I can distinctly remember the first time I played Super Mario 64.
It was the last time buying a video game console was a family event. My father had purchased a Nintendo 64 the day it released and brought home one of the two launch titles for the system. This was the third time over 11 years that we had all gathered around the television to watch our favorite plumber run and jump across the screen. After hooking up the console to the TV in our den, my father passed the torch of first play to his sons; handing the controller to my brother. I slid the power button on, and sat by my brother as the Nintendo 64 launched in our household.
The experience was surreal. Here was Mario, the beloved hero we had pushed from left to right for so many years standing in the middle of a calm field. With the slightest nudge of this new analog stick, he would begin to tip-toe in any direction we chose. For the first hours of play, my family passed the controller back and forth, each of us running Mario in every direction that we could travel in our own world. All of us were blown away by how fluid the control of this character seemed in spite of this novel game. The feeling wasn’t some alien activity that we had to put in hours to learn; Nintendo had created a game where the transition from 2D to 3D came naturally.
My brother and I spent the following months playing Super Mario 64 to completion. We generally tried to follow the path that the game laid out before us to achieve each goal. The more complex stages and tasks were daunting at first, but the gradual difficulty curve provided us with the means to grow in this new form of gaming. The impressive and colorful visuals, combined with the wonderful soundtrack, kept us immersed through the entire game.
Years later in college, I would watch my friend Grant play Super Mario 64, but totally unbound from the path I had previously followed. He could exploit Mario’s skills to speed through levels; using trick jumps to ascend insurmountable walls. I was amazed at how my friend could charge through every stage, not even stopping for a moment in his quest to collect stars. Mario had not changed, nor had the other pieces of his game, but this was a wholly different experience with Super Mario 64.
Discovery and exploration led him to this skill level, and Super Mario 64 did nothing to inhibit his progress. There were practically no unskippable tutorials or forced corridors in this game. The lush, magical worlds encouraged players to inspect every nook of its colorful realm. But instead of stopping to smell the daisies, my friend simply followed a different path in the massive 3D space. He chose to run and jump without end.
Since the initial release of Super Mario 64, dozens upon dozens of other 3D platformers have come and gone. Newer players have cut their teeth on the numerous titles that came after it, but Super Mario 64 was the template from which all these games have sprung. This game taught an entire generation how to navigate a three-dimensional environment. It showed developers how to create worlds with suggested paths that can easily be re-routed using a limited skill set. It redefined one of gaming’s icons and (for better or for worse) finally gave him a voice that would remain ever since its debut. Super Mario 64 defined how we would approach video games for years to come, and continues to influence the medium to this day.
All of these accomplishments and milestones easily earn this game a place on any top ten list, but there is something else that makes Super Mario 64 great. Even with nearly 18 years passed since its initial release, the game is still fun. Not, “good for a Nintendo 64 game,” or “fine as a piece of history,” but truly worth playing to have a great time at any age.
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