Review by Donald Love 87
"Probably the best launch game ever"
Wow, I'm sitting here and are typing a review for Super Mario 64... It's not everyday you get to do that for such a legendary game. This is, among with a handful of other games like Zelda Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy 7, one of the most famous games ever. How much of the feeling you get when you hear the title can be contributed to nostalgia? How much of it is actual quality? While that might be a bit tricky to answer, I'll try to give you the most objective view of it I can. As I'm writing, I'm playing through the game again, just to see how well it holds up to today's standards (of course some a limited by the age of the machine, but other things can be compared). So, let's see here, shall we?
The graphics are, of course, dated by the standards of today. It even got pretty dated even during the Nintendo 64's life span, considering this was a launch game and later games really improved in the graphics compartment.
Still, the graphics are easy to look at, and Mario and the other characters aren't as blocky as many other 3D game characters were back in 1997. Many games on the Nintendo 64 has pretty limited draw distance, and while this is not an exception it handles it much better. There's no annoying "fog" (there are vertical fog in some stages, but no horizontal) in the distance trying to cover for the pop-ups, but most of the big objects has been hidden by twists and turns in the stages, and small things just aren't something I think is that bothering.
The stages, characters and everything are very colorful, and it just gives you this happy feeling that the game isn't dead serious and more for relaxation and enjoyment - which in my opinion ties well in with the older games like Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World.
One thing which is a bit special is that the creators sometimes just used 2D sprites instead of 3D models (meaning some things won't have a backside!) - I don't know the reason for this (probably to conserve system resources) and they've done it sparsely, so only symmetrical things (like trees or rolling balls) or other things which makes sense if they're always facing you (like the cactus enemies) are created this way. I just wanted to point it out so you can take a look yourself when you play the game, it's pretty interesting.
Music and sound effects
The game knows it's history. Most of the music pieces in the game take their melodies from classic old Super Mario tunes, but puts a new feel and arrangement to them. The underground theme (originally from SMB1, but used in some variant in the later games too) is something that instead of being just a bassline has evolved into something that sounds like some easy-listening almost jazzy kind of music. Of course, some new melodies are introduced in this game too, but they fit well in with the ones based on older music, and always fits the theme of the stage. A few stages share the same music theme, but it never get repetitive because they're usually pretty far from each other.
The sound effects are also good, even if they won't stand out as much as the music. Most of it is just poofing of vanishing enemies and punch sounds and the sounds of the gold coins as they bounce across the ground. It's nothing that interesting, but most of them sounds natural (as natural as it can be in a cartoonish game like this) and it would "sound" strange if they were not there.
What's impressive for an early N64-game is that there are some voice acting - it's not much but it's there. Mario makes a lot of sounds as he moves around, jumps and attacks, and even if he doesn't talk that much at least he's got a voice which sounds good and fitting. The character with most "real" voice acting is Peach, who during the intro, does a voiceover of a letter sent to Mario. So, even if it's not much it was very impressive when you stepped up from the SNES. Also, at least to me, it sounds like the voices weren't as compressed as many other N64 games, making them come out in good quality too.
Like every other Super Mario platforming game, this has a rather basic story. Everything begins with Mario receiving a letter from Princess Peach where she invites him to the castle because she baked a cake for him. Mario quickly jumps into a warp pipe and hops out just in front of the castle. Here the game begins.
You might walk around in the courtyard for a while, but eventually you will walk into the castle from the front door. Here, it's revealed - Bowser trapped all the inhabitants of the castle "inside the walls" by utilising the power of the 120 stars found in the castle. Then, he took the stars and gave his minions the mission to guard them. What's a bit strange, and as far as I know never really explained, is that the portals to areas where the minions are - the levels - are found inside the castle, mostly in paintings. Probably just one of them Bowser-plans we humans never will fully understand or comprehend.
So, the goal of the game is to go star-hunting in the 15 levels scattered around the castle. To get the stars you need to do things like defeat bosses, run a footrace, climb to the top of a mountain and much more. More about all this in the gameplay section.
