Retrospective – Super Mario 64 (N64)

Coming Soon to the Nintendo Switch

If you were to ask someone to put a list together of must-have Nintendo 64 games, there is a high probability that Super Mario 64 would be near the top of the list. Releasing as a launch title for the Nintendo 64 in September 1996, this game has served as a functional template for nearly all of the 3D Mario games released afterwards. With its memorable level design, pioneering control scheme for 3D platformers, and recent news of a Switch release, let’s take a few minutes to reminisce about this game and try to understand why it remains so popular even today.

SM64 Boxart

I do not remember precisely when I first started playing Super Mario 64. I don’t even know how my family obtained a Nintendo 64 at the time. Much like the original PlayStation, the Nintendo 64 just kind of showed up suddenly one day in the bedroom my older brother shared and I never thought to ask them where it came from. But I do remember that they had a copy of Super Mario 64 and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. The latter of which gave me nightmares, so I spent most of my time playing the former.

Right from the title screen, the game had my attention. Before I even started the game, a huge 3D model of Mario’s head appeared in front of me. 3D games were still a novelty to me since I spent most of my gaming time on the GameBoy or Sega Genesis, so I didn’t quite know how to proceed from here. I fiddled with some of the buttons and, lo and behold, the cursor hand grabbed Mario’s face and smushed it around! This little metagame activity was hilarious to my young mind, so I remember spending many gaming moments trying to distort Mario’s face in all sorts of humorous and terrifying ways. I figured I was a bonafide master at this activity when I was able to bring Mario’s mustache up to his eyes and made it look like he had sunglasses. Good times, right?

Mario 64 Title

The gameplay of Super Mario 64 itself was confusing at first, especially since I was unaccustomed to the unorthodox button layout of the N64 controller. Once I got the hang of it, though, it clicked beautifully. Being able to control Mario in a 3D space wasn’t completely new to me since I had already put some time into Super Mario RPG; however, being able to move and jump around in a fully 3D environment absolutely blew my mind. All of the different tricks that you learn over the course of the game – the ground pound, the triple jump, the wall kick – gave you such an amazingly versatile toolbox of movement in this space that it made you want to explore everything the game had to offer. Not only that, but mastery of these controls is vital if you want to obtain all of the 120 stars scattered throughout the various levels you can travel between.

The story itself is your standard Mario fare: Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser and you have to travel to different levels in order to gain access to his lair and save the Princess. Typical plot layout that you have already experienced in several Mario games previously. What sets Super Mario 64 apart, however, is how this story is presented. Princess Peach summons Mario to her castle because she baked a cake for him. When you arrive, however, it is eerily quiet and nobody is around. When you encounter your first Toad, you find out about Bowser’s plot. You face him pretty early on in the game, and it may seem like you are nearing the end once you beat him the first time; however, this victory is short-lived. Bowser keeps escalating the battles and you cannot even unlock the doors he is hiding behind until you collect enough stars. It is a simple gameplay loop, yet very effective because you always think you can grab just one more star before you call it quits.

SM64 1

Different levels are broken up into different areas in the castle, which you can access by hopping into paintings on the walls. Each level has different objectives you need to fulfill before you can obtain one of the several stars that are hidden around that area. It could be as simple as collecting all of the red coins or as hard as finding a specific cannon hidden on the map and shooting yourself out of the cannon at a very specific point in the wall, unlocking a star that you then have to traverse over dangerous traps to obtain. It is not essential to obtain all of the 120 stars in the game to get to the final Bowser level, but very helpful if you want to obtain an amazing power from an old friend.

Power-ups in this game come in the form of different caps. Instead of collecting a fire flower in order to shoot fireballs or a Tanooki leaf to grow a tail to hit enemies with, Mario instead finds three different caps hidden throughout the different worlds. The Wing Cap allows Mario to fly around the level he is in, the Metal Cap turns Mario into metal and makes him nearly impervious to all enemies, and the Vanish Cap allows him to walk through various walls and phase through different obstacles he comes across. There are time limits involved with these cap powers, which does put it in stark contrast to most of the power-ups from previous games, but the huge variety of different techniques Mario can do in his normal form helps to make up for those shortcomings. In many ways, this is one of the most technical Mario games to date. If you take some time to look up the types of techniques speed runners can pull off, you will be absolutely amazed at what kinds of technical craziness people are capable of on that clunky N64 controller.


Super Mario 64 is an absolute classic, and truly one of the defining games in the 3D platforming genre. Whether you play it on the original N64, the Wii U, the Nintendo DS remake, or even the Switch port coming out in the next few weeks, you are guaranteed to be getting an experience that will stand the test of time. If you are a Mario fan, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Even if all you want to do is make the giant Mario head look like it’s wearing sunglasses.

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