Super Mario 64 review
It's a 120 Star Classic
Mention the word 'Nintendo' and almost certainly people will think of Mario. That surprisingly agile plumber has been the number one icon for the gaming giant for a very long time, so it comes as no surprise that he should star in a launch title for the console. Super Mario 64 is a pretty special title though, because in addition to launching their console it also marks the first time Mario steps into the 3D world.
From the moment I took control I couldn't help but feel how well the system works. Mario responds very well to the analogue input, allowing for fluid and accurate movement in his new environments. He has also been gifted a wide variety of abilities as well. Typically all these moves are done via either singular inputs or combinations of three buttons - A, B and the trigger Z. The cool thing is that even though Mario can perform every move from the beginning (aside from the powerup skills) they aren't forced on the player too quickly. The moves are introduced slowly to allow players to slowly get used to them but allows for the freedom to use any of them should the player want to.
Jumping is still a vital ability, but this is extended beyond the basic jumps commonly seen before. Properly timing of jumping as Mario hits the ground allows him to extend his height through the double and triple jumps, gaining height each time. Backflips and sideways flips also allow for extra height when there isn't the room otherwise. Finally there is the wall jump, a situational move that allows Mario to kick himself off a wall to scale great heights that normal jumps can't reach.
The game isn't afraid to test these acrobatic skills either. There are many areas in the game that involve navigating a series of platforms or scaling various ledges. The consequences for missing range from simply making you way back up to outright death, with the harsher penalties becoming more common as you move through the game. The difficulty of this isn't quite on the same level as the older 2D Mario titles but they are difficult enough to challenge most players.
Judging distances is thankfully helped by a very friendly camera system. There ingame camera is controlled via the R shoulder button (used to change camera type) and the four yellow C buttons (used to rotate and zoom). Bear in mind that the C buttons input is entirely digital, so movement of the camera isn't going to be as precise as an analogue input would be, but the rotation and zoom angles offered are extensive enough to allow the player to set the view to what they want most of the time.
C up is used to zoom the camera in, but when the camera is at normal zoom it will shift into look mode. In this mode the camera sits behind Mario's head as the player can alter Mario's view direction with the analogue stick, which allows the player to get a good view of the surroundings when deciding where to go or what to do.
The shoulder button switches between two camera modes, but the secondary mode depends on the option set by the player. Essentially the default camera is the Lakitu camera, which has a decent zoom level and usually responds well to the player, although occasionally it will fail to snap around to a comfortable angle. The Mario camera is a close up camera that follows Mario at normal zoom (which renders the game a bit unplayable as it becomes hard to see everything) or it is a camera that sits even further back than a full zoomed out Lakitu camera when it is zoomed out. Zoomed out it works pretty well when you need a wider view. The fixed camera doesn't have that much practical value but it is fun to start a stage, hold the button to fix the camera and then see how far you can get with the camera in at its fixed location, only rotating to follow Mario's movements but not following Mario directly.
Mario needs more than just jumping skills this time, but even so it's a bit surprising to see him now fully capable of punching and kicking his way through enemies. Mario can also pick up and throw certains objects, as well as execute sliding attacks for swifter strikes. These work very well to extend the range of abilities. There's even the butt stomp - sorry, the ground the pound move - that allows Mario to quickly plummet from the air with force. As well as being a fairly amusing move it's also integrated well into the moveset.
Mario can also read signs and speak to friendly characters. This action is attached to the same button used for punching, but thankfully you can't actually punch that Toad into the middle of next week by accident (on the other hand, not being able to purposely do that is a shame). Signs and people usually provide clues or simple background details. Sometimes you can learn how to perform certain moves and at times you might even gain a new star.
Star? Yes. SM64 breaks away from the more linear progression of previous entries in the series by presenting a completely different goal. Instead of simply going from A to B, Mario must now collect power stars. There are 120 stars in total to collect, and each of the 15 main worlds has 7 stars. What this means is that you will revisit the various worlds multiple times in order to pick up every star. The setup also allows for a great deal of freedom to the player. Unless someone is aiming for 100% completion then it is possible to avoid certain levels altogether and still reach the final boss battle. Moreso, it also means that there is really no set order to the game. To a degree, do whatever you want whenever you want.
In the 15 main worlds there are 6 standard stars and a star gained by collecting 100 coins in one visit. Each standard star involves completing a set task to collect it. There are boss battles, reach a destination, collect the red coins and winning races, to mention some of the tasks. The game also doesn't really come straight out with instructions but instead presents clues in the name of the star you're going for.
Even though some of these tasks may at first seem generic, the game does a very good job of challenging the player. One challenge involves opening chests in the correct order while trying not to run out of air and drown. Another tasks you with defeating Wiggler, but first you have to make use of that level's trait of small and big to break open the passage and enter. It's a lot deeper than it initially lets on.
Princess Peach's Castle acts as the hub level. It's an environment open to exploration, although it's not really as interesting as the main worlds. The castle is generally used to connect to all the other levels and areas in the game. Occasionally there will be a little something to do, like catching a rabbit in the basement or speaking to the Toads for stars, but never really on the same level as standard stages.
There are also a variety of smaller stages on offer. These stages typically only offer one or two stars (classed as castle secret stars) but are fun regardless. Some of these stages test specific abilities, like the slide that tests your racing abilities or the aquarium that task you with grabbing the red coins before you drown. The 'big boss battles' of the game are also positioned after short stages that Mario must navigate before he gets to fight.
