July 20

Super Mario 64

What is the greatest game of all time? This is a hard, if not impossible, question to answer as it’s hard to compare games from different eras and different genres against one another. However, although it might be hard to name the absolute best game of all time, there are definitely a few titles that are contenders because of how good they are. And Super Mario 64 is most definitely a contender for the greatest prize of them all.

A launch title for Nintendo’s N64 console, Super Mario 64 made it’s debut in 1996. Having been shown at E3 and TGS prior to it’s launch, the game had been wowing members of the press and public thanks to it’s (at the time) cutting edge visuals. Nintendo had hedged their bets with their new console by trying to outpower both Sega and Sony by skipping the 32 bit generation altogether and going straight for a 64 bit console. Super Mario 64 was not only the launch title for the system, but something of a statement of intent too, trying to show off what was possible with the system and why the masses should choose the system over it’s rivals.

64 bit Powwwwwwwwwer!

 

Prior to the games release, SM64 cleaned up with reviewers around the world and managed to become the first ever title to receive a perfect score of 10/10 from notoriously hard-to-please Edge magazine. Thus millions of players around the world waited with baited breath to see if the title could live up to the huge billing and hype that surrounded this title. And the unanimous verdict from pretty much everyone was that not only did it live up to the hype, it actually surpassed it. The word “masterpiece” is not one I throw about lightly when it comes to video games, but Super Mario 64 is most definitely worthy of the word. The game is still brilliant by today’s standards and can put fill a player with delight every time they play. Shigeru Miyamoto was already a genius Game Director but this game enhanced his already legendary status even further.

Traditional Mario games had up until this point been strictly 2D affairs. This approach was tried and trusted and Nintendo had already created some of the best games of all time using this formula. However, with 3D graphics all the rage, Mario 64’s big pull was that it was the first game to take the beloved Italian plumber into the realms of 3D platforming. Could this really work? Would the twitch and skill based nature of the 2D platformer carry over to 3D? The answer of course, was yes it could, and then some.

One of the first issues Nintendo addresses in SM64 is the position of the camera. In order for a 3D platformer to work, the player needs to have a good view of what is around him in relation to his character so that he can time jumps and traverse tricky sections. The camera is positioned perfectly behind Mario via a tail-cam, although it is possible to move and zoom the camera using the yellow buttons on the N64 controller.  There are also lots of nice subtle touches that make the camera more palatable, such as pulling back when the player starts traveling quickly, so they can see more of what’s around them to take into account that jump distances will be further than usual. That’s not to say the camera doesn’t have any issues. There are many times where it can become stuck and / or end up giving you a really poor view of what’s around you when trying to navigate around, particularly in small, tight areas. However, for the first foray into 3D for the plumber, the camera is still really well handled and the ability to move and zoom it does solve most problems if it becomes stuck.

The next issue that Nintendo deal with brilliantly are the controls themselves, specifically movement. In the 2D world, Nintendo had brilliant controls that allow a player to move really precisely and accurately around the game world. Even in later levels in 2D games, where there are some tough combinations of run and jumps to test the player, you never feel cheated when dieing. All jumps feel possible as a result of the tight and accurate controls. To handle this in the 3D world, Nintendo made use of the analogue controller that debuted on the N64 controller. The precision used with the stick in relation to movement is absolutely fantastic. In fact, I have seen many games released over 10 years after SM64 that still do not come close to matching how responsive and accurate the controls feel. If you delicately hold the stick in any direction, Mario starts to tip-toe in that direction. Hold the stick further and his movement increases in velocity intuitively. When running at full speed, holding back on the stick brings you to a nice halt, and it’s even possible to bring Mario to a really nice delayed stop with clever usage of the stick. You can run in any direction and double-back on yourself at any time, and it all feels wonderfully elegant and responsive. In fact sometimes just running about in an open area and playing with the controls is a great experience. You pretty much find that any sort of movement you might think possible within the game is possible. it’s an absolute delight.

Some of the many traversing / jumping mechanics available to Mario in the game. All intuitive, fun and a joy to perform and use.

Nintendo also compliment these tight movement controls with glorious jumping. A mainstay of the 2D series, the jumping in 3D Mario amazingly feels even more fun and natural. Again, analogue buttons are used so that a really light press causes a mini-hop, whereas a firm press results in a bigger jump. Combined with the speed Mario is traveling at and you can perform all manner of jumps and hops. For example, it’s possible to travel at full speed and then just lightly brush the jump button to perform a really low-to-the ground long-jump that even Carl Lewis would be proud of. However, if you hold the button, you can jump both high and far, allowing you to clear large obstacles or reach high and out-of-the way platforms. Mario can also perform double jumps and even a triple jump front flip to allow him to climb higher or travel forwards quickly. The player can also change jump trajectory mid-jump, allowing to jump forwards then backwards, or vice-versa. The player can literally move Mario around accurately enough to land on a sixpence, and it’s easy and intuitive to do so.

But even this was not enough. To cement the controls even further into the foundations of “godlike,” wall bounces, slides and stops are all available. And all of these controls are combinable with each other, resulting in absolute freedom of movement along all plains. This means that in any level and in any mission, there are a multitude of ways to complete a given objective. It also really adds to the replayability of the title, as once the player becomes confident in the controls, they can complete levels in all sorts of flashy and fun ways they might never have thought would work initially. In fact, watching some of the speed run videos of this game being played really shows you just what is achievable within the engine. I absolutely adore this approach of game design as it’s really sandbox like in that the player is free to do whatever they want and are encouraged to play with the game world and character to have fun and see what works. Games like Uncharted and Enslaved from 2010 onwards might have visuals that make SM64 look plain at best, but these games cannot hold even a candle to the almighty flame that is SM64’s controls. In fact the way that these games hold your hand and automate the way the main character traverses the terrain in these games makes me feel sick when comparing it to Mario. SM64 is a fantastic example of letting the player play the game he or she wants to. I could just imagine being able to move Nathan Drake with the precision I can move Mario in SM64… it would actually make for an absolute dream game. Sadly, this freedom of movement seems to have gone out of fashion…

That middle stick made ALL the difference!

