Sunday, November 15, 2015

Super Mario 64 - A Whole New Perspective
As he was apt to do, the trailblazing Mario endeavored to wash away my doubts and show me the true potential of three-dimensional games.

Perhaps Nintendo had the right idea when it programmed The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening to remind me about how objects functioned every single time I touched them. Maybe I was becoming afflicted by some type of severe short-term memory issue. How else could I explain my reaction to Nintendo Power's grand unveiling of the Nintendo 64, the coverage of which I viewed as a prognostication of doom?

It was a total repeat of my first exposure to the SNES:  I read through the magazine's game-by-game analysis not fueled by excitement but instead overcome by deep concern--a sense that the world as I knew it was about to be washed away by an unstoppable tidal wive. There it was, the most significant advancement in console technology the industry had ever seen, and yet all I could think about was what all of this meant for my beloved 2D systems!

I pored over every word of the coverage hoping to understand why this decisive shift to 3D was necessary. I was annoyed and confused, but I was willing to let the text passages make their case: They spoke of the N64's ability to produce incredible three-dimensional graphics whose level of richness would "leave 32-bit architecture in the dark ages" (who or what the author was taking a shot at there, I had no clue). They bragged about its potential to render wonderfully vast 3D worlds. And they discussed all of the new input methods that would be made possible by its curiously designed controller's interface. Most resonant to me was what its newly introduced analog "control stick" meant for the console's showpiece title, Super Mario 64. Apparently this control stick was so precise that it allowed for Mario to run in circles with dizzying accuracy (my favorite!). Its sensitivity was such that he could move at different speeds depending upon on how far the stick was tilted. And its range of motion afforded him the ability to pull off a number of wild 360-degree maneuvers, including aerial flips and a helicopter spin.

I had to admit that the descriptions of its precise analog movement and immersive camera control sounded amazing. The accompanying imagery was absolutely stunning. And the scenarios explored in the preview pieces more than tickled my imagination. I was genuinely intrigued by what I was reading. And yet I wasn't ready to let my guard down; I was still skeptical about the N64's seemingly uncompromising focus on 3D and what it meant for gaming as I knew it. If what I was thinking was true, then there was a possibility that 2D games might soon disappear.

"So what, then--are all of my favorite series are going to be forced to be 3D now?" I wondered, perturbed by the very notion. "Is this the end of a style of game I've been enjoying since the early 80s?!"

I mean, I had nothing against 3D games. I was, after all, a huge fan of Doom and its ilk. But I recognized that there was a vast difference between a game set in a fully formed three-dimensional space and one that scrolled from side to side. They were entirely separate entities, the former more revolutionary than evolutionary.

"So why does one have to replace the other?" I questioned, my tone growing ever-desperate. "Why can't the two be allowed to coexist?"

The more I'd ruminate on the subject, the more I'd grow to resent the N64, whose arrival, I was increasingly convinced, would surely bring about a forcible end to the SNES' life-cycle and subsequently the assumed obsolescence of 2D games. As the months fell off, that impending sense of doom only intensified.

I was angry about what the N64 represented, but I knew that I was going to go out and purchase one anyway. Because let's be honest: I was firmly under Nintendo's spell, and the company had me cornered. The Nintendo Power coverage made it clear to me that I had no real choice; it was either hop on the train or get run over by it. I didn't want to be left in the dust--left stuck with an SNES that might never see another release--so I started saving up to buy an N64.

Come launch day, I bought both the console and a copy of Super Mario 64 using a combination of my remaining birthday funds and the $100 I got from selling our Genesis to my brother's friend Eric (you remember--the original owner who gave it to us for free and then forgot). I remember feeling anxious prior to switching it on for the first time, whence certain thoughts began to surface. 

"What happens if I don't like this game?" I stopped to consider. "If this whole '3D' thing just doesn't work for me, then where do I go from here? Will I have to give up gaming and simply move on?" 

I was about to enter the unknown, which for someone of my disposition was the scariest of places. There was no telling how it was going to end. Mine was a nervous excitement.

