Few moments in industry history were as significant as the change between the fourth-generation and the fifth-generation of video gaming. This is when grand leaps in technology changed entertainment forever. Home console games evolved from 2D worlds to fully realized 3D environments, creating more dynamic gameplay than ever thought possible. Big, bulky cartridges officially began their slow downfall when Sony’s PlayStation put games on CDs. Nintendo in particular suffered their first ever sales loss at the hands of a competitor. This is also when Sega’s collapse in the console market officially kicked off too when the Saturn completely bombed. It was a great period to be a fan of video games as the future never looked more exciting.
There are more than a handful of games that defined this era. To this day, few are remembered as fondly as Super Mario 64. First introduced as a launch title for the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64 was Nintendo’s first major foray into the burgeoning world of 3D polygons. It’s only fitting that they entered this new phase on the back of their main mascot. Nintendo had to make sure this transition was as smooth as possible, which wasn’t easy when you consider how they had to completely update the classic Mario formula. They had to make a game boasting the sterling Mario brand look fresh, play differently while still featuring what everyone loves about the franchise, and let longtime fans know that Nintendo could handle the changes. History would go one to prove Super Mario 64 a massive success, permanently cementing it as one of gaming’s greatest achievements. Now that it’s available on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, a whole new generation of gamers can experience this masterpiece.
It’s actually pretty extraordinary how far Super Mario 64 brought Nintendo into the new generation. This game didn’t just prove to people that Nintendo could weather the evolution to 3D. It gave the sense that the developers behind this ambitious project have made creations on this scale their entire lives. Super Mario 64 was just such an overwhelmingly complete adventure that was very ambitious for the time. The story was the basic Mario model with Princess Peach getting kidnapped by Bowser. Mario had to explore vastly different worlds, accessible by jumping through paintings, in order to save the day. Along the way he fights a diverse range of enemies, completes missions to collect stars, and receives a handful of helpful power ups. It honestly was everything that people loved about Mario, but with an extremely welcomed twist.
Super Mario 64’s greatest strength was easily its fully realized 3D environments. It was an entirely different experience. What this allowed was an immense focus on exploration to see all the secrets this game had to offer. Suddenly all the worlds got bigger, and the typical linearity was thrown away. If you were just exploring each level without an objective, there was no “right” way to get from point A to point B. There were simply better ways. Of course, if you had an objective, which usually was collecting the 120 stars to get the best ending, you have to finish set missions. Usually though, there was more than one way to do this, but the game did push you in some directions at times. This did allow constant exploration of the same places, giving a greater sense of depth to each new location.
The gameplay was absolutely stellar too. In previous games, Mario was best signified by his ability to jump high and run fast. His jump abilities in particular are defining attributes. With Super Mario 64 though, Mario received quite an update. He could punch and kick, grab enemies and throw them, do powerful triple jumps, backflips, and even jump off of walls. With magical hats, Mario could turn to metal, fly, and turn intangible to walk through objects. It really was like we’ve never seen him before. To accommodate all this though, along with the much larger environments, Super Mario 64 used a free camera that the player themselves could control. Even though the camera did get a little frustrating, it provided the best way to get through this adventure. It also set the groundwork for camera work in future open world games.
In fact, Super Mario 64 extends beyond setting the basis for camera usage. It ended up becoming the trailblazing title that defined what this new generation should look like. Every single platformer that came after bared more than a striking resemblance. Future hits like Banjo-Kazooie found success by updating what Super Mario 64 started. Platformers didn’t just find their new flagship game either. First-person shooters, RPGs, action-adventure games, and pretty much everything else looked to this game for inspiration on how to work in this new period. Even The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, an equally beloved game, wouldn’t have been what it was if Super Mario 64 didn’t pave the way first.
I still remember the first time my family got a Nintendo 64. As someone who played with the Super Nintendo, NES, and Sega Genesis as a child, this was like nothing I had ever experienced. It’s easily some of the high points in my gaming history. Super Mario 64 especially ranks highly on my personal list. I dedicated so many hours to Mario’s rescue mission of Princess Peach. This, of course, involved exploring many ways to exploit the game’s design. A personal favorite of mine is finding the right angles to jump on Peach’s castle to reach the very top and meet Yoshi early. What made this fun is that Yoshi was the game’s reward for collecting every star. It was an easy way to cheat the system, and I remember feeling so excited when I actually pulled it off.
It’s quite a surprise that it took this long for Super Mario 64 to come to the Wii U. This game was such an enormous hit, and was the launch title for two systems: the Nintendo 64 and Nintendo DS with Super Mario 64 DS. There’s no reason for Nintendo to not make it as accessible as possible. In fact, this game came out almost 19 years ago. People born back in 1996 are now in college and possibly never experienced this hugely influential title. The Wii U will hopefully rectify this. Honestly, if you never played Super Mario 64, stop reading this right now and play it.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.