One Giant Leap, 1996: Super Mario 64

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: it’s The Big One. The game that would change the medium forever: Super Mario 64

There’s an old quote I love to bring up. Back in 2012, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser did a Q&A with the New York Times to hype the then-upcoming1 Grand Theft Auto V. Talking about creative borrowing, Houser says:

 Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying — from the games on Nintendo 64, not necessarily the ones from today.

I love this quote for two reasons. One, Dan makes absolutely sure to say that he doesn’t actually like Mario or Zelda or anything2 because he’s not some sort of baby who plays baby games, only real men here, yessir! And two, he’s absolutely correct: every single game that exists today where you control a third-person character and a camera3 owes something to what Nintendo’s flagship series were doing on the N64. There is a tendency among amateur video game historians to overrate the importance of console games, especially ones the person in question grew up playing, but it is no exaggeration to say that Super Mario 64 is one of the most important and influential games of all time.

And we could, if we wanted, confine our analysis just to these technical contributions. There’s certainly enough to fill out a whole article. Super Mario 64, alongside the console it launched on and whose design it influenced, introduced the broader gaming public to the analog stick. Which, if you’ve never been clear on the particulars, means a joystick that sends input in a full 360° range4, rather than the old joysticks of the Atari era that sent only digital, binary, up/down/left/right5 signals. This allows for a massive range of motion; compared to Robbit’s tank maneuvering last month, Mario moves like a dream. You simply press the stick in any direction you want him to move, and he moves that way. You can even press halfway if you want him to walk instead of run. It’s hard to overstate how huge this is. The Nintendo 64 launched in 1996, and no home console to launch since has gone without.

The N64 controller, featuring a charmingly bizarre trident shape and, crucially, both an analog stick and the yellow “C” buttons (foreshadowing!)

Alongside the analog stick, Super Mario 64 also popularized the concept of a player-controlled camera. “Cameras” are such a fundamental concept in how we conceptualize 3D games today that it can seem weird to imagine a time when the idea was unfamiliar; SM64 is therefore an interesting glimpse into a past that it itself was about to destroy. The game takes great pains to explain the mechanics of cameras to the player. The camera itself is made diegetic, represented in game as a Lakitu filming Mario’s exploits. This Lakitu is featured prominently in the game’s opening cutscene6 and, just to make sure, is called out in-game, interrupting the player as they approach Peach’s castle to introduce themselves, explain what they are, and explain how to control them. This, too, influenced the design of the N64 itself, as the console features 4 directional “C”7 buttons made specifically to direct Lakitu/the camera.

Our intrepid cameraman

This is the sort of thing that ol’ Danny was talking about up top. Super Mario 64 was years ahead of its time in establishing the base conventions for third person, 3D games. More or less every single game in this wide-ranging category owes something to SM64. It is through these contributions that the game became one of the most important in history. But, SM64 is more than just some key technical innovations. This isn’t a tech demo, it’s a video game. So, technical achievement aside, what’s this game like as a game?

We talked a few months ago about how Super Mario World changed the focus of the Mario series from rushing to the finish to stopping to smell the roses. Super Mario 64 takes this much further, completely changing the basic structure of the game itself. Levels in SM64 are not linear obstacle courses; rather, they are fully open-ended worlds, where the player can go in any direction they please. However, unlike in Jumping Flash! there’s usually at least some structure, either a major central landmark or an implied “correct” path that takes you through everything leading to the level’s first power star.

Which, that probably deserves an explanation. These large (for the time) open worlds come at a cost. Super Mario 64 has just 15 main levels. There are a few extra, mini levels in there, plus the hub world, but it’s a far cry from World‘s 72. So, instead of using each level only once8 each main level in SM64 has 6 different power stars to collect9. Having multiple objectives to complete/discover is a great compliment to the non-linear levels. The two work hand in hand, supporting each other and featuring the game’s innovative movement system.

…or at least, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, Super Mario 64 makes a drastic miscalculation. Each time you collect one of these 6 power stars, you are ejected from the level. If you want to keep searching, you have to reenter and start from scratch. There are a few slight benefits to this approach; you select the star you’re trying for from a menu when entering the level, which means the name of each star can serve as a hint to what/where it is. And, occasionally, levels will change states slightly depending on which star you choose. But, mostly this is just an unnecessary break in flow. SM64 had something really cool in its grasp here, but it let it slip away.

And if that isn’t a description of so much of this game. Look, I frontloaded praise here. I made the case for why Super Mario 64 is rightfully in the canon. It’s wildly innovative and very important. And also, I don’t really enjoy playing it at all, despite years of attempts to groove with it, and look forward to never doing so again after this article.

