Super Mario 64 is heralded as a masterpiece of design.
It’s a video game which defined a generation and what a 3D world could be.
But replaying this classic on my Nintendo Switch has left me with a profound realisation: Super Mario 64 is gaming’s greatest teacher.
It’s a teacher that I didn’t appreciate as a five-year-old.
Having saved every penny from Christmas and birthday gifts (over several years), I can still distinctly remember dragging my mother to Toys R Us to buy the Nintendo 64 and one game, Super Mario 64.
Booting up the game in 1997 felt as welcoming then as it does now.
Coming face-to-face with Mario and dragging the plumber’s nose to every corner of the screen taught me everything I’d need to know about console gaming’s first joy-stick in 2D (sorry Atari).
Select your save-profile, jump out the green-pipe and the genius of Mario 64 is laid bare.
There are no enemies, there’s no rush, just freedom and one big start line: Peach’s castle.
In 2020, I bulleted to the front door, triple-jumping and sliding across the bridge at speed.
In 1997, every tree was an opportunity to climb; the lake offered a taste of swimming and the world’s open design inspired exploration. There’s no pressure, just an opportunity to get familiar with the concept of movement and momentum in a virtual world which – for the most part – are ideas that haven’t changed in 23 years.
I must confess, my memory isn’t that good. I don’t remember taking those baby steps as a five-year-old, but watching my fiancé take them in 2020 brought those feelings back in a wave of shared experience.
For years I’ve tried and failed to interest her in video games. With the exception of Overcooked and Fall Guys, nothing has grabbed her interest for more than a few levels – particularly when it comes to single player games.
I never realised just how problematic modern video-game controllers were until playing with her. I don’t think twice about controlling a twin-stick shooter like Call of Duty or Fortnite, but I’ve also graduated slowly from the two button NES controller to the 18-button Switch Pro Controller (including the D-Pad as four buttons) over two decades.
Controlling the camera in a 3D space is one of gaming’s biggest challenges.
In that regard, Super Mario 64’s biggest weakness is an effective baby step. Seasoned gamers – myself included – have complained incessantly that the game’s camera is ‘locked’ to certain positions. It can be moved, but is incredibly stubborn and often limits your view of tougher jumps or obstacles.
However, it shines with new gamers. Restricting movement left and right helps introduce the concept of the camera in the first place. It also encourages players to “set” the camera to the best angle before tackling each obstacle, so they can focus on platforming and enemies without ever having to leave the jump and punch buttons.
It creates a positive feedback loop that over time encourages mastery of the controller, and Super Mario 64 achieves it before a new player even sets foot in the castle.
The castle area is everything that needs to be said about Nintendo’s superior level design and it’s reinforced by what’s arguably the best first “level” in a 3D platformer ever: Bob-omb Battlefield.
Bob-omb Battlefield teaches a new player everything they need to know without them ever realising it. Its first obstacle is not an enemy, but a box that reminds you to punch. It explodes and by the time your first Goomba, you know to punch it again. It works, so you try to punch the bob-omb, but something different happens, you pick it up. A technique that’s critical to beating the level’s first boss.
The road to Super Mario 64’s first star is a meticulously crafted domino effect. Each challenge inspires the next and you’re rewarded for it.
Bob-omb Battlefield’s genius continues by placing carrots just out of a player’s reach.
For many, the giant Chain Chomp guarding the level’s final star is too intimidating or too tough.
The star before it, requires a power-up that is impossible to attain without exploring more of the castle.
Both inspire the player to widen their focus; to think critically about where they should be going and why. Engagement that is supported by the vague hints offered at the beginning of each level.
Nothing is spelled out, in fact many act as some sort of a riddle for the player to solve. A first puzzle before the level even begins.
I’m happy to say that all of this is adding up to my fiancé’s formative gaming experience.
Just like it did for me in 1997, it’s inspiring her to return and explore in 2020.
Nintendo has been accused of phoning-in their re-released 3D All Stars collection (Super Mario 64 isn’t even wide-screen in the All-Stars collection), but there’s no denying their timeless design.
Thank you, Super Mario 64 for being our teacher.