SM64’s controls are definitely one of the reasons why it is such a fantastic and timeless title. However, it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of scratching away the brilliance this game has to offer. The game came on a cartridge, a really risky decision to take in the mid 90’s given how much cheaper it was to manufacture CD’s and how much more storage a developer has to play with on that medium. However, one thing it absolutely destroyed the Playstation and Saturn in was load times. Mario 64 is pretty much immediate throughout the game. Jump into a portrait to reach a new world and it loads so quickly and seamlessly. It compliments the controls perfectly and means there is no break in game flow. No having to wait a couple of minutes for a new area to load, no need to switch CD’s when accessing a new area. It just makes the game experience all the more magical.

Now onto level and world design. This has always been a strong point of Nintendo. Their designers really are some of the top guys in the business, as they seem to understand how to get the most out of any engine brilliantly. One of the first things you notice about SM64 is that it uses a hub style system to access levels, in a similar vein to Super Mario 3 and Super Mario 4. The castle that Mario sees as soon as the player starts the game is used to access every level in the game, with worlds being hidden away behind doors. However, the hub used in SM64 is a brilliant evolution of the hub system used in 3/4. In previous Mario games, you generally took on one world at a time, and only progressed to the next one once you had completed most of the levels in one specific world. However, in SM64 the player quickly gains access to a number of worlds. The player can therefore try and gain every star in one level, or move to another one if they are having difficulty or fancy some variety. On top of this every world has 6 stars that can be gained, plus a bonus star for getting 100 coins in a world. The player can attempt any star at any time, which is a brilliant design decision. The player has so many options available in terms of what star and what world they want to visit that the user rarely gets frustrated, especially early on, a key area of any game as it needs to hold the interest of the player. Also, the player only needs 70 stars to complete the game and there are 120 stars on offer throughout the castle. Thus the player again avoids any frustration as they can avoid the really tough to get stars and still complete the game. However, there is a real challenge and fun to be had even once the game is over as there are still many stars they can go back and find. Thus there is a ton of replayability, and even in the earlier levels, one or two stars can be made difficult to get, providing a challenge for the player and making these worlds still relevant even after initially completing the game.

The main castle, used as a central hub to access the various worlds in the game.

The worlds themselves are fantastically designed. They make full use of 3 dimensions and have so much variety in them. As well as just finding a star, there are tons and tons of unique stars such as races and boss fights. The worlds themselves also change depending on the star the player is trying to go for. Wet-dry world can start either full of water or completely dry, for example, whereas some worlds have gusts of wind or guest appearances from mini-characters like Penguins and Monkeys. There are lots of worlds on offer too, ranging from the grassy plains, to ice-worlds to deep blue seas to more novel levels such as the clock tower. Most worlds are throwbacks to areas from previous games, but they all have a feeling of freshness to them. Some of these worlds are semi-recycled later on, such as there being two sea worlds and two ice worlds, but even here, Nintendo does really well to keep the worlds fresh by adding unique elements such as a submarine or area to hang from. Though you can feel that the cartridge has prevented Nintendo from making 15 totally unique worlds, the level designers have done a brilliant job at concealing this through great design and pacing of difficulty. It’s a really good example of designing well within system / engine limitations and how good design can get the absolute best out of any engine.

Many of the worlds also make use of the Flying Cap power-up that Mario gains about 1/4 of the way through the game. As the game is 3D, the flying is a real tour de force for some stars in the game. Accompanied by some fantastically atmospheric music, the experience of flying throughout he sky at great speed is absolutely awesome. Again I sense that the designers knew how fun this mechanic was and thus deliberately designed some worlds and stars around this mechanic to make it feel even more magical.

One of the best ways to have fun in Super Mario 64, the flying cap.

As per a typical Nintendo title, the learning curve and pacing of the game is also magnificent. New mechanics are slowly introduced to the player and various skills and techniques are combined together slowly. As a result, when reaching the later levels, the players skill has naturally evolved into what is necessary to attempt the later levels, when such challenges would have been frustrating and too challenging to begin with. This is one of the hardest things to achieve in game design and I am constantly amazed at how talented the staff at Nintendo are at achieving this. They do it time after time, game after game and it’s the reason why Nintendo will always sell a bucket load of any console they release. The rest of the world just can’t replicate the magic Nintendo can produce.

Another really stand out element of this title is the attention to detail. There are so many small little things that make a great game even better. Things like a little rabbit that you have to catch to gain a gold star. Meeting Yoshi at the top of the castle if you collect all 120 stars. Being able to stretch Mario’s face at the start of the game. All small little touches that just go that extra mile to making you love and cherish the game.

If you look up the word “genius” in the dictionary, you will be presented with a photo of this man.

All in all, the game is almost video game perfection in cartridge form. Miyamoto is notoriously tough on his own games and staff and I really wonder where he thought this game’s weaknesses were. Perhaps some more levels would have been fun, and it would have been cool to ride around on Yoshi or play as Luigi (as you could in the later re-release on the DS). The camera could have been improved a tad, and there could have been more powerups, but really, I’m picking at scraps. This title just makes me have an enormous amount of respect for Miyamoto and Nintendo. Mario in 2D form was already one of the definitive game experiences around. Not only did Nintendo recapture the essence of some of the best games of all time, he actually created a new experience that was even better and that would be copycatted and cloned for years to come.

An all time classic.

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