Have you ever had someone look at you in shock and say “I can’t believe you never played ___!”? That’s what this column is about. I’m an old fart gamer experiencing some of the classic retro games for the first time – and rather than having something profound or meaningful to say about it, I’m just going to share my initial thoughts upon playing a game most others have already deemed a classic. Hope you enjoy my newcomer insight – and ignorance – to games I should have played by now!
This week, I’m covering Super Mario 64, for the Nintendo 64. Unlike many games I cover here, this one I started as a child but never really got past the first level – until now.
It’s hard to picture in this day and age, but there actually was a time where three dimensional games were not only new, but also raising a few eyebrows. People reading about the concept for the first time raised hesitation at whether gamers would really be into that sort of thing long term given the extra complexities and controls – a common complaint I heard on the playground was that they added too much at once (a sort of phrasing that is laughably unfamiliar these days with gamers always criticizing games for not doing all that much to break the mold). Not only that, but at the time three dimensional also meant polygonal, blocky sort of animation as opposed to the cartoony yet slick two dimensional sprites of the earlier generation.
When I think of this era, I immediately think of Super Mario 64, one of the launch titles of the Nintendo 64. People were skeptical at first, but once the game finally came out, the reviews were largely positive – though I, as a small child, found the game frustratingly difficult and didn’t really get past the first level due to the sheer amount I had to adjust to compared to my previous experiences with games (phrases like “rage quit” probably originated from the behavior I exhibited upon dying over and over in the first level here as a youth). But now that I am an adult, I figured this column was a perfect reason to return to the game and see just how much of my hatred was just lack of finer gaming motor skills.
Control-wise, I still found my revisit to the game frustratingly difficult despite having advanced in my reflexes and pattern recognition. One feeling I had as a kid, that the N64 simply had too many buttons, was a feeling I eventually got over with other three dimensional games like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but never truly got over when subjected to the demands of Mario 64 – a feeling I still had when playing now. And while I can understand the programmer’s desire to avoid hit-and-run strategies with bosses, I quickly grew tired of working all the way to the top of some summit just to play a boss where an accidental slip can cause me to not only leave the boss’ area but also have to restart the entire battle from the first hit.
Having played other three dimensional Mario games such as Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, I can comfortably say it isn’t just three dimensional games that are the problem anymore. Super Mario 64 fully utilizes all the buttons of the N64, which is cool in the sense that there’s a lot you can do, but it’s also really easy to accidentally do something you didn’t mean to do and ruin your progress entirely.
But being a little older, I can appreciate other parts of a game now. As a child, the camera was a part of the controls that I found daunting and horrifying to put into my control, but this time around I found it refreshing and immersing – this was a part of the controls I really enjoyed. The ability to briefly glance down a path before going that direction was something I have grown to really appreciate in three dimensional video games, and this was something that Super Mario 64 more or less did first; critics around the time Super Mario 64 was released did praise the camera focus and nonlinear options, giving a sense of freedom previously absent in games.
Musically, the hardware advancements of Super Mario 64 meant quite a few things – all of which, after playing quite a few SNES and NES games for Retroware articles, is becoming more vibrant to my senses. The most notable difference is that the Nintendo 64 doesn’t really need to cut out a track of the background music to accommodate sound effect noises the way the SNES and NES did, preventing that momentary drop from immersion that reminds you that you’re playing a video game. Of course, knowing this is still a cool experience; Super Mario 64’s soundtrack revisits a few classic tunes from previous games, and the advances in hardware mean adding complexities to the oldies to make them feel new. My favorite of these is “Cave Dungeon,” which uses the Super Mario Bros World 1-2 song with modern adaptations and additions, though the original Super Mario Bros. theme and starman theme also make returns in refreshing ways. Super Mario 64’s main theme, the one first present in Bob-omb Battlefield, is arguably the most addicting new song.
I think one of my favorite moments when doing the Late To The Game column is experiencing something that I know many others have experienced before, and having that be a new and exciting thing for me but still one that those more veteran to the game can recall fondly. Case in point, I discovered a certain hilarious feature of the game while playing, something I had briefly heard of and witnessed from others but never gotten to by myself – and my first thought was to check to see if someone made a gif of my favorite scene in Super Mario 64. Sure enough, with a quick google search, the answer was a triumphant yes:
I am ashamed but also happy to admit that I tortured this poor penguin mother for far longer than a grown adult who claims to have a mature sense of humor ever should. Twenty years later, this joke is still funny to me – which is a sign of a true classic.
And that’s the thing. “Classic” is really the only word I can use to describe Super Mario 64. From the camera freedom to the open worlds, many aspects of Super Mario 64’s gameplay are things I found overwhelming as a seven year old but are things I grew to love in my favorite games, and it is only now that I truly understand and appreciate how influential Super Mario 64 was in making these qualities widespread in games. Not only that, but it revamps what were already considered classic Super Mario mechanics and musical cues, giving a steady transition from old to new. I’m so sorry that I never gave this game a full chance as a kid – replay as an adult has been a truly enjoyable experience.
This game is ideal for someone who wants to play an influential piece of gaming history. Dan Houser said it best in the New York Times when he said in his 2012 interview that “Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda [for Nintendo 64] is lying.”