evidence of just how far we have come since 1996. Back then, being able to view such an open environment and actually observe a horizon somewhere in the distance was shocking. It felt real even with the cartoon characters populating the land. Now, entering a large world that is dozens of square miles is common place. This doesn’t make the Super Mario 64 areas bad in any way, but it does explain why some modern day gamers jumping into the title for the first time may walk away with a little less awe than we did in the nineties.

Riding a koopa shell like a skateboard was one of Super Mario 64’s coolest aspects.

3. There is a Serious Lack of Power-Ups
One of the hallmarks of the Super Mario Bros. games are the power-ups players can collect to make Mario even more mighty. The games have all manner of magical items, from standard mushrooms that make our hero larger, to flowers that enable the plumber to spit fire, and even leaves that give Mario a tail and the ability to fly. Super Mario 64 replaces all of these classic power-ups with a few new ones. The most prominent is the wing cap that Mario sports on the game’s cover. This special hat gives Mario limited gliding abilities, crafting a similar feel to the cape of Super Mario World but significantly less freedom of flight as the tail in Super Mario Bros. 3. There’s also the metal cap, which makes Mario heavy and indestructible. Lastly, the invisible cap grants him transparency, and grants him the ability to pass through most enemies and some walls. Sadly, that’s just about it. There are no fireballs to hurl, no boomerangs to throw, no tails that can whip enemies from afar. What’s more is that most levels don’t even have a power-up, or if they do, they have limited usage, forcing players to control the titular plumber in his standard, default form for the vast majority of the game. Super Mario, indeed.

At the time, this didn’t seem such an issue. Mario moved unlike any game character we had controlled before. His wall jumps, long jumps, back flips, triple jumps, each of these moves were like a special power on the plumber’s handy utility belt. One of the most fun of these abilities for me was jumping atop an abandoned koopa shell and using it to surf across the land (and sea, and lava) at incredible speeds. Nintendo was able to make Mario feel Super without the need for power-ups. But now it’s been 25 years, and considering the strides 3D Mario games have taken since then, his lack of abilities does leave a void for modern players. Super Mario 64 is still immensely fun, but variety could go a long way in encapsulating the attention of some gamers in 2021.

4. The Camera is Mostly Fine, Until You Are Indoors or in Tight Corridors
Another big complaint about the game, both now and then, is with the camera. Often, it’s hard to line the camera up where it would be most ideal, making platforming much harder than the simple task it should be. Still, the truth of the matter is the camera is mostly just fine. For one of the first 3D games to incorporate camera work properly, players are rarely interrupted by walls and other things obstructing the player’s view, as with many of 3D titles of the era. Platforming may be hard due to the camera view, but that’s a designed challenge: the jumps are supposed to be hard because of the camera, and designed around that idea. The only time when the camera really gets messy is during tight areas, particularly indoors, where walls easily get the camera stuck. This, unfortunately, remained a problem in gaming until arguably Super Mario Galaxy adopted a side scrolling view for such areas. Regardless, Super Mario 64 should be heralded as a massive step forward because of its camera system rather than a reason to stay away.

The mad piano of “Big Boo’s Haunt” is still nightmare inducing.

5. “Big Boo’s Haunt” is Actually Kind of Creepy
As a child, I never really thought of the ghost house themed course as being anywhere close to being scary; Mario’s bright eyed, white, round ghosts were nowhere near as terrifying as the zombies of Resident Evil, for instance. While I have experienced many things much more terrifying than zombies since then, I can’t help but wonder why “Big Boo’s Haunt” didn’t frighten me just a little as an adolescent. For starters, just listen to the music in the sample below. Absent are the cheerful melodies and upbeat tunes the Mario series is known for. Instead, the Haunt consists of a low, droning groan, with soft, fast drums designed to get the heart racing and keep the player on their toes. It’s something more at home in Silent Hill than in a Mario game. Second, while I knew of the piano enemy beforehand, the concept of it is beyond bizarre. Yes, there is an enemy that is nothing but a large, black grand piano that springs to life when Mario is near, displaying its sharpened teeth as it clangs around the room in a fit of rage. The fact that it possesses teeth suggests that this murderous musical instrument is organic. Imagine running into this in reality; it would be more terrifying that a man in a hockey mask in my opinion. Lastly, there is the merry-go-round. While the dreary atmospheric music of the level is playing, the faint chime of a circus melody slowly emerges as one travels down towards the mansion’s basement. For first time gamers, the image of a terrifying clown creature hiding in wait for unexpected plumbers is likely to spring to mind. Chilling.

“Haunted House” by Koji Kondo.

