Mediocre Mario 64

Early 3D games knew they were cutting edge. They emphasized pure exploration because exploration was the avant-garde; these worlds were made of real space and they were new and that newness was breathtaking. Super Mario 64 perfectly captures the spirit of an age. There’s a sense of nervous exhilaration sprung from Z-axis freedom, a sort of garage-band energy that comes from feeling out new styles of play.

This was the next logical step, and you can almost feel the heads at Nintendo putting their first cautious foot forward before breaking into a run. Super Mario 64 was the future.

If you could play it again, for the very first time, you probably wouldn’t like it.

Knowstalgia

When people discuss old games, there are typically those who love it and those who don’t, and those who don’t accuse those who do of being blinded by nostalgia. Sometimes they’re right. But no matter what, there are typically a lot of really great things going on in any classic game, even if naysayers can bring up a thousand faults.

Super Mario 64 does a lot of things right. The castle as a hub-world is fantastic, giving a real sense that we’ve entered the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario’s move list feels fleshed out to take advantage of the game’s extra space, with wall-jumps, kicks, and dives adding to his classic runs and jumps. There’s an eye for surprise, with the devs going above the bare necessities to provide a distinct world for Mario to inhabit. This was mostly uncharted territory, and Nintendo did an impressive job in laying the groundwork.

Nintendo could have released a game with no objectives and, at the time, that would have been fine – here’s the world that Mario lives in, have at it, explore. Gamers would have been happy just to bound through the castle and dive through paintings. They would have still been mesmerized by the goombas and the wing cap and the worlds.

I didn’t play Mario 64 when it was released. Over the years I picked it up and put it down after getting only a few stars. It wasn’t fun. It was annoying.

But I don’t think that people are blinded by their nostalgia for that first glimpse into 3D gaming. There’s maybe some rose-tinting, but the main issue when talking about Mario 64 is that the things wrong with it aren’t a problem if you’ve mastered the game.

It’s not that long-time players don’t mind these issues, it’s more that they become non-issues. They know how the game works. They know where everything’s at. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s knowstalgia, and it’s present in most discussions of older games. Some bad design choices become trivial if players already possess the arcane knowledge the game needs out of them.

Shoot Into the Wild Blue

Think over the games you’ve played recently. Was there a point in any of them where your progress was impeded through no fault of your own, and it was annoying and frustrating to no end? Usually, these moments aren’t a matter of skill. The game wants you to be somewhere, and the designers haven’t clearly telegraphed it, and you just don’t know where to go.

There’s no point to this design. You’re not learning, you’re not progressing, you’re not playing. Super Mario 64 is full of these moments, but it doesn’t matter for long-time fans because they know the solutions by heart.

I just beat Super Mario 64 for the first time. It wasn’t a challenge, but it was boring work, and by the end I was relying on a guide to tell me where to go. Many of the stars would have taken me forever to find, but with a guide I scooped them up in a minute or two. Mario 64 may be the easiest game I’ve played so far this year, but I would never have had the patience for it without a strategy guide.

When it was released, Mario 64 must have been totally awesome. I practically crapped my pants when I saw an article about it in the paper: The graphics were amazing. Bowser was getting swung about by his tail, and it didn’t even matter that the photo was reproduced in black and white print.

If I could have played Bob-omb Battlefield or Whomp’s Fortress at that point, I’m fairly certain I would have burned our Super Nintendo at an altar to our new 3D overlords. I can imagine how it was to hop on goombas and jump through paintings and put on the wing cap. It must have been unreal.

Playing it now is boring. All its breakthroughs are routine, the N64 controller is still a mess, and the graphics are a fuzzy clash of sprites and polygons. I’m not dismissing it for those reasons, but I am saying that exploring the world isn’t half as interesting in itself, and world exploration is Mario 64’s primary focus.

Googly-eyed kids were able to find all the stars back in ‘96, and it probably wasn’t even hard. They may have had to explore every single inch of the game, but it didn’t matter because exploration was the joy in itself. They could have spent a hundred hours looking for one star. It didn’t matter: This was the real Mario world; this was all of it and everything.

