There’s a tangible restlessness to Super Mario 64’s final third, where Shigeru Miyamoto and his team no longer seem giddy with the mere idea of three-dimensional exploration and begin to ask what this brave new world truly means for level design. This is not to discount the work that precedes it; nearly every stage in the game presents tasks that not only fit comfortably with the level’s theme, but perfectly escalate the difficulty as the player settles into what was, back in 1996, the heretofore unmastered physics of that unruly third dimension. Those first few rudimentary courses are rightfully iconic for initiating a generation of virtual adventurers, their cheerful fields and blocky floating islands acting as expansive playgrounds when compared to the militaristic left-to-right march of previous sidescrolling titles. And gems like the labyrinthine pyramid of “Shifting Sand Land” and the strangely piecemeal, bottomless-pit-orbiting chambers of “Hazy Maze Cave” inspired any number of future gaming challenges, from the classics to the infuriating failures.
But it’s that last third – those brilliant, batshit levels that plucked you from your recently established comfort zone within this 3D fever dream – that grabbed the door the rest of the game broke down, took it off its hinges, and ran it through a woodchipper. Almost all of these levels were so layered beyond their deceptive simplicity that they could have supported entire titles of their own; that they are each less than a mere fifteenth of Super Mario 64’s whole stands as a monument to one of popular entertainment’s greatest team of innovators at the height of its power. (It’s also why Super Mario Sunshine, in its attempt to stretch a single gimmick’s function across an entire game, struck many as a lackluster follow-up.) After Nintendo allowed players to manipulate time, to stomp through the same world as both giant and pipsqueak, and to let a magic carpet guide them to different locales, this medium no longer seemed like a mere toy or curiosity. This was something magical and infinite.
Consider the absurdity of Super Mario 64 changing its formula so drastically so many times. This is the most beloved game character in an instantly revolutionary pieces of software; if Miyamoto had sent Mario through a handful of differently themed but similarly functional obstacle courses, the game still would have sold stupendously and been critically lauded. Take it from someone who played this game on the day of its North American release (albeit with a preadolescent, underdeveloped critical eye): if you were amazed by the opening moments’ graphics and the relative fluidity of the controls (and who wasn’t?), Mario scampering around Princess Peach’s castle grounds was worth the price of admission. Thank God Shigeru Miyamoto is not an easily amused eight year-old boy. Though pioneering a formula that birthed countless cash-grabs, Super Mario 64 feels like anything but. It’s a grandstanding display of innovation and imagination run wild, all in the name of a nearly hedonistic pursuit of unadulterated bliss.
If Super Mario 64 is “about” anything, it’s about a creature’s physical relationship with his surroundings, and how he can manipulate those surroundings to his advantage. It’s no surprise the title ditches power-ups like the famous fireballs in favor of augmentations that alter how Mario interacts with the terrain, such as invisibility and flight. (Upgrades like the tanooki suit and the cape arguably introduced flying to the series’ earlier incarnations, but to quote another game-changing, mid-1990s product of computer wizardry, those items were really more about “falling with style.”) It’s this obsession with the physical world’s malleability that allows Super Mario 64 to integrate problem-solving to a degree usually left unexplored in the series. While earlier sidescrolling entries had infamous secrets and shortcuts, they were more about obsessive or lucky discoveries passed down through playground hearsay than the logical solution to a puzzle. Raising and lowering a course’s water level or figuring out the perfect combination of wall jumps to reach a tricky platform aren’t exactly the sort of brain-teasers that would keep Jonathan Blow up at night, but they create a thoughtful, welcome alternative to A-to-B linear progression. For the first time in a Mario game, there were alternate ways to complete objectives that didn’t just involve pressing “down” on the correct green pipe.
Allowing players access to a level’s entire set of challenges from the outset created a refreshingly flexible middle ground between Super Mario Bros.’ straightforwardness and the original Legend of Zelda‘s immediate access to all paths and areas. Still, I highly doubt anyone would call Super Mario 64 an “open world” experience. If anything, it cemented Nintendo’s opinion that game designers are divine watchmakers who have the responsibility to provide a key for every door, a scratch for every itch. It’s why we return to the company’s franchises time and time again, and why their brand of level design is so incredibly satisfying: like when reading an accomplished, rollicking mystery, we cannot wait to see how all the pieces fit together.
The innate logic behind all Super Mario 64‘s challenges is also why a game comprised of such gibberish as jumping into paintings and a five-foot tall plumber tossing a three-ton lizard into spiky, polygonal bombs is able to maintain the illusion of plot. Mario titles are, in a sense, narrative, but they are not story-driven. Their plots are comprised of moments and minutiae; a series of well-timed jump holds more emotional resonance and sequential pay-off than any of their more traditional storytelling. I would argue that while its gameplay and structure bear more resemblance to the plot-driven, thematically coherent likes of Portal and Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario 64‘s resonance is much more in line with something like Tetris. Both evoke joy, frustration, and everything in-between arguably better than any other games in history, but they do it through gameplay almost entirely disconnected from a more customary story. I am certainly open to and excited about the possibilities of games as a narrative medium, but I honestly think the expectation that all games should evolve into interactive fictions – and that the medium is somehow disappointing and lacking until they do – is frankly reductive. Sometimes, stripping an artform down to its bare mechanics (which Mario does brilliantly) exposes elements of it we couldn’t see or appreciate otherwise. Should we penalize Man with a Movie Camera’s accomplishments and ideas because they don’t derive from a story?
This is not to say Mario is underappreciated; nothing could be farther from the truth. What I am arguing is this game is something of a masterpiece, one that paved the way for more nuanced titles but also provides a streamlined alternative to them that’s every bit as accomplished and idiosyncratic. Video games’ transition to the third dimension is possibly the most radical metamorphosis of any entertainment medium, forever altering both the way games are produced and how they are absorbed by their audience. (The additions of sound and color to film certainly altered its production, but they were not nearly as vast a change in how the consumer interacted with the product.) It’s hard to imagine how gamers would have tread those waters without a work as sure-footed and involving as Super Mario 64. The general consensus of late appears to be that the Super Mario Galaxy games have trumped it as the 3D Mario titles for the ages, and in many respects, that’s completely earned. Those later games are also bursting with ideas, and contain more polished controls and a camera that actually does what it’s supposed to do. They are worthy successors in almost every regard and perfectly fine reinventions of the wheel. But to this day, Super Mario 64 is still the goddamn wheel.