Super Mario 64 – An Aging Classic

A few months back, we reviewed Super Mario Galaxy. A few weeks back, we reviewed Super Mario Sunshine. And now it’s finally time to review the final piece of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection: Super Mario 64! This game’s got a lot of history. It first released in 1996 for the Nintendo 64, and set many an important milestone for 3D platformers. It’s been showing its age for a long time, though, and I personally believe the 3D All-Stars version shows said age most prominently.

Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge Super Mario 64’s place in history. It was a huge step forward, and the developers’ innovations set the standard for decades to come. But it isn’t 1996 anymore; it’s 2020, so I have to take a look at Super Mario 64 from a 2020 perspective. And if there’s one thing we know about 2020 perspectives, it’s that they’re usually negative. No worries, though — we’re going to balance positive and negative and take a complete look at the game that started it all! (And by all, I mean “the 3D Super Mario games.)

Introduction

Over the years, Super Mario 64 has found its way to several different consoles. In addition to its initial release on the Nintendo 64, the game also appeared as a Wii and Wii U Virtual Console title. There’s not much of a Virtual Console to speak of on Nintendo Switch (at the time of writing), so Super Mario 64’s inclusion in Super Mario 3D All-Stars is the next best thing. This version of the game includes a good amount of changes. Let’s go over them real quick!

First up, Super Mario 64 actually received an updated version a few years after its initial release, but only in Japan. This update is referred to as the “Shindou version”, and it brought along a variety of adjustments. For one, you can press ZR (on Switch) on the title screen to zap a bunch of Mario face icons into the background! Some voice clips were changed, the backwards long jump glitch was patched, and rumble support was included for the first time. On top of the Shindou version changes, Super Mario 3D All-Stars upscales Super Mario 64 to 720p. Mario’s jagged polygons have never looked so clean! The game’s text and images have also been updated to reflect the Switch version’s controls. Lastly, a bunch of the game’s textures have been bumped up in resolution, making them look much smoother. Not all textures have been updated, though, so there’s still a few blurry ones.

Of course, for speedrunners, the removal of the backwards long jump glitch is a bummer. That aside, though, many would say this is the definitive way to play Super Mario 64. For better or worse, this is as close to the original experience as you can get. Unlike the previously-released Virtual Console versions, there are no save states here. If you die, you’re dead, and you have to restart the level. This makes the game quite difficult and even sort of obnoxious at times. But hey, that’s what the developers intended… right?

Story & Presentation

Before we get into the gameplay, let’s talk a bit about Super Mario 64’s presentation department. The story is exactly what you’d expect: Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser and Mario has to save her by gathering Power Stars. Obviously, this “storyline” (if you can call it that) has been done to death, but keep in mind the fact that Super Mario 64 is rather old. This cliché wasn’t quite as overused back then, so it gets a pass from me. Besides, as one of the earliest and most influential 3D platformers, I’m actually glad this game didn’t focus too heavily on its storyline.

If Super Mario 64’s graphics look a bit dated, that’s because they are! But I don’t think this is a big deal. You can tell what everything is, and the game still has a lot of personality even though its models are blocky and thick. 64 is the only game in 3D All-Stars that doesn’t run in widescreen, so you’re unfortunately stuck with two black bars on either side. This is a bummer! There are fan-made mods out there that let you play the game in widescreen… why not here? It’s a shame, but it’s not quite a dealbreaker. The good news is that the actual game looks better than ever. As mentioned before, everything is rendered in HD, and a bunch of textures were also redrawn. Previously, they looked really blurry – we can thank Nintendo 64 hardware limitations for that one – but now they look fresh and clean without sticking out from the rest of the environments. Not every texture has been updated, so you’ll still see some blurry ones here and there, but it’s not too bad! Super Mario 64 still runs at 30 frames per second. I suppose it’d be neat to see it run at 60, but honestly, I think its performance is fine as-is. In my opinion, games with less detail – such as old Nintendo 64 titles – don’t need to run at 60 FPS to feel “smooth”. So this gets a pass too!

Okay, enough with the technical jargon, then. Super Mario 64’s hub world is Peach’s Castle, and you access its levels by jumping through paintings. There’s a grand total of fifteen major levels, plus a few minor ones. As you can imagine, the earlier levels are easiest, while the later levels tend to get more difficult. Despite the game’s age, each level is easily distinguishable from each other. You’ve got a battlefield, a fortress, a snowy mountain, a rocky ocean, and even a clock. I was impressed by the amount of variety on display here. You’d think one of the earliest and most influential 3D platformers would only have a few types of levels, but nope — they went all out here. Respectable!

These levels were rather large for the time, but they might seem kind of small compared to more recent games. There’s still plenty to do in each one, though some parts of certain levels feel empty. Peach’s Castle, Shifting Sand Land, and Lethal Lava Land are all examples of locations that felt a bit lonely, but I think this feeling works in the game’s favor. That lonely atmosphere helps place a greater emphasis on exploration and self-guided gameplay.

Super Mario 64’s soundtrack is one of its strong suits. The game doesn’t rely too heavily on remixes of existing Mario themes, which helps it to feel fresh and new! Most of the newly-introduced tracks are not only memorable, but iconic. You’ve got Bob-omb Battlefield, Dire Dire Docks, Peach’s Castle, and Bowser’s theme, among many others. They’re all really memorable and would go on to be featured in many, many more Mario games. Super Mario 64 definitely had a huge effect on the series!

