Super Mario 64: A Love Letter

By Drew Paryzer in No Continues Left
Tuesday, April 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Cartridge.jpg
She was the first curvy cartridge of my youth. And oh, what a doozy she was.
I've been told that hearing your child speak words for the first time is a beautiful thing. Mind-opening. A milestone in their development and in your parental progress.

I wouldn't know, from personal experience. But if it was anything like hearing Mario make his first utterances, I'll probably need tissues.

It happened for me when I was ten years old. I was living in a small apartment in Fort Collins, Colorado, and my brother and I had miraculously been gifted a Nintendo 64 - and the brand-new Mario game accompanying it - for the holidays. I was as prepared and exhilarated for the gaming experience as one could possibly be. But as I powered the system on for the first time, I wasn't prepared at all to hear my favorite video-game character verbally declare his presence to me with an emphatically Italian-tinged "It's-a me! Mario!"

The mustachioed mug that followed, proffered for me to tug at and twist, was a title-screen revelation in its own right. But the fact that I was able to hear this idol of my childhood express himself on-screen for the first time was as good a sign as any that I'd just powered up a life-changing cartridge.


Jumping Instructions.jpg
The days of needing a raccoon tail to touch the sky were now firmly in the past.
I don't think many people deny that the release of Super Mario 64 is a watershed point in gaming history. Console gaming purists will be quick to point out that it technically wasn't the first truly three-dimensional platformer; that was the Playstation's immortal Jumping Flash!, a game which - to its undying credit - made controlling a bunny mech whose only functionality was jumping super-duper high quite enjoyable. But that robot's rocket-boosted triple-leaps would be banished to a historical footnote by the climactic "YAH-HAH!" of Mario's own triple-leap just a year later.

 

Cake.jpg
Instead of getting his just deserts, Mario just got dessert.
Was it the innovative, epic three-dimensionality that made Mario 64 such a revolutionary game? Well, I certainly think that's part of it. My memories of aimlessly frolicking around in the fields around the Princess' castle are probably analogous in their sweet splendor to many adults' recollections of frolicking around in actual fields as children. That's the extent to which this game was pure pleasure to me: the simple dynamics of controlling Mario in that polygon-rendered pseudo-reality was awesome enough to shorten my breath and call my mom in for a demonstration. (Miyamoto's genius in designing Mario's jumping in this game should never go unappreciated, though: the triple-jump, the backflip, the long-jump, the side-jump, the wall-jumping . . . this ingenuity turned what could have been a one-trick pony of a hero into a Swiss army knife of elevation.)

The thing that really blew my mind about Mario 64, though, was the scale of it. This isn't to say that games before it were rudimentary; titles like Zelda: A Link to the Past created vast, morphing worlds for the pre-polygonal system generations. But this somehow felt different. This is a game that tried to make you think it was over TWICE, only to open up more and more lush landscapes to explore and puzzle through. And the secrets! Oh, the secrets. There are secrets in the castle. There are secrets in every level. There are potentially different secrets in every VERSION of every level, depending on which Gold Star you're playing for. It was as if each world were a location in your life - like school, or home - and each separate star-quest was a different day you spent in that location, in which all sorts of minute differences and personnel variations could potentially occur. That's a level of grandness I had no idea a game could touch.

Sure, the camera system was a little buggy at best, often verging on downright aggravating. Some valid arguments could be pointed at it being overly twee at times, or juvenile. (We're looking at you, person who named the level "Cool, Cool Mountain".) And all of us are fully aware that Mario deserved something much better from the Princess, when all was said and done, than a cake.

But Super Mario 64 came to me at a fertile point in my youth and absolutely lit me on fire. In my mind, it was a video game that verged on magic. And I have yet to play a game that's taken me to a similar stratosphere.


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