- Developer: Nintendo EAD
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Platform: Nintendo 64, Virtual Console (Wii, Wii U)
- Release Date: September 29, 1996 (NA)
- MSRP: $9.99 (Wii U Virtual Console)
Super Mario 64, the legendary Nintendo 64 game that helped revolutionized 3D platformers. Released in 1996 as a launch title for the N64. Mario’s first ever 3D game. One must keep in mind that this was an era where 3D games were something new. There were no established rules for how to make a proper 3d game. Development teams had to rely on their intuition to create a functional game. Due to this, many games released in this era failed spectacularly to make the adjustment to this new generation of gaming (look at Bubsy 3D). Even Sega has yet to figure out how bring Sonic into 3D. Many mascots of the 2D era found themselves on the guillotine. Before the release of Mario 64, many wondered if Mario would meet the same fate as these other series. Fortunately, Nintendo has the genius that is Shigeru Miyamoto at their disposal. The man responsible for Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, F-Zero, and Pikmin. Miyamoto and company were determined to make Mario work in 3D. Ever the perfectionist, Miyamoto forced Nintendo to delay the release of the N64 in order to make sure Mario 64 was up to his standards. The game was successful financially and critically. With this game now 20 years old, it is time to examine how well this classic has stood the test of time. Is it as good as we all remember or has it aged like the homeless meth head that lives at the train station? Let’s find out.
It’s a Mario game what do you think happens. Mario is told by Princess Peach that she has baked a cake and she wants him to have some (if you know what I mean). Mario arrives at the Castle to find that Bowser has kidnapped the Princess yet again. The original “Cake is a lie” before Portal made it famous. This story is not breaking any ground and won’t blow any minds. Mario has never been about the story. This works to its advantage as places more focus on the gameplay. This was still a time when videogames mostly put little focus on story and in some way, it was better that way. Unfortunately, it seems very difficult to create well written stories that do not conflict with the gameplay, but that’s for another day.
Super Mario 64 opens with Mario arriving at the castle to find Peach kidnapped. In order to save the princess, the player must collect enough power stars. Her castle acts as the hub world to reach the other levels. The levels are located inside various paintings throughout the castle. When a player enters the painting, a screen pops up that shows which stars to get. Each level has 6 stars that the player gets through various challenges. They all have titles that give hints of what the player must do. Sometimes, the title is rather vague and cryptic. Luckily, the player can get the other stars even if it was not the one they intended to get. Mario 64 gave the player freedom to play in different ways. If it is difficult to get one star, just go for another one. There are 120 stars all together. As you get more stars, more levels will be unlocked. For the final fight with Bowser you will need at least 70 stars.
The level designs are varied and incorporate the controls effectively. The introductory level, Bob-omb Battlefield, does an excellent job of teaching the player the basics (expand more on this). Standout stages include Big Boo’s Haunt, Lethal Lava Land, Tall, Tall Mountain, Snowman’s Land, and Tiny-Huge Island. Expand more on later. All levels have red coin missions in which the player must collect 8 red coins found throughout the level. This is a somewhat boring challenge and gets repetitive. Each level also rewards the player with a star for collecting 100 coins. This too becomes very tedious. I would recommend that you try to get the 100-coin stars while going for another star. The game allows the player to keep going after they get the star for 100 coins. Normally, I try to get the 100-coin star while collecting the 8 red coins. This takes care of the least interesting challenges at the same time.
I would not describe Mario 64 as extremely hard but it has its moments of difficulty. It has a gradual spike in difficulty. This gives the player a chance to learn the controls, make mistakes, but not be punished harshly for doing so. The first floor of the castle has the easiest levels, the basement increases difficulty, the second floor gets even harder, and then the third floor has the hardest levels in the game.
The boss battles are somewhat underwhelming. You must fight bowser 3 times. Mario must grab Bowser by the tail and throw him into the bombs that surround the stage. This can either be extremely easy or irritatingly hard. The best strategy is to try and corner Bowser near one of the bombs and slowly twirl him around, then throw him at the bomb. For the final battle with Bowser, you must do this three times. This is made harder by the fact that the stage falls apart. Bowser can also send out shock waves as well. Despite this, the fights with Bowser are easy. The mini-bosses are also very easy to beat. The player usually only has to jump on, hit, or throw them three times and it’s over. This seems to be the case with most Mario games. Somewhat difficult and creative levels but with easy to beat bosses. This has been the case since Super Mario Bros was released in 1985 on the NES. All main series Mario games are good games, but they could at least put in more challenging bosses. Mario 64 is not as bad as other Mario games with repetitive boss fights. I’m looking at you Super Mario Sunshine!
Overall, the gameplay of Mario 64 is very fun. It finds the right balance of difficulty. It can be challenging but never gets to the point where it stops being fun. Getting 70 stars is fairly easy, but collecting all 120 stars can become very challenging. As said earlier, the 100-coin stars are tedious. The final two, levels Tick-Tock Clock and Rainbow Cruise, turn the difficulty way up and require great patience to complete. You cannot just rush through them like most of the levels. These levels can be very frustrating as you will probably die a lot. I would say if you really enjoy the game, go for all 120 stars. If you don’t absolutely love this game, it is probably not worth 100%-ing this game. After you have collected all 120 stars, the cannon outside the castle will open. Shoot to the roof of the Castle, and you will find Yoshi. He will congratulate you for beating the game and award you 100 lives and get a special jump that sparkles. This is kind of pointless since you already beat the game. It was still a nice easter egg to see our old friend Yoshi. Not much of a completion bonus but was still fun the clear all of these challenges.
