Nostalgia can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provides a sense of comfort in harsh times, a sort of reassurance that not everything is as bad as it looks. On the other hand, it can be blinding to the truth of the past, coloring the world and reframing it in an inaccurate way. This is true for anything deemed nostalgic, be it history, life, or (especially) art. In the case of Super Mario 64, for example, it can even blind gamers to its flaws and shortcomings that have been improved on in future entries. I say that having been a big fan of the game growing up. But unfortunately, I don’t believe time has been kind to this game at all. And it hurts to admit that.
Adventure awaits you
I should probably start by praising the areas of the game that do hold up. For one, Super Mario 64 really does nail the feeling of being an adventure game. It might seem archaic in scope even compared to other N64 platformers, like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, but for a game released in 1996 it really drives home what 3D gaming could achieve at the time. There was no previously established standard for how 3D gaming should function, so Super Mario 64 had to lead the way from scratch.
The courses themselves were quite challenging. There were 15 main levels to choose from, with each containing seven Stars that Mario could obtain. Adding in hidden areas and secrets brought the total number of stars to 120, and (optionally) collecting them all proved to be a daunting task. Only the seasoned pros could gather every Star, though, thankfully, you only needed 70 to face the final boss.
Additionally, the game was bursting with visual flair. It might look dated now, but Super Mario 64 was eye candy back in 1996. The grass levels were rich in greens and browns, while the snow levels were heavy on whites and blues. The color grading was well used, and even the three Bowser worlds were unique in their color schematics. There was also a lot of attention to detail present in each world, with little waves and pieces of rock sticking out in ways that made the worlds feel tangible.
Dance to the music!
The music in Super Mario 64, courtesy of Koji Kondo, was also really good. Taking cues from electronica and jazz, each of the courses had simple renditions that are still memorable to this day. They might’ve been repetitive and perhaps reused in more than one course, but they never felt lazy or uninspired. It was pretty easy to tell that you were in a field level or a water level based on the track, which is important for a platformer with diverse level design.
I also really appreciate the sound design, even now. Super Mario 64 blended cartoony noises with a weighted, somewhat real-sounding feel, which wasn’t easy for 1996. It tempered the volume to reflect indoor and outdoor noises. It even featured prerecorded voice acting by Charles Martinet and Leslie Swan as Mario and Princess Peach respectively, a first for a core Mario game.
It perfectly matched the Nintendo 64 controller
Another big thing Super Mario 64 achieved was successfully reintroducing the joystick in a 3D game. The joystick felt like it was made for the game, with its feeling incredibly natural and easy to use at the time. The in-game camera was also a unique feature that could be adjusted with the C-pad, making you feel even more like you were controlling the world. It was a fully functioning game, one that still plays pretty decently now.
Ultimately, Super Mario 64 was just fun! I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I spent as a kid aimlessly running around as Mario throughout the different worlds. It might’ve led to a lot of in-game deaths, no doubt, and at times it distracted me from my in-level objective, but it didn’t matter. Mario moved and roamed around like a living, breathing character that I could control, and that’s all that I cared about.
On the other hand…
All of this is hunky-dory, but I did say that the game hasn’t held up. It’s because of some key elements that have aged really badly. The most-obvious is the in-game camera. It’s spastic and restrictive, with its four angles often getting in the way of seeing what’s right in front of you. It doesn’t help that you’ll be at a spot that requires precise platforming, reach a sharp turn, and then fall off the ledge as the camera haphazardly swerves behind you without warning.
Additionally, the game’s littered with clipping issues and glitches. Because Super Mario 64 is an early 3D game, a lot of trial and error went into its design. Even with a delay to refine and add more content, (The game was originally supposed to debut in 1995.) it still has moments where Mario gets stuck without warning or falls through a slight gap to his doom.
Again, that controller!
Speaking of limitations, the joystick’s control hasn’t aged well. It’s way too loose for its own good, making it hard to really aim enemy throws. This is especially tedious with Bowser fights, the final one in particular. Bowser requires an exact throw against a spike to defeat, and the final throw for the final boss has you throw him with half the stage carved out. It took me many failed throws to actually beat him, and even then I did so by accident.
Another issue is the game’s constant decision to boot you out of a level each time you die or complete an objective. It’s maddening to have to waste time jumping back in every time. I understand why the designers did this, but it’s not like you can’t get certain Stars out of order, so why not use that to the player’s advantage? Wouldn’t it enhance the game’s non-linear format?
Playing on repeat
Also, the level designs, while varied, feel repetitive after a while. You have your typical field, castle, snow, and water levels, but then you later see repeats of some of these motifs. Even the secrets within the different worlds feel samey. And so do the bosses, with most of them following a basic “rule of threes” formula for beating them. It’s not a deal-breaker, but you’d think Nintendo would be a little more creative on that front.
The last complaint, and this is one that I’m not sure Nintendo really had any control over, involves the game’s barebones game design. Super Mario 64 encourages exploration and has an excellent sense of spatial geography, but as with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, most of the game maps feel relatively barren with few enemies. They feel like tech demos for an incomplete game. It wouldn’t be so glaring if the above issues weren’t also present, but since they are, well… it’s that much more noticeable. But I’m not sure Nintendo really had any control over that.
I feel bad for being so critical of this game. Super Mario 64, like with many other gamers who grew up in the ’90s, was a huge part of my childhood. But considering how future Mario platformers, most recently Super Mario Odyssey, would improve significantly upon the foundations that this game built, Super Mario 64 feels that much more antiquated in 2019. Even Super Mario 64 DS feels like a genuine upgrade, due in part to its cleaning up the glitches, refining the camera, and smoothing out the controls.
Despite all of the above complaints, like I said before, I still thoroughly enjoy Super Mario 64. It’s a well-crafted, above-average 3D platformer that set the stage for 3D gaming to come. And it has a lot of interesting and unique ideas jam-packed into a single cartridge. It’s merely a shame that I don’t love it as much as I used to.
What do you think? Do you think that Super Mario 64 has stood the test of time? Or do you agree that it’s really showing its age? Let us know in the comments below.