Remember 1996? The third dimension was still new and exciting! Nowadays, we've become so bored with it that we have to spruce it up with tinty glasses, and special super-expensive televisions, and other 3D marital aids. But in 1996, everything that was in 3D was blindly praised, endlessly! And few have been blindly praised quite as endlessly as that pioneering 3D platformer, Super Mario 64.
Super Low-Poly Mario is on his way to Peach's Castle, as he has been promised a cake, via letter because obviously the Mushroom Kingdomites are far too moral to use the devil's technology, like telephones. But Mario arrives at the castle to encounter not a cake - "The cake is a lie", quips every single goddamn person on the Internets, long after this has ceased to be funny, at all - but Bowser's booming voice, announcing this month's sinister plan to kidnap Princess Peach, and have absolute power that is severely hampered by the fact that he stays cooped up in his lair all day! And so, Mario sets out to save the day, by doing what would become the general modus operandi of 3D platformers - collecting a whole bunch of shiny shit.
One of the game's fundamental problems is the manner in which said shiny shit is collected. Much has been made, in badly spelled message board posts typed up self-important thirteen-year-olds, about the grand debate of open-ended exploration vs. linearity, many of them preferring Mario 64 because of the supposed open-ended nature of its courses. Except, the thing is, they really aren't. Technically, yes, you can go anywhere on any stage at any time. But, in practice, once one gets done dicking around, most stages only really have one path that takes you anywhere. This amounts to each level consisting of having to take the exact same path six or seven times, only doing something slightly different at the end to obtain a different Power Star. Is this honestly any better than Galaxy's linearity? At least that game doesn't try to fool anybody.
And even if one didn't have to re-traverse each course's main path so often, a significant portion of the level designs here are just awkward, no doubt because no standard of 3D level design had really been designed yet. Some of the course designs work beautifully: the slides are somehow always fun despite their simplicity, Shifting Sand Land's pyramid is both cool and sizable enough that it could've been an entire level in itself, and Tick Tock Clock makes the most of its weird concept, with some well-done platforming challenges and a genuinely interesting central gimmick. Others, however, aren't so lucky - Lethal Lava Land springs to mind as an awful stage that confuses straight-up incoherency for "non-linearity". And good luck actually being able to remember the difference between Jolly Roger Bay and Dire Dire Docks.
At least it's a decidedly fun game to listen to. Although stuck, in terms of sound quality, in an awkward spot directly between delightful old-school chiptune and modern music-ish music, Koji Kondo's compositions themselves nonetheless manage to shine through. The new overworld and "athletic" themes fit right in with his prior compositions. The amazing water theme, peaceful but with a sense of mystery, can almost manage to make you forget how bland the water levels themselves actually are here. And, well, there's a reason that the theme from the Bowser levels seems to be remixed so unhealthily often on the interwebs.
But, typically catchy Kondo soundtrack aside, does Mario 64 still deserve its continued accolades? It single-handedly created a new breed of 3D platformers, but can its many flaws simply be ignored just because it was blindly pioneering this new territory? Can we ignore that this is a game that asks the player to wall jump up discordantly uneven cliffsides using camera angles that remarkably never manage to be straight-on? Can we ignore that this was the game to introduce the ludicrous control stick spinning technique, which would later destroy countless hands across the globe when the nefarious al-Qaeda terrorists over at Hudson deployed it in the seemingly innocuous Mario Party? Miyamoto's original blind exploration of the multi-screen platformer, Super Mario Bros., still manages to hold up excellently today; even the very birth of the platformer as a commercially viable genre, Donkey Kong, holds a unique appeal. (And it features a half-constructed pie factory, for the first and last time in video gaming! Half-constructed, but already producing pies!) Considering this, it only seems fair for Mario 64 to be weighed on its modern-day merits of amusement.
Mario 64 is an interesting historical relic, nobody will deny this. It paved the way for countless 3D platformers to come. Many of them were, of course, awful copycats, but some managed to become classics of a sort; however, the only way they could manage this was by fixing the barrage of flaws deeply ingrained in Mario 64's formula. The fondly remembered Banjo-Kazooie achieved this by allowing one to thoroughly scour a level to attempt find everything in one run, as opposed to the mandatory separate runs for each star here. (Also helpful: jumping mechanics that seem to take the non-precision of that era's 3D graphics technology into consideration.) Later 3D Mario platformers would, similarly, find their own focus to rise above the ambitious aimlessness found here. Super Mario 64 deserves its place in history. But, in 2010, where our continued lack of the flying cars and hoverboards and capsule-based meals we were promised us forces us to cynically bitch about the past, it just isn't amazing. Behind its veils of exciting newness (in 1996) and rabid mouth-foaming nostalgia (in 2010), the truth is that this game actually seems to be little more than a decent platformer, hardly Best Game Ever material.
So, I giveth it a 7/10.
- Jesse's Occasional Thing Review: Super Mario 64!