Review: Super Mario 64 (***** stars)

TL;DR – Super Mario 64 was, and remains, a superb platforming action game, as well as the de facto standard for any entry in the genre. Its mixture of free-form exploration, incredibly precise and varied move set (augmented by an unbelievably precise controller), great puzzles, intuitive tutorials and excellent level design triumphs above all contenders save its progeny Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. The wealth of great choices on offer simply astounds – why can’t more games be like this sixteen years later?

Super Mario 64 shines like a beacon of light in a sea of bad games. Shigeru Miyamoto and his development team transformed Mario’s basic mechanics from the 2D plane to the 3D plane, losing absolutely none of the fun and whimsy in the process. There’s really no great improvements I could possibly imagine in regards to the game – it plays perfectly. Somehow, though, it appears Super Mario 64 has come under fire in recent years for being the first of a new generation of 3D games. As such, we talk of “outdated” games that, somehow, received vast improvements over games in the Playstation/N64/Saturn era. That isn’t the case. If so, can you name a 3D platformer that plays just as well as Super Mario 64, even today? I honestly can’t. It’s difficult to improve on near-perfection unless done in small baby steps. Mostly, we’ve been blinded by our utter familiarity with the platformer – we know how to work and move in 3D space, and we assume that’s how Super Mario 64 also functions. Then, every 3D game with 3D movement takes advantage, looks back at an old classic, and thinks it knows what was great. Actually, it’s very different than you remember – it controls better, feels better, and is designed better than the majority of 3D games today.

Firstly, the game constructs its hub world and levels in a way that’s incredibly intuitive. There’s not much handholding here – you can learn nearly everything just from the on-wall placards or the instruction booklet (remember those?). However, for most of the time, experimentation with Mario’s various abilities is key. If you want to get anywhere, the game forces you to learn them – what a profound concept! He can run fast; he can tiptoe across wide chasms. He can perform backflips, perform triple jumps, long jumps to cover huge distances, and even the “instant backflip”. All of these don’t move a set distance from the jump point; rather, their velocity and speed come as a result of Mario’s momentum going into the jump. Like the origjnal Super Mario Bros., this system comes into play with every jump. This even prevents you from simply running up a huge rockface – some walls are simply too steep for Mario to climb. It certainly helps that the N64 analog stick still performs as admirably as it did in the past – heck, I’d call it the most accurate analog stick ever devised. It’s used to great effect here, determining the aforementioned physics and their usage.

These might not seem like big features – on paper and text (or on a blog), all of this sounds hilariously boring. But, in practice, Mario’s varied and smooth controls mean every situation has multiple solutions. How do I get up there? What do I do? These are questions you’ll be asking fairly often as you’re only given a subtle hint and sent into an open world. Except for the first few worlds (of fifteen, no less), you’re gently nudged in the direction of an objective and set free to figure things out for yourself. Modern game developers, even Nintendo, fear that players might get lost or frustrated from an open-ended game structure or failure. Super Mario 64, by contrast, doesn’t have a problem with either of these things. It sets the player in beautiful, colorful worlds with all the variety of the rainbow (and yes, there’s a rainbow stage for you sadistic people out there) and lets him/her do as they please. Each level has its own unique theme, from giant clock towers to having Mario change size to the standard genre tropes (fire level, ice level, etc.); none of them are in the least bit boring, each providing a new open-ended challenge.

When you’ve presented such a challenge to the player – one that, up until this point, was nigh-unthinkable in the console realm – that’s a lot of trust in the developer’s confidence to not only convey basic mechanics intuitively, but also to make the challenges a balance of easy and difficult. Super Mario 64’s levels, in that sense, succeed brilliantly. Each one, though wide and expansive, hit that absolute sweet spot of size. It’s large, sure, but never overwhelming so that the player loses his/her confidence in their own abilities. Obtaining Power Stars (the game’s notable MacGuffins, and currently reviled as the beginning of the ‘Collect-a-thon” trend in game) come from a variety of sources: spectacular jumping sequences, boss fights, finding carefully hidden red coins, flying through the air in a cannon, and generally being observant. Bright, dense, and oversaturated color schemes keep the discovery process in check without muddy textures while making essential information such as “oh look, bottomless put” obvious.

