I never thought I'd be writing online about my dislike for Super Mario 64 and yet here I am, I suppose. I don't expect to get any love for this post since I know the game is iconic, but I figured venting my frustrations, hearing other people's viewpoints, or simply just being called a noob online may be the best way to get me through the rest of the game, so here we go.
I originally played Super Mario 64 back on the N64 over 20 years ago, and I have very fond memories of my time getting all 120 stars. Skip forward to the DS era and I bought the remake, Super Mario 64 DS in 2005, and once again got all 120 stars on two separate playthroughs because I enjoyed it that much. In recent years, I've watched numerous speedrunners like Simpleflips and Cheese breeze through stages like it's nothing, and seen all the crazy stuff you can do on pannenkoek2012's channel. Everything about this game is deeply ingrained in my mind, and I'm sure when I'm older and have Alzheimer's, I'll still remember every star location.
However, as much as I've watched people play in recent years, my own personal experiences with SM64 have only been the DS remake in 2005, and the original 64 back in the late 90s. Despite being someone who has enjoyed 100% completing every Mario I own, it's been a long time since I have controlled Mario in SM64 (his 3D debut no less), and that's part of what made me so excited to buy Super Mario 3D All-Stars on release, patience be damned.
Yet… by the time I got to 40 stars, I wanted to stop playing.
My memories of this game, plus the videos I've watched, could not have prepared me for this experience. The game pioneered 3D platforming, but I can't say it has stood the test of time like others with more optimistic views may believe, and I am going to go through a few of the issues I have with this game as best I can. Honestly, there are a few more issues than what I'm mentioning but I don't want to go on too long, and these are the biggest grievances I have with the game.
If you've played SM 64 yourself, you know this had to be on here. This is by far the biggest difference between the games of today and Mario 64, and potentially the biggest issue too. Due to how confusing the game would have been for it's initial audience, the camera in this game is represented by a Lakitu that floats around Mario while holding a video camera. It doesn't work. Rather than being able to freely control the camera a full 360 around Mario at all times, the camera snaps to different angles and prohibits you to go beyond certain boundaries, depending on the area you're in. This means there are many cases where you want to turn the camera around, but just can't, and the game politely indicates that you can't by making a noise that makes you feel like an idiot for trying to. This camera control issue is especially painful when you're attempting to make jumps and can't angle the camera correctly to see the correct angle/distance you're meant to jump, which could lead to your demise.
On top of this, there are times the camera tries to guide the direction Mario is going, by turning by itself around corners, expecting the player wants to go that way. This means if you wanted to turn right and the camera was guiding left, you have to try and force the camera to look right and just hope it works without having to do some awkward movements to get the camera in the right position. Initially I believed this camera guiding shtick would only happen indoors and in smaller spaces, but I discovered it also happens in open levels such as Shifting Sands Land, whereby to get into the pyramid, the game wants you to run anti-clockwise around the outside of it first. Going around it, you will notice the camera tries to sway you anti-clockwise to progress, even though there are hidden coins and 1-ups around the outskirts which you have to go against the camera to get to.
Oh, and that 'Lakitu camera physically exists' thing? Yeah, it means you are actually able to get away from Lakitu in certain circumstances throughout the game, such as falling from a great height, and it won't follow you, leaving you unable to see Mario clearly at all.
To be fair, Mario 64 did not have much to reference how they should implement their camera in their first ever 3D platforming game in an era where foundations for it didn't exist. Still, looking back, it wasn't great.
The mechanics in this game feel more like a constant flow chart rather than something made with players in mind. What I mean by that is, the game expects you to play and learn the nuances of the world through doing, but does a bad job at teaching you how to do them in the first place, or simply may even be too specific to the point it's awkward and restrictive. Take for the example, Mario's jump kick and dive. In both actions, Mario must be in the air via jump or through falling, and then the player must press the button which is typically for punch, and one of the two actions will occur. Since both are executed the exact same way, how do you differentiate between the two and know which you're going to pull off? It isn't really stated clearly, and as you can see from this post 6 years ago from an aspiring speedrunner you may never learn at all without being told directly. As one comment points out, the difference is both Mario's speed, and whether or not he fell or jumped, meaning you need to hope you're going slow enough to execute a kick instead of a dive when fighting an enemy, and vice versa when you are jumping across a gap and want a little extra distance.
Wall Jumping (called Walk Kicks in this game) is a fine art and more restrictive than later 3D titles. You need to jump at a wall from a reasonable distance and angle before jumping again as you land on it. If you were standing next to the wall before jumping up and then try to Wall Kick, it won't work: you must jump at the wall from a reasonable distance. If you jump at the wall while being what the game considers too close, Mario will faceplant and bounce down off the wall: you must jump at the wall from a reasonable distance. It's just a thing you need to be aware of before trying to execute them, and is another thing you may not get the hang of doing perfectly every time, through a typical playthrough of the game.
