By Ethan Madsen
Nintendo's Virtual Console component is a godsend to gamers who don't happen to belong to the hardcore, purist subset or the emulation crowd. The same could probably be said of the similar components Sony and Microsoft have implemented or will implement, allowing us to play old-school games on the cheap. But Nintendo will perhaps offer the most variety across the most platforms throughout time, from the NES to the Gamecube-an evolutionary library of 2D and 3D games. Speaking of which, there's a game that's available now for download, a little N64 classic called Super Mario 64.
I'm sure many, if not most, reading this have played SM64 at some point in time. Maybe a few still play it occasionally to this day. If you are in the latter group, then by that fact alone I place you on a special gaming pedestal, as you invariably understand the power of this influential and revolutionary platformer. You are one who values the roots of the past in spite of the steady technological march that carries so many ever forward in its wake. If you can get all 120 stars, that's even better. If, however, you have for some reason never played this game (or it's been a while), then all I can say is-with the Virtual Console release available for download as I speak-do yourself a favor and play it. A new level of spatial imagination was borne from this game, and I think with an open mind you can possibly take many abstract things away by just spending time with it.
While there definitely were three-dimensional games that preceded SM64, they were more or less designed by the hands of lesser forces in the video game industry. The early 3D games on the Playstation and the PC were, for all intents and purposes, explorations and experiments in the three-dimensional realm. There were some innovative titles, some true pioneers. It took the mastermind Miyamoto and his Nintendo team to take those threads floating out there, weave them into their rich tapestry of imagination and simplicity, and create what is essentially an essay on the potential of 3D gaming-Super Mario 64. It was designed to be a playground for the imagination. Hardly anything about the level designs reflect areas or spaces you would find in the real world. That's why it is in part an essay, throwing away the unnecessary parts to aid in its goal to create and exploit abstractly. This essay so to speak became the foundation of dynamic, 3d gaming-or basically any truly three-dimensional game that was interested in creating dynamic, exploratory and engaging worlds. Everything with similar ambitions thereafter was and is directly or indirectly a response to it.
It's been 10 years since SM64 was released on the N64. Yet, for all these years and all the like-minded games that have resulted, nothing has surpassed in my mind the enthralling, exhilarating overall experience of SM64. Banjo Kazooie is a great game, but lacks the spatial freedom; Donkey Kong 64 displays graphical prowess but is a design mess; and while Super Mario Sunshine is in many ways SM64's equal, it lacks the high degree of open-ended design aspects found in its predecessor. I concede that there are some other platformers and games of other genres that I have played and haven't played that may have lived up to the promises set forth by SM64, but these are at most few and far between. SM64 is the great game it is because of its contributions in three areas: the camera system, intentional open-ended design, and its dynamic, interactive simplicity. All of these elements in a way contribute to the spatial complexity and playability that is key to SM64's longevity and relevance.
If you've read a few reviews of the Virtual Console release of SM64, you will probably hear complaints about the camera system being clunky, getting in the way, a thing of the past. Well, these guys are looking at it the wrong way. Those who complain about SM64's camera have become spoiled by the functional and fairly uninteresting camera systems common in games of the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube era. These are games that subvert the camera to a purely functional role, disregarding the potential for aesthetic and artistic use. That's fine for many games. Some designers, however, are interested in going beyond functionality; for instance, how the camera system can affect the atmosphere or mood of a game (Silent Hill), or how it can invoke awe-inspiring scale and aesthetic (Shadow of the Colossus). In the case of the intrepid SM64, the camera has many functions, two of which include aesthetic movements that instill life and energy and camera as a second or meta character. Actually, it's made explicit in SM64 that the camera is in fact a character-Lakitu-who is documenting Mario's journey to save the Princess. So, in actuality, you are controlling two characters simultaneously. Of course it's going to be tricky at times, but not so much that it becomes a hindrance. Even without these lofty considerations, SM64's camera system is important because it instantiated a template for how one should go about designing 3d games with respect to the camera and the controls-two intertwined elements in spatially complex 3d games.
The intentionally open-ended design is perhaps the trickiest aspect to consider. There are some whose philosophy dictates that it is bad game design to allow the player to bend or fudge the rules to complete some objective. In this context, quite a bit of emphasis is placed on the developers to design the objectives so that they can't be completed in unforeseen ways. Sometimes they go as far as to insert obstacles that make no sense in the context of the game's world after the fact to cover up their mistakes. The philosophy of Miyamoto and company is the exact opposite: that objectives can be completed in any way you see fit, with very little in the way of oversight. With SM64, this works and gels perfectly. Sometimes the objective to recover a star is fairly obvious. Sometimes, it is not. You will often find yourself improvising and sometimes accidentally discovering ways to get stars. That's the beauty of it. For instance, on one stage, you can (if you find it) use a cannon to shoot to a precariously placed star on a small, lone mushroom, or with the appropriate spatial imagination, you can choose to make a leap of faith from way up high and land perfectly on the star in mid-air. Space and freedom of movement is always emphasized.
Finally, SM64 wouldn't be what it is without its simplicity. It's yet another thing Nintendo is renowned for. Their philosophy of interactivity-the cardinal element of video games-is to allow the player a basic and relatively simple set of interactive capabilities that compound when used in conjunction with one another. There's an exponential effect in essence when these capabilities are applied to their game worlds, which are designed in such a way to allow this. It's a bottom-up approach, precisely the exact opposite of most PC games which tend to favor customization, tons and tons of menus, and simulation. There seems to be an abstract horizon regarding dynamic gameplay that has to be reached to generally satisfy a person playing: if a game's too static, it's no fun. It's relative, really, to the person or a subset of the gaming population (through time), but it seems to be there nonetheless. Designers can reach it through a bottom-up or top-down approach, but with the latter, they run the risk of redlining the dynamicity, or the measurement of how dynamic a game is. This tends to turn off gamers-having too many options-as well as threaten the integrity of the game's balance. Nintendo and more specifically SM64 doesn't have this problem. Elegant dynamics.
To me, SM64 is the quintessential embodiment of freedom in three dimensions. When you play it, you feel liberated from the restrictions of reality momentarily and liberated from the reality of other games you have played and been frustrated by because of their implicit constraints placed by the whim of the designers and programmers. It's odd that such an influential game remained virtual light years ahead of its successors. Actually, it's really no surprise when Nintendo makes something for their own console and with the touch of Miyamoto. The same thing happened with Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Those two games set the bar so high in the early stages that only a handful of games ever reached or surpassed them during the SNES's life span. The games that took their cues from SM64 could easily be considered regressions from the standard. The games that followed weren't that interested in exploring 3d space, they had simple camera systems, and they fell into formulas that restricted freedom of movement and pigeonholed us into doing things a certain way if you'll recall.
With that said, I implore you to go back and experience this game to its fullest. I remember when I first played it, it was such a unique and positive experience. I remember that I would try to see how many times I could surf up the mountain with the turtle shell without losing it, trying to escape a 1-up mushroom that chases you forever, and trying to shoot myself from one cannon into another. Alas, I have my doubts as to the value of SM64 to most people these days. I'm sure there a few who are as ecstatic about it as I, and I'm really interested in how someone who never played it or many games during the 32/64 bit era would respond to this game after cutting their gaming teeth on the PS2, XBox, or Gamecube. In any case, I consider Super Mario 64 a landmark achievement and one of the top five greatest games of all time. This is essential gaming.