So, for no better reason than “Mar.10” resembling Mario’s name, March 10th is widely regarded as being “Mario Day”, a day to celebrate Nintendo’s portly plumber, an overalls-wearing mascot who literally changed the videogame industry forever and shaped the home console market of the nineties. To commemorate Mario Day this year, I’ve made March “Mario Month” and am spending each Wednesday talking about everyone’s favourite Koopa-flattening plumber.
Released: 18 September 2020
Originally Released: 23 June 1996
Original Developer: Nintendo EAD
Also Available For: Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS (Remake), Nintendo Wii (Virtual Console)
By the end of 1983, the videogame industry was dead after crumbling under the weight of countless overpriced consoles and poor quality titles. From the ashes, Nintendo stepped in and pretty much single-handedly rebuilt the industry with the release of the Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom)/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), a machine marketed not as another home videogame console but as a more market-friendly “Entertainment System”. The videogame industry was resurrected from the dead with the NES and the blockbuster success of Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo EAD, 1985) and given a massive kick into overdrive following the release of the SEGA Mega Drive and Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991). The “Console Wars” of the mid-nineties resulted in some of the greatest 8- and 16-bit releases, a series of videogames that defined an entire generation, and ensured that videogames were big business once more. Very quickly, though, the story became about which developer could be the more innovative than the other and who would crack 3D gaming first. SEGA attempted to break into the 32-bit arena with a series of expensive add-ons for the Mega Drive while Nintendo played the long game, discussing various CD-based options with both Sony and Panasonic and inadvertently creating one of the industry’s biggest gaming powerhouses, the PlayStation, when talks with Sony fell apart.
Initially developed as the “Ultra 64”, the Nintendo 64 was Nintendo’s first fully-3D home console and was officially announced to the world on 24 November 1995; although the console favoured more expensive and limited cartridges over CD-ROMS, this dramatically sped up the load times of its titles and helped to reduce piracy. The console also utilised a unique (and massively under-rated) controller that included an analogue stick for full 3600 movement and could be fitted with Rumble and Memory Paks, and the system launched a number of first- and third-party titles that would be exclusive to the console. One such title was, of course, Super Mario 64. Developed over the course of three years, Super Mario 64 sought to showcase exactly what the Nintendo 64 was capable of by offering large, open 3D worlds that allowed for exploration, experimentation, and offered a diverse field of view. The game was a massive critical and financial success and is still the best-selling Nintendo 64 videogame of all time; just as Super Mario Bros. had set the standard for 2D sidescrolling platformers back in the day, so too did Super Mario 64 set the standard for 3D platformers in this new era of gaming. The game was later ported to the Nintendo DS in what is, in my view, the definitive version of the game thanks to the additional elements it provides but it was also included in Super Mario 3D All-Stars (Nintendo, 2020) for the Nintendo Switch, which is the version I’ll be looking at today.
Princess Toadstool (finally referred to as “Peach” for the first time outside of Japan) invites Mario to her castle with the promise of cake but, when he arrives, he finds that the diabolical Bowser, King of the Koopas, has kidnapped the Princess and hidden the castle’s Power Stars within a series of paintings throughout the castle. Never one to back down from a challenge, and motivated by the promise of a sweet treat, Mario leaps into the castle’s magical paintings to retrieve the Stars and rescue Peach and the castle’s Toad guards from Bowser’s clutches.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone who owned a Nintendo 64 back in the day also owned Super Mario 64; it was the first (and, for a long time, the only) Nintendo 64 title I had when I got the console and all of my friends had it, too. Thanks to the realities of life, it was also the first Nintendo home console I owned and the first main-line Mario game I had ever owned and, honestly, it was a pretty great way to experience of Mario’s unique world and cast of characters (not to mention mind-boggling through its crisp 3D models and tight controls).
Super Mario 64 is a 3D action/platformer in which you play as the titular Mario. The game takes place entirely within Princess Peach’s Castle and the grounds outside of it; within the castle are a series of magical paintings that lead Mario to a total of fifteen Courses, each with six mission-based Power Stars to collect and one hidden Star. You can also find a number of additional secret Stars in other paintings and mini Courses scattered throughout the castle and you’ll need to collect a certain amount in order to open doors to more Courses. Once you have enough Stars, however, Courses can be attempted in any order you wish but you may be limited in what you can do if you haven’t unlocked the game’s three cap-based power-ups and you’ll need a boss key to access the castle’s upper and lower areas, plus at least seventy Power Stars to battle the final boss and all 120 to see the game through to 100% completion.
