Reviews: Super Mario 64

An overrated mess that is praised for no reason other than being a "classic"

(my opinion has changed drastically since i made this review, so i've gotten rid of it. I might make a new review if the site rules allow it)

A Classic

Let's get this out of the way. Super Mario 64 has a couple weaknesses. One, the demands of a 3D open world game necessitated a different approach to camera control. Because this was literally the very first N64 game, it's readily apparent Nintendo had not worked out how to properly utilize the N64 controller for that purpose. Had the C-stick come out a generation earlier, this wouldn't be an issue. That said, there are only a few places where the camera actively works against you; the tendency toward it undermining the player is exaggerated. Second, a couple of the levels feel a tad empty, such as in Dire Dire Docks and Wet-Dry World, a consequence of large levels being sparsely populated. Third, some of the moves, such as the long jump, wall jump, and everything about piloting the Wing Cap, are not immediately intuitive, which can be frustrating, because all three are essential.

Now, what I love about this game. One, the story's minimalism. The game consists of four or five speaking characters who share between them a half-page's worth of dialogue, at most. The story is pure Save the Princess with minimal exposition. This saves the game from twisting around itself trying to build a story around a game (and a series) that sits all the way on the gameplay side of gameplay versus story. And, in the end, it's better for it. More effort is placed into gameplay, and here, the player is given more freedom than in any other Mario game. This isn't a game where you go through the motions on a linear track; you're dumped into a 3D playground, and there are very few times when the game railroads you. There are multiple ways to get a lot of the Stars and you don't always have to get them in order. The music's very good, and while the graphics are primitive, they still make a good use of the N64's color palette.

Game design that can still be learned from

Super Mario 64 is not a perfect game by any means, and the refinements that have been made since, particularly in camera design, show its age. But there are a lot of elements in Super Mario 64 that other games can learn from; indeed, that other Mario games could probably learn from.

The moveset is done entirely using only 3 buttons: jump, duck, and attack. With the exception of the unintuitive long jump (run, press duck, then jump), all the moves you can perform make logical sense. Run fast and jump, then press attack in midair to do a belly flop. While on the belly flop, press jump to quickly get back on your feet. Duck and move to crawl. Run, then press duck and attack to slide forwards on your feet. Press jump when you come up against a wall to launch off of it. It all just makes sense and works, and the play mechanics, with the ability to chain multiple moves together in a way that feels natural, are fun just to goof around with, making the simple act of movement fun in itself.

The level designs are not linear and obstacle course-esque like the 2D Mario games of past (and, true enough, Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3 D Land have returned to that style), but instead the levels create a very different type of gameplay. A virtual playground, which provides its own unique fun.

You are given simple goals (sometimes with vague wording), that can be reached out of order if you wish (something removed from later Mario games), and just dropped into the level. The levels are nonlinear and very open. There are aspects that contain classic Mario-style obstacle coursing, but you're free to tackle things from many angles. Want to reach that star behind the waterfall? You could run up the mountain, or blast out of a cannon up toward the star's general area and, if you're good enough, the star itself. You could try to go up higher than the star and drop down to reach it, or go to the bridge across from it and long-jump at it.

Freedom, yet with clear goals, is the name of the game here. You know what you need to do, but it's up to you how to do it. That, along with the intuitive and fun controls, are the main takeaway lessons that Super Mario 64 has to offer to even modern game design. Aspiring game designers take note.