Capsule Review: Super Mario 64

An incredibly influential game that popularized the template still followed by many 3D platformers today. Progress through a “hub” area (Peach’s castle) that presents access to several themed “spoke” levels (Bob-omb Battlefield, Whomp’s Fortress, etc.) that each have several different available objectives (defeating specific enemies, reaching specific destinations, collecting eight red coins, etc.) that each reward the game’s main collectible (stars). Get enough of the collectible to open the way to the next part of the hub and gain access to the next set of levels.

Because there are always more of the collectible available than required to open the next gate, you have a lot of freedom in the order in which you tackle things and can skip some objectives entirely if you don’t find them fun. It’s an incredibly solid design core that allows players to tailor their own progression and presents plenty of opportunities for exploration along the way. Mechanics can be introduced as one-shots for specific objectives or can recur and develop across sets of levels.

Mario has an extensive moveset controlled by relatively few buttons; as a result, many significant moves are triggered not by hitting a specific button but by hitting a specific sequence or combination of buttons while Mario is moving at the right speed. The basic moves are easy to pick up, but these will only get you so far - to complete more difficult levels and objectives, you’ll need to master a number of the advanced moves by practicing and memorizing the timing of their button presses. This adds a lot of depth to navigating the game’s world and means that skill isn’t just about recognizing the right thing to do in a given situation - you also need to be sufficiently good at telling Mario to do that thing.

Levels start off very forgiving - the first stage has no pitfalls and its boss can’t even damage Mario. I found these early stages very enjoyable - everywhere you go there’s something interesting to play with, and as you get better at controlling Mario, you can tackle the slowly-ramping-up challenges. Exploration is encouraged by the game providing a safe space to experiment with its systems, as well as by hiding a few secrets around the game and not spelling out how to complete every objective but giving only vague hints for some of them.

However, the levels get less forgiving as you go. There are more and more bottomless pits to fall into (culminating in the final level, Rainbow Ride, which is mostly pit) and damaging hazards like enemies with projectile attacks. More and more, it’s the case that a single mistake kills Mario, which ejects you from the level completely and requires you to carefully make your way back to where you were before you can experiment any further. The instructional scaffolding seen clearly in later Mario games doesn’t really exist here - early levels are safe learning environments, but later levels introduce their own mechanics as live-fire exercises with no ramp up.

Because of this, I found later levels increasingly aggravating. Exploration was no longer fun, as it usually meant getting kicked out of the level before I fully understood what was going on around me. The camera - which was great for its time but hasn’t held up very well - often didn’t help, as it can be difficult to get a good view on your surroundings. Adding frustration were Mario’s bizarrely large turning radius, which often had me falling off of edges when trying to turn around and step away from them, and his aggressive slipperiness, which has him lying down when he sets foot on a slope and sliding a surprising distance before he’s willing to get back up. While I could deal with all of this in the early levels, in later levels it made for a huge number of unfair-feeling deaths and even aggressive use of the Wii U Virtual Console’s Restore Point to avoid getting kicked out of levels wasn’t enough to salvage the experience. I felt like I was being required to explore but punished for not already having the level memorized, and that just wasn’t fun.

All of my complaints are on the surface level, however, and it’s hard to fault a game from 1996 for failing to live up to the design lessons of the two following decades - especially when other first-generation 3D games don’t hold up nearly as well. Super Mario 64’s core is fantastic, and it’s good news when other games take cues from it. Its revered spot in gaming history is well-deserved.

I Stopped Playing When: After trying every stage at least once and collecting 56 stars, I was no longer enjoying the game, due to the later levels feeling like wars of attrition rather than playful exploration. I do lament that I was unable to beat Bowser, as this requires 70 stars and I was uninterested in grinding out 14 more.

Docprof's Rating:

Three Stars: Good. I liked the game enough to finish it (or just play it a bunch, for games that don't end). I recommend it to most genre fans.

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