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Super Mario 64

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Reviewed by J.M.Vargas Happy Birthday! A little over a year has passed since Nintendo 64 hit store shelves all over North America, and me and hundreds of thousands of Americans experienced the thrill of 64-bit gaming with "Super Mario 64". Many felt tempted to purchase "Pilotwings 64" for variety in the gaming diet, but that game just didn't look like much fun to the PSX/Saturn jaded eyes of yours truly. No sir, "SM64" was one of only two games I purchased for the N64 in 1996 ("Wave Race 64" was the other one); I just, for the life of me, couldn't find another N64 cartridge that could even remotely compare to the value-for-money ratio of Shigeru Miyamoto's premier title. But things are a little different now that N64 and Sony's PSX are at each other's throat. For most of 1996 N64 owners (not only in the US but in Japan and all over the world) could count themselves lucky if one game per month got released. With good/bad/average games being released for the PSX/Saturn at a dizzy rate, temptation to pack the machine and call it quits with the cartridge format were ever present (and if you say you weren't tempted by Sega and Sony's titles then you're not a gamer but a Nintendo loyalist...not that there's anything wrong with that!). Sure, "Mario Kart 64" was released for February and definitely made it worth the wait. But when "War Gods" was released as the premier May title for the N64 in 1997, you felt like a conservative Republican clinging on to deeply held moral values while the rest of the world (from the President of the U.S. down to the average PSX owner) was out having some decadent fun. But now things are changing and, although there won't be a "Super Mario 64"-caliber title for the 1997 Christmas holidays (a first for Nintendo), there will be at least a variety of games tempting your wallet. Three games got released on October 1st for the N64 ("Mace: The Dark Ages", "Top Gear Rally" and "Mischief Makers"), something I don't think has ever happened before and shows the improving status of the developer's know-how with the system. What I'd like to do, before I plunge deep into the sea of great software available for the 1997 fourth quarter (as a multi-platform owner, that could mean almost drowning myself and my bank account into oblivion) is to pay tribute to the game that started us down the path of 64-bit console gaming. One more time before people who have played it forgot the moment, or newbabies just getting acquainted with it post their new reviews, I'd like to remind readers what it's like to play "Super Mario 64". Years in development, million of dollars (yen?) and countless man hours were spent by Nintendo to make their mascot character, its world and his sidekicks a vibrant and interactive gaming world that would serve as the prototype all other gaming would be compared against. It wasn't the first next-gen. game with "go anywhere" elements in 3D for characters (Capcom's "Resident Evil" and Delphine's "Fade to Black" were early examples). And two other games were simultaneously being developed that would use an almost identical gameplay strategy for 3D gameplay: Accolade's "Bubsy 3D" (PSX) and Eidos' "Tomb Raider" (PSX/Saturn/PC). What money and man hours can't duplicate or purchase is addictive gameplay magic, something Dr. Miyamoto is quite good at; add to that the recognition factor of the Mario franchise (kids can recognize Mario as easily as other American icons like Mickey, Bugs, Fred Flintstone, Joe Camel, Sailor Moon, Fritz the Cat, etc.) and you've got a winner. "Super Mario 64" is the premier character-driven 3D "go anywhere" console title (even though they're 3D, driving games aren't included in this assessment) for the foreseeable future. It's so good that Rare, second-party developer-extraordinary for Nintendo, has pretty much ripped the concept and tweaked into two upcoming games ("Banjo K." and "Conker's Quest"). To be fair, Eidos and their "Tomb Raider" franchise, although graphically inferior, went on to achieve huge critical and financial success for Nintendo's competing consoles (the "Bubsy" franchise went the opposite way, sending Accolade reeling and the game into the bargain bins). "SM64" will have as its legacy the way it taught developers how to do 3D gaming that wouldn't be a chore for the gamer to get acquainted with. I see people selling their used copies and commenting on how boring the game gets after awhile; true (every one-player game, regardless of how good, get's tedious after extended play), but now people are getting used to being bored by 3D gameplay as opposed to the tried and almost-exhausted 2D gameplay. That can only be good news for gamers, since they'll be really picky and expect more from developers with their new games. Duplicating "SM64" on competing platforms isn't going to cut it anymore ("Croc" anyone?), since we now not only expect the clones to do what Mario did but to do it better ("Agent Gex", "Jersey Devil", "One", "Mystical Ninja", "Tomb Raider 2", "Crash Bandicoot 2" head's hurting now!). Looks like Dr. Miyamoto has his work cut out for him, since not only must he top himself and his team of developers, but the teams of developers trying to top themselves and Nintendo. I'm sure "Super Mario 64 2" will fix the little flaws that the original had and add more (Luigi will be included, which takes care of the dearly missed two-player option), but under his watch Miyamoto let the cheap Artificial Intelligence almost ruin "Mario Kart 64" (and let's not forget "Stunt Race FX" for the SNES). All I'm saying is that the man's human, and the task of duplicating the awe felt when playing "SM64" the first time is going to be can you surprise gamers again when the major ace up your sleeve, the expectation of the then-unexpected, is no longer at your disposal?


