The 'Super Mario 64' title screen
I remember going to my local shopping center in 1997. There was a stall hosted by a popular soft drink brand that featured a circle of televisions, all of which were displaying Mario's first proper 3D outing on the Nintendo 64, the gaming giant's new powerhouse machine. They offered passers-by a shot at the new adventure from the plump plumber. Players could hit a button on the pop-up wall whenever they found a Power Star within the game's labyrinthine castle hub, for which they would be rewarded with a cup of said beverage. Looking back, it might have secretly been a horrific Pavlovian conditioning experiment examining the influence of electronic stimulation and positive reinforcement on the mindsets of modern youth, but most likely it was a celebration of Super Mario 64, one of the most revolutionary games of all time.
Of course, Mario wasn't an overnight success story. His releases on the Nintendo Entertainment System and its Super follow-up version had already defined a genre and a generation, and his launch title for the new console was the talk of my town when it hit the shelves. Japan, as usual, had seen it launch a year before we got it in the West, meaning the game celebrates its 20th anniversary in June 2016. Feeling old yet?
Super Mario 64 wasn't simply a case of giving a new visual sheen to the series and rehashing ideas, an exhausting rut into which the likes of the New Super Mario Bros titles have fallen. It also offered greater dominance of the gaming medium and, in turn, a more genuine sense of progression and permanence. You were able to more freely manipulate and change Mario's world to suit your own needs and desires, as opposed to the linear one-shot of the 2D platformers, whether it was ground-pounding columns in the castle's basement in order to permanently drain the moat or pissing off a penguin parent by invariably dropping its offspring from a cliff on each visit to Cool, Cool Mountain. This was a feeling of control and freedom that arguably wouldn't truly be felt again until 2015's build-your-own-levels Super Mario Maker.
A particularly spellbinding aspect was the introduction of the Wing Cap; not only could Mario now run around in all directions, but he could wing to the sky in a cathartic Y axis, taking in the new worlds from a perspective a million miles away from Super Mario World's cape. It's unsurprising that these evocative, mysterious lands led to popular gaming myths ("L" wasn't real until the DS remake, despite what a fountain engraving might possibly have said) and some heart-stopping, hyper-parkour speedruns, the current record for which is under seven minutes including mandatory cutscenes. It's a game that has been lovingly torn apart—there's currently a $1,000 bounty up for grabs for anyone who can recreate a bizarre glitch in Tick Tock Clock.
Of course, now that Mario could move in 360 around the Mushroom Kingdom, so too could his enemies, from lowly Goombas to haunted, hungry pianos. Gone were the days of trying to kick Iggy Koopa off a flat, rocking boat—boss battles were now more spatially immersive. Instead of a three-bops-on-the-head-job-done scenario, you now had to grab Bowser's reptilian tail, swing him in a circle by spinning the control stick, and try to pinpoint the trajectory of your throw to land the fire-breathing, princess-snatching bastard on a conveniently placed bomb. It was at times a frustrating task, but one that forced you to embrace the three-dimensional world as much as possible. While he looked infinitely more menacing, thankfully he only required one hit in two of the three run-ins, and you could tell he was still a bit dim when it came to dungeon design, forgoing his suicidal axe placement of old for an encompassing wall of explosives.
The floating obstacle courses leading to these encounters with the King of Koopas helped create the irreverent platforming locales from which the game's immediate descendants Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy would draw their best moments. Sunshine's bonus stages saw your gimmicky FLUDD device taken away, leaving Mario to navigate a more traditional landscape. It was a welcome break from the rest of the game, which mainly involved cleaning up piles of sludge. It turned out having Mario actually do his job as a plumber wasn't entirely fun, and the tropical-themed romp subsequently proved divisive in the annals of Nintendo history.
The Wii's Galaxy, on the other hand, was a far more worthy sequel; if Mario 64 made premonitions about the future of platforming, like a nerdy Nostradamus, then Galaxy was its vision fully realized and actualized, elevating 64's planes of movement and charm into the heavens. Unsurprisingly, memory treats it with greater reverence, and it often wrestles with the subject of this article for the accolade of Nintendo's best game ever. Galaxy might top it in certain areas, but it's the originality, cultural significance and associated lore of Super Mario 64 that earns it the crown.
However, that's a topic that will be debated for years to come, and while its ambitious polygons might not have aged as well as its home console competitors like Banjo-Kazooie and The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, its importance and emotiveness make it a game I consider myself fortunate to have played and thankful to have had in my life. As we gear up for hopefully another 20 years of 3D Nintendo gaming with more NX details to come this year, we can only hope the palpable passion and eternal quality of Super Mario 64 is still a source of inspiration and aspiration for developers. Here we go.
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