Review by Warmaster Lah

"Does Mario actually have a plumber?"

Super Mario 64 is the game that many will associate with their very first steps into the big, bright new world of 3D gaming. It is the game that will spring immediately to the forefront of almost any gamer's mind when asked to name the greatest videogame of all time. It is a game that revolutionised its industry like only a very few had done before it. It's the first and, in the eyes of many, still the best 3D platformer that there ever was. It was the first 3D world, the first game to utilise proper analogue control, the first game to use a fully manoeuvrable camera, the first game on the N64. Mario 64 has quite a lot of firsts under its belt; in fact, it's possibly the most innovative game of all time.

It's also the game that, along with Ocarina of Time, ruined Nintendo; the game that caused its fans to build such ludicrously unrealistic expectations for its successor, which was doomed from the start to underperform next to this bastion of innovation and quality. Because – and here's the salient point – upon first sampling, everything in Super Mario 64 was entirely, deliciously, wonderfully new. It had everyone running around in circles, trying to master the strange new method of control known as the analogue stick, simultaneously wrestling with the new, free-roaming 3D camera (which without a doubt has never been bettered since) in a new, bright, primary-coloured environment made from the world's first real 3D polygons. Nothing will ever be this new again, not before full-on virtual reality hits us; the leap between dimensions is something that can never be recreated by any sequel. It was like magic.
It's fully impossible to revisit Super Mario 64 without feeling that sense of magic again. If you did not play Mario 64 when it first came out, you have undoubtedly missed something. Even now, though, without any form of rose-tinted memory to blur one's objectivity, it's impossible to deny that Super Mario 64 is incredible. The fact that we can still go back today and enjoy it thoroughly, despite the now-primitive graphics and the endless hordes of clones that have followed in its footsteps, speaks for itself. It exudes quality and imagination from its every pore; the fact that it's the first 3D camera, the first 3D world, the first fully controllable 3D protagonist, is essentially irrelevant. What's more relevant and, after all these years, is frankly astonishing, is that they are still the best.
I don't essentially need to tell you that Mario 64 centres around the Princess-rescuing escapades of Nintendo's plumber mascot Mario, nor do I need to tell you that it consists of differently-themed levels accessed from the 'central hub' (the first ever central hub system) of Princess Peach's castle. Nobody needs a description of Super Mario 64. Any self-respecting gamer who has not been in deep hibernation for at least the past seven years will know that already, will have seen and played it for themselves. Instead of explaining how this game works – information that nobody really needs – it's far more tempting to try to explain just why it works so well; just what it is about Super Mario 64 that was, and still is, so very brilliant.
The sheer volume of imagination is the most immediately apparent thing about Super Mario 64. From the first level, Bob-omb Battlefield (where Mario is required, among other things, to chuck a power-crazed bomb king from the top of the climbable mountain in the centre and race an egotistic Koopa) to the icy realms of Cool Cool Mountain (absolutely, without a doubt, the best winter-themed level ever), there's an absolutely mind-blowing variety of challenges, obstacles and things to do. There are 120 stars to collect in the game, as almost everybody probably knows already, and to get all of them Mario has to do everything from building snowmen to shrinking himself to fetching baby penguins to shooting himself out of cannons to collecting good old-fashioned Nintendo coins. There are so very many memorable challenges, listing them all would take up the entire review; every single level has its gems.
At the time of its release, Super Mario 64's levels were quite impossible to believe. Never before had anyone been able to stand at the entrance point of the first level, look around and interact with absolutely everything they could see. The realisation that you could actually climb that mountain in the distance is something that can't be experienced now, but back in 1997 it was an absolutely delicious feeling. Super Mario 64's levels are entirely self-contained, perfectly solid worlds, surrounded by invisible walls, and everything within those invisible walls can be climbed on, kicked off, squashed or collected. The level of interaction is quite amazing. If you see a plateau that's just out of reach, there WILL be a way to get to it; it's simply a matter of experimenting in order to find out how.
