Friday, July 14, 2017

Super Mario 64

Dear reader, should you be the gaming type--and I'm assuming you are, considering you're reading a video game blog-- let me ask you this: if you could, would you take on the impossible task of playing a game forever? Personally, there would be far too many earthly pleasures to give up for such a venture: while the luxuries of drinking Welch's White Grape Juice and stroking cats could simply be delivered to me, the simple pleasures of taking afternoon walks, watching cat videos and reading weathered One Piece and Eyeshield 21 volumes would simply be too much to give up.

And yet, a number of games pop readily to mind. I remain endlessly entertained by Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, for example, and I've yet to grow bored of Splatoon even on the eve of its sequel. I've never tired of the cathartic seas found in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and my fascination with Bubble Bobble on my beloved NES Classic Mini hasn't ceased. I've lost count of how many times I've completed Star Fox 64 and Tales of Symphonia; in fact, I'm at the tailend of a playthrough for the latter right now.

All fine choices, but I wonder how they'd stack up to Super Mario 64, a game that is second nature to me. It is a game that invites me in the moment I see Mario's big goofy face pop up, ready to be stretched by the glove cursor. The moment I hear Koji Kondo's woodwind composition for the file select, I'm instantly drowning in nostalgia. When Peach's courtyard opens up to me, I'm already lost in a whirlwind of jumping, worlds locked away by magic paintings, and soaring across the sky with my Wing Cap.

Needless to say, I love Super Mario 64, the game not just responsible for bringing Mario to 3D but reinventing the gaming landscape as we knew it. It is not the first to do everything it does, but it is the first to do everything it does well: Mario's sense of control is pitch-perfect and yields endless experimentation, all complemented by how most of its environments subscribe to a wondrous sandbox philosophy. Even the oft-criticized camera was something of a marvel: for all the hyperbole critics spout in "fighting the camera" (which I must confess has never happened to me), there was nothing quite like panning the camera around Mario to soak in the world around you.

However, let us admit what perhaps the more nostalgic players won't: Super Mario 64 is a flawed masterpiece. A masterpiece that will continue to inspire video games for generations to come, but one that carries wear and tear by virtue of its own status. As admitted by even its own developers, Super Mario 64 is very much an experimental title in which Nintendo was still figuring out 3D design, and that's why more than a decent portion comes across as rudimentary, be it the easy-peasy boss design or some of its elementary objectives ("stomp on the Chain Chomp's post three times!")

When considering that, it's all the more a miracle it ended up being as amazing as it did. Mario 64's success lies in its new identity as a "sandbox" platformer: whereas Mario's previous 2D efforts involved timed jumping exercises and acrobactics, here we explore as according to the whims of our objectives and curiosities. Older fans of 2D Mario take issue with this direction in that it strays too far from their strict platforming philosophy, instead taking on an exploratory approach. While true, I cannot disagree more in it being a problem: the leap to 3D must require a different--if not still familiar-- avenue of play to stand out, and what better way to complement Mario's superb jumping skills than big, wide environments to hop around in?

And what better place to emphasize this than the very beginning? Yes, the courtyard of Princess Peach's Castle is something discussed in every Mario 64 review, but it simply must be analyzed. Everything when starting a new game changes the world of Mario henceforth: The princess introduces a letter via voiceover, her signature as "Peach" subtly bidding farewell to her North American name hitherto ("Toadstool"). A Lakitu holding a camera--our fourth-wall proxy as the game's own "camera"--soars around the castle's courtyard in glorious 3D. Finally, Mario emerges from his Warp Pipe, and is left to his own devices.

There's no time limit urging you forward, no enemies to squash. After a brief text box introducing the controls, you're left to soak in your surroundings. Experimentation is inevitable: you can jump, double jump, triple jump anywhere. You can climb those trees. You can swim in the moat. You examine the gated cannon, confused at its purpose. If you're particularly ambitious, maybe you'll try to jump and reach the top of the castle. By today's standards, it may seem dry and featureless, but the range and natural flexibility of Mario's moveset begs you to test everything in sight. What seems like a waste of time is somehow rendered a most imperative, fulfilling prologue.

Note the transition into the awe-inducing scope of Bob-omb Battlefield. The mountain in the distance beckons you; as it should, considering it's home to the Big Bob-omb boss. This is where every Mario 64 adventure begins: the game's progression system, which gates the doors of Peach's Castle behind a numbered Power Star limit, rewards said stars by tackling each world's set of missions, be it defeating bosses or collecting coins. They can be grabbed in any order, but only after the Big Bob-omb.

It is a bold shift from the previous Mario rule of play; barring the secret exits of Super Mario World, much of Mario's platforming antics urged towards the goal in one direction. Here, while the mountain does beckon you, the world's immense scope captivates just as the courtyard did minutes ago. Ask yourself: the first time you went here, did you stay on the path to the mountain, with its giant Chain-Chomp and tilting bridges and all, or did you walk off so you could punch that Goomba? I'll bet it's the latter, and Mario 64 continues to come to life via experimentation. For example, did you ever figure out how jump-kicking a Bob-omb from behind makes it explode? Ever try throwing a Bob-omb at the Chain Chomp to see what happens? What happens when you run around those wood pillars?