I didn't expect that messing around with Mario's giant head on the title screen--pulling his nose and forehead as far as they would stretch and making it a point to horrifically distort his face--would so quickly acclimate me to the new controller and the N64's aesthetic characteristics; it made for a surprisingly memorable first glimpse into the world of "true" 3D. Though, still foremost on my mind was finding out whether or not the N64's analog stick was as versatile as advertised. It took but a few seconds for me to find my answer--to experience the first of many eye-opening N64 moments.

After the camera-operating Lakitu completed his roundabout approach, the now-chatty Mario (whose whimsically high-pitched utterances I initially found jarring, since I'd always associated his mode of expression more with Captain Lou Albano's gruff characterization) emerged from the pipe and prompted me to take control. As Nintendo Power and all of those other game magazines had encouraged, my first act was to begin continuously rotating the analog stick and running Mario in circles. And as I watched him run around and around with lifelike momentum, suddenly it all made sense. I nodded and thought to myself, "Yeah--this works. This is something special." That's all it took.

I spent the next five-ten minutes dashing about the open field and experimenting with my means for exploring it. I tested out all of Mario's new acrobatic moves (as the manual instructed); climbed up and vaulted off of trees; swam around the moat and got my first taste of 3D games' perennially troublesome swimming mechanics; and surveyed every inch of the castle exterior in search of hidden access points. I appreciated how Nintendo eschewed a cheery opening tune in favor of peaceful silence--how the natural ambiance of birds chirping worked to create a relaxing, stress-free mood for an initial experience that was all about taking in the sights and letting the uninhibited surreality of Super Mario 64's environmental design make its indelible first impression.

Once I was inside the castle, I explored as much of the estate as the game would currently permit. There were so many entry points to consider--so many branching pathways--that I was quite frankly overwhelmed by the number of possibilities. Luckily the game had clear structure (access to most rooms was restricted by magical barriers that could only be removed via increasingly higher star-totals), and soon it was obvious where it wanted me to start. The utterly charming, understated castle music, which was destined to become iconic, created a calm atmosphere and further suggested that Mario 64 was going to be a more leisurely adventure--a game in which I could travel about at my own pace and spend as much time as I wished investigating every room in search of secrets. I was excited by the prospect.

I figured that I'd miss the series' traditional stage-by-stage formula--that Mario 64's comparably low "15 courses" wouldn't offer a sufficient amount of content--but that didn't turn out to be the case. Rather, I was instantly enamored with the game's approach to level design. I thought it was brilliant how its worlds would alter their structure in some way each time I'd take on a new star challenge. It was even true that events triggered in one mission could somehow effect those taking place in another! Just like that, Mario 64 had invented the mission structure that would become standard in 3D platformers and later open-world games like Grand Theft Auto.

There was no riding on the coattails of established formulas here. Oh, no--Mario 64 was going out of its way to cement itself as something entirely new--to be the first of its kind--and for that reason it was magical in a way that reminded me of my most personal experiences with Super Mario Bros., which displayed a similar ambition. I wasn't being tasked with rushing from left to right to reach a goal under a strict time-limit. I wasn't being killed off in one or two hits. Power-ups weren't fleeting. Nay--Mario 64 was a creature of its own design. Its worlds weren't about such restrictions; they were instead fun-filled playgrounds within which I was free to experiment with any toy that was lying around, be it a flight-granting wing cap or a directable sea creature.

I could tackle missions however I saw fit. I could, for instance, opt to take the long, winding path up the mountain in Bom-Omb Battlefield, or I could bypass a few rotations by slowly trudging my way up its steep western slope, which I might have assumed was unnavigable had I not made an effort to scale it in a bid to procure a red coin. Otherwise, I could duck into a small hollow near the mountain's base and warp up to a similar depression near its summit (though, not when racing Koopa the Quick, who would reprimand me for resorting to such cheap tactics) or blast my way up there using one of the pink Bob-Omb's launch-cannons. And still Mario's impressive repertoire of acrobatic maneuvers emboldened me to carve out my own path; in fact, attempting to gain quick and easy access to destinations using backflips, long-jumps, wall-jumps, and "unintended" methods was a big part of what made my early experiences with the game so much fun. It's what made Super Mario 64 what it was.