When you enter a Course, you must select a Star Mission to tackle; at first, you’ll only be told of the first mission but, once you’re in the Course, you can generally attempt to obtain any Star you wish (with some exceptions). This means that you can free the Chain-Chomp instead of racing Koopa the Quick, for example. Each Star comes with a vague hint about how to acquire it (“Lil’ Penguin Lost” or “Shining Atop the Pyramid”) but it’s not always massively clear what you have to do to obtain these Stars, encouraging exploration and experimentation (or a quick Google search). Collecting one hundred Yellow Coins in every Course will also award you with a Power Star and, sometimes, you’ll have to revisit secret Courses to obtain another Star you may have missed but, generally, the Star Missions are quite similar across all courses (battle a boss, find five secret areas, utilise a cap, scale to the top, etc).
As in his 2D outings, Mario’s primary form of traversal and attacking is his ability to jump but this ability has been expanded exponentially to allow for a far more diverse means of movement and to showcase the capabilities of the Nintendo 64. Pressing jump once will see Mario perform a hop; press it again and he will jump higher, and press it a third time while running and Mario will somersault even higher, allowing him to reach out-of-reach ledges with ease. If you press the R button while running and then press jump, Mario will throw himself forwards to cover faster distances in one dramatic leap, which is great for reaching faraway platforms or navigating Mario at a faster pace. It doesn’t end there, either; Mario gains momentum as he runs and jumps, meaning if you jump onto an enemy’s head while running, you’ll get a boost upwards and jump further. He can also perform a wall kick to scale vertical shafts quickly but not, it has to be said, with a great deal of ease; as will come up numerous times in this review, the wall kick is somewhat hampered by the game’s janky camera and how difficult it can be to properly judge your perspective and alignment to certain walls and objects. When you can pull it off though (which, to be fair, is more often than not and can be perfected with practise), it’s a nifty little trick that you can combine with long jumps and triple jumps to move Mario’s pudgy behind at a break-neck pace.
For what I believe is a first in the series, Mario can also perform a series of melee attacks to fend off his foes. Pressing the attack button once will see him perform a punch but press it twice more and he’ll perform another punch followed by a big ol’ kick to send enemies flying. You can also perform a sweep kick while crouching, a jump kick, and a diving attack by running, jumping, and hitting the attack button, a ground-pound (where Mario will flatten enemies with his butt), and also pick up certain blocks and even enemies to toss them at other enemies. It’s quite a deep control scheme, to be honest, offering a range of smooth and crisp combat and movement options; you can run Mario in any direction at full speed and, with a twitch of the analogue stick and a press of the jump button, side-flip around to get the drop on enemies, wall kick your way up to otherwise inaccessible areas, or backflip your way to another Power Star with ease.
Mario can also grab onto ledges to save himself from accidental falls and pull himself up from tricky jumps; however, this isn’t as reliable as you might think and it’s just as easy to bounce head-first off of a platform or ledge and fall to your death or go careening down a bottomless pit or into a river of butt-burning lava. Similarly, the game’s camera can sometimes get stuck behind other objects, which can cause it (and Mario) to freak out a bit; Mario also stutters and jitters if positioned too close to an edge and will most likely fall to his death if you don’t quickly tap that jump button. Thankfully, Mario is far more durable than in the majority of Mario videogames; he has a life bar (represented be a colourful pie chart) that loses a segment each time he takes a hit or other damage. Once all segments are drained, Mario loses a life and is unceremoniously spat out of the Course he was in and will have to attempt the Course over from the beginning. Luckily, Mario can refill his health by running through spinning Hearts dotted around each Course, collecting Coins, or taking a dip in water and is only dependant on Mushrooms to gain an extra life. Take care when swimming, however, as Mario’s health will slowly deplete and he’ll eventually drown unless you collect Coins or suck in an air bubble and he’s also not capable of surviving being sucked into quicksand. Compounding matters is the fact that certain enemies and hazards will cause Mario’s iconic cap to fly off; if you lose your cap, be sure to collect it as quickly as possible as you’ll take double damage without it!
Graphics and Sound:
Even now, after the release of so many technically superior 3D action/platformers, Super Mario 64 holds up ridiculously well. It’s a testament to how diligently Shigeru Miyamoto and his team worked to showcase the power and capability of the Nintendo 64 as character models still look spot on to this day, seamlessly retaining their quality and stability (unless you move Mario too far away from the camera, of course), and the game is just as silky smooth as ever. Sure, Bowser doesn’t look so great these days (and he, along with all of the character models, were vastly improved in the DS remake) but it’s cute to see all of Mario’s eccentricities, from his enthusiastic shouts when he hops around, his triumphant cry of “Her-r-re we go-o-o!” whenever he grabs a Star, and the way he falls into a mumbling sleep when he’s left idle for a short time.
