Here we go, again.
I first played Super Mario 64 in a Belfast branch of Woolworths in 1997. In those days you could sample new consoles via ornate demo pods with well-worn, sticky controllers fixed into clamps. As a Sega Saturn owner, Mario 64 was a revelation. It was obviously slicker and far more expansive than what Saturn developers had attempted at the time, and just a few minutes frolicking through Bob-Omb Battlefield were enough for the game to linger in my mind long after I left the store. Since then I’ve picked at various emulated incarnations of Mario 64, and 20 years later I played the same level on a cute little CRT at Melbourne’s ACMI – time has not been kind to the N64’s video compositor, which looks like Vaseline smeared on a jam jar compared to the razor-sharp pixels of my Saturn over a SCART cable – but it’s only through 2020’s Super Mario 3D All Stars on the Switch that I sat down to properly immerse myself in Mario’s first 3D epic. 1
And to my delight, it still holds up – just about.
Mario 64 is the first real ‘open world’ console game, with an immediate wonderful expansiveness as Mario shoots out of a pipe and you’re left to your own devices to explore the castle’s mysteries. As a relative newcomer, I feel like a tourist as I crane Lakitu’s camera around to take it all in, and the designers convey an impressive amount of grandeur with a few chunky polygonal boulders. The controls are remarkably decent: even without the modern affordances of later Mario games, Mario can turn around on a dime, and his core moveset of triple jumps, slides, long jumps and backflips is all you really need. Similar to the older 2D Mario games it’s a lot less forgiving; and between that and the emulation lag, triple jumps and wall kicks are trickier to pull off than I expected.
But most importantly, it’s just plain fun to control Mario. You have enough constraints to pull off the occasional death-defying trick (and thanks to the Switch’s video capture, you can save them for posterity), and the level design tempts you into taking risky shortcuts and making the most of Mario’s moves. Compared to something Sonic Adventure or Spyro the Dragon, it’s obvious that Nintendo immediately nailed the transition to 3D, but their deliberate design decisions were not obvious ones – and even when other designers had the test answers right in front of them, they could barely manage a passing grade.
As Nintendo’s first real 3D game, the stages veer into the abstract, and at times the downright arbitrary. The Bowser showdown stages are challenging slabs of unforgiving geometry suspended in space, a trick Nintendo would later repeat to similar effect in Super Mario Sunshine’s more challenging moments, but sometimes you get a more questionable design such as ‘Wet-Dry World’ which resembles a few generic primitives thrown into the level editor from Doom.
Fortunately, you don’t have to complete every stage or look up a walkthrough to make it to the end. Mario only needs 70/120 stars to reach the final confrontation with Bowser: I picked the first few stages clean and barely touched the less inspired later levels. They’re all broken into six star objectives, with extra star for collecting coins and a few others hidden around the castle, a concept that returns in most other 3D Marios and culminates in Super Mario Odyssey where there are moons in every nook and cranny, discoverable by accident.
The goals are short enough that you can pick up your Switch and snag some stars in a matter of minutes. It’s perfect for mobile play, although I doubt that’s how people played it back in the day unless they had a supply of lead acid batteries and tremendous upper body strength.
Playing Mario 64 in short bursts also masks one of its more obvious flaws: there’s a fair amount of repetition in the objectives, whether it’s collecting red coins, racing a Koopa, or just working through the same areas over and over again to get the next star. It’s not as blatant or prescriptive as Super Mario Sunshine, and if you get bored with one level you can easily move on – although as I mentioned before, the first few levels are awesome, the latter half much less so. Super Mario Galaxy was a massive improvement in this regard, and while 20 years passed between those games, they’re also part of the same new compilation, and it’s hard not to draw comparisons. With the benefit of hindsight, these classic 3D Mario games would feel much slicker if you could move from one star to the next without being booted out to the hub every time you collect one.
The nicest part of the 3D All Stars package is that you can see Nintendo polishing the formula to perfection in the years and games that follow. However, the collection is straight-up emulation with minimal UI upscaling rather than a proper remaster, and therefore Mario 64 suffers from the usual N64 video and audio issues. The graphics are somewhat ugly even by the standards of the time, and the farty MIDI soundtrack is far from Koji Kondo’s best (although the Bob-Omb Battlefield theme is still a banger). Fans have recently delivered a true port of Mario 64 to the PC that is far smoother than this, and while there’s a case to be made for preservation, it’s hard to escape that this is a fairly lazy port in an age of truly resplendent remasters. The N64 falls into an uncomfortable middle ground between the pixel art mastery of SNES and Saturn and the polygon-pushing horsepower of the PS2 and Gamecube, and even as a museum piece, a little polish would have gone a long way.
Super Mario 64 is an icon, and with that comes unrealistic expectations. Almost 25 years later, stripped of the glamour of a Woolworths demo pod, what’s left is a game that is primitive on the surface but still refreshing and enchanting in all the ways that matter.
- Yes, I am that sucker who spent nearly $100 on three old ROMs. ↩