In case you don’t know: Super Mario 64 is a game that revolutionized the entire gaming industry and that alone earns it the title of a true classic. Though does it still hold up and how are the virtual console versions?
The story begins with Mario getting invited to Peach’s castle for cake. Peach is kidnapped by Bowser. Mario has to stop Bowser.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the story and that’s all we need for this game. I actually think that the story had to be this simple for this game as this is the first 3D Mario game and the focus shouldn’t be the story but rather the gameplay. Would I like more complex stories in the main Mario games? Of course I would as the Mario RPGs have proven that Mario can have an intriguing plot as well as excellent gameplay but only for this game I’m making an exception, as it was the best choice that Nintendo could have done for introducing fans and newcomers alike to an entirely new formula.
The new formula works like this: You have a big hub world from which you jump into paintings that take you to different levels. At the start of each level you select the a mission (1-6) and then go to collect the star. Almost none of the old 2D roots are visible here. You have a health circle instead of upgrades, you can triple jump, crouch jump and do the long jump, you can attack with your melee attacks, do the ground pound, wall jump and slide with your belly or butt and even attack enemies with these moves. Except for the standard melee attack, all of these moves were very smart implementations and were necessary to make you feel in control in any situation. The joystick controls in combination with the very open levels are just a joy too until you sometimes try to turn around on a narrow path and Mario can’t seem to decide again whether to just straightly turn around or walk half a circle and fall off. This doesn’t happen too often but it will happen.
The goal of the game is to collect enough stars to get to Bowser, defeat him and take his key to unlock the next castle area until you face him in the final battle.
The mission names are your hints on where the star is or what to do to get it but sometimes they’re too cryptic. Super Mario Sunshine improved upon that by actually showing what to do or where to go. Imagine a mission description “The lost city” in a water world, you have absolutely no clue what to do. These cases are the exception though as the level design of Super Mario 64 allows you to get most stars in any order you like. For example while you selected the first mission, your ability to collect stars isn’t limited to that mission as you can collect four other stars on the map. The only thing that slightly changes from mission to mission is the map itself in regards to how much water is in the water world or what is on top of the mountain, in addition to new or replaced enemies. This system keeps things fresh and adds a lot of replay value.
However you don’t have a completely free camera. Only very few levels actually have full camera rotation and on one occasion my camera went absolutely nuts. It can kill you, especially while using the wing-cap upgrade and if you decide to go for the secret 100 coins star in each level then you will learn to hate the camera. You see, these 100 coins stars can decide whether you enjoy completing Super Mario 64 in a 100% run or make you stop in agony. In most levels there’s at least one mission in which you CAN’T collect 100 coins no matter how hard you try and some levels have the blue coin switch. The blue coin switch is abysmal simply for two things: The blue coins are an absolute requirement for getting 100 coins (in most cases) and the switch doesn’t respawn. Which means that if you activate the switch and fail to collect all the coins in the very short amount of time, then you are basically screwed.
Keep in mind though that this only applies to one simple factor: Wanting to go for the 100%. This raises the next question: Is it worth it fully completing this game beyond the final battle with Bowser? The answer is: No. You get a short meeting with Yoshi and a bunch of extra lives which are of no use to you anymore. I think the best way to play this game is to just collect the stars at your own pace, skip the ones you dislike and go for other ones. If you do just that, then this game will be a very fun experience.
Special section: Virtual Console (Wii and Wii U)
It’s rather simple: Both versions run perfectly fine with the Wii having 16:9 support and the Wii U with a save-state feature (but no 16:9 support). The Wii U has more controller options and changeable controls while the Wii version feels just a bit less sensitive. Both versions have way too much sensitivity on the controls though (no matter which controller you use) so in the end I think both versions are fine. The sensitivity won’t ruin your experience.
The soundtrack is very catchy and features some of the most iconic tracks of the Mario franchise. Koji Kondo outdid himself here though I would love to see him remaster all these tracks with an orchestra, especially “Dire Dire Docks”.
Technically speaking this game didn’t age well. The art design is still saving this game a bit but objects that pop up, a Mario that becomes significantly low-res when he moves too far away and extremely stiff enemy movement drag the “beauty” down. You get used to it but it’s ironic to think that I was actually almost intimidated by this Bowser design as a child, he looks like a walking costume.
What is this game doing good for it’s genre?
It is still, up to this day, one of the games you have to play for the purpose of reliving classic video games. It’s still a very good 3D Jump&Run and features a very catchy soundtrack. The controls and level design didn’t age too badly.
What could have been improved?
The mission descriptions are often too cryptic, though the sequel already fixed it.
The 100 coins stars are the greatest weakness of this game. The problem could be easily fixed by letting the star spawn in a set location but instead it spawns directly above Mario’s head, often leading to unreachable situations.
The boss battles are ridiculously easy and some levels near the end are only harder due to bad edges.
The controls rarely kill you and the camera doesn’t work properly at times.
In the end Super Mario 64 deserves the title of a classic and will continue to defend this title. Usually many games, that are revolutionary at the time of release, tend to age horribly but Super Mario 64 is still an incredibly strong and unique 3D Jump&Run that obviously has more flaws now than at the time of its release. However, Super Mario 64 can be enjoyed by everyone and should be played at least once, if not only for playing a part of video game history.