I think we know right now that the N64 controller is a bit strange. Was this designed for people with three hands?! Despite this, Mario 64 controls very well with N64 controller. For recording purposes, I played the Wii U Virtual Console port and found it rather difficult to control Mario. The basic controls are A to jump, B to jab, Z to crouch. There are also several different jumps that can be performed. There is a triple jump, long jump, sideways somersault jump, and dive. Mario can also perform a backflip. Mario has several attacks. You can punch and kick enemies. These attack are somewhat unnecessary as jumping on enemies is usually the most effective attack for Mario. But this does allow for Mario to pick up items such as bombs or boxes. Mario can also crawl into tight space by crouching and then moving with the control stick. These controls are pretty tight for a launch title on the N64. Miyamoto and company had very little precedent for how to make a 3D platformer but seemed to get the basics for how a character should control in 3D.
Perhaps the most useful mechanic introduced here was the long jump. It allows Mario to jump a fairly long distance. He can now get over big gaps with relative ease. This mechanic did not return in Sunshine but was heavily implemented in the Mario Galaxy games. A minor issue with the controls is that occasionally Mario will not perform the action you intended to perform. This does not happen often enough to the point it detracts from the experience. Sometimes you will jump and land in a particular spot that causes the game to glitch out and make the player fall off the stage. The camera at times will be your worst enemy. The camera works better than most 3D games at the time but have aged horribly. Sometimes it will get stuck behind walls or you will not be able to get the angle you were looking for. This will make it difficult to judge certain distances. The camera will be the cause a good amount of deaths. For the most part the controls are really good but the camera tends to be very wonky.
To me, this is the least important aspect to a game. Bad graphics are tolerable if the gameplay is good enough to make up for it. The N64/PS1 era graphics are hard to judge. For its time, Mario 64 had really good graphics. Looking at them 20 years later, it is somewhat ugly to look at. The N64 had very simple textures and it really shows in this game. Most backgrounds have little detail. Everything looks very flat and sharp. The colors used a kind of dull. There are a lot of greens, browns, and yellows. The graphical limitations may cause frustrations for players. It can be somewhat difficult to judge distances when jumping platform to platform. Despite the aged graphics the game still is fun to play. It’s not the prettiest game in the world but you must take into account that this was a launch title on the N64. Later games developed on the N64 took fairly big leaps in graphics. Ocarina of Time and several Rareware titles (Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64) really show off what the N64 was capable of. Unfortunately, it seemed only 1st party games looked good on the system. Most third party games look absolutely disgusting.
Like many of Nintendo’s titles from this period, there is not much music in Mario 64. Mario 64 makes up for a lack quantity with quality. The music was composed by the legendary videogame composer Koji Kondo. His work includes most of the main series Mario and Zelda games. Ocarina of Time and Super Mario World stand out to me the most. This almost guarantees the music will be good.
The music seems to fit the atmosphere of the level in which it is used. Most levels use the theme heard in Bob-omb Battlefield. These levels tend to be more open and focused on basic platforming. The light hearted music fits well with these types of levels. The snow levels use a very wintery sounding song. Levels that take place in caves or seemingly desolate locations use a remixed version of the original underground theme from Super Mario Bros. Slide levels or levels that put heavy emphasis on difficult platforming use a fast pace blue-grass sounding song. The Lethal Lava Land and Shifting Sand Land use Arabian like music that really fit well with these levels. Boo’s Big Haunt uses music that would fit nicely into a horror movie. The water levels use a very relaxing song that adds a peaceful atmosphere.
If you listen closely to some of the songs, you will notice that it is actually a remix of the Bob-omb Battlefield theme. Koji Kondo is very good at using the same tune in very different ways. The songs sound so different that it can be difficult to even notice that it is just a remix of the same song. The songs that stand out to me the most include Bob-omb Battlefield, Dire Dire Docks, Snow Mountain, Slide theme, Metal Cap theme (EDM version of the starman theme), Cave Dungeon, Koopa Road, and both Bowser themes.
Mario 64 revolutionized the 3D platform genre and successfully launched Mario into 3D. For the most part, the game stands the test of time. It still controls very well. The same cannot be said about the graphics and the camera. These flaws can be forgiven as this was at the very beginning of 32/64 bit era. Collecting the stars is a fun challenge and the game has a fair difficulty curve. I would give a strong recommendation to play this game. Your best bet to get the most enjoyment out of this game is hunt down a cartridge to play it on the N64. This game and the N64 controller seem to go hand and hand. If that is not an option, you can purchase it on the Wii U Virtual Console for $9.99. I give this game a perfect 10. It is historically important and its flaws do not detract from the overall gameplay too much.
Note: This is a review from my previous site