Review by Myollnir98

"Bold strides for such a short fellow!"

Introduction

After having spent the better part of three weeks playing through this game to get as much as I possibly could from it I felt inspired, even compelled, to write a review. Mario games have always been placed on a very high pedestal in my eyes, as I feel there's never been a dud in the main series. This one is particularly important in its role of propelling the series from its 2D origins into an exciting 3D future, and found itself flying through showers of universal praise and getting Nintendo's fifth generation system off to an impressive start. As has been discussed at length in the intervening years, a far cry from the transitions made by many other popular series into the third dimension. I never got on board for the (rainbow) ride at the time however, as the lure of Sony's PlayStation was simply too strong for someone who could only own one current system.

Gameplay

I'd gotten through a significant chunk of its canonical follow up Super Mario Sunshine before I tackled this and was surprised at how much this first 3D outing set the template that its successor would tweak. It's clearly a testament to the ingenuity of its design that a game developed almost five years later still plays much the same. Variety and freedom is the spice of this game, making it a lot less linear than previous titles. The action takes place in Princess Peach's castle in the Mushroom Kingdom, whom Bowser has once again kidnapped. He has imprisoned her and her servants (Toads in other words) in the walls and hidden the castle's numerous power stars throughout 15 huge areas (courses) which are connected to the castle through paintings and other portals in various rooms. I don't think there's any need to discuss the story much further, suffice it to say that it's again moulded in the best, simple Mario traditions. I've never gotten tired of guiding Mario through each meticulously designed area, setting out to face Bowser in that titanic spine tingling showdown and rescue the Princess. I doubt we'd have it any other way!

The central goal is to collect these power stars (120 in total), of which there are 6 scattered throughout each course (plus one extra if you collect 100 coins in that course). You are simply given a hint each time as to where and how you might find them, and then it's up to you to go explore. You can collect them in any order you feel, which is where the relative freedom comes into play. Advancement through the game involves collecting enough stars to open doors to new areas of the castle, meaning that not every star needs to be found. Given a snappy 3D upgrade most of the courses overcome their cliche themes. We have the grassy overland areas, icy and snowy stages, underwater explorations, underground caves, but also a few originals and nice nods to games past too.

Compared to its 2D counterparts, they've gotten away with altering a surprising amount. Easiest to notice is the absence of the traditional power up system, but it's replaced with something just as enticing. Mario can now find caps that grant him special powers for a brief period of time. These are accessed from blocks in the courses that need to be activated via secret switches (a la Super Mario World). The red caps have wings on them that enable Mario to fly. It's awkward to get the hang of at first but is a breathtaking experience once you get used to it. The blue cap makes Mario "vanish" (flickering semi transparently) so he can move through enemies without taking damage and go through wire net walls. The green one turns Mario into "Metal Mario" who in addition to being invincible for a short period, can also walk on the sea bed (more useful than it sounds!)

I was just as taken aback by just how many moves Mario can perform. From being able to jump three times in succession while gaining more height each time, to back flips, sharp side jumps, ducking and crawling, huge long jumps and even punches and kicks to name a few. Most will be used frequently to overcome obstacles or for ease of getting around the world, and use simple button commands so they are easy to remember after using them a few times. The Nintendo 64 "control stick" (analog stick) is perfectly configured for this game. It set in motion the use of sensitivity so that tilting it further in a direction would make Mario speed up and tilting it more lightly would slow him to a walk or tiptoe. Keeping this in mind is important as there are times when making careful steps is the fine line between getting where you want and having to start over. Many stalwart enemies return, including goombas, koopas, boos, piranha plants, thwomps, and Lakitus in amongst new designs like the gentle pink bo-bombs who ready cannons that Mario can shoot to the sky with. They are fewer in number and appear sporadically sometimes, seeming like minor roadblocks while seeking out the next star rather than the major part of the game they should be. A few bosses that hold stars (often larger versions of common enemies) are also included for good measure. I've not been able to cover every base here, but hopefully this is a decent overview of what to expect from the game: i.e. lots!

Graphics/Sound

Graphically this was light years ahead of anything the PlayStation competition could muster at the time, and even now its cartoonish presentation works in its favour. Games that aren't interested in striving for realism often stand the test of time best and this is a perfect example. The limited textures the system would become bemoaned for are not an issue here. Simple shading and bright colours brought Mario's world to life effectively, coming together in massive open environments that put (the admittedly excellent) Crash Bandicoot's very tunnel-like 3D levels to shame. You could see across the landscape for a long way, which was incredible at the time for a console game, providing the most complete 3D platforming experience at its release. I think that only some minor decorations such as trees were 2D sprites. On the flip side, no matter how threatening and ruthless a game's villain, it seems that the camera can often be a far worse enemy in 3D games. Much trouble is alleviated here by giving the player full control of it, allowing you to zoom in, out and rotate it all around Mario. There are restrictions, but it's usually more than adequate.

Music is of course handled by the faultless Koji Kondo, who gives the game exactly what it needs. He provides a number of pieces, far more than is usual for a Mario adventure, to fully match the diverse surroundings of each course. Helped along the way by his trademark Latin jazz influences and some new versions of classic Mario themes. CD quality sound is not necessary when the composition is this solid. Sound quality is very good, and Charles Martinet gave a new, chirpy Italian identity to Mario which has survived to this day. All the various sound effects help a great deal to shower the game in even more personality and are quintessential Nintendo. You could tell what sort of game they come from without even needing to see it.

Play Time/Replayability

I took around three weeks playing a good couple of hours a day to obtain the max number of stars (it would be much quicker if you simply want to get to the finish with a minimum of stars). A fair number of stars hidden outside the main courses provides much additional romping around too. Any other extras are very quick but fun distractions, but thankfully the overwhelming fun factor is enough to guarantee a replay. On the other hand, while there are a satisfyingly large amount of stars to retrieve they can often be collected at an alarming rate, and even the most well tucked away stars are easy to get once you've done it once. You won't be stumped by a tricky looking scenario for too long. I think they may have made it this way so that people would be able to comfortably and easily adapt to the new 3D engine. The later Super Mario Sunshine ups the ante considerably in this department.

Conclusion

One of the most prominent themes running through the game is taking prime aspects of Mario games and expanding them as much as possible. There is more music, bigger areas to explore, more things Mario can do, more ways he can interact with his environment etc. It's a delightful game that despite all its visionary additions turned out to be far easier to handle than it initially looked. Despite a (perhaps expected) lax level of challenge, the options given to the player mean it'll take a long time to get old. The Nintendo 64's well documented hardware limitations are gotten around here very smoothly, simply because the design doesn't demand that it try to push them. It means this game has aged better than many of the system's other revered titles. Thinking of the industry in late 96/early 97, this was the best thing going in its genre and an obvious 10/10. While games since have refined just about every facet of its 3D platforming template they have yet to make a game that is truly better, so the score must remain for me. Mario had once again set the standard, but could he live up to it as well as he did last time?


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 05/05/08

Game Release: Super Mario 64 (EU, 03/01/97)


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