Review: Super Mario 64

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Today, I take a break from classic Playstation titles to spend a moment with a classic Nintendo 64 game. Of course, I’m talking about the legendary Super Mario 64. This game is almost universally lauded as one of the greatest Nintendo games of all time. Mario 64 was originally released back in 1996, but it would be ten years later until I had a chance to sit down with it. My first experience with the game was on the Wii virtual console. Shortly after that, I did snag a copy of the Super Mario 64 DS remake. But for this playthrough, I decided to give the Wii U Virtual Console version a try. I chose this version for three reasons: First, the DS remake suffers from some major playcontrol issues. Second, the DS version also includes some pretty major changes to the overall gameplay. While many of these are very well done, it radically changes the game and I really wanted to get a feel for the original release. Finally, I chose the Wii U version because I wanted to play using the Wii U Pro Controller.

You see, since my introduction to Super Mario 64 back in 2006, I’ve had major struggles with the controls of the game. When voicing my complaints to others, I’ve been told that the original N64 controller really provides the best experience. So, at one point I tracked down a second-hand N64 and gave this game a shot on it’s native hardware. But even then, I was unimpressed. Who knows, maybe the controller I was using was old and problematic, but I’ve traditionally found controlling this game to be frustrating. One look at the Wii Classic Gamepad and I knew that wouldn’t work well either. So I decided to go with my favorite Nintendo controller of all time, the Wii U Pro.

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Super Mario 64 was a revolutionary title in many ways. To start, it was the first full 3D Mario game. As a result, for many non-PC gamers, it was also the first 3D game on a home console that garnered any real popularity. But despite being a 3D title, it’s still very much a platformer. This makes for some memorable and frustrating experiences. (More on that later.)

To start, let’s talk a bit about the setting for the game itself. The storyline is simple, Mario receives a letter from Princess Peach inviting him her castle. But when he arrives, he discovers that Bowser has invaded the Kingdom and taken the princess captive deep inside the castle walls. To rescue her, Mario needs to recover magical stars that Bowser has hidden away. These stars are stashed inside enchanted paintings scattered throughout the castle. Mario can enter the worlds inside these paintings to recover the magic stars. Once Mario collects enough stars, he can rescue the princess. The game actually features a total of one-hundred-twenty hidden stars to discover, but only seventy are needed to actually complete the title. The rest are available as a challenge for completionists.

Broken down, the game features a total fifteen unique levels, with a handful of smaller secret courses to complete as well. The trick here is, each level features multiple scenarios and challenges. This means that in order to collect additional stars, players will need to complete each level more than once. As players continue to collect stars, more areas of the castle and more playable levels are unlocked.

All in all, I was very impressed with the level design and didn’t at all feel that seeing the same areas over and over became stale. In fact, I began to enjoy the game more as I became more familiar with each course.

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My biggest gripe with the game has to do with the controls. Now yes, I know that playing this title on any system other than the original N64 is going to cause a bit of a headache at first. The game is very much designed around the the controller it was intended for, but even after allowing for a bit of an adjustment period, the overall playcontrol of this game is iffy to me. My biggest complaints have to do with two things in particular. First, the “analog” control stick. Mario can either run or walk depending on how hard you push the stick. Mastering this is can be crucial for navigating some levels. In this aspect, the original N64 controller really wins out here. Modern controllers tend to just feel off. I dunno, maybe it’s just me. Second, and most important – the camera. The game features an auto-adjusting chase cam, that for a large part works well. But frequently, Mario will become hidden behind some solitary object. To rectify this, there is also a manual camera control as well. But sadly, it often doesn’t help much and only leads to more disorientation. Admittedly, this game was one of the first games to feature a manual 3D camera control. So, this was a feature that had a long way to go before reaching the refined standards or today’s games.

For these reasons, playing through Super Mario 64 can sometimes lead to much cursing and frustration. Especially on levels like the infamous ice slide. (Don’t even get me started on that one). But with patience and practice, one does manage to get the hang of things. This is true even with modern controllers. Admittedly, until I sat down for this playthrough, I never had many nice things to say about the title and truthfully, I often wondered just why this game was so universally praised. But, this time I decided to remove any pre-conceived notions I had about the game and just sit down and really explore it. I’m glad that I did. After diving deep into the title, I can now see why Super Mario 64 has earned the near mythical status it has. I only wish I had enjoyed it during it’s heyday.

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Difficulty: Hard –  This game certainly has a learning curve for first time players. This is true even for gamers who may be familiar with 3D platformers.  Super Mario 64 was a pioneer when it comes to this type of game. As a result, there are some rough edges. This actually leads to some additional challenge outside of what was intended in the game itself, in my opinion. Playcontrol aside, the game is mostly intermediate in it’s difficulty, with a few random exceptions. Completists that want to seek out every hidden star in the game will have quite a difficult time on their hands as most of the real difficulty comes from pursuing these.

