Though it wasn’t the first 3D platform game, Super Mario 64 tends to get talked about as though it was, and with good reason. While other platform games preceded Mario’s foray into the third dimension (90s Kid icon and forsaken Sony mascot Crash Bandicoot beat Mario to release in America by two weeks), none are as fondly remembered, are as enthusiastically replayed, or –to lay the chips on the table– matter nearly as much as Super Mario 64. Released in the US twenty years ago this week, Super Mario 64 is one of a tiny handful of games that actually holds up to that most eye-roll-inducing of overused phrases “The Citizen Kane of Video Games”.
Usually when that term gets bandied about (often by very loud Youtube countdowns), it’s a lazy placeholder for “objectively the best” that doesn’t take into account what makes Citizen Kane the Citizen Kane of Movies. Call it film geek snobbery, but I just don’t think most folks are thinking about the impact of deep focus shots and nonlinear storytelling when they label something the Citizen Kane of videogames, comics, or coffee table books of dogs wearing people clothes. Luckily, Super Mario 64, with its literally game-changing camera system and open world structure, fits the Kane description to a T.
One of my favorite things about Super Mario 64 is that its user controlled camera system, now the standard for 3D third-person video games, was such an wild and foreign idea in 1996 that the game had to create a character to explain it. In his journeys through the paintings of Princess Peach’s castle, Mario is followed by a camera toting Lakitu, providing the player an array of angles of view at the push of a button. More than its open structure or the way it provided an elegant transition of one of the stars of 2D games to flourish in the third dimension*, the camera might be the most quietly revolutionary thing about Super Mario 64. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom set the template for how video games would explore three-dimensional space in first-person, but the same hadn’t been successfully applied to the third-person view. A game like Crash Bandicoot might feature 3D environments, but its level structure was strictly 2D; by allowing a player to shift the camera around, Super Mario 64 wrought the mechanics that allowed 3D exploration to truly ignite. Fast forward twenty years, and the player-controlled camera is so standard that a (well-designed) game to forego the setup would be considered groundbreaking it is own right. Jerky and rigidly fixed as it may seem in comparison now, it’s the key to not only Mario 64‘s other innovations, but to how 3D games are played as a whole.
What’s funny is that Super Mario 64‘s open world “sandbox” style has influenced nearly every major franchise except its own. While Super Mario Sunshine utilized a similar central hub and non-linear level structure, Mario has found himself treading more linear paths in the Galaxy and 3D World series. Super Mario 64 is a foundational open world game without truly being one. There are very clear limits in Mario 64, its environs are cordoned off at distinct points and, if anything, are studies in economical use of limited space. Rather than a weakness, this is its secret strength; the joy of the game is not in the exploring of sprawling levels but in the joy of moving around limited ones. The controls of Super Mario 64 are far better than a pioneering 3D game has any right to be, and the simple act of making Mario run, flip, and leap through the castle and courses is the star attraction. The key lesson gaming learned from Mario 64 is the sort of immersive world building that makes the side-quest adventuring of Skyrim and the bacchanal of free-wheeling destruction of the Grand Theft Auto series more memorable than the main story itself. In lieu of endlessly explorable worlds, Mario 64 offers almost compulsive replayability, challenging players to revisit levels they’ve already beaten to beat their best run time, exploit the game’s limits and restrictions, or just generally goof off, Princess rescuing be damned. It’s no wonder, then, the game’s reward for collecting all of its 120 stars is 99 lives and the modest plea “we want you to keep on playing”.
Games get to be as innovative as Super Mario 64 only once in a blue moon. Even the motion controls Nintendo helped make an industry standard for a moment in the mid-2000s have proven to be more novel than truly innovative in the way their flagship Nintendo 64 title is. The game industry has never before been more ripe for innovation, as indie games take gaming to daring experimental places and VR and Augmented Reality threaten to take gaming into our heads and out into the wider world respectively. But until then, Super Mario 64 will continue to be an industry standard. Aw hell, it’ll continue being one afterwards too.
*Something that certain old rivals to Mario have never quite done.