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.
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.
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 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.
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.