There are just so, so many annoyances playing this game. Remember how Mega Man X had wall jumping, and it was really smoothly implemented via a wall slide system and felt great? Well, Super Mario 64 doesn’t have that. Instead it has “wall kicks”, where if you jump into a wall and then jump again at the exact moment you hit it you’ll bounce off. Otherwise you’ve gotta try again. Fun. Or how about the Wing Cap, maybe the single worst “feature” in the entire series? Flying around a 3D world is such a cool concept (there’s a reason it’s the box art) but the Wing Cap doesn’t let you do that, you just get to glide, except you don’t even do that consistently, you have to constantly swoop or else fight the game at every turn. It’s “falling with style” minus the style. Or, remember last month how I praised Jumping Flash! for instituting a double jump, and mentioned how it’s more or less essential for course correction in 3D platformers? Well, SM64 doesn’t have one. Instead it has a million different variations on jumping that are all bigger than a normal jump but not actually helpful in a pinch. Or even the vaunted camera, innovative and foundational though it may be, isn’t actually very good. The side C buttons move way too much in one press, assuming of course that the game allows them to move at all. The game was visionary enough to know it needed an analog stick for player movement, but didn’t realize that it really needed a second for the camera too.

By now, you might be wondering what the point is, here. I know better than a game from 25 years ago, thanks in large part to games that came after and directly iterated on SM64. Good for me, I guess. I also know that the Earth orbits the Sun, unlike the Catholic Church of the 17th century. Look at the brain on me. And indeed, it’s not like I could have done better in ’96, even adjusting for the fact that I was 4. If we’re debating whether the developers of this game get to go to game dev heaven you’ll hear no dissent from me.

But, I still think there’s value in acknowledging these sorts of flaws in old classics. Beyond the gratification of exorcising some life-long demons, classic games tend to be influential, and that influence is not always confined to their best attributes. Like, just looking at the Mario series, it took until 200710 to fix wall jumping, it took until 2017 to get objectives that didn’t boot you from the level, and it took until some as of yet undetermined date in the future for them to get their jumping problem under control11. And outside the series, while 3D analog movement became standardized pretty instantly for all games on a platform with the necessary equipment, proper camera controls took way longer. There were early PS2 games that got it right, but it took years for “the right stick is for the camera unless you have a doctor’s note” to take hold, and I think a good deal of the reason why lies with SM64 giving the false impression that more limited control was good enough. If you don’t view the past with a critical eye you will never surpass it.

Thankfully, many games that have come out in the past quarter-century have done just that, using Super Mario 64 as a springboard rather than a template. Which leaves us at our current status-quo. There are many, many games that do what SM64 does but with more polish. It’s possible, for some people, to appreciate SM64 for what it is and not necessarily care about what it doesn’t do right. But, sad to say I think the “to be clear I played it for the technical innovations” attitude is fitting here. Super Mario 64 is foundational to the entire medium. But as a game, its legacy is decidedly more mixed.

Stray Observations:

  • Something I wish I could have fit into the article proper is just how many moves this game has. Like, look at this mess:
  • And that isn’t even everything! Modern console games have a definite approachability problem, in that if you don’t already play them they can be very difficult to pick up, and SM64 is absolutely part of that trend.
  • As part of the focus on exploration, SM64 swaps from the power-up as hit point system to a more straightforward health meter. It’s smart for the game to realize that exploration and instant death is a prickly mix, and I like how it gives coins a purpose as health replenishment.
  • The momentum in this game is really odd. Mario takes a bit to get going and to stop, and a single hit can send him sliding for miles on certain stages. It’s like half iterating on Sonic and half showing off that we’re in 3D now.
  • The poles in Dire Dire Docks that you need for the red coin mission don’t spawn until after you beat the second Bowser level for absolutely no good reason. The more you know.

Other 1996 platformers of note:

Despite its lack of Precious Sticks the PlayStation was still getting in on the platformer game with the release of Crash Bandicoot. Crash is a more straightforward adaptation of 2D platformers, with each level focusing primarily on two of the three axes, whether that be top-down XZ levels, 2.5D side-scrolling XY levels, and the most famous “Sonic’s Ass”12 viewpoint in ZY levels. This game is very restrictive on player movement, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing; the game is able to feature an authored, on-rails camera that works great with the PS1’s lack of natural camera controls, and since the game always knows exactly what the player can see at any given time it can load and unload geometry on the fly, “cheating” by having levels that are far more lush than what the PS1 could ordinarily handle.

“Lush” was relative, of course, but check out how detailed this is compared to something like Jumping Flash!

Elsewhere on the PlayStation we have Tomb Raider, a more “realistic” themed game in the vein of something like Indiana Jones. It would probably be interesting to see how this fits in the Prince of Persia legacy of platformers made to make sense in a somewhat plausible real-life context, but sad to say I’ve never actually played this one, so we’ll leave discussion for the comments.

Next Time: We get the second half of the “Metroidvania” genre name with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night