The Moment and Momentum of Super Mario 64: Nintendo’s Search to Find Balance for Video Games’ Most Sure-Footed Hero

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By Kevin

In a recent interview with Destructoid, Ubisoft’s Ashraf Ismail suggested that this year’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag could be compared to Nintendo’s revolutionary Super Mario 64.  His point rests on the fact the new Assassin’s Creed game is built around navigating an ocean, which connects to various portals to the game worlds, much like the castle in Super Mario 64.  While not necessarily convincing me to expect such revolutionary things from Assassin’s Creed IV, Ismail’s comments has inspired me to think an awful lot about Super Mario 64.  This comparison was not only striking because of the contrasting tone of Assassin’s Creed games when compared to Mario games but also because Super Mario 64 is a game that I hold on a level few other games equal.

Considering the legacy of a game like Super Mario 64, which fans and critics so commonly think of as a foundational pillar of modern games, this statement shouldn’t have been a surprise at all.  However, this comparison leaves me thinking, and rethinking, Super Mario 64’s place in gaming.  Most of all, though, this revelation has made me want to consider not necessarily how the 1996 masterpiece has informed the industry as a whole but how the game has dictated future installments of Nintendo’s most beloved franchise.  While Super Mario 64 was exceptionally successful from a commercial and critical standpoint, the game has proven to be a challenging and unpredictable springboard in the evolution of Nintendo’s key franchise.

To suggest that my initial experience with Super Mario 64 left a strong impression on me is only a minimally competent expression of the game’s place in my history.  My first few minutes with the game modified my mild curiosity in the upcoming Nintendo 64 into an absolute, non-stop compulsion to discover more experiences not only in the game, not only on the platform,  but in the medium in general.   Almost two decades later, I choose to spend an incredible amount of my free time searching for that feeling of mysterious and mind-bending enticement.  Now I crave, but don’t often find, experiences that extend beyond my imagination.  I search for experiences that challenge and defeat my expectations.  While my search continues, I’ve found that many of the standards set by Super Mario 64 did not exactly triple-jump gracefully into the subsequent console generations, even when it comes to Mario games, which makes my quest to discover a perpetual stream of excitement and opportunity a challenge.

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In order to best express my feelings on how Super Mario 64 has, in many ways, ruined and spoiled me for future gaming experiences, I must reflect on the exact reasons why I found Super Mario 64 to be so enthralling in the first place.   As always, context is key.  In the two years before Super Mario 64 came out, I was increasingly aware that I no longer wanted or needed to be spending all that much time and money on games.  Sure, I was thankful to receive a game or two for Christmas, but, otherwise, I was spending most of my free-time driving around with friends, going to concerts, and playing guitar.  I was, however, still a dedicated Nintendo fan, so when I began to hear tidbits about a new Nintendo console–with a new Miyamoto—designed Mario game—I was definitely intrigued. I remember looking at a couple of pictures of the game in a magazine as my two gamer friends and I took turns experiencing Playstation for the first time.  There was a new era of gaming opening up for players, and I no longer knew how much I wanted to be a part of it. Although I was certainly enjoying both my introductory experiences with Playstation and my daydreams of the upcoming Nintendo platform, I was not committed to exploring the depths of what either of these brands would offer.

Upon hearing a rumor about the arrival of Nintendo 64 demo stations, I tagged along with a friend on a trip to Toys R Us.  The demo of Super Mario 64 was there.  When I played it, I was instantly and fully committed to spending the next couple months earning/saving money and the subsequent five years playing almost everything released for that oddly-shaped, dark gray monument to fun.  Okay, I guess I did not know that I would play almost everything for the system, but I couldn’t have known that the system would see a relatively limited amount of releases.  When I first held that quirky, three-pronged monstrosity of a controller and moved Mario up, down, around, and through the most impressive and vibrant landscape I’d ever seen in a game, I thought I was experiencing the future of gaming—not just the future of how video games would be played but also the future of how I would feel every time I turned on a new game.  I was partially correct, and this was now a feeling I wanted to repeat often.  Why did I ever think Nintendo, or video games in general, had lost me as a faithful, automatic customer?  When I finally brought the game home, I gleefully committed to discovering every last bit of joy within, along with every star, or course.  Each new painting revealed a brilliant level, worth exploring with or without an objective.  As dictated by the games’ reward system, I was compelled by my own enjoyment of the experiences and my craving for more.  The only thing more impressive than how fabulous the game looked was how well the game played.  Nintendo, as always, nailed the feel of running around this wonderful game world, so playing was more than just an auditory and visual spectacle.  Super Mario 64 was clearly an astounding achievement, and its quality suggested to me that dozens of other games in my near future were bound to be astounding as well.

