Please Come to the Castle.
Many old video games wear their influence as a badge of honor. After all, if they were a foundational piece of culture, why not flaunt it? But does that mean it’s still great now, just because something was important at the time?
Season one of Nerdy, Inc. focused on a Let’s Play of the classic N64 Mario game. The experience had its highs, but it also had its lows. Now that the dust has settled, it’s worth going back and reviewing the experience as a whole.
Super Mario 64 has one the best structures of any platformer to date. This game abandons its linear “World 1-1, World 1-2” roots in exchange for a “Central Hub.” Players will use Peach’s castle as an anchor throughout the game, venturing through the different rooms in order to find new levels. This structure was later repeated for Super Mario Sunshine and, to a lesser extent, Super Mario Galaxy. By the time Super Mario Galaxy 2 rolled around, the franchise had reverted back to its linear structure.
While Super Mario Sunshine had the most immersive and detailed hub with Delfino Plaza, Super Mario 64 takes better advantage of the castle. Through the use of tiered access, players always have a new section of the castle to explore and new levels to unlock. Each tier in the castle feels somewhat different from the last, ensuring that the hub never grows stale.
The level structure is equally as impressive. One of my primary gripes with both Galaxy games was that the level structure was catered to platforming. It was always clear where to go, and the level restructured itself to fit with current mission. Super Mario 64 keeps the level design constant for each mission. Bob-omb Battlefield, for example, always looks the same. This creates a perfect balance between puzzle-solving and actual platforming. Not sure where the star is? Well then look around and find some hints. Those who have played Super Mario 64, and later installments, will note the this game marked the peak of “level ambiguity,” as each subsequent game structured its levels in a more straightforward manner, stripping the series of quite a bit of puzzle-solving and critical thinking.
Furthermore, each level has a completely unique feel. From flying fortresses and snow-covered peaks to intricately moving clocks and dark, hazy caverns, the locations to which Mario travels feel completely fleshed out and immersive; more so than in any other subsequent Mario game. What’s fantastic about the course design is its limitlessness. The levels are not forced to represent things you’d find on an island resort or the different types of floating space debris. The game allows us to travel to unique worlds simply because a designer dreamed it up.
As immersive as these environments may be, it is hard to ignore the aged graphics. Yes, they were the pinnacle of visuals upon the game’s release in 1996, and yes, Nintendo does deserve praise for their pioneering efforts. However, when playing on an HD TV twenty years later, the cracks are more apparent. There are points when stopping and pausing may be necessary, as the game’s limited ability to render graphics may cause confusion in depth perception, definition, and problem solving. No, these are no insurmountable issues, but they will require a bit of getting used to.
The same can be said about the controls. You’ll never realize how much you need two joysticks until you go back to play a game that only utilizes one. While you do have the ability to shift perspectives with arrow buttons on the N64 controller, camera management can be pain. The game introduced a revolutionary method of predictive camera movement that shifts in order to guide you through the course. This works fine, so long as you are following the waypoints as specified by the code. Once you attempt to move counter to the predetermined path, you’ll find yourself repeatedly playing around with buttons in order to get things to look just right.
A few of the other controls are unreliable as well. A solo jump is no problem, but when the game requires you to double- or triple-jump, things can become tedious. And jumping out of the water? You’re in for a treat. The benefit to the structure of the game, however, is that you can avoid the parts you don’t enjoy. There are 120 stars in the game, but you only need 70 to defeat Bowser, meaning that players can pick and choose their favorite parts of levels to explore. Completionists may have a difficult time with the game, but those playing for fun can do just that.
It’s hard to dispute the enormity of this game’s accomplishments. Released at a, if not the, creative high of Nintendo, this game represents an ingenious achievement. Yes, there are sequels and copycats, but no games since have quite measured up. No, it’s not a perfect game. It, like every other piece of media out there, has its flaws. However it was a giant in its heyday, and still stands tall among modern-day releases, even beyond the nostalgia factor.
It’s a great game, and it always will be.
Alex Russo likes to talk. A lot. You can read more of his insane ramblings on Twitter.