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SummaryDid we really need a ‘Mario Raider’ game?
The GoodSony’s Playstation and the now-infamous “Tomb Raider” franchise made 1996 the year that 3D gaming came of age. Well, maybe or maybe not, but that’s how gaming history is usually written, at least. Nintendo jumped back into the fray with its Nintendo 64 system in the fall of that year, and it surprised no one that the marvelous Mario was to appear in the new system’s flagship title. The hype and the hope were both there. But did Nintendo actually come through with a great game?
There is no question, the 3D graphics of Super Mario 64 (SM64) are good, especially considering the technological limitations of the time. They are still very polygonal-looking, suggesting that 3D art wasn’t (isn’t?) yet ready for primetime. While not as smooth or charming as the sprites of the 8- and 16-bit Mario titles, the 3D characters are impressive. The environments, however, are a little less impressive. Sometimes you feel like you are walking on a bunch of colored, inclined planes slapped together at somewhat random angles, rather than on earth covered with grass, snow, sand, etc. Oh well, I guess 3D terrain had to start somewhere. The music/sound is good overall, although it’s curious that it doesn’t sound much different in quality from what the Super Nintendo would put out.
I give the endlessly resourceful designers at Nintendo credit for squeezing some new gimmicks in to complement the standard Mario conventions of running, jumping, coin-collecting, yadda-yadda. Shooting yourself out of a cannon takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a real blast (so to speak). I imagine some gamers will fault the designers of SM64 for not innovating enough, “settling” for the human cannonball and other tricks like that. I respectfully disagree. Mario is an established character from an established milieu. The real danger was that they would try to change too much – a danger that they did not entirely escape, as it happens.
The BadI’ll admit to being a child of the 80s who grew up on 2D side-scrollers. Perhaps this colors my judgment a bit. Nevertheless, I don’t think anyone can plausibly deny that the 3D camera system in SM64 is aggravating almost to the point of being broken. You are severely limited in terms of the different angles you can use, and the camera has the very annoying habit of shifting back to the angle of its choice when the action resumes. There may be some kind of underlying logic to it, but I sure haven’t figured it out yet.
Mario’s movement repertoire has been expanded considerably, but somehow it doesn’t add up to much. The design of the game doesn’t lend itself to the kind of fun that previous Mario titles did. One problem is that there just isn’t much combat (if that’s the right word to use in discussing a Mario game). It’s actually easier for Mario to punch or kick – yeah, you heard me right, Mario actually does some kung-fu fighting in this title! – his enemies than it is for him to run-jump-stomp on them. Call me a traditionalist, but that just doesn’t seem right. The classic enemy-stomping action seems to have been replaced by Tomb Raider-style platform-jumping-for-its-own-sake, making this the most puzzle-ish Mario game to date. As for the ramp-sliding sequences, they are simply not that much fun, and there are too many of them.
Overall, the game world feels surprisingly sterile and empty. Previous Mario titles crammed so much stuff into those 2D levels, you never had time to get lost or bored. It’s not too hard to get lost *and* bored in SM64. The game tries to help the player out, since there is a lot of in-game advice about how to play and where to go, and the countdown timer has also been eliminated to further decrease the pressure. This, of course, is a double-edged sword. By encouraging a slower, easier, more exploration-oriented game style, Nintendo has further distanced this Mario title from the beloved SMBs of the past. Which leads to my final complaint: SM64 takes advantage of the gamer goodwill built up from previous Super Mario titles. I don’t care how many of the people who made SM64 also worked on Super Mario Bros. 1-3 and Super Mario World. SM64 is in many ways inferior to its predecessors, but Nintendo knew we would buy it anyway simply because it was a Mario game. You can certainly argue that Nintendo earned that capital with its earlier titles, fair and square, and was entitled to spend it later. Still, I can’t help feeling a little bit…exploited.