Super Mario 64, Copyright 1996, Nintendo

In 1996, a comet named Super Mario 64 hit the face the world of computer games. This was the game. SM64 was the game that single-handedly kept the Nintendo 64 alive in its first year on the market, until Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye were able to share the burden. SM64 was loved by almost everybody. It was the birth of a new genre, the 3D platformer. A few platform games had made struggling reaches out into the third dimension before Mario, such as Jumping Flash, but they all had been written off as niche games due to poor control and almost unanimously disastrous camera angles.

Brainchild of Shigeru Miyamoto, one of the most brilliant game designers of our day and age, SM64 was the first 3D platformer to mesh tight, intuitive controls with a good camera system. In fact, it took the rest of the world a good two or three years to catch up with Miyamoto's masterpiece, as Mario was followed by a number of clones trying to cash in on the success of the game. None of them came close to the technical brilliance of Mario.

The line of Mario games, under Miyamoto's guidance, has been one of consistently amazing quality. Every Mario game has been an incredible success, and they all stand the test of time to this day as wonderful games. The task of updating Mario for the new Nintendo 64 was daunting, as the plight of the console depended on not only a good game, but a truly amazing game. Without it, Nintendo would be dead in the water against the competition of their old rival Sega's Saturn and the stunning success of console newcomer Sony's Playstation.

The story is simple, Mario emerges from the plumbing pipes into the courtyard of the castle of Princess Peach. Mario discovers upon entering the castle that his old nemesis, Bowser, has captured the Princess and all of her stars. Mario must release the stars and battle Bowser and his minions to save the princess. His arsenal consists of a variety of jumps and punches, a cap that allows him to fly, a cap that allows him to walk through thin walls, and a cap that encases him in steel, allowing him to walk underwater. The player proceeds through the levels collecting all one hundred and twenty stars, until the final battle with Bowser. The many landscapes are all brilliant and colorful, ranging from a haunted house stored in a bird cage, to a castle and courtyard on an island floating in the sky.

3D platformers have advanced now since the origin of SM64, and the camera feels a little sluggish to a contemporary gamer. But, the game still oozes fun from every pore, and is well worth playing for all of those who've succesfully avoided the game. The game was an important step in the evolution of games. It opened the eyes of the public to the fact that 3D was applicable to every genre of game, even those that seemed to not allow it. The Mario gameplay from past games was always recognizable. You knew what to expect from a Mario game. The slide when you reversed direction as mario's feet gained traction. The arc of the jumps when you hit the jump button. Gamers knew what a Mario game was. Nobody expected the series to maintain that feel into a 3D game. Miyamoto not only met that challenge, but crafted a huge game of incredible detail.
Playing half a dozen other 3d platformers has really shed new light for me on what makes Super Mario 64 great, for a couple of reasons. One is that it really does take practice to become good at managing both the character and the camera at the same time. Another is that none of the other games have anywhere near the same noise-floor of fun as Super Mario.

It's the control.

In "other" 3d platformers, you can move around and you can jump. And that's about it. There are other moves, but they're usually gimmicky, like shooting eggs, sprouting bird legs, or pulling out your coconut cannon or frying pan.

Mario performs acrobatics. Different kinds of jumps. He bounces off of walls. The variety of moves that exist mostly for their own sake is impressive, and so is the attention to detail... for instance, the different animations for different movement speeds, and for stopping at different speeds. The different idle-animations for different situations. The stars that appear when you hit a wall headfirst.

Once you've got control of the character, just moving around in this 3d world is fun. Add goals to the mix and you've got a powerful game experience. It's a fantastic feeling when the moves you've been performing throughout the game, just because they're fun to do, actually become useful on later levels.

But it always comes back to frolicking about the castle grounds. Running around is fun. Just like in real life.

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