6. Yes, There is Voice Acting
Just a small observation. The first thing one is greeted to when firing up Super Mario 64 is Charles Martinet’s upbeat Mario voice proclaiming: “It’s-a me! Mario! Hello!” and when starting a new game, Princess Peach reads aloud the letter she’s written for Mario. Throughout the game, Mario’s gleeful “Yahoo!” and “Let’s-a go!” yells bring the character to life unlike ever before. Even the ending of the game consists of the Princess fully speaking, telling Mario she will reward him with a freshly baked cake. Developers undoubtedly wanted to show off the power of the Nintendo 64, which didn’t just include brand spanking new graphics but even the capability to do full voice overs. It’s strange, looking back at the game after 25 years, and how few Nintendo games have used voice acting in such a way. Sure, Super Mario Sunshine used a great deal of voice work, especially during the opening cutscenes, but Mario games since have had little to no voice acting outside of the obvious sounds characters make as they hop across levels. The Legend of Zelda franchise didn’t receive any voice acting talent (hi-ya aside) until 2017’s Breath of the Wild. So much focus is placed on the leaps Super Mario 64 made in 3D technology, but sound design must be acknowledged as well.

“Rainbow Ride” provides some of the toughest challenges in Super Mario 64.

7. Sometimes, the Game is Downright Challenging
It’s no argument that games have progressively gotten easier. Most of this is the nature of the beast: developers become better at designing levels, thus hindrances like the camera become less of an obstacle; also with the gamer demographic growing exponentially, games must be more accessible. After growing up with games like this, modern titles like Super Mario 3D World pale in comparison in difficulty (unless of course you include the grueling final challenge of “Champion’s Road”). Some stars in Super Mario 64 are just hard, no other way to put it. Want to get that star from racing a giant penguin? You must master the racetrack and nail every curve on the icy track. Collecting red coins on floating clouds? Be prepared to try again-and-again after numerous failed jumps. Super Mario 64 isn’t easy, which leads to my next point…

8. Collecting 100 Coins in a Level is Just the Worst
On task gamer’s must complete in order to achieve that coveted 100% completion is collecting 100 coins in each stage. In some levels this isn’t so bad, but others, including the very first, can be a real chore. Collecting 100 coins to secure the last star in a course often requires killing nearly every enemy, breaking every block, traversing every corner of the level to make sure you reach that magic number. “Bob-Omb Battlefield,” the first course, requires the player to come back later after unlocking the wing cap in order to take to the skies, and even then you can just barely acquire the 100 coins needed for the final star. What’s worse is that if a player stumbles across another star (which can happen often if the course isn’t fully completed), gamers are placed in a dilemma of grabbing that one or coming back after getting the 100 coins, as getting a star restarts the course from the beginning. That’s not so bad as dying with 90+ coins, as they all must be grabbed in one go. Super Mario 64 might not be “Nintendo hard” like many NES games, but it is still a challenge for even experienced players.

9. The Final Bowser is More Difficult than I Remember
As a kid, I often loved to rush through the final stage, confident with the misconception that the final battle was the most difficult obstacle the game had to offer. I had honed my skills so sharply that I could toss Bowser into the three required mines and finish him off before he could even breathe a breath of fire. I’m not that good anymore. While the two previous encounters weren’t much of a challenge, I was immediately caught off guard as Bowser spit fireballs that tracked Mario’s movement, delaying the opportunity to grab his tail and swing him into a deadly mine. I’m also not as good as timing Mario’s throws as I once was, as the final section of the battle forces players to toss Bowser from near the center of the arena into the explosives. This is more difficult than it may seem, and for a game in which boss battles are usually a cake walk, the final Bowser battle can come at players like a curveball.

Collecting a star still provides that sense of accomplishment.

10. The Game is Still as Fun Today as it was in 1996
Despite some of the criticisms, Super Mario 64 is still a blast to play even a quarter-of-a-century later. That’s not just nostalgia talking. Whether you’ve played it before or are new to the 64-bit adventure, finding all 120 stars is both a challenge and a great joy. Each of the game’s environments stand out, and it’s insanely satisfying to explore their wild spaces. Sure, I’ve matured over the years to more serious, story driven games, but Mario’s platforming is so enjoyable that whenever I play this game I feel like a kid all over again. And I love every minute of it.

I know you will, too.

Source for images: Super Mario Wiki.

7 thoughts on “Super Mario 64: A Retrospective

  1. Wow… games like these make me wish I had a Nintendo switch. Even if I bought one now, I would not get the copy super Mario 64 because they stopped selling Super Mario 3D All Stars. So I would need to experience the fun of the games through the eyes of others.

    Uh…. as a person who has played super mario galaxy (1 and 2) for about 10 years in a row, now. I can’t help but compare the two. So…which one in your opinion is the better game?

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