There is never a moment where I thought the game had wronged me somehow, and that’s an important distinction. Many games have that moment where, for whatever reason – controls, camera, glitches or otherwise – the player feels cheated. They completely, and totally, made that jump but the game didn’t recognize it. The camera swooped around while I was moving, thus reversing the controls and making me fall to my death. I’ve felt this many times, all with the same disappointment at the game’s faulty nature. Super Mario 64, by establishing its rules so eloquently and rigorously, never engenders that same feeling. Sure, the motion of the camera controls limit your options, but it’s not as if Mario isn’t agile enough to judge the length of his jumps or compensate if it looks as if he will overshoot the landing (yes, you can control how far jumps move, even making the long jump rather short).

Many would point out, rightfully, that the camera gets in the way of the game sometimes. You’ll try to move the camera to the left, only to hear a familiar buzzing sound and sudden whiplash at the camera movement. What many don’t realize, and still don’t, is that the default camera angle remains sufficient. This was a game before the era of dual analog control – the C-buttons provided an unheard level of customization, making minor adjustments for the player’s own safety and necessity. I find myself frustrated only because I am so familiar with fully customizable and movable 3D camera control that I would make mistakes based on my inability to change it. That’s the plight of older games – they force you to return to a particular point in time and accept that, yes, this is how the camera worked. In confined spaces, it’s obvious the developers wanted you to use the Up C button to look around before leaping. If you’re simply jumping like a maniac, hoping the game will give you a break, this won’t happen – this ain’t Assassin’s Creed. Get over yourself and accept that the controls worked impeccably well within the constraints of the technology available at the time.

Once you get over that, you’ll note the amazing detail even in the hub world. Peach’s Castle contains a host of secrets and unlockables that – complete surprise – help you in other parts of the game. The Mario trend of “items that change your abilities” comes in the form of various caps, each of which must be unlocked in an entirely seperate, linear level. The flying cap, take advantage of the new 3D space, allows you to fly around with a gliding system that has almost too much precision. The metal cap turns Mario into metal, making walking on the floor of a lake or sea relatively easy for a limited time. The vanish cap turns Mario into a ghost, allowing him to walk through walls. The catch – unlike, say, fire flowers or capes in earlier games – is their temporary nature. They only last for a short while and fade away. This creates tense situations to use said abilities to reach stars in a limited time frame.

While Super Mario 64 doesn’t have a timer (like most platforms did), it doesn’t need one – falling usually leads to damage and/or death, the latter more frequently than the former. You will lose lives frequently and Mario will fly from the painting repeatedly as you understand just the right sequence to solving a particular puzzle. The hub world also has its fair share of Power Stars found throughout the castle, each requiring a new and unique solution…except for the collecting, I suppose. Perhaps the only large problem comes from the same open-ended nature of the design – you only need 70 stars to “beat” the game – not that they’re aren’t 50 others waiting for you to find. It’s unfortunate that many of the game’s best challenges can be skipped, but I imagine most people will want to continue on even after trouncing Bowser for the last time (did I mention the Bowser boss battles, where you swing him around by the tail, are awesome?).

All of these factors make Super Mario 64 a fantastic game, even today. Far from being outdated, it reveals just how forward thinking it was…only for no one to take any notice and derive the exact wrong lessons from SM64’s superbly crafted experience. It is willing to punish your mistakes – modern games worry for fear of alienating the player. It has great controls that, at times, can be complicated in their refinements and precision – modern games make every movement easy, rather than a game of accuracy. Modern game have huge maps that tell you what to do and where to go – SM64 only gives you the barest of hints and leaves you to your own devices. That’s a big contrast, to say the least.

Super Mario 64, then, comes from a time when developers trusted their userbase and gave them the tools to succeed. Games used to empower us by presenting challenges that, with determination, preperation and a little luck, we could overcome. Now, we simply go through the motions because we kinda like video games, I guess? That’s not what I want from video games; success should mean something. In the Christian life, we live in the power of God through the Holy Spirit; life’s difficult sometimes, sure, but the experience has been designed for our welfare and benefit (well, apart from the sin…). If 2 Corinthians 13 says:

For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.

Why not live with the power directed towards us? Super Mario 64, at the very least, is a microcosm of the same concept: determination and hard work yield success. Empowerment comes not through shifting illusions, but through actual skill. The protagonist of the game means nothing without a player behind him; oower comes not from ourselves, but from God living through us.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.