Review: Super Mario 64

 An aged classic.

Console: Nintendo Switch (via Super Mario 3D All Stars).

Last year I managed to snag myself a copy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, the limited edition Super Mario collection for the Jumpman's 35th anniversary. I got a little time in with each game in the package but only really dug my teeth into Super Mario Galaxy before moving on to other games. After the long journey that was The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine, I felt like playing something a little lighter, so to speak. I was in a Mario mood so decided to give Super Mario 64, the start of Mario's 3D career and a title still lauded as one of the best video games out there to date.

I can see why Super Mario 64 was a revolutionary title when it was released in 1996, why people have such strong nostalgia for it, but it hasn't aged very well. It's still a fun and well-made game, don't get me wrong, but the poorly aged elements really hindered my, and what I feel will be many others, enjoyment of the game.

Let's dive in.


Super Mario 64 opens with Mario receiving an invitation from Princess Peach to come to her castle so he can enjoy a cake that she has baked for him. Arriving at the castle Mario is informed by Toad that Bowser has taken over the castle and is holding Princess Peach hostage. To stop Bowser and save the princess, Mario must collect the castle´s energy source: the Power Stars by using the portals in the various paintings to travel to the different worlds where Bowser has hidden them.

The version in the 3D All-Stars has some small improvements such as the clearer HUD elements.

It's a Mario game so the story really isn't much. Just the above and nothing else. I always like a game with more story but it's a Mario game. It's more about the world, the levels. As you'd expect from a Mario game the levels are fun, diverse and well-designed though the age and circumstance they were designed in does show. Super Mario 64 is the first of its kind so Miyamoto and his team basically had to invent the wheel here. They did an admirable job but they didn't hit every nail on the head.

Super Mario 64 features about 15 levels ranging from small to medium in size. Technical limitations mean that these levels can't be too big but they're nonetheless stuffed with stars to collect. Each level has 6 and getting them ranges from the obvious, reaching the 'end' of the level to finding a hidden path to the star. Before entering a level you have to pick which mission you want to tackle with the name of each mission giving you a hint to the location of the star. While some stars can only be found when you select the appropriate mission some stars can be found regardless of the mission so if you have trouble deducing what you have to do you can always try your luck.

The levels are pretty well designed, no doubts about that. There is some jank here and there (more on that in a minute) but that doesn't take away from the overall experience. There's a good mix of fun themes, linearity and wiggle room to just run around and explore. Even the typical fire, water and ice levels have something to set them apart. A giant snowman that will try to blow you away for example. My favourite level is Peach's Castle, the hub world, with all of its secrets.

The graphics look good. There are no uncanny valley effects or any ugly looking models or textures. It has certainly aged, it's that polygon style of graphics typical to this era of gaming but I actually found it pretty charming after a while. I do wish that the version here had its graphics (or at very least some of the textures) improved, but that's a gripe against Super Mario 3D All-Stars then against Super Mario 64.

The music, the soundtrack, is nice even if it tends to be on the bland side of things. There are not many tracks in the game but they're nice compositions nonetheless. They fit the tone of the game very well and one of the, in particular, is quite the earworm.

Where do my gripes come in? In the controls, the camera the mission structure and some of the levels design choices. Let's tackle them one by one. Mario has an admirable moveset that suffers from how wonky and slippery he controls. Walking in a straight line is not done and just positioning Mario in front of an NPC is a hassle. The dynamic and controllable (to an extent) camera system became a standard in 3D games but here's its limited. The camera often gets stuck and the set angles for the camera is a limiting factor as well.

The camera in this game is an actual camera carried around by a Lakitu. Miyamoto thought that just having the camera without any in-game explanation would be weird.

I´ve never been a fan of the mission structure in the 3D Mario games, of getting booted out of the level after finding a star. Since this game is where it started I wild hold my dislike against it at least a little bit. What's more important is that the mission descriptions are too vague. Some of them are easy to understand but most of them are not and that can be pretty frustrating. Not knowing what to do, you know.

What can be very frustrating as well is the general difficulty of this game. The levels are well designed but they also have a lot of consistent, little, problems. Narrow bridges and passageways, gaps and holes in unfortunate and hard spot places etc. Combined with the wonky controls you this leads to a lot of deaths that are outside of your control.


Conclusion

Super Mario 64 is, all of these years later, still a fun game though one of which age has laid bare its flaws. It's a fun and well-designed 3D platformer that laid the foundation for the genre that is still fun to either go back to or check out for the first time. The wonky controls, weird camera and high difficulty do hinder the experience and give rise to quite a lot of frustration. Someone who has played the game since childhood might have an easier time overlooking the flaws but a new player will definitely feel them.

My advice? If you want to play Super Mario 64 for the first time I would try it with the version on NSO. The improvements of Super Mario 3D All-Stars made are minimal while on NSO you can use the rewind feature to get back on your feet quicker after a death and save you some frustration in that department.

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