Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


 

Super Mario 64

The mid 90s was an odd time for gaming. Everything was…well it was just weird. You had CD-ROMs taking off, home consoles beginning to be made by companies you never heard of and cost an arm and a leg, full motion video was “cool” even if it looked like crap, graphics were the big battleground. I suppose it was because nobody really knew what to expect. This was before the internet, so all the hype and stuff came out of magazines like Nintendo Power or Electronic Gaming Monthly - some loose editorials and small screenshots of the next big thing. Hell, I remember looking at magazines while in school and feeling overwhelmed by all the uncertainty of everything.

For years, it had been rumbling about what Nintendo’s next big thing was going to be. Nintendo was, absolutely, the top of the world by this time. Their consoles had the best games with the best graphics and sound. They had the best franchises. They had the best controller. What was the next step?

It turns out, Nintendo was putting all their money on a risk. Now whether or not that risk paid off I’ll leave for another time, but let’s just say, for now, that in an era of CD-ROM and being “cool” they went in a different direction: staying with old cartridge format and sticking to their fun, light nature.

What wasn’t risky, though, was the graphics. You see, that’s where they made up the ground: the N64 was going to deliver the best looking games that no other console could really do. So how does a company try to showcase that?

Like I said, Nintendo was at the top of their game. They could do anything they wanted, including an unheard of way to hype their next console and their biggest star: send out VHS tapes.

 

 

Boom! Technology!

 

Yeah…VHS tapes. If your strength is entirely visual, it’s the only way to really present it. So now, I present to you, the totally rad mid-90s N64 Promo Tape that, I think, I might still have in a box somewhere.

 

If I had to guess how many times "awesome" is said in this video...

 

It’s hard to explain it to people who were born in the internet age. Seriously, there are people out there who have never lived at a time where they couldn’t get on a computer and watch a video, but in 1996 when that VHS tape was sent out to Nintendo Power subscribers and to stores like Toys R Us, it was a breath through - so much so that the second half to he 1990s saw numerous demo discs for the Saturn and Playstation and more VHS tapes out of the Nintendo camp.

The star of this particular tape, though, was Mario. And it was Mario like we had never seen. Then again, it was a game like we had never seen, full of amazing graphics, animation and, going by that tape, amazing controls. The N64 was on its way and Mario was leading the charge.

 

Nothing like this came close, and at a time when graphics were everything (and to many, they still are) it was impossible to not notice.

 

Alas, though, I was in a conundrum. As much as I loved Nintendo, by this point the next Final Fantasy game was announced for the Playstation, and I had been hearing good things about Resident Evil and that other big developers and publishers were going to leave Nintendo and go to Sony. And by “hearing things” it was pretty much other people at school. Truth is, nobody knew shit other than what they are hyped for. The “Console War” of the Sega and Nintendo was pretty much dead, and it was shifting to Sony and Nintendo as Sony was cheaper and, apparently, getting some major games.

Decisions decisions, but if you read the previous post on here about Final Fantasy VII, you know I went with the Sony Playstation and bought one around the time the N64 was released. I remember being at the counter of the video store and trying to decide which I wanted. Tomb Raider had just come out, Mario 64 and the N64 had been out for about a month. I had to make a choice: and I went with the Playstation.

But my going without an N64 was only temporary by the time the next Legend of Zelda was announced, so about a year later I ended up buying my N64 as well along with Mario. The fact that I started to work at that very video store and could get things at cost helped - then again having a job while in high school helped as well.

 

A high schooler with a job, no expenses and loves videogames is a dangerous combination.


The excitement of getting a new electronics device still runs through you to this day. There’s nothing quite like opening a box, taking something out of the plastic and turning it on for the first time. It’s all so clean and fresh - a combination of sterility and Styrofoam.  The N64 was just this smooth, gray block with a weird controller.

Yet, it was so easy to get into. You just plugged it in, popped in Super Mario 64 and started playing. That weird controller was a lot more intuitive than  one might assume, and I easily picked it up and, after a brief tutorial in Mario 64, got right into the world of analog joysticks and z-buttons.

With Mario, there was no frills. There rarely are frills, to be honest. You usually push start and just begin the game with little to no story or context as to the whys and hows of the Mushroom Kingdom. In Mario 64, you pop out of a green pipe and start running around. And man…that’s about all I did for probably an hour. The best memory that anybody from my generation has about Mario 64 is probably in that open field just before you enter the castle. The running, the jumping, the swimming, the exploring.