Story: Considering this is a Mario title, the story is pretty predictable. The bad guy takes the princess and Mario must come to the rescue. At this point, the plotline to a Super Mario game is almost a bit of an inside joke. But, who’s playing this for the story? Mario is all about fun and challenge.

Originality: Aside from a re-treaded storyline, everything about this title is original. It was one of the first, if not the first 3D platformers ever. This combined with a largely non-linear level system made Super Mario 64 very unique for it’s time. By today’s standards, the game has not aged well, but when put into perspective, nearly everything about this title was groundbreaking at the time of it’s release.

Soundtrack: Rich, well done renditions of Mario classics, but several original pieces as well.  This title also features some minimal voice acting. Which was a first for the Mario series. The now legendary phrase “Itsa meeeee, MARIO!” originated in this title.

Fun: Admittedly, I found this title to be extremely frustrating in many parts. This was largely due to the clunky camera and imprecise game controls. But once I got my feet wet, I began to enjoy this game very much. Also, I’m the only person I know who has ever really had this complaint. So who knows. But to answer the question, “Is this game fun?” My answer is, overall,  yes. Very much so.

Graphics: By today’s 3D standards, this game looks aged. But for the time of it’s release, it was like nothing that had come before. Those players concerned with graphics would do well to check out the Nintendo DS version of the game. This release has a much more polished looked compared to the original or VC versions.

Playcontrol: As you may have picked up, this is my biggest complaint with SM64. I understand and accept that for the best results, playing this game on it’s native hardware is highly recommended. If this is not an option, The Wii U Pro Controller is a great second. Admittedly, the Wii U gamepad is not that bad either. But try to avoid the Wii Classic Controller if  at all possible.

Downloadable Content: N/A

Mature Content: None.

Value:  This game is available today for download from either the Wii or Wii  U eShop for a decent price. (Usually around $10). Occasionally, it even goes on sale. For this price, the game is a great value. The Mario64 DS version is out of print and often sells for an inflated price.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – This game is a classic and well worth the attention of any serious gamer. The issues with play and camera control do keep it from receiving a perfect score, in my mind. Although, there are bound to be many who would disagree with me. Despite this, I recommend this title to nearly anyone

Available on: Wii/Wii U Virtual Console

Other Reviews In This Series:

SMB   –   SMB Lost Levels  –  SMB 2  –  SMB 3  –  SM World – SM World 2-  SM Land  –  SM Land 2  – SM Land 3 –  Mario 64 – Mario Sunshine – New SMB – Galaxy – Galaxy 2 – New SMB Wii – Mario 3D Land – New SMB 2 – New SMB U – SMB 3D World

Paper Mario – Thousand Year Door – Super Paper Mario – Sticker Star

Wario Land 2 – Wario Land 3 – Wario Land 4 – Master of Disguise – Wario Land Shake It

Luigi’s Mansion – Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – Super Princess Peach

Remembering the Nintendo 64

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Now that things are getting back to normal, I’ve stepped back into my groove and began reviewing games from the late 90s. So far, I’ve played through, and shared my thoughts on a handful of classic Playstation titles. Now, to keep things from getting too stale, I’m going to also go over a number of classic titles for the Nintendo 64 in the comings weeks and months. I plan to mix things up.

I should state that, much like the Playstation, I didn’t own a Nintendo 64 back in it’s heyday. So I missed out on a number of classic titles the first time around. Of course, many of them I’ve since caught up on, but there’s still a few that I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting down with. I look forward to changing that.

The Nintendo 64 is an interesting machine. It was the successor to the ever popular Super Nintendo and as such, sold quite well upon it’s initial release. But unlike Sony’s popular Playstation, Nintendo chose to keep with game cartridges instead of using optical disks. This meant limited amounts of storage in comparison. It wasn’t long before Nintendo sales began to suffer against the Sony giant.

The system also featured an optional memory expansion pack that added additional RAM to the system. However, very few games were built to support this extra memory. The system also featured an optional “Rumble Pack” that could be plugged into the bottom of the controller to allow for vibration. Speaking of the controller, this is often the most praised feature of the system. The controller for the N64 featured a revolutionary design, that always universally lauded by players. Personally, I was never a big fan. So I’m defiantely the odd man out here.

These days, many of the most popular titles from the system are available on both the Wii and Wii U virtual consoles. That is what i’ll be using for my N64 playthroughs.

Evolution

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So far I’ve written about my experiences growing up with the original 8-bit NES. But naturally, like many other kids who came of age in the 80’s and 90’s, I was also the proud owner of its successor the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

The SNES was a thing of glory to behold. It boasted better graphics and better sound… I mean you could actually hear real speech. (Maybe only in 10 second fragments, but still!) This was a big deal. It also had a lineup of games that were a force to be reckoned with; Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Zelda: A Link to the Past…. It was enough to make your head pop. It’s hard to make a statement like this, but I daresay that the Super Nintendo was just as important to legacy gaming as the original NES. I look at the NES as the seed/root and the SNES as the vine/blossom of Nintendo’s success.