Something as simple as turning around can also be hazardous. You see, while a lot of games these days would have your character simply rotate on an axis for you to turn around (including in later 3D Mario titles), Mario in this game has to do a U-turn to turn around. That is, unless you move really really slowly, in which case it will indeed rotate on an axis. What this means is, if you fall from a high place, Mario lands on the edge of death pit facing towards it, and you try to panic move away from the edge due to your trauma, Mario would actually RUN FORWARD into the pit to begin his U-turn. Haha, silly Mario, wasting my progression like that.
Did you know? Sometimes it takes me multiple attempts just to read the signs around Peach's castle, because you can't simply run up to the sign and press the A button. Mario has to be standing completely still and at the perfect viewing angle for him to read the sign, as he suffers from visual impairment, and only manages to get through the game due to his ability to see the shine reflect off surfaces such as coins and Peach's crown?
In all seriousness, I have died trying to get over a sign. Not my proudest moment, but before that clip starts I was trying to jump over the sign and it would keep latching me onto that nearby tree anyway. Sliding down the tree is no good because it just snaps Mario back to behind the sign. This is what I mean by things being inconvenient and feeling like a flow chart.
But hey, do you know what's even better than signs and trees? Elevators. You could say that the physics of the elevators and lifts in the game are not entirely accurate. This is because when you jump while on a moving platform, the game doesn't really take into account Mario's movement while on the platform at all. Meaning, if you were to jump while on an elevator going down, Mario would jump but take a while to land as the elevator continued going down while you were in the air. The opposite is true as well, whereby if Mario jumps on an elevator or lift going up, he gets little to no height at all in his jump. Hopefully, you can see how this can be problematic in a platforming game.
Speaking of, talking about Mario's movement on elevators is a nice segue into my next point: Mario's movement on anything even remotely crooked. Sliding in this game can cost you lives when it's not intended, and the thing that would cause you to slide more than anything are hills and other crooked surfaces. The problem lies in the fact that I'm sure the code goes a little something like this:
180° surface: FLAT – MARIO CAN PROCEED.
179° surface: ALERT, ALERT, THIS IS A RAMP. EXECUTE MARIOSLIDE.EXE.
I mean seriously, have you ever taken a look at the rocky surface going up the mountain at Bob-omb Battlefield and thought "Any normal human being should be able to walk up that path! So why does Mario keep sliding down on his ravioli-loving behind?!" because I have, many a sleepless night. Now… obviously, I know that ramp is actually a ramp and it's intended for Mario to slide down, but my guy is over here practically sliding down right angles throughout the game and it drives me nuts. If something is tilted, Mario will finds a way to slide off it like a cat always manages to fit into any cardboard box you put down.
The last thing I will talk about is slightly lower on my list of problems, but I feel I should mention it here anyway: The draw distance for coins/interactive objects. The draw distance in Mario 64 is bad. This is another problem due to circumstance however, as the developers realised rendering every spinning yellow coin and interactive object would cause the game to drop frames, so only made the more vital objects such as red coins and stars viewable from a long distance. This causes an issue however, as there is a bonus star on every course for collecting 100 coins, and you can't even see yellow coins (the most vital coin for getting that star) unless they are a few meters near you. On the one hand, this encourages exploration since you need to physically go everywhere, but on the other hand, it's very jarring to see 6 coins pop into shot somewhere you have been running towards for 30 seconds. If there was one thing I wished they had touched in All-Stars it would have been this, as it was solely a technical problem from 1997 that shouldn't still be there in 2020.
Super Mario 64 is historic for Nintendo, and historic for video games overall. I spoke earlier about how they didn't have a foundation to build upon, and that's true, but this game became that foundation, and I deeply respect what it is. However, time doesn't stop, and we're not riding horses anymore to get from location to location. It's 2020 and if you were to compare this game to the games that came after it, such as Nintendo's latest 3D Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey, you can tell there has been huge strides made in every technical aspect. Going back, you get to see how much of a downgrade this game truly is – I mean, the level design and music is all still there shining brightly, it's just playing the darn thing that ruins the fond memories I have. It now falls into the same category as 007 Goldeneye, which was also on the N64. The game was revolutionary for it's time, but play it now and you can see every single flaw from a mile away.
I am still going to beat the game with 120 stars, but I'm sure there are going to be many more moments, both mine and the game's, that make me want to put the controller down, take a long walk, and go back to viewing others playing the game rather than me playing it myself. I'm just hoping Sunshine and Galaxy don't do the same thing.
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