Super Mario 64 Review
Released in 1996, Super Mario 64 took the gaming world by storm, revolutionising the way games were played. Taking one of the most beloved mascots in gaming history and transitioning him from a 2D to a 3D world was a challenge Nintendo had to pull off, and boy did they.
But is it still good to play today?
Let’s take a look at the Good, the Mixed and the Bad of Super Mario 64.
It’s a playground
Mario 64 is the ultimate playground, and the game’s designers want you to treat it as such. The castle courtyard the player finds themselves immediately plonked into epitomises this, it doesn’t have any enemies or dangers to speak of – it’s simply there for the player to move Mario around and grow accustomed to his moveset. Climbing up trees, triple jumping, butt-stomping, long-jumping, swimming – all the moves this game introduced can be messed around with in the courtyard, with no real goal other than to let the player express themselves.
The playground wouldn’t be enjoyable unless actually controlling Mario was fun. Fortunately, it’s a dream to move the little plumber around. It’s such a tight control scheme (bettered only in the subsequent 3D Mario games by Super Mario Sunshine) with Mario’s momentum, sense of weight, speed and fluid movement fine-tuned to such a high level. It’s a shame that in the Mario Galaxy games Mario’s moveset has been watered down, presumably for the reason that Nintendo felt Mario 64’s set was too complex.
Mario games are always full of variety, but none more so than 64. The genius paintings-for-levels format means that Nintendo wasn’t restricted by a theme like in other 3D Marios, and had free-reign to send Mario into castles in the sky, haunted houses, pirate ships, floating islands, flooding dockyards, underwater caverns, and snowy mountains. It’s a genuine treat to discover a new painting and jump into it, not knowing what magical world you’re about to enter.
Mario 64 is a massive game. 120 Stars spread across the castle and its 15 stages, with 6 stars in each stage (plus a secret 100 coin star), and 15 secret stars hidden throughout the castle. The Castle is certainly the best hub in any Mario game, and arguably in any game ever. Later Mario games have placed less and less emphasis on the hub world, choosing to focus more on the levels themselves. And that’s a shame. The Castle in Mario 64 is one of its strongest features, full of mystery and charm. Hiding 15 stars throughout the hub gives the player a tangible reason to explore and mess around in there, rather than simply acting as a hub that connects the levels it works as a level in itself. I wish more games did this with their hub worlds.
I touched on it above, but another great thing about Mario 64 is the way it doesn’t make everything obvious. There are moves in the game that it never explicitly teaches you, leaving you to figure them out for yourself. There are certain hidden stars in the game that you would not have a clue were there unless you explored fully, or tried something different (yes you got a star for getting to the bottom of the slide, but there’s another star if you get down again within a certain time limit. And absolutely nothing to tell you this is the case). The game doesn’t hold your hand and constrain you with constant helpful hints and tips like more recent Nintendo games tend to do – it respects the player in the right way, and gameplay is all the more rewarding for it.
Mario 64 can be very hard. The later levels like Rainbow Ride and Tick Tock Clock push the player’s platforming skills to the limit, and some of the enemies can be pretty punishing. It never feels unfair though, and the really great thing is that the game can be finished with just 70 stars – giving less skilled players the chance to see all the levels, but rewarding completionists with the extra challenge.
The Mario series has been consistently brilliant in the musical score department, and Mario 64 is up there with the best of them. Whether it’s the festive light tones of Cool, Cool Mountain, or the heavy metal riffs of Lethal lava Land; every stage is accompanied with a catchy jingle that compliments the setting.
The Bowser fights are epic and fun, the way boss fights should be. They’re the best Bowser fights in the series. So long de-Bowser!
The power-ups are hit-or-miss in the game. Metal Mario is a great addition, but the winged cap flying is rather clumsily implemented. The power-ups don’t reach the levels of Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros 3, which represent the pinnacle of the series in this department.
The camera isn’t as bad as people seem to make out. Yes, it gets caught on the scenery now and then, but when you consider the fact that it was the very first of its kind in a 3D platformer, it’s staggering just how well it performs.
Lack of Mario-ness
This is a strange one, but coming off the back of Super Mario World, Mario 64 can feel at times a little… bland? Mario World gave us loads of enemies in each level, with loads of Boos with different expressions swarming us, or a row of fifteen Koopa Troopas to tackle. Due to the increased demands of 3D, Mario 64 rarely swarms the screen with enemies, and the 3D models lack a bit of the charm of the 2D sprites of its predecessors. It just doesn’t feel all that Mario-Universe-esque at times.
Your ‘reward’ for collecting 120 stars is an un-rideable Yoshi that congratulates you and gives you some extra lives. The cruelest reward in gaming history?
Swimming levels have never been the series’ strongpoint, and whilst there’s more variety to Mario’s swimming, it just isn’t as fun as controlling him on foot, and you don’t anticipate the swimming levels with as much glee as the others.
As mentioned above, the flying really isn’t that fun. Especially compared to the likes of Banjo Kazooie, which does it much better.
There were rumours of an unlockable Luigi for years after release, and it’s a shame Nintendo didn’t implement some form of multiplayer into the game, even if it was something half-way like in the Galaxy games’ co-op mode.
Mario 64 might not be quite be the best game of all time, but it’s hard to argue that it isn’t one of the most fun, and most influential. The fact it still holds up so well after 20 years is testament to this.