Happy 20th Anniversary – Super Mario 64

Nintendo Power’s June issue in 1996 had an N64 blowout with Mario on the cover and coverage on the games. There’s a quote in the magazine that we still hear repeated even today even by the current Nintendo of America president, Reggie Fils-Aime. Ken Lobb, development manager at Nintendo at the time, said “The power of this machine, although far beyond the competition, is irrelevant. The true power of the N64 lies in the games. As always, it’s Nintendo’s games which define ‘fun’; this is more true than ever with the N64!”. And games like Super Mario 64 would prove him right.

The Nintendo 64 was the latest console from the wonder factory at Nintendo featuring bleeding edge tech. So it also needed a bleeding edge game and the name tapped to do that was an old standby – Mario. And it got it on launch day in Japan (and later in North America) with Super Mario 64.

Mario 64 was literally unlike any Mario game that had come before. Taking full advantage of the N64’s 3D power, Mario and his friends were rendered in full polys and set inside a wide, open world of third-person adventure filled with all of the familiar trappings from the series. There were traps, there was lava, there was Bowser…Mario didn’t skip a beat when he made the transition from 2D to 3D thanks to series creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, and his team.

Calling Super Mario 64 the gold standard of games wasn't an idle boast -- it received critical acclaim from both players and many reviewers and would go on to sell over 11 million copies making it the best selling N64 game of all time.

Calling Super Mario 64 the gold standard of games would prove not to be an idle boast. It received critical acclaim from both players and many reviewers eventually going on to sell over 11 million copies making it the best selling N64 game of all time.

According to a profile on Shigeru Miyamoto at N-Sider,  idea for the game seems to have emerged while he was working on Star Fox which used the FX chip included in the cartridge to help create its amazing, 3D graphic visuals such as the polygonal fighters that Fox and his crew flew. It would take five years to experiment with the hardware, plan out Super Mario 64, and finally create the game fulfilling Miyamoto’s dream of creating “worlds in miniature, worlds in which the player can enter and explore the unknown” according to Nintendo Power’s June, 1996, issue.

With the N64, Shigeru Miyamoto was quoted by Nintendo Power as saying:

“The Nintendo 64 allows me to make a complete miniature world in a box. I am finally able to complete the dream.”

And Super Mario 64’s world was exactly that: a fun park dedicated to everything Mario filled with a number of new tricks and abilities that would filter down to later games such as crouching, triple jumping, and somersaults along with the freedom of control and exploration that begged players to dive into pools of water to discover their depths, brave canyons and paths through the wilderness teeming with classic monsters ranging from Goombas, Koopa Troopas, Chain Chomps, and Bob-ombs. New monsters were also introduced in the game. And of course, there was always Bowser.

Mario can shoot himself out of cannons or even dive and swim down into the unknown taking care that he doesn’t drown. He also has a neat sliding jump allowing him to leap much further along with a triple jump and a wall kick. He can also do sliding attacks and even catch himself on ledges (though he can’t shimmy across them). Making the move to 3D has turned Mario in a regular adventurer with moves that manage to translate well into a fun and unique take on Nintendo’s storied plumber.

Super Mario 64's title screen featured a mushy Mario face that players could tug and pull at, showing off the N64's 3D capabilities with a small demo.

Super Mario 64’s title screen featured a mushy Mario face that players could tug and pull at, showing off the N64’s 3D capabilities with a small demo.

Even the music and sound effects cue up plenty of Mario-esque nostalgia with voice samples providing plenty of “woohoo!” as Mario leaps through the air. The soundtrack, composed by longtime Nintendo veteran, Koji Kondo, continues to capture the magic of the series filtered through the N64’s new hardware with more oomph and pizzazz layered on top of familiar themes that millions of players have grown up with over the years.

This time, the story goes that Princess Toadstool (or Peach) sends Mario a letter inviting him over for some cake at her castle. When he arrives, however, he discovers that something is very amiss — many doors are sealed with mysterious star symbols. It’s later explained to Mario that Bowser had kidnapped the Princess before he had arrived and stole all of the Power Stars.