Today, gamers give up a game after being stuck for an hour or two. It’s not a matter of being afflicted with severe ADD, but a matter of having too many better things to do than look for hidden objects. There’s a certain pride in perseverance, but there’s also a recognition that some things really aren’t worth it. Hiding objectives is bad game design. Mario 64 has a lot of bad game design.

For instance, think about Shoot Into the Wild Blue. It’s a pretty straightforward star. You talk to the pink Bob-omb, enter the cannon, aim at the pillars, and blast toward the star. It really is easy once you know how to do it.

But the first time you play, you don’t.

You enter the cannon, and there’s a star above you in the sky, in a cage. You shoot at it. You fall short and make your way to the cannon to try again. You blast off and fall short again. You try for a while before you get frustrated and consult the internet. You’re supposed to shoot at some pillars, which will stop you midflight so you can climb down a pole and collect a star that’s hidden out of sight below. You didn’t shoot into any wild blue. You shot into the most confined area in the whole level to find a hidden object.

This is early 3D game design in a nutshell. You try and try until you happen to get it right. The worst case of this is Blast Away the Wall, where Mario needs to shoot himself at the corner of an unspecified wall in Whomp’s Fortress, a level composed entirely of walls. Without a strategy guide, Mario 64 is the most tedious game in the world.

It’s-a Me?

For me, Mario 64 just doesn’t feel like a Mario game. If you grew up with it, the game probably feels like a logical extension of the series’ run and jump gameplay. But some things just don’t add up. Why does Mario have a pie-slice health bar, and where are the mushrooms and fire flowers? It’s a rough approximation rather than a smooth transition.

Worse, most levels don’t emphasize platforming at all, and just require you to run along a sloping path towards the star. There are jumps, but most don’t require any sort of precision. Levels like Tall Tall Heights and Lethal Lava Land do a good job of translating Mario into 3D. But for every Tall Tall Heights there’s a Hazy Maze Cave or Wet-Dry World, levels of grueling frustration when you don’t know what to do and dull monotony when you do.

The levels suffer from a sameness between stars. Climb the structure to find the star. It’s ridiculous that the very first level requires players to scale the same mountainside four times. Modern Mario games are fleshed out with completely alternative objectives, with players staying on course for a fourth of the level and then veering into new areas. Mario 64 feels like the developers knew they couldn’t create enough levels in time for launch, so they added extra stars and hoped players would be satisfied. Luckily for Nintendo, they were.

It’s no surprise to me that Mario 64 has gained a massive speedrunning community. The tasks asked of players are so repetitive that they need to be livened up whenever possible. Players perform insane acrobatics to relieve the dullness of Mario’s routine objectives.

Even so, Mario feels like an oaf. He slides along, grabbing every ledge in sight and refusing to read signs. By now there are countless video proofs that Mario’s range of motion lends itself to a ton of acrobatic tricks, but that’s not the same as saying he controls well. He has so many superfluous moves at his disposal that they get in each other’s way, and many basic actions are a chore.

Mario wants to grab onto everything all the time. He swims damned slow and refuses to get out of the water. After three precise leaps he’ll slide off the ledge, incurring fall damage.

Mario wouldn’t need the pie slices if he could fall without getting hurt, and it’s unbelievable to think the great Jumpman could be damaged by any sort of spill. This is Mario in name only. The game provides the ability for countless feats, but only after you learn to contend with a bumbling ass and his bumbling cameraman.

Navigating the Toxic Maze

I don’t think Mario 64 is the greatest game, but maybe you do, and that’s cool. I don’t want to trash your favorite game, and I couldn’t make you like it less if I tried.

But if we remove the critical eye from our favorite games, they become stagnant. Just because we love them to death doesn’t mean we have to calcify our opinions. There’s a lot more to talk about than “this is the greatest game” and “this is the worst game.” There are shades of grey that can be more interesting than the game itself.

