Good afternoon, Lakitu. It’s good to know that whether the year is 1996 or 2021, he’s still reporting live. Indeed times have changed, but this game really does still inspire a sense of wonder in its own little time capsule. I’ve started a new playthrough for the first time in years (in 3D All-Stars) and the experience has been so valuable I had to write about it. So many things about Super Mario 64 are still great, and its flaws make me thankful for where gaming is now.
One of the first things I noticed was the lack of a run button, completely liberating. Why do recent 3D games even have a run button? Nintendo was so proud of the analog stick being introduced for this game, that they actually… used it properly. If you want to walk you can tilt the stick, or hold it normally to run. My right thumb has never felt more free.
I always loved this game but my memory of it was simple and slow, and to my surprise Mario’s movement is extremely fast and vigorous here. He’s so happy to be in 3D and you can feel it. The long-jump rockets Mario across the terrain, and the triple-jump takes you to new heights with ease. The speed boost you get while long-jumping and diving is notably faster than 3D World.
Mario has a bit of momentum when he turns around in Super Mario 64, taking the time to rotate instead of snapping there instantly. It’s odd how this more realistic take is the very oldest one. While some developers are working tirelessly to make their games more realistic, Nintendo’s idea of improving games has been centered on gameplay accessibility.
Admittedly, it took me a bit of time to adapt after the instantaneous turning in the newer games. Luckily there are many ways to adjust Mario to compensate. You can jump backwards if you’re going too fast, or kick in the air to gain more forward momentum instead, offering a large degree of elegance and control. The dive is also easier to do with a single button, instead of two buttons you would use in 3D World (another benefit of no run button).
Lakitu is very proud of his camerawork. He works extremely hard to capture just the right angle so Mario can get on with the job. The whole “characterisation” of a gameplay feature is classic Nintendo, and something they still do to this day with the talking Ring-Con. Before anyone had ever controlled a 3D camera in a videogame, it was easier to imagine a cameraman behind the screen. Lakitu’s cloud meant he could go anywhere. He would make a very good journalist or get a million followers on Instagram easily.
The camera movement still does have its limitations and I have to admit I got frustrated in those moments it wouldn’t turn. If anything, it makes today’s 3D videogame camera controls feel extra good. We couldn’t always move cameras anywhere, and Lakitu’s refusal to go through walls was a clever way of hiding the limitations. To it’s credit, this was one of the first 3D cameras in videogame history, and the fact that it doesn’t glitch too often is impressive. It is self-aware.
The engineering behind this game is simply legendary. They completely revolutionised 3D gameplay with open levels, branching objectives, and the largest toolkit of movement options Mario has ever had. Despite the limiting development window (being a launch title) on primitive 3D technology, there was no compromise in terms of the scope and vision.
Mario can fly, ride shells, triple jump, break objects. Even to this day flying around in this game is awe-inspiring. You can get lost in the sky as the camera shoots up with the sound of the wind whooshing by your ears.
The game somehow feels “full” despite the polygons having 6 edges and almost no textures. Butterflies, birds and fish somehow exist in this landscape casually, as if its all normal. Eels and sharks swim around the water levels, bubbles escape from opening clams, and seaweed sways with the rhythm of the current.
The choice to populate and characterise so many things in this game put the graphical limitations in the background. They didn’t matter. The game is its own living thing, operating perfectly within its own rules. When you’re playing, you don’t see textures or polygons, you see possibilities. You feel the wind, the cold, the water, the dizzying heights.
If anyone has any thoughts or experiences with Super Mario 64, I’d love to hear in the comments. Whether you played it decades ago or now, this is still a game that can have an extremely big impact with pure energy and ambition at the core of its design.