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.