There have been newer games which display more graphical tricks, both from the software and the hardware, than "SM64". "Final Fantasy VII" on PSX, "Christmas NIGHTS" on Saturn and Miyamoto's own "Star Fox 64" (to name three). But the single biggest feature that makes the game's world comes alive is the casualness with which the graphics coexist with the gameplay. Let me explain: Mario is an Italian plumber trying to rescue a blond Princess (named "Peach"?) from a tyrannical Dinosaur bent on taking over a world populated by flying turtles, talking mushrooms (Toad) and boxes suspended in mid-air that can make the hero fly in the air (with wings attached to his cap, the way flying ought to be if you ask me!) or morph into a refugee from James Cameron's "Terminator 2". See how preposterous and ridiculous the whole Mario world becomes the more rationale you apply to it? That's why the design, simplicity and charm (yes, you can also call them cute) of the graphics do not require an overkill of lens flares and pretty but unnecessary special effects (PSX titles, particularly those from Psygnosis, come to mind). The princess' castle feels and looks rock-solid, the trees are interactive elements which serve a useful purpose (climb to the top, do handstand, jump long distances) as well as a decorative one. The sleeping plant in Whomp's Fortress has bubbles coming from her nose as /he/she/it calmly snores...the dark glasses worn by the fish swimming in the ponds of Tiny-Huge Island...the running shoes worn by Koopa the Quick before the two footraces...the little Penguins in Cool, Cool Mountain...etc. All these small elements add up to a package that, besides looking stunning (even in low-res.), bring two-dimensional drawings into a vivid and cartoony world to life. As a gamer who overdosed with the original "Super Mario Bros." back in the mid-80's (and skipped the SNES because of a momentary flirt with the Atari Lynx...forgive me father, for I have sinned!), all these things were new to me and shocked me in a positive way. It is hard to draw a painting or a frame of animation; it is harder to render a polygon and make of them cohesively resemble anything. But to render, in hundreds of thousand of polygons, an existing and well-known two-dimensional world and make it a lively and enjoyable place to go around exploring! I'll just say that, soon after beating "SM64" the second time around, I headed to my local retailer and got me a brand new SNES, "Super Mario All-Stars", "Yoshi's Island" and (because it was on sale) "Donkey Kong Country 2". I can't think of a higher tribute to the artistic vision of "SM64" than instilling in me the desire to go back and experience the elements that led to this 64-bit artistic triumph. The graphics in the game, however, aren't totally flawless. There is considerable (but bearable) slowdown when bodies of water, hallway torches (up close) or fiery lava bursts appear within sight. Oddly enough, when Mario is submerged under water the slowdown is gone...go figure! Some enemies and background graphics suddenly "pop up" as you approach them; this doesn't affect the game because there is enough distance between our hero and the appearing enemy/background to react (compare that to the "pop up" that screwed up the Saturn version of Sega's "Dayotna U.S.A."). The N64 games have developed a reputation for a uniform look, the result of the repeating textures needed to make games fit on cartridges ("Doom 64", "Wave Race 64", and the biggest culprit of them all, "Turok: Dinosaur Hunter"); "SM64" has fifteen different levels, with ten additional levels for hidden surprises. The textures do repeat themselves frequently throughout the game: the fences, the trees, the brown rocky mountainsides, the shades of the grass, the blocks and hallways of the Princess' Castle, etc. It will be most noticeable when compared to newer N64 which have learned how to handle the medium's limitations ("GoldenEye 007" has way more textures stored in memory, but as a result the mountains and characters look thin and almost as fake as Hollywood's one-sided movie sets). But can you honestly say the repeating textures bothered you the first few times you played "SM64"? Overall, these graphics (their visual splendor aside) convey the most personality and vivid imagination of any Nintendo title to date; it's the natural evolution from Mario's two-dimensional heritage taken to the next level (which used to be occupied by Sega...what went wrong?). Only "NIGHTS...Into Dreams", by Yuji Naka's Sonic Team, feature characters and a world that is just as memorable and/or imaginative as Mario's (I'd say the fresh air is just a tad better at Nightopia than in Nintendoland).


