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CONSOLE: Nintendo 64 DEVELOPER: Nintendo PUBLISHER: Nintendo
RELEASE DATE (NA): September 26, 1996 GENRE: 3D Platformer
// review by SoyBomb

Have you ever plumbed in the third dimension?

Synonymous with the Nintendo 64 console and the humble beginnings of Mario entering the third dimension, Super Mario 64 was and always will be considered a "classic" in the annals of Nintendo's history. Revolutionary for its time, Super Mario 64 truly was the next step in the series and in video gaming in general. That being said, the game's not perfect — there are definitely areas that could have been improved — and we're going to take a look at this iconic game to see whether it truly deserves its near universal praise.

As the hero who needs little introduction, your goal is the same as it has been for ages (and the same as it will likely always be): rescue the seemingly helpless Princess Toadstool from the clutches of Bowser, King of the Koopas. In this game, however, she's referred to as "Peach" in this game, matching up with her overseas name; although this isn't the first time she's given that name in North America (that honour goes to 1993's Yoshi's Safari), Super Mario 64 helped solidify Peach in official Mario lore. Now Bowser must have gotten wise to Mario's impeccable skill set, as he has taken a bit more precaution. After taking over Peach's castle, he caches himself behind large doors sealed with the effects of the castle's Power Stars. As well, in order to secure Mario's failure, Bowser has dispersed all those stars to the various worlds hidden within paintings inside the castle walls. Mario has to visit 15 different unique worlds within the game to help locate all the stars necessary to save his beloved princess.

Super Mario 64 was Mario's first major foray into 3D, and for the most part, it works out well. With a bright and colourful world around him, Mario's finally able to run around and experience the splendor of the Mushroom Kingdom with far fewer boundaries (and Goombas) overall. The primary hub of the world is the Princess' castle, which we're finally seeing for the first time in all its glory. But the meat and potatoes of the game — leaving the castle to be merely a side-dish of tapioca or a delicious quince log — are the paintings, leading to various worlds where Mario will spend most of his time exploring. These areas range from your standard "grassy" areas to more theme-specific, such as the frigid snow peaks of Cold Cold Mountain, the disparaging quicksands of Shifting Sand Land, and the mechanical inner workings of Tick Tock Clock. Some paintings even go so far as to have special gimmicks associated with their entry, such as Dire Dire Docks, whose water level depends on how high up on the painting you jump in. Yet these "worlds" all beg the question of how they relate to the kingdom itself. Are they part of it, or are they separate dimensions entirely? I'm aware that it's more of a programming decision than anything else, but it begs a stronger explanation than... well, nothing.

It's odd how these areas are so arbitrarily designed; there's a certain feeling of absent cohesion, as though they simply had a bunch of level elements and pasted them together in a convenient way. I'm not saying the levels are terrible by any means, but with a system based around finding different stars that are not always available concurrently, it's not hard to see how these missions are cut-and-pasted into each world, rather than effectively integrated into the world itself. This is quite noticeable in areas such as Hazy Maze Cave, where every room and passage in the cave feels distinct yet unrelated to its next-door neighbour, or Rainbow Ride, where random chunks of platforming just hover there with no rhyme or reason as you pass by on an on-rails magic carpet ride; rooms and missions are simply wedged together into one world, rather than creating one united concept. This being the first main Super Mario game developed not to follow the general rule of "levels" and "worlds", it's easy to see how this design came to be.

Also, if you fall off an edge into the nothingness beyond, wouldn't you simply cease to exist in artistic space, rather than just tumble out of the painting?

Am I seriously sitting here questioning the logic of world travel in a video game?

You spend all your time looking around, and you'll have no time left over for actually achieving anything.

With a more expansive world ahead of him comes an equally expansive new arsenal of moves. Mario fans were used to being able to run and jump, but somewhere along the line, Mario learned a few new moves. He can long jump for the first time, proving he's capable enough for a track & field sports spin-off. One of his more useful maneuvers is being able to crouch and then perform a backflip to get on higher ground than would be possible via a standard jump. He can also kick now, which is great if you're trying to accidentally boot your way off a cliff into the abyss below. As for his little "breakdance" move, it's... utterly, utterly useless. It doesn't DO anything aside from attempt to give the poor guy a little street cred. Usually the controls are tight, but sometimes Mario just opts to do his own thing, resulting in shouts of "Ooof!", cheap deaths, and controllers hurled straight through a plate of delectable nachips.

There are definitely other issues to contend with that sully the experience somewhat. Mario does tend to be a little clumsy to control at times, although I chalk that up more to the bizarre Nintendo 64 controller above all else. That thing can sometimes be the trident from Hell. The camera system, although often on point, sometimes has a mind of its own, making treks that ought to be simple and straightforward far more of a chore, more often than not resulting in me falling off the edge of the world entirely and losing a life. Although you can control the camera to a large degree, there are still many months where you simply won't see what Mario is doing thanks to obstacles blocking your view or odd angles. Being new technology, I can let it pass, but it is a flaw that caused more irritation than necessary.

Now I know what you're thinking as you raise that flaming torch in my direction. You are thinking, "This guy couldn't review his way out of a pumpkin patch! All you've done is spout negativity about Super Mario 64, the game I love, the game I gave up my first born to play first at a Blockbuster in Utah!" Well, put down your pitchforks and douse those flames because I'm not finished yet. I suppose I should clarify that Super Mario 64, despite all its aged flaws, is very much an enjoyable game. I love the feeling of hopping into a new painting and being envelopped by the charm of the colourful surroundings. I love looking around everywhere and being taken aback in exclamation as I discover a new secret in the castle. And despite some aggravating control problems on occasion, it's a solid platformer that IS quite playable.

The graphics for its time were very impressive at a time when sprite-based games were the collective norm. I remember seeing Mario 64 for the first time playing in a Blockbuster Video when I had gone there to rent a game for the weekend. I was very impressed by what I saw, as was my father. I had been playing on a SNES for quite a while, so seeing a crisp 3D Mario scuttling about inside the Princess' castle was miraculous. Although the jagged nature of Mario and his surroundings pale in comparison to what we can achieve today, there's a certain charm to seeing the simplicity of the environs, of the characters.

I also can't stress enough how excellent the audio is in this game. Composer Koji Kondo, who was responsible for the now-fabled soundtracks of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, once again took the helm of creating the music for Super Mario 64 and nailed it with a string of memorable, charming melodies that suit the various locales. From the serene underwater tune to the Arabian-influenced lava level theme, Kondo took the rather limited MIDI abilities of the Nintendo 64 and created an all-encompassing soundtrack that just feels right for the Mario universe. Perhaps also shocking to players back in 1996 was that, for the first time, when you run around as Mario, he speaks! Usually it's a quick "Oh!" or a "Yah!", but hearing his voice was quite an evolution at the time that may or may not have been expected by the public. We also get to hear the Princess for the first time, as voiced by Leslie Swan, who also helped translate and localize the game.

Super Mario 64, while not the perfect game, has enough charm and playability to indeed deserve the title of "classic". Being able to fully immerse yourself within a giant world with relative freedom was something brand new to the gaming community back in 1996, and even today, it can easily be enjoyed, even by an audience that has grown up on the newer, fresher, more polygon-rich consoles. Gamers on the go can even discover this gem with the DS remake, Super Mario 64 DS, if they so desire. Despite a few faults, Super Mario 64 is indeed a great game that should be experienced by anyone who truly wishes to acknowledge and understand the beauty of the craft that is creating a video game.

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