Ah, the N64 controller, you know what it looks like, right? So, let's start from the left. The steering cross isn't used in this game, so that's easy to explain... now we move over to the directional stick. The game makes good use of the stick, and it is possible (and in some areas needed) to sneak by pushing the stick slowly. Overall, the game gives good response to the stick commands, at least on less worn controllers than the one I'm using - some games tend to wear these sticks down fast (considering it's placed in more of a hexagonal hole instead of a full circle), but this is not one of them since you won't do a circular motion that often.
Then we've got the A and B buttons. The A button is used for a Mario classic - JUMPING. The thing is that only having a standard jump is a thing of the past. Now, there's a lof of different jumps you can make in different situations! If you jump again just after landing you'll make a double jump, and if you're moving forward during those two first you can even make a triple jump, going higher and higher each time! It's also possible for you to wall jump, so that when you hit a wall you'll just bounce off it, and if you have two walls close to each other, you can get really high. With other commands you can even make backward jumps and somersaults! There are just so many combinations, and while it sounds hard it won't take very long to get into everything.
The B button won't be used as much as the A button. B is mainly used for punching and other offensive attacks, but considering you still can use a good 'ol jump to the head to beat most enemies, that's what you'll use. The only time when you'll use B is when picking up something, which you'll do with some enemies that can't be jumped on. Also, B is the button you use when you need to read a sign or talk to someone.
Then we have the four C buttons. These are used to control the camera, and is my only little irritation with this game. 3D platforming always need to have a good camera to work, and this is good - most of the time. Whenever you leave the C buttons alone, the cameraman (a Lakitu) himself decides the camera angle, the problem is that sometimes when you walk on a narrow ledge or something like that, the camera spins in very strange positions, forcing you to counter it with the control stick, which can be hard sometimes. The normal way to fix this would be by positioning the camera straight behind you. The C-left and C-right are supposed to do this, but sadly you aren't free to move exactly to the angle you'd want to get lined up with the ledge, but rather are limited to 90-degrees around (four presses gives you a whole circle). Also, the camera tends to swing back to the starting position as soon as you start to move again. There's another camera mode, switched to and from with a press of the R button, where it's more centered in Mario's direction. The problem with changing the camera to this is that it automatically go back to default (Lakitu mode) as soon as you change area. The C-down button is used for zooming out, which I do pretty much every time I enter a new place (as Mario mode, this is changed to default when changing areas) to get a better overview. C-up is used for disabling all other movement and gives you an opportunity to look around manually, which works pretty good to find some things you're searching for. Even if it sounds like I'm thinking the camera is a big problem that will destroy the game, I don't. There are not many areas in the game where it feels like it's trying to mess with you, and it's not like "the testing department's day off" but rather that they knew about the camera controls and instead adjusted most parts of the game to that instead. The thing that bothers me most is that the camera mode/zoom isn't saved between areas.
Last, but not least, we've got the Z button. This won't do much by itself, but is used in combination with other buttons. The most common move you'll do with it is the ground pound - when you're jumping, press Z to stop any movement and slam hard into the ground. This has real uses like killing some enemies and smashing down poles, but can also act like a brake in the air, stopping you when you're about to accidentally jump of a platform. If you press Z without any other inputs, Mario will duck, which isn't useful by itself but if you press the control stick he will crawl (helping you get up steep slopes), or press the A button to make a backwards somersault (a pretty high jump).
So, the thing about the controls in this game is that there are a lot of different combinations which lets you do many different moves. You'll also use most of these at least a few times during the game. But considering the learning curve is great (you won't need to pull off harder moves until way late in the game) and the controls are very responsive and easy to deal with, it just gets fun to have a lot of different ways of doing a thing. With the exception of the strange camera controls, I'd say the controls are top-notch.
It feels like I've already mentioned a lot of the gameplay ideas in the controls and story sections, but hopefully I'll be able to gather the parts I've missed here...
First and foremost, the castle works as a "hub" level to all the other worlds, which can be discovered by going through the castle searching for different things that act like warp portals. Most of the time, these are disguised as paintings, but can also be a plain wall or something that resembles a bird cage. You're not free to explore the entire castle from the beginning, but have to enter the levels to find stars to open certain doors. Some doors also require a key, which you will find in the boss stages.