Having said that, though, there are some issues that are more noticeable with the benefit of hindsight. The game’s Courses vary wildly in their scope and quality; the first, Bob-omb Battlefield, is basically a tutorial area where you’ll quickly get to grips with the game’s controls and mechanics. As user friendly as you could like, Bob-omb Battlefield features some basic enemies and hazards and is completely devoid of bottomless pits, something the vast majority of the game’s other Course cannot say. Courses like Whomp’s Fortress, Cool, Cool Mountain, and Tall, Tall Mountain are all much more limited in their scope, substituting a quasi-sandbox arena for vertically-themed stages that hover over a bottomless pit, meaning you’re always one stupid mistake away from falling to your death. Things don’t get really frustrating, however, until you reach the game’s final Courses; Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride suspend you over a vast, empty void that will truly test your skill and patience thanks to the game’s dodgy camera and some very tricky and frustrating platforming elements. Other stages, like Jolly Roger Bay and Hazy Maze Cave, also feature an abundance of water; this isn’t a massive issue as Mario is quite a capable swimmer but he’s not exactly a fast swimmer and the game’s controls noticeably lag when he’s under water. Combine this with the aforementioned camera troubles and how easy it is for the camera to get stuck behind objects and these Courses can be difficult to navigate. The camera is serviceable for the most part, to be fair, and automatically and diligently following Mario around to provide the optimal viewpoint but Nintendo really should have integrated full 3600 camera control into the Switch version to correct this one glaring flaw.
Still, the game offers a fair amount of variety in its Courses; Big Boo’s Haunt and Lethal Lava Land are standouts for me thanks to their unique mechanics and visual presentation but, at the same time, it lacks variety in a number of other instances. For example, Jolly Roger Bay and Dire, Dire Docks are essentially the same stage with the same music and, as much as I like Snowman’s Land, did we really need two snow/ice-themed stages? Plus, playing the game now, it’s really hard not to notice how basic a lot of the stage geometry is; everything is very angular and blocky, which isn’t surprising given it was a Nintendo 64 launch title, but it’s one of the many reasons why I prefer Banjo-Kazooie (Rare, 1998) since it improved and expanded upon everything Super Mario 64 pioneered. The game only really has a handful of cutscenes, all of which are rendered using the in-game graphics and are simply there to establish the game’s simple plot, relay that you’ve opened up new areas or discovered a Star, and convey the game’s ending. These are accompanied by a few instances of voice acting from Peach as Mario, Bowser, and other enemies are limited to a few sound bites, grunts, and yelps, which adds to the game’s cartoonish charm. Finally, Super Mario 64 is bolstered by a bombastic and catchy soundtrack from long-time Mario and Nintendo composer Koji Kondo; a lot of the tracks are re-used on multiple Courses but they’re so fitting and memorable that I can forgive it and if you don’t find yourself humming along to the main castle theme then you honestly have no soul.
Enemies and Bosses:
If I’m being brutally honest, Super Mario 64 doesn’t feature much in the way of enemy variety; within the first handful of Courses, you’ll have encountered pretty much all of the enemies and hazards the game has to offer but, to be fair, these are all used sparingly and to great effect. They’re generally present to cause you some issues when trying to jump and clamber up to new areas rather than being formidable challenges in their own right; you’re far more likely to get bumped off a ledge and to your death rather than beaten to a pulp by these enemies. You’ll come up against classic Mario enemies such as Goombas (who now hop up in alarm and charge at you head-first when you cross their eye line), Bob-ombs (who chase you relentlessly as their fuse ominously burns down before exploding in a shower of Coins), Boos (who turn incorporeal when you face them so you’ll have to sneak up on them from behind or perform a backflip into a ground-pound), Koopas (give them a thump to ride their shell like a skateboard), and Shy Guys (annoying little bastards that buzz all around you shooting fireballs your way and send Mario into a whirlwind spin if he jumps on them). Each of these has been brought to life with a snazzy 3D makeover that imbues them with simple, but charming, attack and movement patterns and characteristics.