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Although, in my opinion, quite a few experiences on Nintendo 64 held up reasonably well against my first 3D experience with the persistent plumber, the thrill I experienced with this game, with the possible exception of my time with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was never fully duplicated.  Even subsequent Mario games have failed to meet the impact of Super Mario 64.  Although, spin-offs partially excluded, all of the 3D Mario outings have been spectacular, none of them have given the same sense of reward, progressive design and gracefulness when pitted against Nintendo 64’s monster launch title.  The first contender was Super Mario Sunshine for the Nintendo Gamecube.  This was a more refined version of Mario 64—refined both in its control and camera system and in its narrowed artistic theme.  The water cannon mechanic, while interesting and well-implemented, seemed to take away some of what makes Mario…well, Mario.  While it controlled extremely well and boasted fantastic levels, challenges, and (to an extent) bosses, the game felt like a continuation rather than a revolution.  And that’s okay: we’d seen this before: the 2D NES Mario saw similarly familiar sequels in Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario World.  Super Mario Sunshine was mostly the follow-up it should have been, but when was I going to get another revolution?  I had to guess that Nintendo’s next console would provide me with just that.

At this time, it seemed as if Nintendo got the idea that many consumers were scared of the open structure of the 3D Mario games. Their concern is somewhat true, and is evident in comments I hear from my wife whenever I play non-side-scrolling games.  “How do you know where to go?”  “I could never play this.”  “Aren’t you confused?”  Nintendo’s attempt at a solution for would-be Mario lovers like my wife: Super Mario Galaxy.  This game, along with its excellent sequel, prove that Nintendo was trying to strike a balance act between the progressive gameplay in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine and the intuitive linearity—and popularity—of the NES and SNES Mario games.  The levels supplied breath-taking views and perspective shifts, but had much smaller and clearer trajectory in terms of level progression.   Did their attempt work?  Not completely.  The games failed to sell as well as the other Mario games being made at the time, the New Super Mario Brothers series, which were designed as a throwback to Mario’s the side-scrolling days. The games did succeed, however, at bringing some of the tightest, most inspired platforming in any game.  Critics and fans adore the Galaxy games, and for many valid reasons.  But if Nintendo’s aim with these games was to win over a sizable chunk of Mario fans who felt confused and/or dejected by Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, I’d have to say the games were a partial failure.  My wife enjoys looking at Galaxy games, but her fears and disorientation remain.  It’s unfortunate that these games aren’t as popular as they should be, considering the quality of the vision and execution, but Nintendo is a business and must consider what their broader audience wants.

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As a continuation of their experiments to de-alienate a segment of the audience, Nintendo created Super Mario 3D Land for the Nintendo 3DS.  This game toned down much of the stellar presentation and scope of the Galaxy games without losing the platforming bliss. While the game looked and felt impressive, Nintendo hoped that the fairly narrow and somewhat linear level designs would work alongside a presentation and art direction closer to the New Super Mario Brothers series in order to be a Mario game for everyone. Leading up to the game, I remember gamers and journalists having a great deal of indifference and skepticism about the title.  When the finished product launched, however, it not only sold amazingly well for the not-yet-flourishing 3DS but also garnered gushing reviews.  I, for one, realized during my first few hours with the game that, like Galaxy, this game was going to be one of my favorite games in recent memory, possibly of all-time. The game tells you implicitly and explicitly where to go, but loses little of the free-roaming thrills of the past decade and a half of Mario.

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Between the fact that Galaxy and its sequel are two of the best reviewed games of all time and the fact that 3D Land garnered a friendly commercial and critical reception, Nintendo had to decide what to do next.   I even recall hearing reports of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto going so far as to ask game journalists whether they think future Mario games should follow in Galaxy’s or 3D Land’s footsteps.  Nintendo’s decision seemed to be that a souped-up 3D Land would be most appealing to a broader audience.  Super Mario 3D World launches on November 22, 2013, and the newest trailer places this game firmly on the top of games I am most looking forward to.   Sure, 3D World does not have the brilliant planetoid gimmick of Galaxy or the vast exploration of Mario 64, but it looks like an exceptionally polished adventure, similar to its amazing 3DS predecessor.  And could Nintendo’s added attention to making Mario a multiplayer experience and implementation of playable Peach also embolden traditional Mario fans to jump on board?  I guess I don’t have that answer yet, but the game does look fun, addicting, and palatable.