Many of them recycled from previous Mario titles, which I wasn't aware of when playing the game the first few times. The butt-stomp (out of "Yoshi's Island"), the pipe (all games), etc. But the sound chips are smoking on this one, since the newer, better sound effects come through with vibrant resonance. On previous NES/SNES games, whenever Mario jumped bellow a block to get a flower or mushroom, a tiny beepy sound effect occurred. On the N64, since there are fewer boxes and they all provide key power-ups for Mario (invisibility, invulnerability and the ability to fly), you'll hear a powerful "Boomp" with echo and what sound like a cartoon sprin ("Boing") when smashing the blocks. All the enemies have their own sound effect, like the spiders that approach Mario, the Koopa Troopa's feet rapidly tapping, etc. And there are sound effects all over the cartridge: elevators going up and down, water splashes, fireballs being thrown, etc. This are cartoon sound effects folks, so you'll no doubt find them a worthy alternative to what has been heard from Warner Borthers and MGM cartoons. New to the Mario World in the N64 is the ability for some of the characters to have audible speech. Mario yells "Yippie!", "Yahoo!" (net-surfing Mario? Can't wait for the TV ad), "Let's-a-go!", etc. The Princess reads a letter at the beginning of the game and gives a speech at the game's end rewarding your efforts (cake? Yummy!). Some of these were new, exclusive features for the American audience not present in the Japanese version of the game released in the summer of 1996 (the speech was included, along with Rumble Pack compatibility, when Nintendo re-released the game in the summer of 1997). The ambient sound effects by other living creatures in the world are also cool: Bowser's menacing laughter, the Big Bird's scream (sort of!), birds chimping in the background, etc. Buy and play the game for the great gameplay and not for the sampled speech, because there's hardly any in this first-generation Nintendo effort. "Mario Kart 64", on the other hand, took the speech samples to a new level with some memorable one-liners ("I'm a Wario...", "I'm a Luigi...", "Peachy!", etc.). The next evolution in speech came with "Star fox 64" (dialogue galore, on a cartridge!)...what will "Super Mario 64 2" speech samples will be like? Koji Kondo has composed great music for Nintendo games in the past, and this game truly is in a league of its own with the tunes of "SM64". The banjo music when going down the Princess' Slide, the one-minute loop when exploring the inside of the Castle, the calm and relaxation-inducing mood of the tunes in Dire, Dire Docks (which vary depending on your location in the level, inside or outside the water, etc.), the organ tune for the final showdown with Bowser (it feels lifted straight from "Phantom of the Opera"), etc. It loops frequently, but I've found it still enjoyable after all this months of repeated play. If you're into Nintendo music, a CD with most of the tunes in the game (as well as a remix from "Wave Race 64" tunes) is available for under $8. [ON AN ASIDE: why are CD's with Nintendo music always missing one or two tunes from the game? The "SM64" CD doesn't have the cool tunes from Big Boo's Haunt and Hazy Maze Cave/Wet-Dry World, but the horrible music from Lethal Lava Land/Shifting Sand Land is there. The "Mario Kart 64" music CD doesn't have the cool tune from Chocobo Mountain. Someone ought to remind Nintendo that, unlike their cartridges, music CD's have storage room to spare (ouch!).] This game contains some of the best MIDI-composed tunes on cartridge, and makes you wonder what Koji Kondo's musical talents would allow if he had a medium to get better tunes pumped out. Then we could have a challenge to what I consider the greatest video game soundtrack of all time, Sega's "NIGHTS...Into Dreams" (oh really?).