You’ll also come up against some new enemies; Amps will spin around in a tight circle and electrocute Mario if he touches them, Bubba will swallow him whole if he enters the water while exploring the “Tiny” side of Tiny-Huge Island, three different varieties of Bullies will try to knock Mario off platforms and to his death, Chuckyas and Heave-Hos will also try to throw Mario to his doom, and Klepto and Ukkiki will steal Mario’s cap if given half a chance. You’ll also have to sneak up on the sleeping Piranha Plants to knock them out without getting bitten and watch out for that Goddamn piano in Big Boo’s Haunt as it’ll randomly spring to life to scare the piss out of you! Not every Course in Super Mario 64 has a boss battle but nine out of fourteen isn’t bad. The first one you come across, King Bob-omb, teaches you the fundamental mechanics Mario will need to defeat not only Chuckyas but also Bowser himself as you’ll have to run around the King to grab him from behind and then throw him three times without being thrown off the top of his mountain to defeat him. The second boss, the Whomp King, is even easier to defeat; simply run beneath him or dodge out of the way when he tries to squash you and ground-pound his back three times and he’ll burst into pieces to award you a Star.
In Big Boo’s Haunt, you’ll do battle with three Big Boos but, despite their intimidating size, they’re as easily dispatched as any other Boo with the only troublesome one being the Big Boo you battle on the balcony at the top of the haunted house because of the risk of falling. You’ll also encounter a large variant of the Mr. I enemy in this Course but, again, it’s defeated in exactly the same way as any other Mr. I (simply run around it until it gets dizzy and explodes). You’ll also encounter larger variants of existing enemies in Lethal Lava Land and Snowman’s Land, in this case the Bullies; again, though, the hardest thing about fighting these guys is making sure you don’t accidentally slip off the small platform you fight them on or let them push you into the molten lava or freezing water, respectively.
Finally, you’ll have to do battle with the Eyerock inside the pyramid in Shifting Sand Land and a Wiggler on Tiny-Huge Island; the Eyerock is probably the most challenging boss before the final battle with Bowser as it constantly shields its one (well, two really) weak point (the eye) in its rock-like fists, tries to squash you at every opportunity, and can easily shove you off the platform and to your death (luckily, though, you’ll restart right before this battle if you immediately enter the painting again). The Wrigger is pretty much the same basic deal as the Whomp King; although he looks intimidating due to his size, he only looks big because you’re small and you simply ground-pound him three times to take him out, making sure to dodge him as he wriggles around the arena faster and faster with each hit.
The game’s true boss is, of course, Bowser, Mario’s long-time enemy and most persistent foe. You’ll battle Bowser three times and each time you must have the correct number of Stars to access a troublesome mini Course that leads to the Warp Pipe into Bower’s arena. Each time you face Bowser, the general strategy is the same; avoid his attacks and run around him to grab his tail, then rotate the analogue stick to swing him around and then press the attack button to send him flying into one of the many bombs that line the outskirts of each arena. The first time you face Bowser, he’s pretty weak; he’ll stomp around in a circle, slowly spitting fireballs at you, and isn’t much of a threat as long as you don’t run into him, get hit by his burning flames, or fall off the platform and you’ll only have to toss him into a bomb once to take him out, making him functionally weaker than King Bob-omb. The second battle ramps things up a bit; Bowser can still be defeated with one bomb but he’ll now jump up and come crashing down on the platform, tilting it into a steep angle that will send you sliding into a bomb yourself or down to the fiery depths below. Bowser also now teleports across the arena if you get too close to him to prolong the battle and will tilt the stage each time he leaps up to the arena from a missed throw so make sure your accuracy is on point when you send him flying. The final battle is where Bowser really brings his A game; the music is far more ominous and foreboding and Bowser can now charge at you, spit a slew of fireballs onto the arena (including blue ones that bounce all over the place) and produce shockwaves that must be jumped over every time he lands from a jump. To make matters worse, Bowser must now be thrown three times before he is defeated and, after taking two hits, will stomp around the arena in a tantrum, causing parts of it break off until it resembles a Star and limiting your options for escape and movement. It’s not all bad, though; some of Bowser’s flames will produce Coins to replenish your health and, technically, the strategy remains the same; as with every Bowser battle, it’s just a question of patience and getting your shot lined up to throw him into the final bomb and finally get your cake!
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Although Mario can still collect a 1-Up Mushroom for an instant extra life and three different types of Coins (Gold, Red, and Blue, each offering different increments to your total Coin count), no other traditional Mario power-ups are present and unlike in other Mario videogames where Mario would collect a Super Mushroom to grow bigger and gain an extra hit or a Fire Flower to throw fireballs at enemies, Super Mario 64 takes inspiration from Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Nintendo R&D1, 1992) and Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 (ibid, 1994) by giving Mario access to three different caps to aid his progress.