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After nearly two decades of 3D Mario platformers—fantastic ones at that—none of the games have captured the essence of Super Mario 64.  I am still yearning for a game more like Super Mario 64.  I greet every Mario platformer with enthusiasm, and Nintendo always meets my enthusiasm with impeccable gameplay mechanics, sublime art direction, and superb sound design.  But I have a Mario game in my head, and this game has not been made yet. The game in my head has an enormous Mushroom Kingdom to explore, filled with hidden secret items and adventures.  This game has an impressive castle, with its own subtle mythology to discover. This game reverses Mario’s slow decent back to arcade-style scope and accessibility, with a warm embrace of a seemingly living world, to navigate at my own leisure, will, and peril.  Mario’s physical abilities in this game could take him as far up into the sky as my imagination could allow, across a variety of settings and terrain.  My skills of observation would reward me with secret, underground oceans, haunted cellars, fiery caverns, and icy caves.   And all of this would be bound together by objectives, laid out throughout the game in an organic, but clear way.  This game has not been made, but Nintendo came exceedingly close in 1996, and that is the flagpole I would love them to, again, chase.

While the game of my dreams is certainly attainable for Nintendo, their leaders are simply too smart to cater their games to only me and my peers.   Nintendo wants their games to be inviting, and the series’ evolution has been firmly focused on that issue.  Even in the case of Super Mario 64, however, Nintendo seemed to be using their game to educate players on how their games work.   Sure, the Mario game of my dreams is dense, rewarding, and open-ended, but it is also challenging, abstract, and un-focused.  Nintendo may very well make this game one day, but at the moment they are trying hard to think of ways to keep everyone along for the ride. As an avid gamer during the last few generations, I have a hard time relating to the common outlook that Mario games have gotten disorienting and intimidating.  While I can see why side-scrolling games need less explanation, I find it easy to forget how many subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, cues I have been conditioned to perceive when I first begin a new game.  Is the foundation of my lack of confusion with 3D platformers due to the fact that I spent most of the fall of my senior year in high school devouring Super Mario 64?  Super Mario 64 does, after all, do a wonderful job at training its players.  For instance, in the opening scene of the game we are shown a cameraman following Mario around.  While this may simply seem like a novel concept in retrospect, this visual cue shows the player that Mario is being followed by a camera, which provides an analogy for the visual language through which the game is played.  The player controls Mario in a 3D space while a cameraman captures it.  The player has partial control over the camera.  While this did not ease some players’ 3D jitters, this was a clear way to train players how to interpret the visuals.   It’s hard to imagine that players needed such interpretation, but this was a radical change, and Nintendo did not want to lose players in the transition.

Besides promoting awareness of the visual cues in Super Mario 64, Nintendo also attempted to give players a practice world in which to preview the way Mario interacts with his new world.  Nintendo is often accused of being too heavy-handed when it comes to the amount of tutorials and hand-holding in its games, but I would argue that this introduction to Mario’s new, 3D world is both elegant and necessary.   Nintendo’s way to introduce players to how to control Mario in this strange, new way was to set them in front of Peach’s castle in the hopes they would run around and get the hang of it through experimentation.  I fondly remember witnessing my own brother’s first attempt at 3D Mario platforming during his first night home from college for Thanksgiving break in 1996.  He moved Mario around Peach’s garden, sending Mario on and off trees, through pathways, and around the grounds with not only great ease but also with obvious glee.  My brother was quite literally screeching with surprise and enjoyment.  When his girlfriend made a long-distance phone call to see if he made it home safely, he simply told her, “You won’t believe what I’m doing!”  He was so excited that he thought his non-gamer girlfriend must immediately know about the game and appreciate the brilliant innovations Nintendo had provided for him.  I couldn’t blame him.  He was now lost in one of the most potent moments of Nintendo magic—as I was a couple months earlier—which is difficult to adequately describe to gamers of different eras, and impossible to describe for a non-gamer.

It seems to me that Nintendo’s experiments and efforts with Super Mario 64 succeeded in hooking a segment of gamers, as well as informing a segment of developers, but did so by extending beyond a realm of common-denominators within the gaming community.  It’s possible that Super Mario 64 marked a moment when video games were growing toward a point at which not everyone could follow.  Just as some of the most ambitious works of film, music, and literature are often alienating, complex, and ambitious, Super Mario 64’s leap just might have been Nintendo crossing a line they did not intend to cross—a line they likely never intend to cross again.  After all, each of the title’s admittedly brilliant follow-ups included re-thinks and side-steps.  I find it unlikely to believe that Nintendo will ever extend beyond the vision they had with Super Mario 64, but I’m beginning to think I should just be grateful that they are adapting the series so gracefully, and I should feel especially thankful that I got to experience Mario’s first 3D adventure in the very best possible way.  Super Mario 64 was quite an astounding moment—a moment that triggered a staggering amount and kind of momentum that still shakes and shapes Nintendo—and I was there.

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