Jump up, don’t be scared
The transition from 2D to 3D is a trial that countless video game mascots, but especially platformers, stumbled upon with the rise of polygonal graphics. Sonic landed decently enough at the time, but his Adventures have since aged poorly. Donkey Kong had good ideas for his 3D collectathon, but built them around an overwhelming and exhausting cluster of a messy game. And Bubsy… you know what, forget I mentioned him. Yet Mario managed to defy that trend. Super Mario 64, his first ever 3D platformer, is still considered not only one of his best games, but one of the best platformers of all time. I feel as if I shouldn’t be too surprised, considering this is from the IP that launched the game industry into the stratosphere, but I can’t stop asking myself a question in light of all this. How the heck did Mario succeed so strongly where so many others fell flat on their faces?
You probably already know the basic gist of Super Mario 64, especially if you read my previous entry about its Gamecube successor. You jump into an overworld (Princess Toadstool Peach’s castle) and search for 120 Power Stars by jumping across a slew of small open worlds to find them by completing platforming challenges and uncovering secrets. The shapes are bland and blocky, but that’s to be expected from a developer exploring a new graphical style; what’s more important is that these visuals are functional.
By using vibrant colors, a handful of 2D sprites, and simple yet identifiable 3D geometry, SM64 builds memorable and eye-pleasing visuals that make it easy to navigate levels and identify points of interest. Similarly, the music is built around lots of synthetic beeps and boops that don’t feel much more advanced than the SNES, but they’re composed excellently and are extremely memorable. Every song in this game is an ear-worm, raising your spirits with upbeat jaunts as well as imposing dread with ominous tones.
But here’s where things get tricky for me to discuss this game. You’d think I’d have played Super Mario 64 before Sunshine, right? Well… I did, but not that thoroughly. I finished the game, and I enjoyed it for sure. But I didn’t quite own my own Nintendo 64, so anytime I played the console, I was using borrowed time with others’ consoles. As such, even though I sometimes took the luxury to screw around for the sake of fun, I never devoted that much time to it or learning its nuances. I spent most of my time just trying to blitz through it for the sake of getting it done, and as such, it’s difficult for me to draw upon my personal experiences with it.
Super Mario 64 DS, however, is a different story.
For some reason, this remake is often forgotten about despite the insane popularity of both the original game and the Nintendo DS! Quite a shame, because this is my first experience with video game remakes drastically overhauling and adding upon the original game. Dozens of minigames to mess around with the DS’s unique features like the touch screen? Check! Smoothed out polygons and prettied up textures? Double check! Playable Yoshi, Luigi, and Wario alongside 30 new stars, a handful of new stages, a slightly revamped story/castle layout, somewhere like 40 or so minigames, and even a local multiplayer mode? Triple check! Polishing the controls to be even better? Cheeeewait…
… W-wait… where’s the control stick? You mean… you mean there isn’t one? The only way to get analog control is to touch your character’s icon... on the minimap? W-which is always moving across that screen as you run? Thus making it extremely unwieldy to use? So you just move with the D-pad instead?
… I think I just realized why Super Mario 64 DS is often forgotten.
I didn’t worry about it too much at the time, but reflecting back on it, SM64’s control scheme meshed poorly with the handheld’s button layout. The D-Pad is much more stiff for directional inputs than any control stick. The camera doesn’t fare much better - while the original game had a handful of C buttons to fiddle with and at least try to make specific adjustments as wanted, I remember constantly mashing the shoulder button to center the camera behind my character in the remake. Lining up my view for many jumps felt more tedious than the actual jumping.
There’s also something odd about the distribution of characters; for one, you don’t start with Mario, but with Yoshi. The others you all have to unlock through exploring new mini-levels as you unlock them. It’s a strange limitation, but I’m down for trying something new and unusual in the remake to shake things up. A much less pleasant limitation is the fact that it seems as if Mario’s original abilities and privileges have been divvied up between his friends.
The original three cap-based powerups are split between Mario, Luigi, and Wario-exclusive effects, and certain modifications to levels prevent some characters from achieving previously standard tasks. For instance, there are certain black blocks only Wario is strong enough to break, and a breakable block in the way of a Star may have been changed to this new black block. Thankfully, there are a handful of brand new powerups for Yoshi and Mario to play with to compensate, and the new characters all bring new moves to compliment their additions, such as Luigi’s floaty jumps or Yoshi’s egg throwing. But when taken as a whole, the way this game implemented extra characters feels ironically limiting.
Though relating to how much I’ve played with these new features, I have to make an embarrassing confession; I’ve never rescued Luigi and Wario. Long story short, at the time I played the game, I was scared of the Boos in the way between me and Luigi, and you need Luigi to unlock Wario. It was purely a personal weakness of mine that held me back from experiencing the game’s full content. Thankfully, I didn’t need to rescue them - many levels have a handful of magic hats that transform any character into Mario, Luigi, or Wario, with their complete movesets. This allows you to complete some (but not all) character-specific objectives before you unlock the character proper. It’s a convenient work-around if you’re not playing as the right plumber for the job, and it gives you enough of a taste of their skills to make rescuing them properly all the more satisfying.
Fun Fact: Finishing the game without rescuing a character omits that character from the ending cutscenes. Mario is required, but otherwise, you can abandon the others and they won't even be acknowledged after you rescue Peach. Oops.
The minigames were kinda fun, but they were more of a side attraction to demo the system’s new technology than anything else. I also never had the opportunity to play the multiplayer mode with friends, so I have no impressions of its quality. While these extras may be worth playing, they don’t carry enough weight to compensate for the gripes this remake imposes upon the base game.