Some of the greatest RPGs of all time saw the light of day on this box of 16-bit goodness. In fact, the SNES has been hailed by many as the pinnacle RPG platform. Not only did Nintendo’s first-party titles and various RPGs flourish on this new system, but the early 90’s saw the rise of two-player fighting games, these also soared to popularity thanks largely in part to the Super Nintendo. Games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II owe a debit of gratitude to the SNES.

As I mentioned in another post, around the mid-90’s my attention waned a bit from console gaming. I became more interested in social activities. Any gaming I did during this period was in front of a PC. My consoles sat on a shelf collecting dust while I learned the ways of new games like DOOM, Quake, and Diablo.

In 1996, the Nintendo 64 was released. By this point Nintendo was so far off my radar I barely noticed. I vaguely remember seeing an ad for Mario 64 and I thought to myself “Wow. Would ya look at that!” To date, the N64 is probably my most neglected era of gaming. I have since gone back and experienced many of these great games on the Wii, but I feel like I missed being in the middle of all the action. It is a pox on my gaming record to be sure.

Around the same time, Nintendo faced it’s first serious competitor: The Sony Playstation. Sony’s console made the move from cartridge-based games to CD-ROM. My old roomate had one and after seeing it for the first time, I remember wondering if Nintendo’s days of dominance were over. It certainly seemed that way. The N64 fell in popularity over time and the Playstation earned a much larger audience. Third-party developers jumped ship in record numbers. The Final Fantasy series moved exclusively to Sony’s console. As did many games from Capcom and Konami.

Sony followed up their success in 2000 with the release of the Playstation 2. This console changed everything. It was leaps about bounds above anything seen before. Many PC defectors, like myself, were lured back to the living room thanks to the PS2. In attempt to strike back, Nintendo released the GameCube. It was a cute looking device that accepted odd little mini-discs. The GameCube was responsible for some good titles, but by this point it seemed that Nintendo has officially lost the battle and the home console scene now belonged to Sony. Thankfully, Nintendo was able to weather the storm due to the popularity of their handheld gaming devices.

It was around this time that Microsoft decided to enter the scene. They brought the Xbox to the table and for the first time ever the console battlefield included 3 main competitors. It was during this time that I stepped back on the console scene. I had been recently married, and my love for Final Fantasy had been rekindled. I purchased a PS2 and caught up on many of great games I missed over the years. Then one day, my wife came home with a GameCube. This enabled me to get reacquainted with Nintendo and their offerings at the time. I was slowly on my way back to being a full-fledged gamer again.

2005 was the year that console gaming came back full force. Microsoft unveiled the Xbox 360. For the first time a modern game console was combined with the power of the Internet. Sales surged and Sony’s dominance took a hit. To retaliate, Sony struck back with the powerful but pricey Playstation 3. I believe that price alone is what kept many people away from the PS3 initially. Due to this, the Xbox retained the top spot in many households for a time. (Mine included.)

By this time, I was fully back in my gamer persona. Nostalgia had worked it’s magic on me and I watched Nintendo’s next move with baited breath. Rumors had been flying around the Internet of Nintendo’s new project; codenamed “Revolution”. Everyone was talking. I remember the guy at my local Gamestop almost salivating as he claimed to have the inside scoop:

“I’ve been told by a very reliable source that it looks like a pyramid. On each facet is a slot for a different cartridge!! There’s one side for Nintendo, one for Super Nintendo, N64, Gamecube, and then the last side takes the new discs!”

Naturally, I had to point out that pyramids only had four sides, but that didn’t seem to matter to him.

What Nintendo actually did produce was the now famous Wii. Like many others, I was put off by the name. “Play with my Wii” jokes flew around the office. But I was intrigued by the new motion controls. I remember thinking it would either be revolutionary or a complete bomb.

The Wii was a smash-hit, outselling everything else. The secret to its success was its appeal to all audiences. Heck, even my parents bought one! Through the Virtual Console feature, new gamers were able to experience classic NES and SNES games that they had never seen before. Nintendo had returned!

That brings us to today. The three-way console race is still on and it’s hard to say who dominates. The beautiful thing is, it doesn’t matter anymore. Games are released across multiple platforms and these days and it makes little difference which you choose. I personally own all three systems and I enjoy each of them.

Now that we are all caught up, the main focus of this blog can finally begin. It is in this world that the modern gamer finds themselves. If you’re like me, you work full time job. You have a family to raise and life away from the computer or television screen. Time is limited. You love games, and you still want to experience them all, what do you do? I mean think about it. There’s new great titles being released every day. Now with things like Xbox Live, Playstation Network and the Virtual Console almost any legacy title you want is only a download away. It can be frustrating.

The answer is time management and focus. I’ve learned this the hard way. I also find a lot of my free time sucked away by MMO games. It is easy to fall behind. This blog is going to be a chronicle of my journey through the world of gaming. I’m going to be reliving the games of my youth as well as tackling the games of today. This site will serve as motivation to finally tackle that backlog. I hope you stay tuned.