This Game is Such a Joy.
Everything is so playful in Super Mario 64, especially those penguins.
I couldn’t figure out how to play.
I was standing in a Blockbuster at one of those trial console stations (where the controller was cemented with plastic to a frame to avoid theft) trying to get Mario to move. I played every Mario game to date; why wasn’t this four-way pad working? I brushed against the stick in the middle by mistake, and my life was changed forever.
Seems a bit hyperbolic, but it’s hard to explain why the transition to 3D gaming was so amazing as now the format is so ubiquitous. I remember strong debates with friends in the elementary cafeteria about if it was even possible to make some franchises in three dimensions (in one particular instance, Ryan and I discussed Final Fantasy at length — we really could not fathom how a game like that would even work).
When I played Super Mario 64 in 1996, it felt like video games would never stop getting better. Replaying it in 2020, this game is still worth playing albeit the camera is still kind of trash (I’m talking about you Lakitu 👎🏻).
Mario is invited to enjoy some cake with Princess Peach (they couldn’t have known that in 2020 🍰 and 🍑 would be emblematic of other things). He enters the castle in the distance to find that Bowser has stolen the Princess again for the fourth iteration. He has to enter paintings that teleport him to magical worlds to find stars that open deeper dungeons to where the Princess is locked away.
They must have been worried we wouldn’t get it. Instantly upon entering the game, we get a quick tutorial on how to operate the camera. It was probably a good idea because you fight that dang camera for the rest of the game; no ledge is safe to cross with a POV that continues to swirl as you move.
It’s easy to not go to your apparent next location (the castle) because you are too busy figuring out how Mario moves. This is where the entire joy of Mario exists: he moves with enough calibration for you to feel in control, but he’s slippery around the edges. You start stringing together multiple maneuvers because you are always a little off. A long jump leads to a back flip that leads to a somersault that finally leads to a safe butt smash.
The point of the game: figuring out the puzzles to unlock stars while using this cooky character’s movement patterns. Due to his calibration, you will always be doing last second attempts to save your character from steep falls or death. Just like the little over corrections you did in the side-scrolling game, these corrections lead to an endless amount of anxiety and achievement when you successfully survive. Just moving Mario around in this environment is rewarding enough.
The puzzles are great, too. There are seven stars in each world, and the title upon entering gives you hints of what you need to do to get them. The game has a little bit of everything: racing, linear aspects, collecting, open exploration, puzzles, hidden rooms and more for you to collect the stars. The variation in tasks with the ADHD movement of Super Mario keeps it interesting throughout.
Super Mario 64 was released for the Switch as part of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars that also included Super Mario Sunshine for the Gamecube and Super Mario Galaxy. It was fun seeing people take to Twitter and share the same joys and frustrations that us veterans all know too well:
It’s moments like these that we will remember forever.
The original open platformer still has it.
Other People’s Takes:
- OMG Girls Game: “This game is a classic! Who didn’t love the N64? Sure there were people that didn’t like the controllers and found them hard to play with, but some of the best and most well-remembered platformers came from this era in gaming!”
- Geek Fusion: “I feel bad that I played this game in 2020, because this game was one of the building blocks of modern 3D games, and yet playing it now seems, not bad, but very simplistic.”
- Noah’s Game Reviews: “And somewhere lying in the center of that nostalgia fortress is the structural central beam, whose metal is made out of a single impenetrable material: Super Mario 64”.