Gameology is a series featuring game dev Attila and game…..liker Mathew Falvai. Each episode is a deep dive discussion into game development related topics. It’s fun and Mat learns a lot.
Mario 64 is a special game to me and I’m definitely not alone. The generational jump from 16-bit to 64/Playstation was arguably the biggest ever, thrusting home consoles into the third dimension. While many developers and franchises struggled to make the leap, Nintendo miraculously triple-jumped their flagship character into 3D, landing with a perfect 10 of control and game feel. That isn’t just nostalgia talking either, after my disappointment with Galaxy (played in 2016 for the first time) I went back to 64 to see if it felt as good as I remembered. It did. It’s a tad slippery and the camera isn’t perfect, but I still adored the simple act of movement. And what a moveset it was! The famous triple-jump was joined by long-jumps, butt drops, dives, and more to create intuitive acrobatics that required only a few button presses.
I’ve types this sentence too many times, but it bears repeating. Miyamoto spent the first few months of development nailing the controls before designing anything else, and it shows. The first Mario was a revelation in how a platformer should feel, and 64 took that concept dead seriously. In my days fighting the console war, I clearly remember playing Mario 64 and secretly wishing Sony would shamelessly rip off the design and give me platforming perfection on my loved grey box. Like how many firsts become favorites, 64 was my gold standard for 3D movement, anything different felt inferior. Banjo-Kazooie? Too damn slow, too floaty, levels were too big; I felt like I was on a nature walk with a bunch of wannabe Nintendo mascots. That’s blasphemy to Banjo fans but it’s a testament to how deep 64 influenced my perception of the entire genre.
After my gushing I had to bring balance to the force. Of course Mario 64 has flaws, many related to the hardware limitations of the time, specifically the use of cartridges. The draw distance obscured coins as if Mario needed a pair of glasses to find anything. Nintendo allocated memory to red coins, allowing them to be seen from further away as a partial solution. The red coins would guide the player to important areas and more regular coins as well.
A bigger flaw (also caused from lack of memory) were the overused levels. To make the most of each environment, Nintendo placed seven stars in each level. One was earned from collecting 100 of those difficult to see coins, and the other six had a specific goal to accomplish. The problem was that the goal hint could be too obscure, or often result in Mario performing the same actions for multiple stars (climbing to the the highest point for example).
The camera is often pointed out as being a flaw but I was surprised to find it mostly competent and still damn impressive when you consider the time. Third-person camera was a constant failing in many games even through the PS2 era. When the camera in 64 becomes an issue, most of the time switching between Lakitu/Mario mode resolved the problem. Nintendo must have battled the camera during early development considering they dedicated four C-buttons on their controller to take care of it!
Still the king
Galaxy was hampered by motion controls and a sluggish feel while Sunshine’s reliance on the jetpack also hampered the speed and immediacy. When I desire a 3D Mario experience, 64 is still my first desire to fire up and pull on that happy plumbers face.