Review by SilverMelee
"Still super after all these years... but not quite as super as it used to be."
At the time this review was written (July 2010), it will have been almost 14 years since Super Mario 64 was released in North America. To think, there are teenagers out there nowadays who were never even alive during the time before 3D games like this were the norm: A world where 2D gaming reigned supreme, where pixels dominated and polygons were seldom seen outside of Star Fox and Virtua Fighter. It makes one feel old, doesn't it? Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with anything... well, games and age have an unusual relationship. Sometimes, that relation is like a fine wine that has properly fermented, tasting just as good as (if not better than) when it was first released to the public (prime examples include Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., and Space Invaders). Other times, the relationship can be on par to wine that has been put aside in a warm basement, whose fermentation has forced it to become a sour vinegar that most folks wouldn't dare to drink at this point (prime examples include Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, and possibly Castlevania). So, which category does Super Mario 64 fall under? Has this 1996 classic aged well or is it simply best left on your shelf with your childhood memories? Let's find out!
In typical Super Mario fashion (even for 1996), Bowser kidnaps Peach and Mario has to rescue her. Simple, no? Ah, but Bowser has also taken the Power Stars from Peach's castle, which has apparently sealed off much of the castle and left the inhabitants within trapped; among them, Bowser is hiding somewhere, holding the dear princess hostage... It's up to Mario to find the stars, liberate the castle, and give that Koopa King a good trouncing! Oh, and also rescue Peach... I guess that's important, too. But Power Stars aside, it's a traditional Mario story. Well, nothing wrong with that, I suppose...
So, before we set off to rescue the princess, we're going to have to collect these Power Stars first; much of the castle has been sealed off and the only way to reopen most of the sealed doors is to gather these stars. Most of the stars will be found in the many worlds that can be accessed by jumping into one of the many magic portals (often a large painting, but not always). Most worlds carry 7 stars each, six of which are what one might call "mission-based" in the sense that the player is given a hint on how to obtain the star they're going after (you choose the "hint" before continuing into the level, but only a few stars actually require you to choose the "right" hint - Mario can still collect stars that have nothing to do with the "chosen" hint). Initially, the game will only offer a hint for one star upon entering a new world, but a new hint will show up if you collect the right star. Most of the hints are pretty straightforward (defeat the boss, collect the red coins, etc.) so most players should have at least a basic idea of where to look.
Does this mean the game is easy? Well, yeah... but it's not as easy as one might think - granted, it is easy enough to find the 70 stars required to access the final area and win (out of a total of 120 stars, mind you), but later levels will make star-gathering particularly challenging with a very large deal of platform hopping and heavy punishments for failure (often falling into a large pit and having to start the level all over again), making things hard to completionists. For example, one of the later stars requires, and I'm not making this up, to get into a cannon and fire yourself directly into a star floating above a far off island... and you have to directly hit the star - if you're off by even a little, you'll fall to your doom, lose a life, and will have to start the level again. Fake difficulty? Not exactly; like I said, not all of the stars are required to beat the game, and players can simply ignore any stars they feel are too hard. Besides, it actually does feel pretty rewarding when you finally get those harder stars...
As is natural for a Mario game, Super Mario 64 has a few power-ups, but not in the sense of Mushrooms and Fire Flowers. Instead, this games gives us special hats that grant Mario a temporary ability; the Winged Cap is your standard flight item that allows Mario to fly, the Vanish Cap makes Mario invisible and capable of passing through enemies and certain obstacles, and the Metal Cap grants Mario temporary invulnerability and allows him to walk in water or toxic areas without the need for air. However, don't think that you're going to get these power-ups so easily: only certain colored blocks will carry the items (red blocks for Winged Caps, blue blocks for Vanish Caps, and green blocks for Metal Caps). On top of that, the blocks can't be hit until you activate their respective switches (each of the three switches is hidden somewhere in the game... don't worry, finding them isn't too hard...). Do you need these power-ups to beat the game? No, but some stars do require Mario to use these power-ups. Good luck finding the switches!
However, not all is well within Super Mario 64; the controls are functional, but somewhat stiff and movement isn't quite as fluid as it should be, it's especially evident when you're turning Mario around. On top of that, some of the jump controls require ridiculous precision. For example: the wall jump. Your timing has to be perfect to nail this move properly - failure results is Mario bumping into the wall and falling. Sure, there aren't many areas where the wall jump is needed, but the fact that nailing the jumps requires perfect timing and how it punishes you quite a bit for failing is a bit much. Another jump issue is with the turn jump; normally, it requires Mario to start running in one direction, but before he starts running, you have to quickly turn Mario around and jump to perform an acrobatic jump that's higher than his usual jump. This one didn't always respond to my controls... but the real control issues come from the camera. Speaking of which...