I think Mario 64 is tedious as hell to play, but it’s a pretty awesome study in early 3D game design. It’s really interesting to see early 3D platformers evolve from Mario 64’s “find this star” objectives before dropping off a cliff with full-blown Donkey Kong 64 collect-a-thons. There’s more to it than how much I enjoy the second-to-second gameplay.

A lot of people believe that thinking about and analyzing why they like a certain game will make them hate it. I can tell you first-hand that I still love my favorite games, no matter how many faults they have.

Think about the games you play, the books you read, the decisions you make, and analyze them. Examine the whys and why nots. Take time to think the thought before you talk the talk, then engage in conversation. It’ll help you on the way to finding your new most exciting game, and that game will still manage to surprise you whenever you turn it on.

Let’s converse. Here are some of my favorite games and some of the problems they have:

Super Mario Kart

Every single AI character in Super Mario Kart is an obnoxious cheater, especially those damned Mario brothers and their abusive star powers. Enemies can jump over your shots and use items whenever they want. They rubberband and gang up, and your own items are quick to disappear when the track gets too cluttered.

Mushihimesama Futari

The shot-switching in Mushihimesama Futari is completely arbitrary and restricts natural play without adding anything to the game’s depth. Why Cave thought it was necessary to completely regulate which buttons players press is beyond me.

Chrono Cross

Most of Chrono Cross’s cast are accent-swapped cut-outs, and the game ham-fists its entire plot into the last act so quickly that I still have no idea if it makes any sense.

I admit these games are flawed, but I love them unconditionally.

Give it a thought. What’s the worst thing about your favorite games? Why do you love them anyways?

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2 Responses to “Mediocre Mario 64”

  1. Squire Grooktook Says:

    Hey man, I agree with you that the game hasn’t aged well, but I don’t think it quite sinks to the level of “mediocre” for a number of reasons.

    Note that it’s been a long time since my last play-through of the game, so I apologize if some statements are a bit vague.

    Anyway, your right that exploration of the new frontier of 3d was a big part of Mario 64’s wonder, but Nintendo went above and beyond to make sure that this experience would be about more then the novelty. Taking away the most tedious or repetitive stars, the vast majority of the levels are very diverse and fun to simply run around in and platform through. The levels are like virtual playgrounds, except with bottomless pits to worry about should you fall off the seesaw.
    Exciting? No. Mario has rarely been about balls to the walls intensity or excitement (unless your a speedrunner). And I agree that bogged down by constant fetch quests and unclear objectives, Mario 64 probably wouldn’t stand the test of time if it just came down to the platforming. But there’s also another aspect, one that I rarely consider in games but none the less plays a vital role here: the atmosphere and world.

    As you said, a big part of the appeal was letting players dive in and explore a fully 3d Mushroom Kingdom. It really works for a Mario game in my opinion, as a series that has never really been about excitement, but rather visceral interaction as you meticulously guide Mario through the various stages with his physics focused controls. And Mario 64 doesn’t just provide worlds that are fun to jump around and treat as a play-field, but also provides a sense of adventure with it’s wonderfully creative, surreal, and imaginative set pieces.

    Jumping into a tiny volcano to find a whole new stage inside. Riding a flying carpet through the sky, into the floating house of an apparent giant, before eventually hopping onto a rainbow powered airship. Finding a secret elevator that leads to an underground reservoir in which a doe-eyed Loch Ness Monster swims. Finally reaching the off limits area in Wet Dry World, swimming through a series of underwater pipes, and finally finding it lead to a whole underwater town.

    I could go on and on about the sheer imagination of Mario 64’s world, and how unlike many other games, it really does feel like your exploring it.

    Part of what makes all this so enjoyable, is that these aren’t just set pieces on a completely on rails game, but rather that the paths to these areas are eventually found by players as they explore and open up new parts of the stages. It almost rivals Metroid and Zelda in it’s sense of exploration and wonderment.

