Here we are at the proper beginning of yet another console cycle. The PS4 and Xbox One are out and about, and the Wii U is slamming on all cylinders with their heavy hitting games. A lot of these launches are revolving around the obvious interests, namely graphics and power, but ultimately they circle back around and land firmly on one simple argument: does the system have a strong launch lineup? We could rifle through the exclusive titles for any of the three, but that’s meaningless and it isn’t very retro. However, there certainly are some titles on retro systems that not only came out and wowed the world, they demanded you take notice of the system from the very first day it arrived on store shelves. Let’s talk about those console launches and that one magical game.
To me, the pinnacle of a launch title is Super Mario 64. I feel confident that I’m not really at risk of sounding like I’m trolling or just gushing as a fanboy with this example because most people can agree that Super Mario 64 was a quantum leap for games in general to the point that it transcended the console itself and stood above it, something that few other games (especially launch titles) ever really do.
Take Wii Sports, another launch title that has the distinction of being monumental upon its arrival, though for perhaps wholly different reasons. When it was shown, people were amazed and curious. They wanted to play this game for themselves and experience a new system. Wii Sports was the Wii, a fact that’s both true and somewhat sad looking back. It showed us the glimpse into the future and perfectly represented the direction the system was going to go in. And it sold a gozillion Wii consoles as a result.
Super Mario 64, however, was very different in its appeal. People still had the desire to play it and experience it as soon as possible, but rather than make a statement about what the N64 was going to be like, it promised us the world. It fully promised us the future of gaming as we would come to know it.
Whereas most longtime series eventually had no choice but to come into the 3D age, kicking and screaming, Super Mario 64 was the game doing all the dragging. We had no true concept of what games could do in this new dimension, no real expectations, no real benchmark to judge the newly forming possibilities. Mario popped onto the screen in 3D, fully voiced for the first time (that we care to remember), and awakened the very soul of 3D gaming.
How often does a game appear that revolutionizes all of video games while also defining their system? And how often is that a launch title? The SNES had a strong start with Super Mario World, but many could argue that the SNES didn’t get its truly defining game until Chrono Trigger, A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, or a dozen other stellar titles. The PS2 released hit after hit after hit, but nothing that really said, “This is the PlayStation. This is what Sony and video games are all about.” We immediately saw what Super Mario 64 brought to the medium and while the N64 had a handful of really great games (some would consider the best in their respective franchises), it is extremely difficult to find someone who’ll grouse about Super Mario 64.
Of any other launch titles that blew us completely out of the water, I can think of perhaps two others. Super Mario Bros. on the NES showed us what a 2D platformer could be, while Halo: Combat Evolved somehow single-handedly made first-person shooters the definitive genre of the next decade. Both were games you had to play, and especially in Halo’s case, they fully justified the entire system’s purchase.
But while I love the original Super Mario Bros. and can at least respect Halo for what it did for itself, I can’t really hammer home how meteoric Super Mario 64 felt when I first witnessed it in motion. I saw someone playing in a later level, jumping around in the open space the level allowed, interacting with enemies previously only seen as flat sprites. I figured that this player must be extremely good since the game itself looked overly complicated. But once I got a chance to play for myself, I was stunned at how natural everything felt. Every new move Mario acquired here, including the ground pound, the backflip, and the longjump, all seemed like extremely obvious inclusions, as if they’d always been there but we just didn’t have the Z button to activate them in the other Mario games.
More than anything, it was a special feeling just to see something so new. We’re arguing over graphics and resolutions (the Wii U can do 1080p, just wanted to get that out there) and whether one system is faster when it comes to letting me open multiple applications to ignore my game faster than the other system, but I’m not hearing a lot of people just stopping and acting like kids who just saw Mario put on the Flying Cap and leap into the air for the first time in their lives.
Where is that pure joy that comes from seeing something so wonderfully fantastical happening as a result of buttons your fingers just pressed? A lot of the launch titles look perfectly fine, but do any of them keep you up at night, wishing you could be searching for just one more star instead of being forced to rest? Why don’t we bring that back?
And that’s really all I have to say today. I know, you’re probably expecting me to make some sweeping statements about games or further muddle my own arguments about piracy and emulation, but today I just wanted to talk about Super Mario 64. I don’t talk about it nearly enough, and maybe I should, but I do know that I’d certainly like to hear more about what launch titles you’d consider the best. I’m even fine with a launch window title like Super Smash Bros Melee (of course I’m OK with a title like that), so leave a comment and let’s pour some love on the great launches of old!