Analysis / Super Mario 64

How Mario 64 used the Collect-a-Thon as a means to a greater end.
So why is it that in spite of how technically dated the game has become, Super Mario 64 is still one of the most acclaimed and popular video games of all time and is still a popular choice for speedruns, self-imposed challenges and hacks, even though the collect-a-thon trend it started quickly fell by the wayside by the turn of the millennium? Because Super Mario 64 isn't about collecting things for their own sake. The stars are just a means of giving a sense of progression, and the coins serve a purpose of giving you health, with the bonus stars you get from them being an optional but welcome bonus.

The real fun of the game is how you manage to complete a level, not with how many stars you can collect. If one watches playthroughs and read up on design insights into the game, like that Mario's movements and animation were planned out first before a single level was designed so that the levels could be built around his abilities, you can find out that there's an insane amount of ways you can get through Super Mario 64. Sure, you can just complete it in the most straightforward way possible and call it a day, but there's a lot more you can do too:

Don't want to run all the way up to the top of Tiny-Huge Island? Grab a Koopa shell and slide/hop your way up to the top! Don't want to grab an Owl to fly yourself towards a star in the sky? Shoot yourself out of a cannon towards it, or push your long jumping skills to the limits to reach it. Want to zip through a tough course? A shortcut can be right behind you in courses like Rainbow Ride as long as you know how to use it! Don't feel like using the Metal Cap to press the underwater switch in Hazy Maze Cave? Just do a ground pound from high enough, and you'll trigger the switch! Don't want to use a cannon to launch yourself to a star on the cliff in Jolly Roger Bay? Time your long jump and wall kick perfectly when you jump towards it off a nearby pirate ship, and lo, it's in your hands! Want to get to the floating island in Bob-Omb Battlefield without a cannon or flying? Grab a Wing Cap and Koopa shell, and just glide your way towards the island off the nearby mountain!

There are players who drive themselves to not only complete the bare minimum of the game, but also complete challenges that should be extremely difficult, if not impossible to do, like using a long jump glitch to skip the Endless Stairs, or getting every single possible coin in every single level, even in worlds where it seems impossible like Lethal Lava Land—and not only that, but do things even the game developers probably wouldn't have expected you to do. This is all made possible by Mario's incredibly flexible moveset, which requires intuition, reflexes and skill to truly take advantage of! You'll only get out of Super Mario 64 what you put into it, and the game is designed to encourage you and reward you for doing just that—it gives you a goal, plenty of ways to complete that goal, and throws you to the wolves to figure out the world around you and what you can and can't do—at its best, it's a game that encourages out-of-the-box thinking!