    Is it a game that’s worth playing again and again over the years, or to boot up whenever you want to relax and have some enjoyable gameplay? No, and no. But with the help of knowstalgia, it can be a very enjoyable game. Not great, not bad. Just good, and with some hints of brilliance.

    As for games that I love and what flaws they might have, nothing really comes to mind except:

    Persona 4

    The requirements for the true ending are absurd and unfair. I get what the writers were going for, forcing you to “reach out to the truth” and all. But really, it’s not just using your head and searching for the truth, it’s forcing us to assume that the writers didn’t just leave things open, and backtrack through random areas hoping that an event which is not telegraphed will appear.

    Odin Sphere

    Recycles too many bosses. It’s understandable, since they wanted to tell a LONG story, but didn’t have enough variety of game-play to back it up.

    Without spoiling anything, Mercedes story also has some issues. It’s good, and her character development is good. But she doesn’t really have much to do with the grand overarching plot. She basically goes through all this character development, just so she can kill something which she has otherwise nothing to do with in the final chapter.

    Axelay

    Despite how great the level design is, it’s a bit too short for how forgiving it is. An extra level or two would have made the difficulty spike in the last area feel a bit more natural.

    • catstronaut Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Grooktook!

      I do think that Nintendo consistently goes beyond the bare basics in creating imaginative worlds, and that’s true for Mario 64 as well. There’s a real sense of it being an exploratory playground, and I can imagine the sense of wonder when it first came out.

      To me, the moments you mention are mostly just ideas. I like the idea of an underwater city, but it doesn’t fill me with wonder. It has to have some sense of style. Mario 64 doesn’t really have any sort of prevailing design, and mostly just looks like any other early N64 game. You can barely even tell you’re underwater when you’re down there.

      It reminds me of Scribblenauts. Before the game came out, people hyped it up by saying “you can have laser dinosaurs fighting ninjas and vikings, this game is awesome!” But that’s just an idea of something awesome. Scribblenauts came out, and people didn’t really like it. Just because I like the idea of an underwater city doesn’t mean I care about clip art of it. I want the real deal, something that’ll get my imagination going.

      And these days, it’s really hard to do that. You have to have really specific, focused style. At the time, Mario 64 was the first 3D space, and I’m sure those environments were mindblowing. Some are still fun to run through today, but they don’t really fill me with a sense of wonder. We’re kind of jaded now. We’ve explored all sorts of crazy environments. Sure, Mario 64 might be more exploratory than most games, but those events are kind of tame in comparison. Any given moment of Mario Galaxy 2 can blow away anything in Mario 64. But that’s not a slight on Mario 64. That’s its legacy.

      More than anything, it feels like a case of old bands versus new bands. Very rarely do you have a band that both started and perfected a genre. Pioneer bands don’t sound the greatest; they just sound like a standard band in that genre. New listeners don’t really get what the deal is. They’re hearing really tired riffs when they could be listening to groundbreaking material.

      That’s how Mario 64 is to me. It might be one of the great pioneers, but it mostly feels like tired material. It can be mediocre and brilliant at the same time. I’m just the sort of person who doesn’t like resting on classical definitions of greatness. Tetris Attack is more fun than Tetris. It doesn’t matter so much to me that the one preceded the other.

      I do feel that nobody would ever argue for Mario 64 if it didn’t have this legacy. Reviewers would pan it. Players would hate it. There would be no speedrunners, no analyses. To me, that says the game is mediocre, imo, even if it’s still great.

      Thanks for responding, and thanks for posting some flaws with your favorite games. I really enjoy Persona 4, but for some reason I have a problem finishing RPGs. I played probably 40 hours each of Persona 3 and 4 before dropping them. But I just replayed through Chrono Trigger and have started playing through Chrono Cross again, and once I’m done with those I want to pick up SMT: Nocturne. I hear it’s really good, and I want to play a more main-series style SMT game. We’ll see if I can manage to finish that one. I think too many shooters has given me gaming ADD, or maybe there are just too many great games these days. Either way, I’d like to try it out 😀

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