Nearly every world adheres to this philosophy: Shifting Sand Land, with its big pyramid, scalable pillars and fascinating enemies (perhaps tools?) in the form of Fly Guys, Crazed Crates and Tox Boxes (a favorite of Miyamoto's); Cool, Cool Mountain, decorated with slides, hidden teleportation and red herrings in the form of baby penguins; Hazy Maze Cave, home to intertwined passages and a playful sea monster; Wet-Dry World, constructed with water level-changing switches and an eerie Playskool-esque town, and Tick-Tock Clock, which employs a genius time-related gimmick to adjusting the difficulty for any one player's needs.

Needless to say, their uniquely distinct takes on the sandbox all fascinate, although not all are successes: Lethal Lava World always felt a tad haphazard to me, and the straightforward design of Dire, Dire Docks simply doesn't adhere to the type of game Mario 64 is. Only two misses in fifteen worlds is a mighty fine feat, however, and I'll defend every other one to the death. Rainbow Ride, for example, is another commonly-cited "bad" level due to the length of its carpet rides, but I ask its critics this: did you ever stop to turn around at the beginning? Like me, I bet you'll have your mind blown.

It's impossible for me to elaborate on more than one level without making this essay impossibly long, so let's go back to Bob-omb Battlefield for my next point: as you progress through the game, more each and every world becomes populated with new toys. Some of these serve obvious purposes: cannons, for example, gradually become available and must be shot out of to reach certain Stars. Others are more nebulous in their purpose, but are immediately understood upon function: maybe you'll find jumping on a Koopa will lodge it from its shell, and jumping on that reveals that, yes, you can ride it up that slope or all the up the mountain.

And then there's the Wing Cap, one of three available power-ups induced via cap. Introduced in a stunning special stage where Mario flies around the sky for Red Coins, its appearance in Bob-omb Battlefield leads to unparalleled highs: jumping three times to initiate flight doesn't score much air, but when combined from a cannon launch, we're sky-bound, zipping and soaring across the world. There's no time limit crippling our flight, no urgent objective forcing us to do it this way or that way: we're just having a good time.

It's here the true genius of Mario 64 unveils itself: you don't have to do the primary objective to have fun. Cynical critics dismiss these activities as pointless, but it was Shigeru Miyamoto's own wish for us to bask in this pointlessness: it compels us to keep trying different things, to strive us to do better in how we play the game. It asks us how far we could carry Big Bob-omb down the mountain, or grab all the coins in every level, or even if we can jump to the floating island with the Koopa shell. The open-ended design leads not just to intentional wonders like stumbling upon stars by accident; the game takes on new lives unforeseen by its own developer (as proof, here's a whole website dedicated just to the coin thing!).

So much of this has to do with how amazing Mario feels; by far Mario 64's greatest achievement are its physics, which render Mario a kinetic virtual action figure operable via triple jumps, wall jumps, long jumps, side jumps, dive jumps, and somersaults. As mentioned in the above developer interview, the physics don't necessarily follow our own laws, but the parameters within follow its own complex, yet accessible, rules that they feel real; in that, I'd perhaps argue I've never felt a game as precise in control as this one.

The "sandbox" direction of the game comes to life here: the physics and movesets provided are what develop our addiction in how are snappy and responsive they are, for it is they that convince us anything is possible to achieve. To the developers' own admission, they included more moves than necessary: you don't really need the slide kicks and sweepkicks, but they're so fun to pull you can't help but experiment.

Being the first successfully-crafted 3D game of its kind, however, predictably led to many unforeseen glitches, but these hardly negatively impact the game; in fact, they have only prolonged its longevity. You have the sequence-breaking trickery of the Backwards Long Jump, for one, and how it rockets across stairways to plow through locked doors. Meanwhile, the crafty player who carefully inspects the level design may recognize certain walls and ceilings possess fragile seams to slip through, and it is there they discover they can swim underneath Whomp's Fortress or Cool, Cool Mountain, or the shortcut in jumping through the stairwell of Peach's Castle.

(Actually, through the use of a GameShark device, I found one of my own: you know the spooky merry-go-round in Big Boo's Haunt? I discovered an unused steel paneling underneath it! Not that I discovered the way to get there without a cheat device, but hey, I don't know anyone else who bragged about finding it before 2004).

How impressive it is the pioneer of 3D gaming can grant such invention to the player! Yes, some of may be owed to programming oversights, but that they only serve the game's purpose renders it a sign of how strong the game's design and physics systems are. A poorly-designed 3D game initiates the frustrating tedium of falling through walls; the masterwork that is Super Mario 64 uses its missteps to let us bend the game's reality. Perhaps you could say I love these physics so much that you could plant Mario and these physics in any game --or really, any sort of 3D environment-- and I could spend the entire day just experimenting on what I can do (And if you really to delve into the love people have for the physics, check out this mind-bending TAS-evaluation of Mario 64 and its utilization of parallel universes).