Another major issue is that camera; it's horrible. Normally, the camera will follow Mario around and try to get a good view of the area, but the issue comes whenever any precision platforming is involved. During these phases, the camera makes it hard to time your jumps properly, and adjusting it isn't always easy; aside from the controls feeling extremely stiff, the camera has a tendency to get stuck on walls or other parts of the level. On top of that, it won't always adjust as much as you'd like it to, meaning if players want to time their jumps properly, they'll have to press C Up to get a first person view (well, not quite first person; the camera only zooms in just behind Mario's head and you look around with the control stick) to get a look around and a feel for how to time their jumps. That's kind of inconvenient, although to be fair, I've seen worse (*cough*Croc*cough*). I find this especially hilarious considering how shortly after starting a new game, you're told that the game is being filmed by "seasoned cameramen" (i.e., the in-game camera is an actual character... real cute, Nintendo) who tells you that he knows what he's doing. Seasoned cameramen, my ass.
The character renderings are acceptable by 1996 standards, but it pales in comparison to later Mario titles on the Nintendo 64 (namely, the Mario Party games); Mario looks pretty decent for his first major 3D outing, as do most of the enemies (even though the Goomba does have some pretty stiff animations), but poor Bowser looks awful! It looks like the poor Koopa King has gained quite a bit of weight since his last fight against Mario, and his slow, sumo-like animations during battle seem to further confirm my suspicions. Tsk, tsk, Bowser! You need to lay off the Mushrooms! The environments fare slightly better; the castle itself is pretty large and colorful, albeit kind of flat a bit lacking in detail, as are the many worlds Mario will be visiting. Each world has a different theme to it with different hazards, including a sandy desert laden with quicksand traps, a vast sea of lava with only a few pieces of debris floating above as a means of travel, or (my personal favorite) a ghost-filled haunted house, among many others. There's a rather large amount of variety in each level, and many of the worlds are quite charming because of it. But if there's one issue I take with the worlds, it's the fact that some of the later worlds feel kind of odd or uninspired; I honestly have no idea what the thought process was behind Wet-Dry World... and did we really require two snow levels and two water levels (not counting Wet-Dry World)? It wasn't quite as fun playing these themes the second time around.
I will give Super Mario 64 credit for having quite a few decent songs, although most of the better songs in the game were usually the more ambient ones. The strumming sitars on the desert and lava levels portrayed the sense of a scorching hot land wonderfully without distracting the player, the spooky chants ofo the haunted house did wonders for the atmosphere of Big Boo's Haunt. One of my favorite themes in the game would have to be the file select menu: a soothing humming is heard in the background, a tambourine is playing a simple beat, and a pan flute plays a rather calming melody. But that's not to say I didn't like the more upbeat songs; while I will admit to not liking the "main theme" of the game (the melody was a little too haphazard for my tastes), I certainly enjoyed the ominous tunes of the Bowser levels (a.k.a. "Koopa's Road"), as it gave off a terrific sense of desperation and gloom. The sound effects are pretty basic; a soft pinging noise for grabbing a coin, or the high-pitched death cry of an unfortunate Goomba that got acquainted with Mario's fists. This also also marks one of the earlier uses of Mario's squealling Italian voice, which never gets too grating thankfully.
Players whom have beaten the game will find a decent amount of replay value in collecting all of the stars (remember, you only need 70 to beat the game, but there are 120 total to find), but beyond that there's not much else. At which point it's the end of the game, and contrary to what a certain green dinosaur might tell you, it's also the end of the fun... for this game, anyway. But is Super Mario 64 worth your time? Well, although it has aged a little, it's still a grand experience for gamers both young and old - so it's definitely worth a buy. It's a pretty common title, what with it being the launch title for the Nintendo 64, and copies tend to go for less than $15 nowadays. Wii owners also have the benefit of downloading it via the Virtual Console for $10. Regardless of how you buy it, it's well worth the money.
To think that after all these years, Super Mario 64 still stands tall amongst platformers. While it has certainly aged and may no longer be the best 3D platformer out there (it's been 14 years, after all), it's still a great game with a lot of merits. Super Mario 64 is a true classic.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 07/19/10
Game Release: Super Mario 64 (Players Choice) (US, 12/31/97)
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