Friday, May 27, 2016

Super Mario 64

Released on September, 29, 1996 by Nintendo EAD, and published by Nintendo for the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64 re-imagines the titular goomba-stomping plumber in an immersive 3D world.

Here we go!

Well, here we are. I've grown increasingly frustrated with the suffocating stylistic rules I've forced upon myself for this website, and even more frustrated with the difficulties of snapping photographs of games on the tiny CRT I like to retro game on. A change has been due for quite a while. How fitting that it is inaugurated by a review of the Nintendo 64 game that started it all.
From this entry forward, I am writing these reviews in a style more akin to my Wii U reviews--that is, I'll write these however I want to. I tried to present previous N64 reviews like museum plaques, but that presentation is so limited...why limit myself?
I've also finally invested in a decent video-capture card, which means that my in-game photos won't look like badly-cropped, blurry messes anymore. I know some people like the blurriness, but in the end, the vibrancy of the video-capture photos overrules the drabness of what I was attaching before.
At some point, I might go back and update previous reviews in this style, but for now, itsatime for Mario.

Entering a Castle of Memories.

When I bought my cousin Joe's nearly year-old Nintendo 64, in the fall of 1997. he included three games with the purchase. While the pot was sweet (Mario Kart 64, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, and Wave Race 64), Super Mario 64 was not included. Maybe the tenth-grade Joe was too cool for Mario school. I don't have any idea what the previous sentence meant. 

Even though I'd spent the majority of the Nintendo 64's first year of existence without a Nintendo 64, I had heard the hype: Super Mario 64 was supposed to be a great game. I pooled my money together throughout the rest of fall with plans to pick up Super Mario 64 at the start of Christmas break. 
I had great plans for the week before Christmas and the week after: not miss any free-throws in the JV basketball tournament, ace mid-terms, get out of school, celebrate my birthday, accumulate more cash, take hunter's safety class, buy and play through Super Mario 64, go see the new James Bond movie, watch TBS' complete James Bond Marathon, at least rent Goldeneye 64 if my mom couldn't find a copy to buy me for Christmas, and not see Titanic. I was successful in every endeavor but the last. 
I'm not saying that I enjoyed James Cameron's distillation of one of the greatest disasters in the history of transportation into a Harlequin Romance, but I did sneak into the entire last hour of it after Tomorrow Never Dies ended. Strangely enough, both of those movies end with a ship sinking. Super Mario 64 involves a world where a sunken ship is raised to the surface, but I'll get to that, I promise. 
Anyway, I had a magical holiday, and Super Mario 64 was no small part of that. I even won a giant tin of Hershey's assorted minis in a white elephant youth group party, which augmented my experience (I am eating some now to get into the spirit (recently purchased, not from the Christmas of '97!). That was nearly two full decades ago, though. I'm almost old enough to be president. Does Super Mario 64 still hold the same magic?

Time to dredge it to the surface.

The Nintendo 64 lifespan featured three generations of games. First generation generally describes the first year or so of the system. Second generation generally describes games released in the next two (98-99), and includes many classics like Ocarina of Time or Turok 2, games that show a technological leap from the first generation. Third generation generally describes games released during the final two years of the Nintendo 64's lifespan--think games featuring higher-res textures and full-speech instead of text boxes, like Perfect Dark, Conker's Bad Fur Day...or Turok 3. I think I should do a separate post on that....anyway...Super Mario 64 was released when the Nintendo 64 was originally released, placing it squarely in the "first generation" bracket.

And now you have "Dire Dire Docks" stuck in your head, and we haven't even gotten to the music yet.

With that said, many inept video game developers found themselves chasing Super Mario 64's graphical standards throughout the lifespan of the Nintendo 64. SM 64 definitely looks simplistic compared to later games--it pales next to five-years younger fellow platformer, Banjo Tooie, for instance (which will be especially apparent once I get around to uploading new pictures of Banjo Tooie to the original review I wrote here a few years ago (sorry for putting so much text between these dashes)--but in the midst of the first batch of Nintendo 64 games released to the public, Super Mario 64 looked stunning. 

The game doesn't hurt my eyes now, and I only score Nintendo 64 games in comparison to other Nintendo 64 games, anyway (I'm not changing that!) I've got to say, Super Mario 64 looks above average for a Nintendo 64 game. 
Everything looks so clean. Mario might be a simplistic, five-colored, barely-textured 3-D chap, but he's a charming, well-animated one. The environments created for him here are vibrant, with bright colors popping all around. Villains are as minimally designed, yet as lovable and well animated as Mario.

It's breast-cancer awareness month at Bob-omb Battlefield.

Textures are a little blurry, and distant objects have a tendency of popping up suddenly, but again, this game was released during the first week of the Nintendo 64's run. The designers have created a consistent graphical world that has stood the test of time--that doesn't mean it looks great next to Dark Souls 3, that means that it still looks great as a 20-year old game...woah, I just realized this is Super Mario 64's 20th Birthday...I did not plan that...but now I wish I did.

Time has been this game's friend.