Rather than randomly go on and on about the game's finer points without a central theme (like we haven't done enough of that today :), I'd like to go through each of the world's fifteen levels and briefly describe a couple of key points from each. Who knows? Maybe they are the building blocks that Dr. Miyamoto will employ to rebuild the game into a stunning "I-must-buy-a-64DD-just-to-play-this" sequel. See if you can relate to any of these memories. BOB-OMB BATTLEFIELD: the first taste of 64-bit gaming we all had started in this level, the only accessible without a single star. It took me a few days to figure out how to release Chain Chomp and get the star behind the bars, and to my surprise a friend overseas was having similar problems with the same obstacle until I bailed him out (gaming brotherhood through vast distances!). The Bob-omb boss at the top of the mountain (as well as most of the initial obstacles) seem too easy and unchallenging; that's the way Nintendo wanted the player to feel in order to get used to the 3D gameplay and prepared for the battle ahead. Shell surfing (or shreddin') becomes available once you defeat Koopa the Quick in a race to the top, and the first time you get a hold of the, you will experience a brief moment of gaming nirvana in which you'll feel this is way too cool! (eh, OK! Move on!). WHOMP'S FORTRESS: since this is some kind of floating island, the environment will become your enemy as you attempt to collect the stars and move around. With the exception of the star hidden on a corner of a wall (another overseas friend bailed me out), I would have never found the darn thing. The owl is cool but hard to control, and gets you to the star in the cage too easy (getting to it without the owl...that's da bomb!). One of the few instances in the game were walking slowly (around the plants) is a requirement, although it's easier to grab the block at the bottom of the level and throw it at the plant, getting yourself a big fat blue coin. Colorful enemies! JOLLY RANGER BAY: here's where most people will notice (a) that there will be slowdown when water surrounds Mario (although it is greatly reduced by the time you reach Wet-Dry World...a bug?), and (b) the star you choose when you jump into a portrait will affect the arrangement of obstacles in that world. Case and point: the ship will be sunked in the bottom if you choose the challenge of going inside to get the star, or floating with red coins in all the other challenges. That darn eel is spooky-looking but harmless (are there any Mario enemies that seriously maim the hero?). The first time you get the timing correct for the Metal Mario jumping into the deep to get the star surrounded by! The most relaxing background cartridge tune you'll ever hear (it kicks the crap out the music in "Pilotwings 64"). COOL, COOL MOUNTAIN: the rules from 16-bit platforms still apply, as this snow-covered world has slippery controls. I got 119 stars on two saved files (and was well on my way to fill the third file) because I couldn't beat the f*@*\+% Penguin in the slide, and kept falling off the cliff over and over again (you should have seen me when I finally beat the boss...I was jumping up and down, sending the old lady living in the apartment bellow me running for cover!). Here is the first time you'll need a wall-bounce (a timing-heavy move) to access a particularly difficult star. The whole thing with the little Penguin lost and her worried mother is classic Nintendo: sickeningly cute but touching. BIG BOO'S HAUNT: based on the famous levels from the 16-bit "Super Mario World", this game at times resorts to fixed camera angles (ala "Resident Evil") to keep the player in touch with the objective. Here is where the wall-bounce becomes a must, since that's the only way to access the balcony where the really Big Boo awaits (three butt stumps and he's a goner? Too easy!). The Merry-go-round can be confusing but there is definitely room for more challenge; the whole level approaches a "Halloween-for-tots" level of cuteness, but is hardly scary or challenging. Only level where you don't have to jump on a hole or into a painting (is located inside a ghost that roams in a fountain outside the Castle's...patio??!!). HAZY MAZE CAVE: have you ever seen a more friendly, cute and