Of course, even the most perfectly realised levels are wasted on a clumsy character, and that's where Super Mario 64 triumphs yet again. Mario's freedom of movement is still astounding. He can perform a huge variety of acrobatics, including wall-kicks and cartwheels, to help him leap every gap, climb every mountain and squish every enemy. The game was made to fit the N64 controller and the two work seamlessly together to form an almost perfect method of control. The beauty of the system lies chiefly in it simplicity; though Mario can do almost anything, he can do it all with a single button and the occasional flick of the control stick. The ingeniousness of the controls and interactivity of the levels combine to give Super Mario 64 an unparalleled sense of freedom, a feeling best embodied by the game's Wing Cap; there's nothing quite like soaring at will around a level, swooping down over enemies and striving to get beyond the invisible walls that lie, tantalisingly, just out of reach.
Visuals are undeniably of immense import in platform games. Judging that jump requires the perfect viewpoint. It's impossible to review Mario 64 without mentioning the legendary Lakitu-cam, the very first fully-controllable camera. Though it has its moments of stubbornness and seems to enjoy hiding behind walls occasionally, it's a widely-acknowledged truth that it has never been bettered by any of the hundreds of clones that have since followed. It allows you, through the magic of C-buttons, to view the beautiful world of Super Mario 64 from every angle possible and eases the tricky business of leaping between platforms. The genius of it is, like many of Super Mario 64's best qualities, that you don't realise just how important it is until it's taken away. Because it all works so well, you don't have to think about it. You don't realise just how smooth the control system is, just how well the camera works, just how expansive the levels are, until you play one of this game's many inferior clones, notice all its problems, and realise just how much of a feat Super Mario 64 is; the game is that intuitive.
And that, in the end, is what's so special about Mario 64. It compels you, sucks you into its own perfectly realised, seamless virtual world, never lets technicalities like camera difficulties or control problems or repetitiveness tear gaping holes in its interactive environment like so may have done since. Mario moves so freely and wonderfully, and his actions are worked so perfectly around the N64 controller, that simply being him is a pleasure. That's a quality that few games can boast. Despite the hundreds of people that have tried to copy this game, Super Mario 64 is incomparable. Many have come since – some, like Banjo-Kazooie, might even have done bits of it slightly better – but none can match its freedom, intuitiveness and imagination. This is such a game of revolution that, perhaps, no game will ever come close to it in terms of sheer innovation, and yet, despite the hundreds who have tried, nobody has quite managed to improve upon its premise either. Super Mario 64 is an exception, as ostentatiously brilliant today as it ever was.

Gameplay: 10
Control that is more beautifully free and simple than any other game, seamless interactive environments, an immense variety of challenges, a perfect learning curve, and, to make up the icing on one of the world's most delicious cakes, hundreds of little imaginative and inventive touches.

Graphics: 9
I don't need to explain just how exceptional these graphics were in their day. Super Mario 64 remains an absolutely beautiful game, with a brilliant camera that allows us to view it any way we want.

Sound: 9
Instantly catchy, typical Nintendo tunes that infest the brain. Even after six years away from the game, you will still be able to remember the music in Bob-omb Battlefield.

Longevity: 10
One hundred and twenty stars and a mind-bogglingly diverse range of tasks to complete in order to get them. Only the most dedicated and skilled of gamers will be able to see the game's final reward.

Verdict: 9/10

It has taken me thousands of words to explain just why Super Mario 64 is so wonderful. It's a game that cannot be summed up in a paragraph. It's a culmination of hundreds of little touches, wrapped up in an amazing interactive world, worked around one of the most intuitive control systems ever conceived, and generously sprinkled with that indefinable something that characterises all the very best videogames. Mario 64 was incredible in its time, but its staying power has proved even more incredible. An absolute classic and, in the eyes of many, the best videogame of all time.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/06/03

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