For what it allowed me to do, Bob-Omb Battlefield was the perfect conveyance of Nintendo's freshly conceived 3D design philosophy. And if what I'd seen in that first hour of play was a preview of the era to come, then I was ready to open up my mind and let the N64 show me the way forward.

My memories of that first session aren't formed by a clear chronology but rather an accumulation of moments. Playing through Super Mario 64, that is, was about actively partaking in the scenarios that all of those game magazines were excited to discuss in detail, like spinning the enormous Bowser around by the tail and launching him into the ether, and sneaking my way past a sleeping piranha plant, which would suddenly awaken and begin snapping at me if I moved too quickly or made enough clatter to interrupt and break the hold of the localized lullaby music whose soft, tranquilizing notes were assisting its sleep. 

It was about experiencing all of the wonderfully inventive things the game's technology could throw at me, like racing a penguin down a twisting mile-long slide (which, granted, wasn't much fun at first, since I was still in the process of adapting to analog control). Baiting out a giant eel and then furiously swimming to retrieve the star attached to its tail. Using a cannon to accurately propel myself across the world so I could grab onto a narrow pole. Hopping between tiny and huge models of the same world, with changes in one affecting the other. And so many more. Really, it would take me an hour to list them all.

Also, I remember being floored to discover (or suddenly realize) that I could influence the state of certain worlds depending upon how or when I jumped into their paintings; entering Wet-Dry World's at a higher point would automatically raise the world's water-level to a relative height, and entering Tick Tock Clock's when the minute hand was in the 12-O'clock position would cause the world's mechanical parts to cease their function and give me free reign of the joint (though it would also restrict my access to the tower's upper portions).

There was some crossover in their visual themes, sure, but each world introduced something novel, be it a unique mechanic (like riding on shells or hitching a ride with a high-flying owl), a distinct level-design feature, or a new type of platforming sequence. Super Mario 64 was a game that never stopped giving.

Super Mario 64 wasn't content with merely being the first of its kind. No--it wanted to be the standard-bearer for the entire generation. I couldn't remember a launch title that dripped with such ambition.

 It wasn't afraid to distance itself in terms of musical augmentation. Oh, its soundtrack featured the standard selection of cheerfully optimistic, whimsical, aquatic and ominous tunes, but the difference was how they were applied; the 2D games' music was meant to create rhythmic accompaniment, but Super Mario 64's was more about providing atmosphere and evoking certain emotions. Its tonal conveyance was best defined for me by the melancholic Jolly Roger Bay music, whose delicate keystrokes conspired to form a touching piece that filled me with conflicting feelings of sadness and wonder, almost as if it were telling me not to lament the end of the old days but to savor my first moments of this brand new era. It was another one of those tunes that compelled me to stop and listen--to hear it in full and attempt to decipher its message. In time, I'd come to acknowledge it as the musical piece that best told the story of why Super Mario 64 was special to me. And for that reason, it would forever remain my favorite track (with honorable mention to the credits theme with its considerably wistful quality).

I remember spending a lot of time trying to bust my way through that grating near the castle entrance, since I was convinced that it had to lead to a hidden cave or some type of special world. That was a recurring theme throughout my first play-through: I'd collect all of the stars in a world or activate a switch and then immediately head outside hoping that the grating had been removed. After being repeatedly disappointed, I figured that I was probably fooling myself--that, as usual, I was letting my imagination get the best of me--and gave up on the idea. That's why I was overjoyed when I loaded up my completed file and discovered that the grating was indeed hiding a secret; beneath its guard was a cannon, using which I could now blast my way onto the castle's roof (which I'd otherwise frequently try to access with tricky wall-jumps), where I unexpectedly found Yoshi, of all characters, walking about! I was so jazzed to see him in 3D form that I didn't even care that his 99-life reward was kind of pointless. The real reward was knowing that Super Mario 64 didn't take my efforts for granted unlike so many other games).