harmless beast than Bessie the Beast? swimming in the bottom of the level's pond waiting to give you a lift towards the Green box switch. I wish she were included in "Turok: D.H." or Turok would pay her a visit (with the Grenade Launcher ready). The spiders look rather freaky in there little shoes and bugged-out eyes (although not as bas as those seen in "Tenka" for the PSX). The Toxic Maze has some inconvenient potholes that make navigating it a chore (and raises the possibility of your chocking to death). Watch out for them falling rocks! Lara Croft can do most of Mario's moves, but I sure would like to see her hang from bars, suspended in mid-air over deep holes. LETHAL LAVA LAND: a flashback for the meek to the bullies that harassed them in school. Looking like bowling balls with horns, eyes and feet, these scumbags push you around and try to throw Mario into the lava pools surrounding this Hell-spawn nightmare (whatever!). Some stars are way too easy again (Red-Hot Log), while others require nerves of steel and a steady hand (particularly inside the volcano). Good luck with the shell shreddin', since one obstacle hit means you're in the lava (or flying over it, grabbing your butt in extreme pain). SHIFTING SAND LAND: One of two hidden worlds with a fake wall as the entrance (the other one's the mirror-trick in Snowman's Land), this Egyptian-based world has shifting land as the enemy as well as some weird twisters and a Big Bird (no, not THE Big Bird; Nintendo's). The elements are the obstacle, as well as the piercing ear-sore that is the horrible citar music in the background (same goes for Lethal Lava Land, which shares the same tunes). Once you manage to solve both the riddles of the pyramid's exterior and interior, you duke it out with a boss that resembles two hands made of stone (Andross' hands?). DIRE, DIRE DOCKS: available after you collect a certain number of stars, this water-based level features sharks and deadly currents as the enemies, and tricky obstacles like moving poles. You get to hop into Bowser's submarine, although you can't go inside or explain its vanishing after you grab the star on it. If you feel tempted to explore the black hole inside this world (only visible when submarine is on surface), you'll be sent back to the pond outside the castle. The relaxing tunes are back, and jumping from pole to pole can be fun (the first few times at least). SNOWMAN'S LAND: remember the first time you figured out the entrance to the level through a mirror reflection? A one-time wonder trick that made us smile; plenty of timing needed in order to get to some of the harder-to-reach stars (a few have to be reached by jumping on enemies and using the boost to reach them; others require that Mario rides on top of the head of a Penguin). Not as hard as Cool, Cool Mountain and with more special effects eye-candy (the transparent house right at the beginning of the level). WET-DRY WORLD: there are two worlds in one since two/three of the red coins can only be reached by shooting Mario into this "warp". Mario's ability to move the water level up and down (by jumping higher or lower into the portrait, or activating the switches inside the world) affects the tasks, which include finding hidden spots, moving heavy blocks (another technique "Tomb Raider" was simultaneously developing) and evading a throwing bully. TALL, TALL MOUNTAIN: what is it with Nintendo? First they throw us a Rabbit that Mario has to chase (twice!) for stars, and then we get a cap-stealing monkey! The slide is back, well disguised as a mountain side, and it isn't as punishingly hard as the Princess' or the Penguin's. The moles can't be killed but they certainly know how to be a pain, by either throwing rocks at Mario or popping from the ground unexpectedly ("Mario Kart 64" only). Some stars can be reached by leap-of-faith jumps, but some will require common sense; more enemies than usual in this level, although they're still as dumb as a box of kitty litter. TINY-HUGE ISLAND: the best example of the hardware's scaling ability comes when choosing to enter the world as either a huge or a tiny Mario. Stand between the two portraits, switch to free camera, and look at both of them: they seem to be at identical lengths. But run toward them and the machine will scale them