You were exploring!!!!  YEAH!!


No longer was there a linear path, at least in terms of world design. You woke up in a world that immersed you. Even all these years later, and despite the fact that many 3D platforming games have well surpassed it, Mario 64 is still considered a masterpiece. It’s less about the game and more about the nostalgia and just getting the basics right.

That’s kind of what Mario 64 was: basics. It was setting a foundation. The reason why other games surpassed it, including other Mario games, was because it just focused on getting the basics right. All those other games simply built on that foundation over the years, from the better world design and animation of the Banjo games on the N64 to the better platforming of Mario Galaxy, but Mario 64’s simplicity still has a place in a lot of people’s hearts.

3D Bowser? 3D Bowser. Insert head-exploding gif here, because at the time that's what was happening.


I think that’s why it’s so fondly looked at. It eased us into this new idea and world. It didn’t hold your hand, necessarily, but by keeping it all simple and basic, we intuitively picked it up right away and played. You know - just like every other Mario game where you never look at the instruction manual. I remember with Banjo and other 3D platformers that came later, I had to go through a tutorial and learn how to use moves and what things were. Mario 64? Nah. You pop out the pipe, get a few things of text on what the buttons did. Then you ran up to the castle and received another brief bit about collecting stars and camera controls.

After that? Nothing. You’re on your own. No instructions on maneuvers, you just discovered them, and nothing on goals or plot twists or anything. Just “run around and get stars n shit” pretty much sums up the entirety of the game. And that’s just perfect for the time it came out. If you understand the context of when Mario 64 came out, you understand why something that simple was so damn important.

 

Your life will never be happier than when you were 12 and got new stuff...

...now I'm sad...


Here’s another thing about Mario 64: it’s aged remarkably well. Sure, it’s still very “N64ish” with its textures and whatnot, but it still had a consistent framerate, solid level design, and easy “pick up and play” element and controls so tight that I honestly don’t think they’ve been done better since. Even in 1997 when I got the damn game, for the first time I said to myself “Man, these controls are amazing.”

I was a teenager. I shouldn’t be concerned about controls in games. All I cared about was cool graphics and how awesome the mascot was. But here, you had to take notice of this new way to play and damn natural it all came to you. No other game since really has that. Now everything spends a half-hour explaining how to crouch or jump or you have to read up on how to pull of some maneuver that, as it turns out, you really don’t need to use.

Mario 64 opened doors, but it also remembered to be fun. It managed to be ground breaking without trying, kind of like how something like Tetris set the world on fire and puzzle games were now a “thing.”  Or, even a better element, the first Mario game on the NES - another game that simply “was” and came at just the right time. Funny how Nintendo seems to be rooted to so many of those “influential” things over the course of video game history - and how they probably don’t get enough credit.

 

 Nintendo manages to make even the start screen fun - you could spend a lot of time playing with Mario's face and not realize you haven't even started the game yet. Simple, but effective and certainly memorable.

 
Mario was perfect. No, not  “the greatest game ever” but perfect for what it was and when it was. It didn’t need to be anything more than just that. Today everyone thinks it’s all a pecking order: putting “best of” lists and so on, but the truth is that’s impossible to really do. What isn’t, though, is saying how significant and well made Mario 64 is. In terms of where it would fall on some list, my reaction is “who really gives as shit?”

That’s quite an opposite approach than what it was nearly 20 years ago (as of this writing). It’s called growing up and looking back, seeing the cycles and ups and downs of pop culture and the elements that made up everything you liked and still like. Is Mario 64 my favorite game? No. But it still is one that’s significant and not because of the “power” of the N64 and graphics and the fact it was Nintendo. For the 16 year old me, that might have mattered. But now, I just like good games that do what they’re supposed to do. Mario 64 did exactly what it was supposed to do when it was supposed to do it.

I suppose Mario is a bit like Gandalf in a way. He kind of just shows up at the exact time he was meant to show up, from the first Mario game to Mario Galaxy, and reminds us that games are meant to be fun and, at the same time, sets new standards without even trying.

For past Not/Quite Remembering Videogame artiles, click here


 

 

  

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