Review: Super Mario 64 (~12 hours)

[Editor’s Note: Almost one month later, with a couple Special Features added, I am back, writing reviews. Thank you for bearing the break. I’ll try to update Mondays and Fridays]

When I think of Super Mario 64, I think, “That’s one of the greatest games ever made.” However, I’ve grown fearful that future generations will not agree. The main reason is that newer games feature graphical improvements such as super high polygon counts, high resolution textures, fancy lighting and shadow effects, and 4K screen resolution. But allow me to explain why Super Mario 64 is one of the greatest games of all time, without all those modern features.

Around 1995-96, no one knew what a 3D platform game should be. Crash Bandicoot was published a few weeks prior to SM64, but it had only taken the blueprint for a 2D platformer. The game put the camera behind the character, and you were running down corridors until the level ends, just like running left to right until the level ends. Mario 64 had fully 3D “courses,” with full 360° range of motion. Courses could be played multiple times in different ways. What is useless for one star in a course is useful for a different star.

Stars are everything in Mario 64, so it’s not really a collectathon. The only other thing to collect is coins, one-hundred of which grants you a star. Each of the fifteen courses could be played seven times for seven different stars. The remaining fifteen stars (out of 120 total) are known as the “Castle’s Secret Stars.” Though the game can be finished with only 70 stars, getting all 120 results in a special message from Bowser, as well as a visit from an old friend, Mario’s dinosaur Yoshi, after the credits. Honing in on one collectible really did make for a better game. You are much less likely to get distracted.

So far I have not spoken of the controls. I compare all other 3D character action game’s controls to this game’s controls. There is a lot of finesse, especially tiptoeing, the side jump, and the long jump. Later critics would consider the Nintendo 64’s analog stick among the worst in the industry’s history, and yet, it got the job done. I am still a believer in eight-directional grooves for the analog stick, unlike that in a Sony or Microsoft controller. I have played through to 120 stars three times, and I couldn’t have done it if Mario controlled like a tank. It’s fun to reach a destination in very little time because the controls are so refined.

Individual star objectives are varied but usually reoccurring in concept. Every course has a star for collecting the eight red coins. Generally, in vertical courses, there is a star at the top-most point awarded for traveling that far. Some courses have bosses who usually have you repeat an action three times to get the star, e.g. jump on the Wiggler’s head three times. There is more than one foot race with the Koopa. The list goes on.

Sooner or later, I have to get into the negatives of this game. For one thing, the music is far from Koji Kondo’s best work. But most upsetting, looking back on the title all these years later, is that there aren’t enough tracks. Tunes from early courses are repeated in later courses, and it would be nice if more original works were in later parts of the game. Mario can hit special blocks to fly, turn to metal, or turn invisible, but you’re on a time-limit, and none of the super powers are that great. As an example, when you’re flying, you’re always sinking ever so slightly. The only instance of a super power I like is turning invisible to walk through a wall that leads to a star. Last, the camera is bad, but I can give it a pass because 3D games were still young.

Still, this is one of the greatest games ever made. If I had a Nintendo 64, I’d play through again for all 120 stars, knowing that after that, there is nothing left to do. The game was influential, especially in the next generation of consoles, where Sony’s PlayStation 2 had Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and my personal favorite, Sly Cooper. The game would have four sequels of its own, including the recent Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo 64 as my first home game console, Super Mario 64 as the first cartridge I plugged in, my opinion hasn’t wavered much.

5/5

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