Super Mario 64: What Is, What Was, and What Could Be


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Everyone knows of Super Mario 64. It’s a genuine classic that changed the way 3D games were made, popularized the idea of analog control in a 3D environment, and showed just how 3D could be used to make for fun experiences in a time when 3D was simply a novelty for the sake of having it. The game still holds up rather well today, but not for the typical reasons like graphics or music. What makes it playable even today is the fine-tuned gameplay. It’s how Mario moves. It’s how you can interact with the environment. It’s that crippling sense of OCD the game gives you every time you pick it up. How could it be improved?

Well, in 2004, Nintendo showed us how while simultaneously showing us an entirely new way to play games with the brand new Nintendo DS. But where Super Mario 64 DS pioneered with the benefit of eight years of 3D game development knowledge, it took one major step backwards. What’s more is that a rumor has been running about saying that Nintendo is considering making a Wii U port of the game with various upgrades and new features. But for a game that’s been remade before, what’s there to do? Before we speculate on what could be, we have to take a step back in time and take a closer look at what’s come before.

When Super Mario 64 hit the scene in 1996, it was the flagship title of Nintendo’s newest home console, the Nintendo 64. Riding on the success of the Super NES and the knowledge and accomplishments of Argonaut and their Super FX chip, the N64 was built to be a purely 3D system. Every game would show off this new graphical prowess and do it in style, visually outpacing the competition in several ways. To get people on board with this new technology, Nintendo needed a Mario title to guarantee sales. To show what could really be done. While graphically, Super Mario 64 was far from perfect, it accomplished what few other 3D games had done before: it made a cohesive and fun experience that wasn’t solely reliant on the gimmick of 3D polygons. Through careful level design and meticulously perfected controls, the game made history.

As most everyone knows, the analog stick and the free camera were the two biggest factors of Mario 64’s success. It was the first game to offer a free camera in a 3D environment, making games drastically easier to comprehend and play. Every free-roaming camera in a game today has Mario 64 to thank for showing how it’s done. The analog control, however, was even more influential. Analog controllers were nothing new in 1996, but were fairly unheard of. Several companies like SEGA and Atari had tried it before, as optional peripherals specific to only one or two games, and they employed technology that was complicated, insensitive, and lost range of motion over time. When the development team of Mario 64 realized this was the best way to control Mario, they developed their own analog stick based on far more precise technologies than had ever been done before, allowing for superior handling. From then on, the analog stick became the standard for the system and pave the way for how 3D games would play from then on.

Mario moves in a very precise yet strange way. You can do quick turns, instant reversals, walk incredibly slowly (as some of the game’s platforming elements make use of very precise handling), and more. One flaw to this system that is seen as archaic by today’s standards is that Mario moves on a curve. When trying to change direction, if you don’t do it exactly how it’s programmed, instead of just going the opposite direction Mario will walk in a small circle to make his way around. There are ways around this and players may not even be aware of how quickly they subconsciously become aware of that quirk. So while it’s absolutely not perfect, it’s certainly very well done and is one of the reasons the game is so easy to go back to and enjoy seventeen years on, despite its graphical inadequacies and comparatively small and simple level design.

I won’t get too much into detail on the blocky graphics or small, simple environments the game has. I’m assuming everyone who is reading this has played it or at least seen it at some point. With all of that established, let’s move on to the remake. By 2004, Nintendo and the gaming industry as a whole had embraced 3D game design and moved on. We’d had three 3D Zelda titles since the debut of the N64 (and an absolutely beautiful 2D one using 3D elements), and 2002 saw another Mario with refined controls and far superior graphics to what we’d been amazed by just six years prior. Nintendo was just about to release their brand new handheld device, touted to be the third pillar alongside the Game Boy Advance and GameCube. The Nintendo DS had one major new feature that hadn’t been seen anywhere before: a touchscreen. With a touchscreen on the bottom and a regular screen on top, Nintendo was sure new innovations in game design were just around the corner, but they needed something to sell developers on the idea. Once again, Nintendo tapped their portly plumber for the job.

Super Mario 64 DS showed the fruits of the industry up to that point in time. To take the game that heralded the 3D era and make it better in just about every way showed just how far we’d come in such a short time, and very specific features showed just what the Nintendo DS was capable of. As a launch title, Super Mario 64 DS showcased just about every new feature of the hardware, from how the touchscreen could be implemented into gameplay to how sleep mode works by closing the system. Best of all, the game saw massive improvements in just about every way.

Graphically, the game was no longer made up of rudimentary rectangles held together by glue. Sure, it was still blocky, but in a completely different and better way. Models were better all around, things were actually textured this time around, and several visual effects were vastly improved. Some dynamic ripple effects were gone, and certain textures, like the ones on the characters, were of rather low quality, but the remake looked undeniably better than its predecessor had.

The game was made longer by adding more stars to each existing world, as well as adding in several new hidden stages. These hidden stages had fun new boss fights and really helped flesh out the experience. To make the game even more diverse, the gameplay was shuffled up by the inclusion of Luigi, Yoshi, and Wario as playable characters. Each received a unique ability that was once in Mario’s repetoire, but helped to give the game more personality and made it feel more polished. Each stage has a few stars that only a certain character can get, but once a character is unlocked, their hats will be on each stage – allowing your player character to turn into them if their ability is needed. In this way, everyone gets their own share of the limelight: Yoshi can swallow and spit fire as well as make and throw eggs, Luigi can swim the fastest and has his Super Mario Bros. 2 jumping ability, Mario has the tightest controls and can wall jump, and Wario is heavy and can destroy giant bricks and boulders.