The Wing Cap gives Mario the ability to fly after performing a triple jump or being shot out of a cannon; by diving and pulling up, you can fly higher and further but just make sure you land before it wears off or you’ll suffer a damaging fall. The Vanish Cap turns Mario invisible and incorporeal, allowing him to walk through enemies and wired cages and the Metal Cap allows Mario to walk underwater and renders him functionally invincible at the cost of his speed and more elaborate jumping mechanics. Each cap must be activated by ground-pounding giant switches inside three different hidden mini Courses and are essential to collecting all 120 Power Stars but, it has to be said, their use is surprisingly sparse and you’ll be relying on Mario’s base moveset for the vast majority of the castle’s challenges.
As big and involving as Super Mario 64 is, there’s sadly not a whole lot of replay value to be had especially compared to the DS remake, which featured four playable characters, additional Courses and Stars, and mini games to pass the time. You can mess around with Mario’s big, goofy 3D face on the title screen, stretching and distorting it at your leisure, which is a nice touch, and the game also allows you to have four different save files and to erase or copy each one, allowing for multiple playthroughs. Additionally, while you only need seventy Stars to take on the final battle against Bowser and clear the game, you won’t get 100% completion unless you collect all 120 Stars. This is easier said than done, especially on Courses like Wet-Dry World, Tall, Tall Mountain, and Rainbow Ride which have lots of difficult platforming sections, bottomless pits, and barely enough Coins for you to get those hidden one hundred Stars. You’ll also need to search the castle thoroughly for hidden Courses (like the Princess’s secret slide), talk to the Toads scattered throughout the castle, and catch Mips the Rabbit to find some hidden Stars.
Stars are also obtained by finding eight Red Coins in the cap and Bowser stages and other hidden Courses around the castle; luckily, you can track your progress from the pause menu and from the file selection screen so you always know where you might have missed a Star or two. Sadly, though, finding all 120 Stars doesn’t really offer much in terms of a reward. If you defeat Bowser with all 120, he’ll have some slightly different dialogue to acknowledge your efforts and, after reloading your completed save file, you’ll find you now have access to a cannon on the castle grounds. Use this to blast yourself onto the castle rooftop and you’ll find Yoshi, who has a special thank you message from the developers and awards you with one hundred lives before buggering off. Unfortunately, though, this is completely redundant as you’ve beaten the game and acquired every Star so there’s no real incentive to explore the completed Courses again with your abundance of lives. Perhaps it would have been better to have Yoshi be accessible from a new save file, or even placed within Courses to offer a new Star challenge. Hell, I would have even accepted a ‘New Game+’ mode where the entire game is mirrored but, instead, you get a tantalising cameo and a whole shit load of extra lives that are basically pointless as you’re more likely to just start a new game from scratch than to go back through stages you’ve already completed to 100%.
Super Mario 64 is still an absolutely gorgeous and incredibly fun gaming experience; even now, some twenty-three years after its release, it still holds up remarkable well as one of the tightest, slickest, and most engaging 3D platformers ever. While the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Sonic Adventure (Sonic Team, 1998) are technically far superior games, Super Mario 64 set a standard for all 3D platformers to strive to achieve and which many failed to match. It cannot be denied, however, that the game does still have some lingering issues; the camera, for all its diversity, is the most glaring and Mario’s tendency to get a bit stuck on platform edges or to hug walls when standing too close to them as well as his willingness to just slip to his death can all lead to some frustratingly unfair deaths and game overs but, for the most part, all of the game’s shortcomings can be overcome with the right degree of patience, skill, and experience. Once you master the game’s simple controls and mechanics, you can perform all kinds of nifty tricks and feats to aid your progress and you’ll find that the game has given you more than enough tools to find all 120 Stars if you’re skilled enough. With its stunning, colourful visuals, tight and responsive controls, catchy music, and addictive gameplay that is easy to learn and master, Super Mario 64 is positively brimming with gameplay variety. There’s always a new area to unlock and explore, new Courses and hidden Stars to discover, and the attention to detail is staggering for a Nintendo 64 launch title. My only regret is that Nintendo didn’t add in a widescreen feature or patch in that two player co-op mode they had planned or even the ability to play as Luigi after finding all 120 Stars in the Switch version but none of that diminishes the fundamental appeal of Super Mario 64.
Did you play Super Mario 64 back in the day? Was it your first game for the Nintendo 64 or did you pick it up later? Perhaps you first experienced it on the Nintendo DS; if so, which version of the game do you think is the best? Which of the game’s Power Stars, Courses, enemies, or bosses caused you the most (or the least) hassle? Do you think Yoshi and his one hundred lives was a good enough reward or would you have liked to see something else; if so, what? What are your fondest memories of the Nintendo 64? Perhaps you hated the system; if so, why (and what’s wrong with you?) Whatever you think, comment below and let me know and don’t forget to come back next week for more Mario content.
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