If Nintendo aimed to set itself a tough task, choosing to make the first Nintendo 64 title a continuation of the most legendary series of videogames in history must surely rank as the most demanding one imaginable. Mario’s lineage, after all, is a concertedly two-dimensional one, and hardly ideal material upon which to base what was destined to be the most intensely scrutinised 3D videogame of all time.
Nintendo establishes its intentions right from the moment you power up the game, when you’re greeted with the spoken words: ‘It’s me – Mario!’, in a high-pitched, pseudo-American-Italian accent, followed by a polygonal representation of the portly plumber’s head, which can be playfully tweaked and tugged using a glove-like pointer.
At a time when the PC gaming fraternity is getting its thrills from guns, guts and gore from the likes of Quake, Nintendo is working at the other end of the spectrum, expounding on the overtly jolly themes that has made it the biggest videogame company in the world.
Any preconceptions about this being a game purely for kids are quickly discarded, however. True, SM64’s presentation doesn’t sit comfortably alongside the likes of ’90s new-breed games such as Wipeout 2097, but videogames exist to entertain, whether they come drenched in Designers Republic imagery or gaudy, toytown-like colour schemes; whether their soundtracks feature full-on Chemical Brothers arrangements or disposable plink-plonk lift muzak. And entertainment, more than anything else, is SM64’s watchword.
The moment the game hands control of Mario over to the player, an experience of discovery begins. With over 20 actions to experiment with in the opening environment (a grassy area dotted with trees, populated by birds and butterflies, and flanked by a beach), the temptation to simply toy with the controls (consisting of a combination of the analogue stick, the A and B buttons, and the Z ‘trigger’ button on the joypad’s underside) without achieving anything in particular is overwhelming. Along with simple punches and kicks effected with simple stabs of the attack button, it’s possible to pull off sliding attacks, foot sweeps and bottom bounces (reminiscent of those in Yoshi’s Island). The lure to experment turns out to be a fortunate one, as familiarity with how Mario behaves and performs is essential – unlike previous Mario games, where skills picked up in one could be easily applied to another, there is little you can bring to SM64 apart from the willingness to learn.
This fact makes it initially less accessible than any other Mario title. Getting to grips with its analogue control method (jig the stick slightly and Mario tiptoes; push it to its full throw and Mario runs; in between he walks) is not really where any difficulties occur, as Nintendo’s new joypad technology performs excellently – it’s the way the action is viewed that takes some getting used to. The game camera moves by its own accord almost constantly, with the intention of presenting what’s happening on screen to the optimum efficiency. This means that you rarely get to approach a challenge from a viewpoint that you’re accustomed to, and will involve frequent frustration as you attempt to run across a narrow gangplank between two floating islands, or across a thin bridge spanning a rushing subterranean river, for example. It’s all a matter of practise, of course, and what starts out as a niggle eventually becomes simply another aspect of the playing experience, as manipulating and fine-tuning the camera view yourself is as user-friendly as could be imagined.
Considering SM64’s 64-megabit cartridge format, the scale and variety of its content is astonishing. Consisting of 15 courses – each a sprawling world in itself – there are countless secret areas and bonuses to discover, in the true Mario tradition. Your quest will take you over ice-covered mountain, around sand-ridden pyramid and through murky oceanic depths, encountering old and new foes, and old and new challenges along the way. Each new level surprises and amazes in its design, and each is a thrilling experience in itself.
SM64’s graphics, for all their cuteness and surreal tendencies, are the most magnificent ever seen on a home system. Shigeru Miyamoto’s dream of producing something that is more akin to an interactive cartoon than a videogame has been realised to a remarkable degree: at times it’s almost as much fun to sit back and watch someone else play SM64 as it is to be playing it yourself. Animation is extravagant, textures are impeccably lavish, and even the most seemingly superfluous touches are rendered with the kind of detail that any developer other than Nintendo would not even consider implementing.
While a large part of the game is spent tackling straightforward challenges (negotiating hazardous landscapes, using your myriad abilities to collect hard-to-reach stars, etc), there are many sections to cause scratching of heads. As in previous Nintendo games, though, the gaming environment is generously peppered with signposts, each giving the player little pointers as to the whys and wherefores of this often puzzling artificial world. Early N64 adopters picking up Japanese machines will find such guidance fruitless, of course, but its presence is typical Nintendo, and demonstrates its unmatched understanding of consideration for the player.
SM64 puts Nintendo’s much-publicised preference of ‘silicon over optical’ storage to the test, and the results are pleasing. Its flow is seamless – moving from the main game area (the castle) into one of the areas that adjoin it is instantaneous, with no delays for loading or decompression in evidence. PlayStation and Saturn owners will have long since become accustomed to loading waits, but SM64 may remind them just how console gaming used to (and, Nintendo would no doubt argue, should) be: immediate.
The lack of a CD soundtrack doesn’t hamper the game, either. Nintendo’s in-house sonics supremo Koji Kondo (who contributed soundtracks to many a legendary SNES game) turns in a typically inspired performance in squeezing memorable audio out of Nintendo’s 64bit hardware. While, perhaps predictably, some musical tracks fit the typical cheesy Japanese game music mould, others, such as the sitar-laden burbling score of the first fiery level you encounter, generate at least as much atmosphere as any CD-streamed track. Spot effects are similarly impressive – Mario’s more noteworthy actions on-screen are matched by audible accompaniment in the form of excited whoops and hollers, giving his personality even more spark.
The premier Nintendo 64 game ably vindicates the delay imposed upon the machine’s release by Shigeru Miyamoto and his team of designers. It’s a well-known fact that few videogames delight in the fashion an example from Nintendo can, but no Nintendo game you’ve ever seen is nearly as delightful as this new 64bit breed.
The world of videogaming has just changed forever. The prospect of what Nintendo can deliver further down the line truly boggles the mind.
Super Mario 64 is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.