Each of the 15 levels in the game has six "missions" you need to complete, each of them giving you a star. These missions can range from just simple exploring and normal boss battles, to footraces and puzzles. The game gives some hints on where they're found in the "pre-level" screens, where you see the name of the mission you're about to start. On that screen, the stars show up in order, and starts with number one and then shows the next one when you finish the first. If you know the place of a later star, it's entirely possible in many levels to gather that one first, and the pre-level screen will show it as finished but still suggest the lowest number not-gotten star for you to play next time you enter. Whenever you get one of the "mission" stars or lose all your energy, you get thrown out of the level (losing all energy means you lose a life too). You can also re-play stars whenever you want, by picking them from the pre-level screen. That's only useful if you want to replay a boss battle or a level sequence which later stars lock you out from.
In addition to these six stars in each level, you can get a seventh by collecting 100 coins. This one won't send you out of the stage when you get it, so you can safely keep doing what you were doing before you collected the last coin. In addition to that, there are 15 extra stars hidden around the castle - you can get them by talking to Toads, entering mini-levels, in the switch palaces and by collecting 8 red coins in the boss levels (which also is the only mission all other levels have in common). All these adds up to the 120 stars that's in the game. One thing which I really like is the fact that if you find a star too hard for you to get, it's no big problem to skip it and try another one instead - to just beat the last boss of the game, you just need 70 stars, that's only 58% of the stars in the game. This makes the game suitable not only for the crazies who go for everything, but also for the kind of player that don't want that much challenge but just wants to play it and see the ending.
Switch palaces make a return from Super Mario World, and is about the only "side quest" or extra thing this game has aside from star collecting. There are three switch palaces available in this game, and all three are found in different ways. Like their SMW counterpart, these will also fill in empty blocks. The difference is that where the blocks in SMW were more like stepping stones with the items inside as a bonus, here it's all about the items! I find this games upgrades to be a little worse than the classics of SMB3 or SMW, but they're ok. The one you'll use most is the one from the red blocks, which is the wing cap - this game's version of the leaf or cape - which lets you take to the air if you triple jump or shoot yourself out of a cannon. The other two caps has more limited use; the metal cap from green blocks just lets you survive in gassy environments (one in the whole game) and sink and walk on the bottom of water pits instead of swimming, and the vanish cap from blue blocks lets you walk through enemies and some special walls. The wing cap is interesting and it's fun to fly around, but the other two feels just like minor distractions even if they're needed to get some stars they're just not that fun to work with.
What I think this game does great with the gameplay is that it's so focused. Instead of splitting it up into multiple things you need to collect, all you need to focus on is the stars. Sure enough, you'll need 100 coins in a stage to get the seventh star, but you could play through the entire game without noticing and the result is still a STAR. Also, the levels are pretty easy to get an overview of and not as big and maze-like as in some later platform-collecting games like Donkey Kong 64. The game feels very focused.
Here is a part of the review I can't really explain, I can just describe the feeling, and how this is affecting me. Lately, I've been starting to replay old Nintendo games from when I was younger. Even though I've got a HUGE backlog of games I haven't replayed yet, I've still done two 120-star runs of Super Mario 64 in the past year. There's just this urge that come over me to play this game. I can't pinpoint what it is... Maybe it's the fact that it's focused, as I mentioned in the gameplay part? Maybe it's the fact that it's the perfect length; it's not short enough to feel repetitive when re-playing but not long enough to get boring during one playthrough. Gathering all 120 stars might take all afternoons of a week for a skilled player who knows exactly where they are and what to do, but it'll surely take longer on a first playthrough (especially without a guide).
As I said, I can't pinpoint what the reason to it is, but I find that this game has a very high replayability, as it's both fun to replay and sometimes you'll just feel the urge to do it.
So, there isn't really much more to say, except that this game is still fun to play. While the graphics aren't as smooth or the music as hi-fi as modern consoles, it's ok because you see clearly what you're doing and the melodies are nice. All of the controls except camera works fine, and the difficulty and length should fit most types of gamers. It also gives you this strange feeling you get that you just has to play through it sometimes.
As the title goes, this is probably the best launch game ever. I give it a 9 out of 10. It's very close to being a full 10, because the only real complaints I've got with it is the dodgy camera and that two out of three upgrades aren't that interesting. Still, a 9 shouldn't put you off from getting it, it's really a must-own game for the N64.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/18/11
Game Release: Super Mario 64 (EU, 03/01/97)
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