accordingly. It's unbelievable! Koopa the Quick is back for a rematch (sore loser!). and you'll need to take huge jumps and hope for the best in defeating the jealous turtle (it's all in the wind). Wiggler is so cute, but why is he wearing a flower on his/her head?. And how come invisible wars prevent the water from falling? Nothing, however, compares with the embarrassing prospect of being eaten by a huge fish wearing sunglasses underwater. TICK TOCK CLUB: with the exception of the need to stomp the Thwomp (he, he!), the level is one big, mechanical, joyless romp through a huge clock tower (an homage to London's Big Ben?) without a living creature (kinda like a non-puzzle version of "Tetrsiphere"). A huge bore, with difficulty adjustability an option by selecting the time at which to enter the world (slower, faster, or frozen). RAINBOW RIDE: the mother of all obstacle-based challenges; a few enemies here and there (located on key locations where they can do the most damage), but the star of the level is the rainbow with a magic world cruising through the floating castle on top of a cloud, or the ship propelled by feathers (classic Miyamoto). It took me until 5:00 AM Saturday morning to beat the level, and it was worth every hour, yell and temper tantrum'; you'll die often, because one false step and it's curtains.


The game sure has aged over the past year, and many people who played it to death fear that the onslaught of clones will dilute the magic the unexplored genre once had. I got 120 stars on all four save slots, and was pretty much done finding new or secret stuff. I could have sold it and gotten a few bucks toward newer, flashier games; I chose to delete all my saved games and start from scratch. "Super Mario 64" is a cartoon brought to life which is fully interactive and, singlehandedly, pushed the hype behind the Nintendo 64 success for the first half of its existence. I can only hope the sequel will add some needed boost to the genre: more speech samples, more tricky puzzles, better variety of environments (how about adding the same levels from the original to the sequel: presto!), a two-player feature (the return of Luigi), and the ability to design your own obstacles and levels with expansion packs (put the 64DD technology to good use). More options would be nice (selecting which musical track to hear during play, letterboxing, etc.), but the three key features that the sequel has got to have. Expand Mario's ability to fly with more forgiving controls and interactive on-air elements. Think of "NIGHTS" control combined with Mario's universe. There should be tutorials and/or a training world (like the original's Castle) for the young people to learn the tricks of the rope and experience Mario's 3D universe. Many young kids simply couldn't get a hold of Mario's new control scheme, and since older, wiser veterans of the original will be expecting more challenging gameplay, the young one's enjoyment shouldn't be left unnoticed. More challenging enemies. Thanks for making "SM64" an easy introduction into 3D gaming and for providing a forgiving challenge for newbabies. Now we want the enemies to be vicious, for Koopa Troopas to attack Mario like demons sworming all over the Soldier in "Doom 64". We want it hard, and we want it soon. The video game world is filled with milestone games that changed and altered the fruited plane (something Rush would say). "Centipede", "Pac Man", "Tetris", etc. "SM64" joins the elite club that has redefined genres in the 1990's ("Doom", "Warcraft II", "Virtua Fighter 2", "NIGHTS", "Mario Kart", etc.); until someone makes a game that can match the joy of being a child again ("Tomb Raider" came close but it was too violent and graphically flawed to equal Mario), this franchise is the ace up Nintendo's sleeve in the cut-throat world of video games. And we know what hunger and thirst of power does to the underdogs. Sega did it to Nintendo in 1991, and Sony did it to Sega big time in 1995. Could Nintendo (strong in the US and Europe but floundering in Japan) withstand the angry comeback of the once-mighty but hungry Sega and their 64-bit CD-based monster? Mario still rules until late 1998...then the gloves are off when the rendered Hedgehog appears.

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