In the sound department, Super Mario 64 features a major development: Mario can talk now! Voiced by Charles Martinet, Mario's likable, high-pitched, Italian-accented interjections are a great companion throughout Super Mario 64's quest. Sound effects are all spot on, doing justice to the Mario legacy, while raising the audio quality of jumps and shell-kicking to the next level.
As for music, Kojo Kondo composed the soundtrack for Super Mario 64. His other credits include Super Mario Bros. 1,2, and 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario World 2:Yoshi's Island, The Legend of Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Koji Kondo knows how to compose a video game score. Super Mario 64 requires Kondo to translate the feelings he created for Mario's previous 2-D worlds to 3-D, and he does a stellar, bordering on legendary job. The score's only flaw, which I'll get out of the way first, is that many of the themes repeat across levels--I wish there were more of them. With that out of the way...
Kondo's new themes for the game's sunnier levels are a lot of fun, but the score really shines when Kondo dives in deeper, more atmospheric waters. I mean literally because Kondo's piece for Super Mario 64's aquatic stages, the calming "Dire, Dire, Docks," ranks among the greatest, most memorable works ever composed for a video game. It also introduces "dynamic music" to the Mario franchise, meaning that when Mario reaches certain parts of the level, the music subtly changes--and "Dire, Dire Docks" is not SM 64's only example of this. 

My favorite instance of dynamic music in Super Mario 64 comes in "Hazy Maze Cave," which re-imagines Kondo's classic Mario Bros. 1 underground theme, and lends it an extra air of mystery as Mario ventures deeper into the cave...

Dorrie for life.

Which only further augments the incredible gameplay of that moment. I consider the experience of wandering deep into Hazy Maze Cave, discovering a hidden pool, taking a swim, and coming upon Dorrie the Dinosaur, as one of my most formative moments as a gamer. Nintendo wisely placed emphasis on exploration and experimentation while developing Super Mario 64, and that decision still pays off today.
The game's story is a simple one: The evil Bowser has locked Mario's friend, Princess Toadstool, along with her subjects, within the walls of the Princess' castle. Mario must leap into the worlds contained in the walls to collect stars (seven per world, 120 overall), which allow him further access to the castle. Mario gains these stars by completing six separate tasks per world, as well as collecting over 100 gold coins in every world. The game's worlds are diverse, from snow, fire, ocean, underground, in the sky (and on the ground, too), to more eclectic, like inside a giant clock, or on an island where Mario can change his size. Tasks include navigating difficult obstacles, finding hard to reach places, defeating bosses, running errands, and collecting items, among a vast variety of other activities the imaginative developers have dreamed up for Mario to complete.  
This is all far less linear than it sounds, too. While certain amounts of stars are required to reach new worlds (there are fifteen, total), the game never requires the player to have acquired all of them to progress. This means that, generally, when you've tired of a certain world, you can skip on to the next one and come back later. All 120 stars aren't required to beat Bowser, either, though you are certainly going to want to collect all 120.

Ice Ice Baby.

It all comes back to the aforementioned exploration and experimentation. 

For instance, take "Cool, Cool Mountain." The first thing you are going to want to do is explore the level. It looks huge, and it is, paths spiraling down the mountain full of friends, foes, and places to go. That's where experimentation comes in. Once I've looked around, what do I want to do here? What if I try that cool backward somersault move Mario can do now, and try to flip into the top of this chimney?
Why, look what's down here.


It's a giant penguin, and he wants to race.

Now, if I could just slide this 600-pound blue lump out of the way, I'd be cruising.

The game rewarded my exploration with the cabin chimney, and my experimentation with this awesome race. Like all great games, Super Mario 64 makes you want to play it more. 
Speaking of awesome, Mario is a joy to control. The game incorporates new moves like the long-jump and the aforementioned backwards somersault like they've been Mario staples all along. The Nintendo 64 controller's joystick feels made for SM 64 (in a way, it was). The joystick's sensitivity allows Mario to creep, walk, and run at the player's pleasure. The controls are so intuitive, they almost don't need to be taught.You'll have Mario jumping around to wherever you want to go to in no time. 
There is a hitch, though.

Pictured at bottom right: "a hitch."

Super Mario 64 has one flaw: the camera. As the first major 3-D adventure/platforming game, Super Mario 64 had to break new ground in so many areas. It succeeds wildly in all but one. 

Granted, a game's camera, which is essentially the point-of-view the player views the game from, is the most challenging element for a 3-D game developer to master. Many game-makers have struggled with camera positioning since Super Mario 64 was released, and to a far greater degree. For some reason, it's just not easy to do. 
Super Mario 64's camera is effective, and at worst, manageable, at least 96% of the time--but that other 4% is a crapshoot. "Tick Tock Clock" is the worst offender, as the player might be tilting the joystick forward so Mario can cross a thin bridge, only for the camera to swing the perspective...causing Mario to run off the side of the bridge, and costing the player a turn. Again, this doesn't happen all the time--it's quite rare--but it does happen, and when it happens, it's maddening. Other than that, this game is perfection, and in fact...

In fact...

In fact...

In fact...

Hey, wake up, Mario!

In fact, the recent umpteenth playthrough I gave Super Mario 64 that led to this review wasn't actually intended to even lead to a review. I was just playing through Super Mario 64 again because it is fun, and I missed it. 

This is the kind of game that stays with you throughout your life. If you've never played Super Mario 64 before, expect to spend 20 or so hours beating Bowser and collecting all 120 stars, all while experiencing a 64-bit embodiment of pure joy (except for that 4%). 
There's also a pretty sweet reward for collecting all 120 stars that extends gameplay, as well (and is a treat to Nintendo fans). If you've already played through Super Mario 64 before, then you already know how awesome this game is.

Time to dive back in...

Basic Nintendo 64 graphics done with impeccable consistency.

Music and Sound
Joyous sound effects and a great score, limited only by repetition.

3-D platform perfection, which rewards exploration and experimentation. The only thing holding it back is the less than perfect camera

Lasting Value
This game is 20 years old, and I can't stop playing it. If you are reading this 20 years from now, and I am still alive and not arthritic...this game is 40 years old, and I can't stop playing it!