Original Release Date: 1996
While Mario isn’t as prominent or important as he used to be, his importance to this medium cannot be denied. With the original Super Mario Bros he simultaneously revitalized the game industry and established the framework that almost all 2D platformers still use to this day. He then practically perfected the formula with Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island.
And with Super Mario 64, he made the leap into what was at the time the wild west of 3D gaming. Just as with his 2D classics, his 3D debut is often credited as establishing many conventions, and helped people to understand how 3D games could work, and what it took to successfully translate a franchise from 2D to 3D.
Super Mario 64’s importance as a pioneer is unquestionable. However, just because something is important doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a game that holds up to modern scrutiny. The original Legend of Zelda was a pioneer of its genre, but the game itself falls short in so many areas when compared with later evolutions in the genre that there’s little to recommend about it nowadays. With all that in mind, how well does Super Mario 64 stand the test of time?
On the whole, pretty well. One thing that is very evident from the start is that Nintendo understood that 3D games are inherently different from 2D ones, and what works in one format won’t necessarily work in another. So rather than trying to copy the older 2D games exactly and just add 3D around the established formula, they instead built the game from the ground up with the 3D gameplay in mind.
Instead of just moving across side scrolling levels, Mario can now move freely in any direction, and on top of that has a much more diverse set of abilities than his 2D counterpart. This allows for new ways of approaching problems, as well as new ways of presenting obstacles and designing levels.
Everything about Super Mario 64 feels deliberate, and in a good way. The game actively takes advantage of the 3D environments it contains, with very effective use of spacing. The visuals are also very distinct, and present the player with a variety of colorful and interesting environments. Even though the visuals are clearly dated, they’re still vibrant and fun to look at.
Overall, Super Mario 64 has stood the test of time relatively well. However, it does have some shortcomings. The camera controls are a bit awkward and wobbly compared with modern games, and sometimes make seeing where you want to go needlessly difficult. The game also has a similar issue with Super Mario Bros 3, in that the different levels focus less on building on what the player learned in previous levels, and more on having different gimmicks. While this makes each level distinct and memorable, it also makes getting through each level more of a hassle, as each level can only be beaten by trial and error. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that, unlike in Super Mario World or Yoshi’s Island, there are no mid-world checkpoints, so if you die, you have to start the whole level all over again. This is not helped by the sometimes arbitrary one hit kill obstacles. For example, falling into lava will do some damage, but still give the player a chance to recover, while stepping into quicksand results in instant death.
Another issue is the inclusion of the lives system, except that it ironically has the opposite problem of its 2D counterparts. In many 8 bit and 16 bit games I’ve complained about lives systems before, with my main issue being that their purpose is to make the game longer rather than better. Well, it was around the time that Super Mario 64 came out that the lives system became a bad design decision for a different reason. While the lives system used to be a cheap means of making a game last longer, during the transition to 3D the lives system instead became entirely pointless.
In Super Mario 64, you can easily get a lot of lives, avoid running out, and even if you do run out, there’s not much of a penalty at all. As infuriating as the lives system was in older games, it at least had some sort of purpose for existing, while in Super Mario 64 it’s an entirely meaningless mechanic that adds nothing to the game at all. If the lives system was removed, it wouldn’t affect the game at all. This is the reason that most games nowadays don’t have a lives system, because developers figured out that having one is either bad or redundant.
Despite suffering from a few crow’s feet, though, Super Mario 64 is still pretty fun and engaging even to this day. It took the classic fun platforming that Mario is known for and successfully translated it into 3D, providing something both familiar and fresh. I’m not a major fan of Mario games in general, and I can’t say the leap to 3D really changed that feeling much, but I still had fun with this title. It’s a really good 3D platformer, and is still very much worth playing.
How well it holds up 3/4
Personal Enjoyment 3/5
Overall quality 9/10
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