Each of the characters also gets one of the special abilities that Mario had to unlock on the N64. Rather than having three hidden switches to unlock abilities, there is now only one – on the wing cap stage. The other two stages are still in the game, but are treated as just secret levels with bonus stars. They feel a little useless in that regard, but no more useless than the Princess’ Secret Slide, I suppose. Once Mario hits the switch on the wing cap stage, the blocks throughout the game can be hit to gain a character-specific ability: Yoshi gets fire breath, Luigi gets the invisibility power that lets him walk through certain walls, Wario gets to be metal, and Mario gets one of two power-ups: either the wing cap or the power balloon last seen in Super Mario World, which makes Mario inflate and float around for a short time. Several stars make use of this new ability, but several can also be obtained with this ability despite levels being designed to have you go otherwise. It can cheapen certain level goals in this way by making them far easier to get or just require less effort. Whether you get the wing cap or power balloon ability with Mario is entirely dependent on the level. Don’t expect to be using the power balloon on Bob-Omb Battlefield, but have fun with it in Hazy Maze Cave.

The diversity of gameplay brought upon by the new characters, the new levels with boss fights, extra stars, and the inclusion of unlockable minigames make Super Mario 64 DS a wonderful package that expands upon the original in many pleasant ways, but it has two major flaws. The two main things that made Super Mario 64 so fun and successful: controls and camera movement.

The Nintendo DS lacks an analog stick, so how could the game that introduced analog control as an industry standard possibly be played on it? Through two methods: the D-pad, or the touchscreen. With D-pad controls, pressing a direction will cause the character to walk in it slowly at first and quickly build up speed, with the pressing of Y causing the character to run. Holding down Y while not moving will cause the character to run in place, building up speed. This can lead to several problems, as the turning radius from the N64 game has not been corrected here. You can be trying to make a precise slow movement but instead of going the way you want them to, the character will start running in a half-circle and walk right off the edge. You can learn your way around this problem, but it is difficult and not very predictable. Holding down Y while waiting for a platform to move so you start at full speed can also be bothersome as you can get trapped in that speedboost and unintentionally run right off the edge. This scheme works to an extent, but it is hardly ideal.

The other control method is largely unusable playing the game today, as it relied heavily on a peripheral that was only ever including with the first generation of DS: the analog control via touchscreen. The original model of the DS included a wrist strap featuring a touchscreen-safe thumb pad. The idea behind the touchscreen controls is that you would use the thumbpad to slide across the screen, giving you the full range of analog control you had in Super Mario 64, which can be very helpful at times. When the game released, I found the ideal control method to be alternating between the two methods. As the DS Lite, DSi, and 3DS don’t come with this custom strap and they are hard to find now, you are pretty much exclusively limited to D-pad controls.

Lastly, the camera. As Super Mario 64 veterans will remember, your left index finger rested on the Z trigger, where you’d crouch and perform moves such as backflips or longjumps. Mario 64 DS decided to swap that to the R trigger while mapping the L trigger to the camera. Pressing L will whip the camera back around to behind your character, and you can hold it to move the camera around (as if you were using the close up ‘Mario cam’ on the 64). To move the camera in any given direction, you have to tap the icon on the touchscreen and use the X button to zoom the camera in or out. This not only causes initial confusion due to the trigger swap, but can make for some extremely awkward camera mapping. Combine the bad camera controls with those D-pad movements and you’re in for a lot of frustration and unfair deaths.

That’s where Super Mario 64 stands today: as either the block console game with pretty great control, or as the superior handheld game with pretty awkward control. This has led many a gamer to criticize the DS version and stay pure on the N64, and many others to appreciate them separately…but what if Super Mario 64 were to be remade again? That may not be so far-fetched an idea…

A short while back, a rumor leaked that Nintendo may be pursuing a Nintendo 64 remake series for the Wii U eShop. Each title would be brought in HD and given a fresh coat of paint and several new features. Leading the group of seven titles would be the classic Super Mario 64, with several new features of its own. Among expected things such as an HD visual upgrade, the game’s biggest new feature would be two player co-operative and competitive gameplay. This may seem a bit far-fetched for some of you, but the original game was supposed to feature a two-player mode that didn’t pan out because they couldn’t quite figure out how to do it without splitscreen. Again, the idea was at the forefront of the quickly canceled Super Mario 64 2, which would have released for the Nintendo 64 Disc Drive. Along with making the two-player mode online, what else could Nintendo do with such an upgraded port? Well, I have an idea.

To make the proposed $30 price tag worth it, I think a Wii U eShop ‘remake’ should incorporate the best features of both existing versions of the game. Use the DS version as a graphical basis, the N64 version for a control basis, and completely remake the camera system. By using the improved designs of the DS version, the Wii U game could be the best version of the game around. All four playable characters, all of the new levels, goals, and gameplay mechanics, an easier canvas for which to throw the HD ‘paint’ on, and the two player mode to round it all out. The Wii U GamePad is even a perfect home for the DS version’s minigames, which all used the touchscreen in some capacity.

With a rebuilt and modern camera system and perfect analog controls restored, this game could be truly amazing. If Nintendo really wanted to go the extra mile, they could include some new stars to offer even more content. The possibilities are endless. No matter what Nintendo decides to do with this remake project, if it’s even real, I think it would be a bit sad for them to leave out all of the improvements and additions that the DS version brought to the table. Wouldn’t you agree? Wouldn’t you like to see an HD multiplayer Super Mario 64 DS on your television? Let me know in the comments.