And yet, I played it more than most DS games. Why?
Because the base game is Super Mario 64. While the control scheme and camera issues were enough to nag at me while I played, Super Mario 64 is just too good to be broken that easily.
The platforming physics of SM64 carry a weight reminiscent of his 2D platformers, albeit tied down a little. Mario’s not quite as fast as his flat incarnation, but he has enough traction to easily make precise maneuvers in a 3D space and he still gets around swiftly enough. He has an acceleration to him that makes momentum and utilizing the most of your diverse acrobatic moveset important for playing effectively, but not necessary for most of the game. While the control issues on the DS remake dampen how fun these physics are, there’s still a lot of opportunity to enjoy and exploit them! But using them truly skillfully takes a lot of practice, which I slowly developed but never truly excelled in. Like the NES games, these controls have a rewarding learning curve, yet that curve’s ceiling is much higher here.
SM64 also introduces several new power-ups that Mario (and his buddies) can unlock after completing challenges hidden around the worlds. The Wing Cap, Vanish Cap, and Metal Cap have since become some of his most iconic abilities… well, okay, not Vanish, all it does is make you invincible and phase through certain walls. The Metal Cap, on the other hand, makes you invincible and alter your weight. A metallic Mario can’t jump very well, but it’s cathartic to be able to defeat enemies by walking into them! Also, Metal Mario can walk underwater, even through strong currents. And metal looks cooler!
And the Wing Cap? Flying in all directions sounds like the perfect addition to a 2D series transitioning into 3D! Flying with the Wing Cap is exhilarating and thrilling… but extremely difficult to control. It’s fun, but even after practicing many attempts, I never got a firm enough handle on the controls to complete most flight-based objectives. Still, it’s a blast to fly carefree around worlds with it for quick travel or its own sake! These unlockable powerups make exploring the secret nooks and crannies of Peach’s castle all the more enticing and satisfying, as does discovering new stages and characters in the DS remake.
The objective design is also much more freeform than Sunshine. Every bit of progression through Peach’s castle is based on the number of stars collected, including reaching the final boss. At each major milestone, you gain access to a slew of new levels to tackle in whichever order you wish… or even to ignore in favor of completing older levels instead. And unless a Power Star has some special prerequisite that only spawns conditionally, almost any Star can be collected in any order you like. It rewards exploration and trodding off the beaten path in favor of making your own discoveries and progressing through your preferred levels! Even the remake, despite constricting this freedom somewhat behind character-based objectives, offers the player plenty of liberty to progress at their own pace through a variety of options.
Not that freedom means too much to people who will complete 100% of the game anyway, so what do they get? After collecting every Power Star, nothing happens at first. But if you search more, you’ll see that you can access the roof to Peach’s Castle, finding a message from the developers. In the original game, this leads to a cameo from Yoshi, an instant 99 lives, and a new triple jump animation. For the remake, this is changed to 3 lives, one of the collectibles for unlocking minigames, and a power-up box for any character to pick up, including flight for Mario. It’s not much, but it’s a unique incentive that provides a little more opportunity to toy around with this game’s wonderful world.
This freedom (and the fact that 100% completion is both enjoyable and rewarding) is why most players prefer Mario 64 to Sunshine. Objectively speaking, I agree, but I personally prefer the latter. The obvious reasons why are F.L.U.D.D.’s kinetic abilities and the visual/audio steps up, but it’s not fair to draw a conclusion based purely on the next generation’s technology advantage (or comparing a handheld to a home console, in the remake’s case). Something which bugs me about Super Mario 64’s level design which I rarely see discussed is how artificial many levels feel.
Worlds such as Lethal Lava Land, Wet-Dry World, and Rainbow Ride feel less like places and more like a series of platforms cobbled together for the sake of building a platforming challenge. Of course, this is in part a limitation of the console’s capabilities, but Nintendo’s other 3D ventures prove the 64’s ability to build believable locales. There are several exceptions, including Peach’s Castle, Bob-Omb Battlefield, and Snowman’s Land. And yet, the only time I truly enjoyed exploring and mindlessly playing with my moves in a level was Peach’s Castle, because I felt it was the most stimulating. Many other levels usually came across to me as boring unless I was pursuing their objectives. Does anyone else feel the same way about the level design in between these two games as I do? Or am I just clinically insane for preferring Sunshine over something so petty? Let me know in the comments, I’d rather have a few opinions before I schedule that psychologist appointment.
Super Mario 64 still holds up incredibly well for most people, and there’s a 1st grader’s Christmas list of reasons why. The controls are varied and nuanced, giving both casual and hardcore players a wide berth of toys to have fun with. The secrets are simple, but exciting to discover. The structure allows players to build their own paths and routes, both to specific objectives and throughout the whole game. The presentation is more ambitious than before, oozing with that feel-good Mario charm and adventurous spirit. This is a game that understands the fundamental difference between 2D and 3D design, and compliments that by literally expanding the platformer genre in every direction. I may not enjoy it as much as most of you do, but I have every bit as much respect for Super Mario 64. Even against today’s standards, it’s a game that deserves to be enjoyed.
Super Mario 64 is proof that Mario is the prophesied warrior-king of colorful kid-friendly platformers, one who can thrive even when other proud competitors have faltered in the same challenge. He may have his franchise spread across countless other genres, but you can always see elements of his platformers across them. That’s why I find it interesting and ironic that Mario has about a dozen RPGs developed across the years… why don’t we take a peek into those next month?