With that, he has trapped everyone inside the castle and scattered the stars into paintings sealed inside behind those locked doors. Only by recovering Power Stars can Mario unlock his way to the final confrontation with Bowser and save the Princess. Fortunately, there is one door that Bowser hasn’t locked…and there happens to be a Power Star for the taking behind it if Mario can survive the dangers before him.

Mario could swim and dive into the deeps. Just watch that breath gauge.

Mario could swim and dive into the deeps. Just watch that breath gauge.

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The castle area was, in essence, a giant tutorial with helpful signs and plenty of opportunities to experiement with Mario's new moves. It wasn't a linear tutorial, either -- players weren't forced to follow a series of steps to do things. If you wanted to ignore all of the signs and just get down to the action, you just did.

The castle area was, in essence, a giant tutorial with helpful signs and plenty of opportunities to experiement with Mario’s new moves. It wasn’t a linear tutorial, either — players weren’t forced to follow a series of steps to do things. If you wanted to ignore all of the signs and just get down to the action, you just did.

Mario 64’s world was huge. “Levels” were now small, self-contained worlds that players traveled to by jumping into magic paintings scattered about the castle and a few out of the way places. Many of these zones were tailored to a particular challenge, much like how certain areas in the previous Mario 2D games were, exuding their own personality whether it was a world like Lethal Lava Land or Jolly Roger Bay with its sunken pirate ship. And of course, there are also secret areas that hold Secret Stars for collectors that have to find all 120.

Mario also has a number of neat tricks associated with his cap. A Wing Cap allows him to fly while a Metal Cap turns him into a Colossus-like juggernaut of metal able to take out enemies by walking into them. Of course, he can’t do much else, but it can be useful in a pinch. And when Bowser is finally defeated at the end, Mario gets his cake and he, the Princess, and the Princess’ mushroom helpers all wave farewell to the player at the end.

Not everything was rendered in 3dlicious polys like these trees (that Mario could also climb).

Not everything was rendered in 3dlicious polys like these trees (that Mario could also climb) but that really didn’t impact the amazingly solid gameplay and wanderlust that the open spaces of the game tempted in everyone.

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Moving platforms, steep slopes to slide down on (and for other obstacles to slide after you), familiar enemies, and elemental dangers are everywhere including the challenge of collecting all of the star coins for completionists.

Moving platforms, steep slopes to slide down on (and for other obstacles to slide after you), familiar enemies, and elemental dangers are everywhere including the challenge of collecting all of the star coins for completionists.

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It wouldn't be a Mario game without that special humor charming its way into the game play.

It wouldn’t be a Mario game without that special humor charming its way into the game play.

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After beating a course's boss, you get one of the Power Stars as a reward taking you another step closer to saving the Princess and the Mushroom Kingdom.

After beating a course’s boss, you get one of the Power Stars as a reward taking you another step closer to saving the Princess and the Mushroom Kingdom.

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You don't always have to beat a boss to find a Power Star. As you revisit a particular course, new challenges can make themselves available such as a foot race with a Power Star for a prize.

You don’t always have to beat a boss to find a Power Star. As you revisit a particular course, new challenges can make themselves available such as a foot race with a Power Star for a prize.

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After clearing a course, your score is tallied up to see how you did. If you missed some stars, you can always jump back into the painting to find them later.

After clearing a course, your score is tallied up to see how you did. If you missed some stars, you can always jump back into the painting to find them later.

It can be argued that Super Mario 64 did for Mario what id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and Doom did for first-person shooters. It was a smash hit and even today remains a top classic on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service on the Wii U. It would even be remade as 2004’s Super Mario 64 DS with a number of new features such as being able to play as other characters like Yoshi who is available at the start of the game or Luigi and even Wario. A sequel for the original Mario 64 was planned for the 64DD drive, but when that peripheral crashed and burned in Japan, so did plans for the sequel.

It was a groundbreaking event welcoming the N64 to retail shelves which, for the first time in Nintendo’s console history, did not have a pack-in game. But for many players, that didn’t matter as soon as they put this in and entered a miniature world where a plumber is able to save a Princess, brave oceans of fire, and toss a giant, fire breathing Bowser through the air. Just another day for Mario.

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