Last week, the Nintendo 64 turned 20 (!!!) years-old, making gamers everywhere feel like they should be entering retirement homes soon. In honor of the milestone, I booted up my Wii U copy of the console's first game, Super Mario 64, to see just how well it stands up to the test of time and to my memory. In short, the game is a masterpiece. Here are 10 thoughts I had while playing through one of my childhood favorite titles.
- Graphically, the Game Surprisingly Still Holds Up
I know what you’re thinking, and yeah Super Mario 64 can be a jagged, polygonal mess. Still, for the very first N64 game, Mario doesn’t look half bad at all. In no way is the game convincing as a modern title, but it’s not a complete eyesore, either. Especially on the Wii U, 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. Compared to some games of the era, Super Mario 64 rarely hurts the eyes with its graphics. This game is a prime example that despite hardware, great art direction can more than make graphics stand the test of time.
- Levels Aren’t Nearly as Huge as I Remember
When Super Mario Galaxy came out for the Wii, one of the major complaints I heard was that levels weren’t as massive as they were in Super Mario 64. Indeed most of the Wii game consisted of maneuvering across small planets, and the 64 game featured levels with several stars 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 girlfriend watched me play some of the early levels and kept asking “Why do you keep replaying the level over-and-over?” While each coursel has many more stars than Galaxy’s, most of them require the player to traverse the same areas, making levels feel larger than the may seem. At least Galaxy has new areas to explore most of the time for new stars in same courses.
- There is a Serious Lack of Power-Ups
One of the best aspects of the Super Mario Bros. games are the power-ups players can collect to make Mario even more powerful. 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 has none of that, though there is a wing cap that gives Mario limited gliding abilities. Along with that, there is also the metal cap, that makes Mario heavy and indestructible, and the invisible cap, that allows Mario to pass through enemies and some walls. That’s it. There are no fire flowers, no boomerangs to throw, no feathers or leaves. What’s more is that most levels don’t even have a power-up, or they have limited usage, making players control the titular plumber in his standard, default form for the vast majority of the game. Super Mario, indeed.
- 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 that does 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.
- 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 attached video. 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 just a little bit 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. If this was in any other game, that would be the stuff of nightmares. 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 through 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.
- Yes, There is Voiceacting
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’sa 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’sa 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 20 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 both Galaxy games and 3D World had little to no voice acting outside of the obvious sounds characters make as they hop across levels. Just last week, many players rejoiced that the Legend of Zelda franchise was finally introducing spoken lines for the first time (Hiyas aside).
- Sometimes, the Game is Downright Hard
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 exponentionally, 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 you include the grueling final challenges). 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…
- Collecting 100 Coins in a Level is Just the Worst
Some levels this isn’t so bad, but others, including the very first, can be a chore-and-a-half. 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 in the game and take to the skies to 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 delema 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. Nintendo knew how to make hard games back then.
- The Final Bowser is Harder 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 harder 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.
- The Game is Still as Fun Today as it was in 1996
Despite some of the criticisms, the game is still a blast to play even 20 years 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, an 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.
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