But here’s something else, too. Super Mario 64 didn’t need F.L.U.D.D or Luma to be successful. This game is absolutely the least gimmicky of the three Mario games featured in Super Mario 3D All-Stars. It’s just got that essence of simplicity that the other titles don’t quite capture. But that’s okay! Because that essence is Super Mario 64’s thing, and Super Mario 64’s thing alone. It’s really nice that such an old game has such a defined atmosphere.

Gameplay

Sure, you might think Super Mario 64’s graphics are where the game shows its age – and you’re right – but the gameplay makes said age much more apparent. As mentioned before, Peach’s Castle is the hub world, so you’ll be exploring its rooms and halls to find big paintings to jump into! There’s a grand total of 120 Power Stars to collect, though you’ll only need 70 to access the final Bowser battle and beat the game. Each of the fifteen main courses contains 7 Power Stars. The first six are all missions you’ll have to accomplish. Most of them are pretty straightforward, but others might leave you confused. One Power Star in Whomp’s Fortress, the game’s second level, requires you to blast away a wall and reveal a hidden Power Star. There wasn’t much of an indicator of this; I only knew it existed because I played Super Mario 64 DS back in the day and looked up a guide. There are other obscure Power Stars like this, too, but honestly, most of them are rather easy to locate.

So, the first six Stars are missions. The seventh Star is an 100-Coin Star, and only the main fifteen courses have them. The 100-Coin Stars are where things get rough. It’s easy enough to find 100 coins in the earlier levels, but as you reach the later stages, the levels get more difficult. Tick-Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride, the final levels, are really hard to nab that 100-Coin Star on. The platforms get narrow and tough to maneuver. And as mentioned before, no save states, so if you die with 99 coins, you have to go into the level and collect those coins all over again. Believe me, it’s very easy to die, because…

…the camera is a complete mess. This is where the game shows its age. Forget Bowser — the camera is the real antagonist. Most of the jumps you’ll have to make are completely doable on their own, but then the camera will decide to switch to a strange angle, mess up your timing, and kill you! You can’t always move the camera very much (if at all), so if it’s stuck at a weird angle, you have to live with it. Sometimes, the angle is so tough – especially on narrow or small platforms – that you have to stand still and inch yourself forward ever so slightly so that you don’t fall off. This gets even worse if your Joy-Cons are drifting. The camera is also tough underwater, especially when you’re trying to change directions. I can’t actually overstate how problematic the camera was for me when I played (and I got all 120 Stars). Super Mario 64 DS’ camera was much better in this regard, in my opinion. One glitch I encountered is that if Mario lands on the very edge of a platform, he’ll “land” over and over again – completely locking you out of controlling him – until he falls off the platform. If said platform is floating in midair, you’ll fall off and die. I died many times in the Bowser levels because I landed on the edge of a platform and glitched right off it. Very frustrating!

Now let’s circle back to some more positive things. Mario’s movement! Despite being an early 3D platformer, Mario has access to a wide variety of moves. He can jump, triple jump, punch, kick, slide, dive, ground pound, do a somersault… there so many options here! On the whole, I think Mario’s movement in 64 is a bit less versatile than in Sunshine, but more versatile than in Galaxy. Side note; there’s no F.LU.D.D. or Luma here, so if you mess up a jump, you can’t hover or spin to save yourself at the last second. Mario’s momentum can be difficult to control, especially with the camera getting in your way all the time. This game definitely takes some getting used to, especially compared to Sunshine and Galaxy.

In addition to, y’know, being the first 3D Mario and all, Super Mario 64 introduces a bunch of new power-ups. There’s no Fire Flower or Super Mushroom here. Instead, we’ve got the Wing Cap, Metal Cap, and Vanish Cap. Each power-up is cool, but I’m not too sure on how they’re used in levels. They all wear off after a short time, so if you don’t get to your goal in time, you have to go all the way back to the power-up box and try again. In short, the power-ups are neat, but aren’t explored very well and are more like gimmicks than actual gameplay elements.

The Verdict

This review was a tough one to write! Given its age, I wasn’t sure what to give Super Mario 64 a pass on. It’s made its place in video gaming history, but I don’t think that should excuse us from looking at its flaws. In some ways, Super Mario 64 feels more like a piece of history – a benchmark in game design, so to speak – than an actual game. That is to say, all of 64’s strengths and weaknesses are indicative of the state of video games at the time of its release.

There’s certainly a lot of fun to be had with Super Mario 64. There’s no denying that. But some of its design philosophies are a bit outdated, and its camera is a chore to deal with, so it can be quite frustrating at times. I think Sunshine and Galaxy are the better games, but I suppose that’s to be expected, given their status as sequels. It would’ve been neat to see Super Mario 64 DS included in Super Mario 3D All-Stars – preferably in addition to regular old 64 – but this is fine too, if slightly disappointing.

Now then, with that, we’ve talked about Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. All three components of the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection! Well, we’re going to make one more post on this collection: a review of the collection itself. And oh boy, it’s going to be a critical one. Who’s ready to complain about limited-time releases?

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