Since I wrote about the 20th Anniversary of the Nintendo 64 and we are still celebrating two decades of the seminal 3D system, I decided it was only fitting to take a look back at some of the great games that were available in 1996 with the console. When the Nintendo 64 launched in North America on September 29, 1996 there were only two titles available. While one of those games, Pilotwings 64, was a fantastic technical showcase for the new 3D console, it did little in advancing the way video games would be played. In contrast, the other title not only demonstrated the power of Nintendo’s new hardware but it was a groundbreaking piece of software that changed 3D gaming and became the standard by which all other 3D platforming games were judged. The landmark title of course was Super Mario 64, which twenty years after it’s debut is still considered by many to be the finest video game ever produced.
My first encounter with Super Mario 64 was rather pedestrian. I was accompanying my mom at a Target store in late 1996 and there was a kiosk set up in the electronics department that showed a looping video promoting the recently launched Nintendo 64. Since the launch lineup was soft the bulk of the video showcased Super Mario 64. As I watched there was an internal struggle taking place inside of me. At the time I was given the green light to receive one video game console for Christmas and I was debating on whether to choose the Nintendo 64 or the Sony PlayStation. As I stood there watching the video some kid no more than 10 years old walked besides me and asked me if I had an N64 yet. “No” was my simple reply. He proceeded to tell me how not only did he have the difficult to find console, but that he had beaten Super Mario 64 with all 120 stars. Pompous little snot.
Throughout the holiday season I was accosted by advertisements from Sony, Sega, and Nintendo each hyping their respective platforms. In late 1996 Nintendo released a marketing campaign urging gamers to “change the system” with footage exclusively from Super Mario 64. Watching the commercial made me long to play Super Mario 64 since I had always enjoyed Mario’s previous outings. It seemed like it had been an eternity since Super Mario World made it’s debut so a new Mario game was certainly welcomed and this adventure promised to be different than anything that had preceded it. Still I was conflicted.
Ultimately I decided on the Sony PlayStation since it also doubled as a CD player which our household lacked. A quaint sign of the times. So as I played my PlayStation demo disc and Twisted Metal 2 on Christmas Day, Super Mario 64 would take a backseat. Never before had I owned two consoles from the same generation. During the 8 bit days I was an NES guy. During the 16 bit wars I had switched allegiance to the Sega Genesis. It was audacious to even think about owning multiple game consoles so as 1996 drew to a close, as far as I was concerned I was a PlayStation guy. Super Mario 64 was put out of my mind for the time being.
As 1997 began I went from a person on the fence to vehemently despising the Nintendo 64 and espousing the glory of the PlayStation. I guess some things never change. Just like idiot gamers today I felt the need to justify my decision as the “right” one and make sure everyone else knew that if they didn’t have a PlayStation their gaming system sucked. Conversations back then were always so enlightening. As the PlayStation user base continued to grow and outperform Nintendo I justified my position as the correct one.
Things gradually changed throughout the spring of 1997 however. I was a subscriber to Next Generation Magazine which covered all available game consoles as well as the PC. Since I had exposure to what was happening in the industry beyond my particular console and with an abundance of time on my hands since I was still an adolescent I routinely read these magazines from cover to cover even though a lot of the features didn’t pertain to me. As I read up on Nintendo’s plans for the future; the 64DD, the much anticipated Zelda 64, and the Rumble Pak, I began to be intrigued. The hype surrounding Zelda 64 was incredible as Next Generation anticipated the title to be “the greatest game of all time”. Since I was making my own money by mowing lawns the idea of owning and supporting another game system didn’t seem as foolhardy as it once had. In an effort to boost flagging sales, Nintendo had also dropped the MSRP of the system from $199 to $149 which effectively meant that I could buy the console and a game for the price of what the console alone would have cost previously.
I finally made up my mind in July of 1997 that I was going to take the plunge and purchase the Nintendo 64. The only questions were which retailer would earn my business and which game would I buy with the system? I scoured the newspaper circulars for the best deal. Best Buy was offering an off brand walkman with the purchase of a Nintendo 64 to move stock, and since playing a new Super Mario game along with a new Nintendo system seemed like a natural fit the choice was made.
I apologize for the lengthy preamble to this piece but the backstory of how I acquired the Nintendo 64 is one of my fondest memories. I will never forget the feeling of walking out of that Best Buy with the huge bag containing my new console, accompanying game, and free walkman which I had purchased with my own money. When I got home my dad was in our living room watching TV so I wasn’t immediately able to hook up and play, but that was ok. Since it was summertime I knew I’d have all night to get in my fix and the downtime gave me a chance to call all my friends and inform them of my new purchase. Being able to showboat a new hot toy or game was almost as exciting as getting to play it after all. Suck on that fools!
That night I slammed the cartridge into the slot and flicked up the power switch and was immediately greeted with a title screen rather than a loading screen as I was accustomed to with the PlayStation. “It’s a me! Mario!” This was the first time I had heard the voice of Mario in a video game which was pretty exciting in itself. Prior to Super Mario 64 the only time I had heard the plumber speak was on the Super Mario Bros. Super Show in which he had a much more gravely voice with a thick Brooklyn accent. The title screen then gave way to a 3D image of Mario’s face and a cursor which allowed you to pull and stretch his features as a demonstration of the new technology. Upon pressing the start button and choosing a save file the game began with an introduction by Princess Toadstool whom apparently had now been christened “Peach”. Again I was impressed with spoken dialogue in a cartridge based game. Then a Lakitu with a camera zoomed around the castle as Mario made his grand entrance from a green warp pipe. Sweet!
