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Super Mario 64 – 25 Years Later

Super Mario 64 is old. And that means those of us who played it at release are also old. That’s the most depressing takeaway from my revisiting it nearly 25 years later.

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The good news is that it’s still the precursor for pretty much every 3D game created since. Yes, it has been bettered technically in every imaginable way, but the heart and soul are still there to beat.

When I think of gaming in the mid-to-late 90s, it still amazes me how fast things were moving. We went from Super Mario RPG in 1996 on the SNES, to Mario 64 the same year, through Sonic Adventure in 1998 and Shenmue in 1999. It’s almost impossible to picture the leap that we’d see by 2024 if we went by this standard. Maybe even a VR package that’s actually worth buying? Insane!

The Test of Time

If I were to review Mario 64 by today’s standards, I’d probably give them an A for effort. The camera actively wants to kill me and the controls are insane. Imagine NOT having a second analogue stick for the camera, and instead having four not particularly helpful yellow buttons.

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When I think back on the time, I think of amazing matches of Golden Eye and Perfect Dark, of epic adventures with Majora’s Mask. I don’t think about repeatedly falling off narrow walkways because the camera decided to switch places at the last second. That was always more of a PS2 experience for me (and I put that down to becoming more aware of gameplay flaws, to be fair).

But in the cold light of Mario 64, these are real problems. It says so much for the foresight of the developers that it doesn’t even matter. It totally stands up in every other way.

The levels are fun and quirky. The design is unmatched. They’re not too big, not too small. There are plenty of ways to approach every level, but without the need to check a guide too often to find out what should happen next.

Sure, they get more difficult, and much more finicky, but they also get more ingenious. Depending on the height of your jump into a level, perhaps the water level is set to a different amount? Perhaps jumping in when a clockface shows a certain time will have some effect? And that’s before we mention a level that has two different versions: one where you’re big, one where you’re tiny.

These keep the same old mechanics out-of-the-over fresh. Now how do we do that for the following 25 years?

Beyond the Obvious

I don’t need to tell you how good a game Super Mario 64 is. It’d be like writing an article telling people to try this really neat indie film called The Godfather.

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Instead, I want to use this space to say a few of the things that surprised me on my journey to 120 stars. Outside of how fresh it still was, my biggest immediate surprise was how similar it was to Ocarina of Time.

I know that game like the back of my hand, far more than Mario, and there are camera angles, textures and more that were so obviously shared between teams. It felt like a crossover at times. It was exciting to see that evolution in hindsight.

I was also surprised by just how far ahead of its time it was. It beat out anything on PlayStation at the time. Even Spyro, which released two years later, had worse graphics and looser controls.

With all that said, I also think Super Mario 64 probably gets too much credit. It’s so often cited as the game that solved the 3D problem – and compared to Sonic that was true. Sonic Adventure is one of my faves, and it was a graphical powerhouse, but what it gained in speed and exploration on the Dreamcast, it lacked in Super Mario’s polish.

But that’s beside the point. Mario 64 didn’t solve the 3D problem, because it had a bunch of them. What it did get right, were necessary parts of making a 3D game. It was first, but if it hadn’t been, something else would have inevitably come along.

Nintendo didn’t invent a genre. 3D action platformer was happening regardless of anybody’s best or worst efforts. And this kind of deifying, while understandable, does more harm than good.

Reliving a Classic

See, 25 years on, this is still an incredible title. A little janky, yes, but still doing exactly what it was made to do.

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I don’t mean incredible title in a Final Fantasy VI “you had to be there” way, because there’s a lot of retro titles I love that only stand up to the test of time if you love the genre or are feeling nostalgic. Great games lost to changing trends and improving spiritual successors. Nobody would pick Legend of Zelda over Ocarina of Time, and I suspect there’s a band of modern gamers that have never played either, but love Breath of the Wild.

Super Mario 64 feels as fresh as it did 25 years ago. In every way but graphically, it probably stands toe-to-toe with Sunshine and Galaxy. That is the achievement here. Not some imagined “they invented how to move a camera”, which would have come along on the far superior PlayStation controller sooner rather than later. The tech was the vessel for one of the best 3D platformers ever made.

And it’s not about to disappear either. Recent releases by Nintendo have put the game back into the hands of young gamers, and I hope they stick with it and get as much joy from it as I did.

Emulators are always an option, and my wife and I played it through our Series X, complete with retro achievements. What an additional joy that was. I got 120 stars for the first time, and it was those pesky little digital trinkets that made me do it.

Super Mario 64 – 25 Years Later – Conclusion

It’s only a matter of time before Nintendo give this game an official coat of paint. It’s inevitable, but not necessary.

As someone that’s spent several nights this week reliving it, I can say it’s packed with surprises, ingenuity and heart. It is the blueprint for almost every Nintendo game since.

At 25, it should be feeling more tired than it is. Hell, I know I was. But, it stands the test of time in a way I’m not even sure the original developers could have foreseen.

It’s rare to play an actual timeless classic. But here we are, repeated camera suicides and all.

 

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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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