Yoshi's appearance made me think that there had to be more surprises lurking somewhere beyond the game's walls (both physical and invisible), so I spent an ample amount of time investigating every crevice and interacting with every object hoping to find a path that would lead me to Luigi, Wario, or any of the familiar Mario character. The game was technically over, but I kept on playing as if there was more content to unlock. Super Mario 64 had that power; it might not have captured the aesthetic qualities of my favorite 2D games, but it provided me a similar sense that its world was secretly far more vast than what I could see on the surface. Only one or two other N64 games were ever able to do this for me, and it's not surprising that they, too, were released during the console's early years--back before standard 3D design and established formulas came to exist.

Super Mario 64's world was so rich with detail that my 20-inch Sony-brand television could hardly do it justice, so I moved the N64 downstairs, into the den, and hooked it up to our big-screen TV (I'd refrained from doing this in the past because my parents didn't want our consoles cluttering up the space in front of the TV, but they'd simply stopped caring by 1996). Seeing the game on that scale for the first time--its every texture and polygonal structure blown up to larger-than-life proportion--gave me a new appreciation for what Nintendo had achieved; you could count it as another one of those "moments" and one of my best memories of my early days with Super Mario 64 and the N64. I spent countless hours in that den replaying Mario 64 over and over again, each time making sure to collect all 120 stars. Except for the dreaded Rainbow Cruise 100-coin challenge, which gave me headaches (my success contingent on not screwing up the wall-jumps near the coin maze, which I'd tackle last), it was always a fun ride from beginning to end. I couldn't envision a time when it would ever get old.

While Super Mario 64 didn't feel compatible with the 2D Mario games--neither tonally nor aesthetically--the way in which it earned my adoration was highly reminiscent; it carved out a place in my heart on the strength of its great quality and amazing scope. Its polygonal 3D world didn't remind of the flat, blocky spaces I'd been traveling for almost as long as I'd been alive, no, but it was quite simply one of the best games I'd ever played, period, and, really, that was all it needed to be. Such was the power of Mario, who always seemed to succeed in nailing it the first time out while making me feel at home in uncharted lands.

Much more so than those found in its technologically superior sequels, Super Mario 64's world was just plain fun to explore. I didn't need to defeat bosses or collect stars to have a great time; I could derive plenty of entertainment by simply running around, wall-jumping all over the place, and trying to cheat my way up to platforms that were theoretically out of reach. The world was my sandbox--its contents mine to shape--which admittedly didn't make for the best game design though I had no desire to consider as much. I mean, sure--I could tell that the game was a bit rough around the edges: The camera would often refuse to cooperate. Mario would glitch through platforms and spasmically slide off of others. And its flying and swimming mechanics weren't exactly refined. But that was OK. Mario 64 was, after all, the first of its kind--the product of a time when all of us, including game-creators, were learning how to operate within a 3D space. Its rawest elements are more a testament to the wondrously experimental nature of early 3D games, which would sadly be replaced with strict convention.

Sadly, I haven't put a whole lot of time into Super Mario 64 in the last 15 years. Ever-growing responsibilities and a general avoidance of longer games has kept me away. And yet it's remained a constant presence in my life; if I'm not watching someone play it on Youtube or Twitch, then I'm listening to its music or reading stories about its development. It's always there, somewhere, waiting for me.

Even if I never play it again, I'll continue to hold Super Mario 64 in high regard. It will forever retain its permanent residence in my holy trinity of 3D platformers, joining Banjo-Kazooie and Ratchet & Clank, both of which it heavily inspired. 

Where all of this 3D business was heading, I couldn't say for sure, but Super Mario 64 was an encouraging sign. I wasn't yet prepared to go all-in on 3D gaming, since I wasn't sure what doing so would mean for my 2D games, but I couldn't deny that its vast potential was clearly obvious to me. Super Mario 64 was the potential.

And while I don't believe that Miyamoto and friends have ever properly followed up on Super Mario 64 (the new games are too tightly scripted to replicate its sense of freedom), it speaks to the game's enduring influence when the fingerprints of its guiding hand can still be seen splattered all over the company's games 20 years after the fact. And I have no doubt that it'll continue leaving its mark on 3D action games for decades to come.

And with any luck, Mario will still be there to awaken us to new possibilities. 

1 comment:

  1. The graphics have not aged well but the controls in this game are fantastic.