But let us not forget the traps Mario 64 falls into within its own design philosophies. I mentioned before how rudimentary Mario 64 can sometimes come across in its gameplay elements, and the most obvious example is what I like to call "oddjob Stars," which typically don't involve much platforming or exploration at all but instead have Mario performing brief, menial tasks, be it riding itty-bitty lifts and elevators or solving some trivial, five-second puzzle (not that there aren't good puzzles, but there's a big difference in quality between Tiny-Huge Island's ambiguous "five secrets" and Big Boo's Haunt's "punch the five library books!".) Actually. this is actually a big reason why I've never been crazy about Lethal Lava Land: barring the volcano adventures, much of its stars can be earned in maybe thirty seconds, with two being nearly identical in knocking the horned Bullies into lava.

It's a good thing, then, that Mario 64 is so open; you don't even have to get these stars if you don't want to. Remember that you can grab any star in any order, and with only 70 stars necessary to complete the game, these oddjob stars are easily skipped. "But what about completionists," you may ask, and even then, Mario 64's flexibility offers other solutions; just grab them alongside the 100 Coin Star, since those won't boot you out of the level. For every flaw presented, Mario 64 is flexible enough to provide a comeback, and that's how it seems so endless.

And if this is an endless game, then it's only fitting it'll pleasure our ears. Let us not forget this is the first officially-published Nintendo product to provide Mario's voice courtesy of Charles Martinet. The gruffness of Bob Hoskins or Captain Lou Albano he ain't, Mario is now a jolly, affable fellow whose cries of "Mamma mia!" immediately grow on you. In a move wisely upheld over twenty years later, Mario hardly speaks in full sentences, instead relying on grunts and quick catchphrases, letting our own fun echo through his ecstatic yells (A shame the same can't be said for Leslie Swan's bookending role as Peach: while her introductory letter is fine, her actual, on-screen presence at the ending sorta proves the notion you shouldn't just grab people around the office to do voiceover).

Naturally, series composer Koji Kondo must be at the top of his game for his N64 debut. Whereas his later efforts in Star Fox 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time may've suffered from low-quality samples here and there, there's not a speck of that to be found here; look no further than the infectiously bouncy Main Theme that plays for Bob-omb Battlefield and other field-esque areas (Believe it or not, I never noticed it was the game's leitmotif--as in, it echoes through the winter and slide themes--until maybe eight years ago!)

Meanwhile, even if the water levels aren't among the game's strongest, the music may certainly grant the illusion that they are. Dire, Dire Docks is one of the great underwater Nintendo themes, recognizing that an exploratory game requires a slow, meditative accompaniment. It's little wonder this beautiful composition is often cited as players' association with nostalgia, although the aforementioned File Select theme may be a serious contender: both do have a knack for absorbing us into sweet, sweet childhood reverie.

Of course, we do hear reprises here and there: the infamous Starman theme from the first Super Mario Bros. is rearranged much the same way it was in Yoshi's Island the year prior, granting a soaring motif that wonderfully expresses flight. Meanwhile, the famous Underground Theme remixed for Hazy-Maze Cave/Wet-Dry World is perhaps my favorite iteration of all, if only for the eerie, aural segue that plays as you delve deeper into their respective areas: it channels a level of unsettling loneliness and mystery never before--and hereafter-- expressed in Mario, one I remain fascinated by in its expression of dismal hopelessness.

This same bleakness is echoed within Bowser's Road which perhaps rivals Super Mario World's Castle Theme as the best of the evil king's lair themes. By far the darkest these themes have ever gone, its disheartening percussion conveys the linear natures of the level, shuffling Mario ahead to his inevitable confrontation with Bowser. Given how the game's spooky, hypnotizing skyboxes are at their most prominent here, the song alone feels massive enough to swallow the poor plumber whole.

The aforementioned flaws of Super Mario 64 still exist: the localization feels more than a little unnatural ("Oh, Bowser is so wicked!" cries Princess Peach in a written message), the emptiness of Peach's Castle does require some suspension of disbelief, and the usage of the Vanish Cap fits squarely into the rudimentary oddjob Stars I mentioned earlier. I imagine there are other things that slip my mind.

But none of these matter: the realization that Mario 64 becomes a blank slate we can wash off again and again, to keep trying more and more to mine whatever else we can of something so ancient is a glorious testament to Nintendo's design ethic. Future open-ended endeavors in Pikmin 3, Star Fox 64 and Zelda: Breath of the Wild may have surpassed what Mario 64 began, but I can hardly think of any other Nintendo game that breaks free of its own objective and takes on a new life in juggling sandbox play, glitches and speedruns; in a way, Mario 64 become a way of life, a state of being that continually evolves through time.

Even now, I still can't stop stretching Mario's 3D face into abominable proportions at the game's opening screen; to tell the truth, I only found out the other year you can freeze the animations, thus heightening the absurdity. Revelations like this make me keep asking: how far can this game go? Does this mean Luigi will ever be found in the game? Probably not, but I still can't help but try until the end of time.

Unless, of course, my phobia for the eel in Jolly Roger Bay sparks up again. Zoinks!

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