That first night although I did have a fun time exploring the Bob-omb Battlefield I will admit I was a bit frustrated by the N64’s three pronged controller and the analog control stick. I was accustomed to a traditional D pad and had never used a joystick outside of a handful of arcade games. But this wasn’t even a joystick that you could wrap your hand around, but rather a thumbstick which did require a bit of a learning curve. The frustration was short lived however and by the next day I was hooked.
Super Mario 64 broke the mold of what a platforming game was. The previous four main entries in the series saw Mario moving from the left of the screen to the right, jumping on blocks and ledges and dodging or defeating enemies until the end of the stage was reached. Although there were some other elements thrown in, this represented the crux of the gameplay. A 3D environment is much more complex and difficult to plan for however. Rather than presenting a linear course Nintendo instead opted to create full 3D environments that floated in space. Since the levels were suspended in midair, natural borders were created. It was possible to go to the edge of the world so to speak and plummet into the abyss below as a result. In fact, picking up the baby penguin and dropping it off into oblivion is one of my favorite gaming pastimes. Rather than presenting a “start” and a “finish” line Super Mario 64 simply drops the player into the world and gives us a task to complete. The ultimate goal is to acquire a star. Each stage has several stars with various means to obtain them, but by collecting stars different areas of the castle and different courses are unlocked. Since there is no timer gamers are free to explore the entire stage at their leisure and each star can be obtained by utilizing any number of different strategies. Never before had I been allowed such freedom in a video game.
There are a total of 15 courses in the game and 120 stars to collect. In addition to the stars there are three switch palaces (making their return from Super Mario World) that need to be discovered which enables Mario to wear different caps bestowing special powers to the titular character. The red switch unlocks the winged cap that gives Mario the ability to fly for a short time. The blue switch unlocks the invisible cap that allows Mario to not only conceal himself from enemies while being invincible, but also to pass through certain barriers. Finally, the green switch unlocks the metal cap which turns Mario into a glistening metallic version of himself making him impervious to attacks while also allowing him to walk at the bottom of lakes and oceans.
Aside from Mario, Peach, and Bowser, several other mainstays from the series make their 3D debut in the game such as Goombas, Koopa Troopa’s, Bob-ombs, Piranha Plants, Thwomps, Bullet Bill’s, and a host of other old favorites. Yoshi is hidden in the game atop the castle roof and accessible only through glitch or by unlocking a special cannon after obtaining all 120 stars in the game. Conspicuous by his absence is Luigi who is nowhere to be found for the first time in a main title Super Mario release. Super Mario 64 is strictly a single player affair. However, back in the day there were several rumors about his hidden existence in the game along with various fake methods on how to find him. Fueling the rumors was the statue in the castle courtyard which some interpreted as reading “L is real 2401”. Many stated that it was a clue revealing that Luigi would be available if the player collected all 2,401 coins within the game. Like most video game rumors, this was completely false.
Levels varied greatly from grasslands to snow capped mountains, lava filled wastelands to vast underground labyrinths, haunted houses to serene sparsely inhabited water locales, to towers in the clouds, and even the innards of a grandfather clock. There was no shortage of diversity in the scenery and it’s amazing to imagine what the developers would have offered if not for the constraints of the Nintendo 64 cartridge. Although 15 stages were completed for the released version of the game original plans called for as many as 40 courses. Instead the decision was made to give each course more objectives.
In addition to the free roaming nature of the game the camera system was equally as revolutionary. Navigating 3D space was still a new concept to most gamers and developers had not been able to solve the issue of perspective. Super Mario 64 introduced the concept of changing the camera angle based on the needs of the situation by using one of the “C” buttons. To implement the camera into the storyline, the game was presented as a live broadcast by Lakitu who followed Mario with a camera and floated behind him to broadcast the action. It was ingenious and solved many of the problems other developers weren’t able to tackle while also providing a bit of whimsy. In one area of the castle the room is filled with mirrors which not only show off Mario’s reflection but that of Lakitu as well.
Adding to the masterful presentation of the game was a memorable soundtrack. To this day any time I go swimming the water theme from Super Mario 64 is playing within my head. If I go out in the snow? I hear the accordion based snow tune from this game in-between my ears. Does that make me nuts? Possibly, but at least I recognize catch video game tunes when I hear them. The soundtrack for this game is highly regarded and was actually made available to purchase on CD. Although I didn’t buy it at the time I did acquire a copy years later.
It took me 8 days to accumulate the necessary 70 stars to beat the game. Afterwards I embarked on the quest to collect all 12o stars which took me roughly double the time. With about a dozen stars remaining I was having difficulty finding some of the hidden remainders so I had my mom take me to Barnes and Noble to buy the unofficial Prima strategy guide. With the cheat book in tow I was able to find the rest of the hidden stars that had alluded me and complete the game. I enjoyed the game so much that once the game was 100% completed I began a new save file and repeated the task from the beginning. In those early days of the internet people began sharing glitches they had found on message boards which speaks volumes about the popularity and re-playability of this title. A friend of mine printed out a packet of glitches for me and I trekked level to level making efforts to pull them off. Over the years I’ve replayed and completed this game countless times. Now, 20 years later I can’t help but look back on it with fondness in my heart and reflect on it with great memories. Depending on my mood I often cite this as my favorite game of all time. It’s certainly a worthy choice.