Mario’s first foray into 3D showed us what was possible in a new dimension.
When the Nintendo 64 launched in North America in June of 1996, there were only two titles available for it: Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. One of those is an underrated flying sim that I wish were available to purchase anywhere, and the other is a seminal 3D platformer that paved the way for an entire genre. It didn't matter that the launch day lineup only had two options because Super Mario 64 was, and still is, a masterpiece, filled with challenging platforming, a secret-filled castle, and all the Nintendo charm we had come to expect from a Mario game. Early 3D games on any platform have control and camera issues that have become more pronounced in comparison to the freedom and technology of today, but the gameplay and presentation of Mario's debut in the third dimension make Super Mario 64 absolutely timeless.
The Nintendo 64 arrived just as school was wrapping up for the summer, but because my birthday had already happened a few months prior, I wouldn't have an opportunity to beg for it until almost a year later. So what a friend and I did was have a multi-day sleepover where we rented the console and both launch games over a weekend. I don't remember what we ate, how much we slept, or anything else other than just how enamored I was with Super Mario 64. We would alternate games and take turns playing, but I never had quite so much difficulty passing a controller as I did that weekend. And as much fun as we had when Pilotwings 64 was in the console, those sessions were infinitely shorter than those involving Mario.
It's easy to get distracted by the poseable Mario face that greets you after booting up the game, but that surprises leads into such an effective opening: a camera flying around Toadstool's castle and holding on a green warp pipe that emerges from the ground, only to produce the titular hero moments later. You can't help but experiment with 3D movement and the N64 controller itself after Mario jumps out, sprinting and triple jumping towards the castle. The desire to explore and check out Mario's surroundings is palpable, and it isn't long before you figure out that your first objective involved leaping into a painting of a giant bob-omb.
Bob-omb Battlefield is a perfect opening stage. The stars are fairly easy to collect, the enemies don't pose too much of a threat, and health-restoring coins are always within reach. Navigating toward the first objective, defeating King Bob-omb on top of the mountain, you really get an opportunity to test out all of Mario's new moves. Avoid the giant steel balls like a young Indiana Jones, sprint at a snail's pace up the mountain's steep incline, and eventually reach the summit where Mario can practice one of the primary ways of defeating bosses throughout the game: approaching them from behind and grabbing and tossing them into the air.
Red coins call to mind Yoshi's Island and add a mini challenge to each stage. You're also compelled to return to stages later if you want to collect more stars since switches you activate give Mario access to special caps that allow him to fly, turn invisible, and become Metal Mario, who would interestingly become his own character in games like Super Smash Bros and Mario Golf. Even though this type of backtracking may have been reminiscent of Metroid, it was actually Super Mario World that introduced the colored switches that changed the way you navigated many of that game’s stages.
Variety is at the core of Super Mario 64’s course design. The two ice-themed courses, Cool, Cool Mountain and Snowman’s Land, have drastically different objectives within them. The same goes for the water-themed courses: Jolly Roger Bay and Dire, Dire Docks. Even Toadstool’s castle itself has hidden areas and secrets scattered throughout its floors. Players are truly rewarded for being thorough and trying almost everything, even if it comes at the expense of Mario’s precious noggin. Other courses, the later ones in particular, have interesting ways of manipulating the environment before you even jump into them. By entering Tick Tock Clock when the minute hand is pointing at a certain time, you can change the way the gears and platforms move within the stage. Jumping into Wet-Dry World at a different height on the portrait determines the water level in the course. I’m probably not alone in my distaste for the one auto-scrolling course, Rainbow Ride, but fortunately you can finish the game without its seven stars, needing only a total of 70 to reach the final confrontation with Bowser.
It’s not entirely surprising that Nintendo 64 games aren’t available on Switch since many of the classics like GoldenEye 007 and Mario Kart 64 just don’t hold up well to modern scrutiny, but Super Mario 64 is one title whose greatness remains largely intact. Dropping Mario in a cannon and launching him into the sky is just as entertaining as it was almost 25 years ago; surfing across lava or sand on a turtle shell continues to be a blast, until you smack into a wall eliciting Mario’s rendition of Homer Simpson’s catchphrase. There’s a magic to running through the different courses and exploring every inch of the castle grounds, even today when we have much more vivid and detailed environments like those in Mario Odyssey. Super Mario 64 will always be a time capsule that demonstrates just how far it had come from its 16-bit predecessors and reminds us that we’ve never really seen quite a Mario long jump like that since.
As luck would have it, players will be able to return to or perhaps make their first foray into the 64-bit version of the Mushroom Kingdom when Super Mario 3D All Stars launches on Switch in mid-September. No matter how you play it, Super Mario 64 is a timeless classic that is absolutely worth discovering and re-discovering. Maybe another sleepover marathon is in order?