Each world and even some of those smaller stages are filled with a variety of enemies intent on impeding Mario's progress. What's great about this is how varied they are. You have some of the more basic baddies, like the classic Goombas that simply try to bash into you, and a lot of more interesting baddies. Such bad guys include the whomps that try to flatten you and must be defeated with a butt stomp on their backs and the snowmen who are defeated by getting their attention and literally running rings around them. There is such variety both in the attacks they use and the methods needed to defeat them that fighting them all adds to the experience. This is something the 2D instalments of the series hadn't managed before.
Of course, as mentioned earlier there are also towering bosses to fight against. As with the common enemies, these bosses are also quite varied. Your first battle is against a giant Bob-Omb king that tries to throw you around, the next will be against a gigantic whomp and another requires you to strike at a ghost without looking into his face. Even the main boss of the game provides an interesting fight, as you aim to swing him around and launch him into the stage side mines.
At some point in the game Mario will gain the ability to activate cap blocks. There are three cap blocks in the game - red, blue and green - and each colour has a corresponding switch that must be pressed to turn all blocks of that colour solid. Once solid a block can be broken open and the cap taken. These special caps bestow special powers on Mario for a limited period of time, which can help and are needed for gaining certain stars. While not excessive, these powers are used a fair bit.
The wing cap is probably the most entertaining power, although it does take some practice. Performing a triple jump or launching out of a cannon causes Mario to start flying… while, gliding is probably more accurate. Mario can't really gain altitude outside of his initial takeoff, but clever use of altering his vertical direction can help to maintain height. Sometimes I just found myself using the cap just to glide around the stages simply because it was fun to do so.
The other caps are less entertaining than that but still have their uses. The metal cap turns Mario into living metal, where he no longer takes damage from anything except electricity, no longer needs to breathe and can walk underwater. The vanish cap allows Mario to avoid all damage except high falls and he can walk through certain objects. There isn't really any additional input with these caps, unlike the wing cap, but they help to develop the gameplay more.
There are a few other items to pick up as well. 1up mushrooms are classic items that do the same thing as always, adding a life to Mario's counter. Coins are also scattered throughout each area in three varieties - yellow, red and blue. Each has a different value and coins have a few uses, including the previously mentioned 100 coin star, gaining lives and regaining health.
The damage system has changed considerably from previous games. This time Mario comes with an eight segment health gauge. Whenever Mario takes damage he loses segments from this gauge depending on the hit, and losing all eight segments causes Mario to lose a life and he is forced to exit the current stage. Health segments can be regained by collecting coins, running through a heart icon or (strangely) jumping into water and floating at the surface.
Some stages hold large enough bodies of water to necessitate swimming, so thankfully our plumber is fully capable of swimming through these expanses of liquid. Mario can either flutter kick by holding A or breaststroke by tapping A. Breaststroke is notably faster and not really hard to control, so the flutter kick does seem rather pointless. Mario can also grab objects underwater, but this is almost never actually used so again I have to ponder why the ability exists. Regardless, swimming is responsive and offers a solid different experience.
One awkward aspect is that Mario does not have a separate air gauge when underwater. Instead his health gauge is depleted as he spends time underwater. This can lead to easy refilling of health whenever water is nearby.
OK, but while the gameplay is still amazing even now, players will no doubt be far less impressed by the non-gameplay elements.
When it was first released the visual display was a sight to behold. Bearing in mind that 3D home console gaming was still pretty new it was fantastic to see Mario moving around a 3D world. The textures are quite bland by today's standards though, so if you're more used to seeing the likes of Halo or MGS then this will look very outdated to you now.
That said, there are still some aspects of the visual display that can still be appreciated. The various shapes are well defined and everything is animated pretty well. You even get a lot of neat little touches, such as Mario falling asleep if left idle. The effects in use look quite nice as well, and while the textures may not be up to par the worlds themselves still hold some appeal to them that entices you to visit every part of them. The colours are also bright and cheerful, which is nice to look at and keeping with the general theme of the series.
The sounds also fit in well with the Mario theme. While I wouldn't call the music selection the best ever they are quite pleasing to listen to as you travel around the different areas and there is quite a few tracks on offer that match each area well. The sound effects are also pretty good, with Mario being quite vocal as he bounces around the place and you hear the cries of enemies and splashes of water.
The plot isn't particularly impressive, although at least that's also in keeping with the Mario series considering their storyline is rarely a strong point. There's something about Princess Peach inviting Mario to the castle with the promise of cake (no, it's not a lie) but when Mario arrives he finds that Bowser has stolen the power stars and imprisoned everyone in the castle walls. Yeah, not at all deep or anything, but like it matters because the gameplay shines enough to not need it.
The game is also filled with a lot of glitches. None of them will cause any actual problems with the gameplay as such, but it does seem to show signs of rushing that so many were missed. It's possible for Mario to climb through the bridge in world 1, to jumpkick through doors before they close after opening one and even some of the spires of the castle roof can be walked straight through. On the other hand, some people enjoy exploiting these glitches so how you view this is up to you.
So despite a lacking plot there can be no doubt. Super Mario 64 is a very special game not only for bringing Mario in the 3D world but doing it with such style. Even now this game has retained most of the charm it had when it first appeared. There is simply so much that works in here that, regardless of its age, it is a game worth experiencing.
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