The opening of Super Mario 64 moves like a dream: birds chirping, a path cutting through verdant green knolls; a moat and castle; a menacing laugh; a liquid painting, a portal to a battlefield. The components don’t fit, and yet going from one to the next feels right. The exposition is loose. You were supposed to be blown away by the world itself — how bright the colors were, how many things you could touch and climb — and so the developers moved everything else out of the way. I remember how round everything seemed.
It presented an overwhelming amount of new information to take in. The castle contained multiple types of locked doors, and coins served a different purpose than they had in any previous Mario game. It was hard to tell who was an enemy. In past Mario games, you could presume that everything wanted to kill you, but in Mario 64, the first characters you meet are friendly pink bob-ombs, who I instinctively distrusted.
Nothing was ever very clearly spelled out. The first stage, Bob-Omb Battlefield, gives you a path to follow, but the whatzits and bobbles along the way — the red coin on top of a gizmo (good thing!), the inaccessible star behind the cage (good thing?), the bubbles falling from the sky (bad thing!) — you had to discover their purpose on your own. One of the first enemies you encounter is the massive, toothy, barking and utterly terrifying Chain Chomp guarding the caged star, which I ran like hell from after it planted me.
Mario 64 did a lot of things that may not be considered good game design anymore. All of Nintendo’s later Mario games would eschew placing man-eating ballistics within the first 30 seconds of their first level, for example. But often it felt like they overcorrected. The Super Mario Galaxy games were particularly egregious about spelling out solutions, or having a non-playable character ask if you need help if you seemed to be dying a lot.
By contrast, nowhere does Mario 64 explain that jumping into the Wet-Dry World painting at different heights changes its water level. Or that the time you enter Tick Tock Clock affects the speed of its rotating gears. Or how the hell you do anything in Big Boo’s Haunt, really. The game figured you would piece everything on your own in time, and never seemed concerned that you might miss something. The only way it anticipated your confusion was by giving you the option ditch a level you were tired of or stuck on, and to go play another. The game contained 120 total power stars, but you only needed 70 to attempt the final stage.
Mario 64’s mysteries were so rich and obtuse that players often over-read into the environment. Famously, theories about the meaning of an inscription on a statue in the castle courtyard (usually read as either “Eternal Star or “L is real 2401”) were shared on message boards well into the next generation of consoles, many hoping it was a clue to finding Luigi within the game.
Compare that again to the Galaxy games, which were brilliant in their own right, but were designed in order to make missing anything impossible. It took more than 20 years, with the release of Super Mario Odyssey, for Nintendo to approach Super Mario 64’s level of exploration and wonder, but it still didn’t come close in obtuseness. Only 2D predecessors Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World (and maybe Super Mario Sunshine, though I never played it) were as comfortable with being confusing.
Maybe I’m apt to read into things, but Super Mario 64 seemed built for a bygone, more personable world. I learned what to do and where to go through real life communication with others who were also playing the game — cousins, kids on the playground, etc. I had no choice. Good walkthroughs weren’t as easy to find as they are now. While games in the time of Super Mario 64 existed within the world, games now exist within themselves, giving you everything you need, every tool and signpost, within a demarcated space.
Super Mario 64 wasn’t optimized, and that made it feel more real. In Lethal Lava Land, falling into a volcano and discovering a whole new world felt like a little communion between me and the person who put it there. I wasn’t led to the lip with wisely placed breadcrumbs. I just leaped, in case someone hoped I might.
In part because I was so in love with my ability to move within its environment, I forgave Super Mario 64 its flaws. Yeah, the camera is cumbersome, but wrestling with it felt like part of the game. If I had to walk across a narrow platform, my process would be to: 1) wriggle the joystick and the camera buttons until I had a legible angle to walk 2) tilt the joystick ever so slightly in the direction I wanted to go, and 3) be ready for the camera to swing suddenly and wildly. I know that the camera’s many quirks weren’t intended, and I understand if anyone feels it takes away from the game now. But to me, the camera still feels like a feature, a part of the way of things.
And if I am apt to normalize Mario 64’s shortcomings, I think I also took for granted just how much it nailed. Movement, for example, isn’t something you tend to think about as you’re doing it. If you find yourself thinking about how you’re moving through the world, it’s likely because you feel so restricted that it’s occupying your consciousness. And so it was that you might not have realized just how much fun you were having as you jumped and double jumped and triple jumped and long jumped and wall jumped and butt stomped and backflipped and kicked and scooted throughout the game. Nor just how much that movement enabled exploration, nor how frustrating all of those secrets could have been if it wasn’t so inherently fun to hurl your body at every seam in the architecture.
Mario 64 wasn’t a glitchy game, per se, but like any early polygonal game it showed its ass from time to time. But as with the camera, you could come to love seeing Mario’s arm clip through a wall, or his whole body stutter violently if he stood, just so, on a ledge. Mario 64 was both fun to play and play with. It was OK if what you did broke the game’s world in some way if it felt right within your own.
Mario 64’s herky jerky-ness even helped give it a second life. It is one of the most notable speedrunning games of all time. For decades now, players have been finding new ways to exploit the game. The first discoveries were innocuous enough, from using the rabbit in the basement, named Mips, to glitch through doors, to doing a backwards long jump to get up the endless staircase to Bowser In The Sky without the requisite star total. One YouTuber so disassembled the game’s geometry that he beat a complicated star without technically jumping. He used a technique that could credibly be explained using the phrase “parallel universes.” You can see for yourself.
I hate to impose philosophy on a game that really isn’t so complicated. Super Mario 64 was designed purely for fun. You jump around intricate sandboxes and break things until you’ve picked up enough shiny tokens to save a princess. That’s it, that’s the whole thing.
But I can’t ignore what it was when it came out in 1996 and what it is now. I don’t know that I ever will again experience something so inspired, and so made with love, as Super Mario 64. Video games had only just gained a grip on how to design for a 2D space when Nintendo started grappling with 3D. The result was a game written without rules, in which every decision was a bold experiment, guided only by someone’s instinct for joy. It’s why even when things don’t quite work, you could not only forgive those faults, but love them.
Super Mario 64 is not a masterpiece for its time. It’s a masterpiece, full stop, both an artifact that could have only been forged within a thin sliver of existence, and a timeless example of pure creation and creativity rarely seen — and seemingly rarer and rarer — in this world. It is a reminder that perfection can never be approached if you strive for it. And that to ever come close may mean necessarily falling short.