Cue the star
September 29, 2010
Q: How did you decide what the world of Super Mario 64 would be like?
SM: I always decide on the basic ideas/concepts (such as Mario's moves) first, then I add other things until it takes a certain shape. After that, I start the total concept of the game.
Q: So you started with Mario's actions, or movements, when making the game?
SM: Yes, they're the core of this game. Mario's actions came first, then we made the courses that fit his movements.
--Interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo Power, Oct. '96
In Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto gives his most famous creation the best entrance in the history of video games. Even today, fourteen years and five flagship Super Mario games later, when Mario springs out of that green pipe and shouts "Wahoo!" I still get a little chill up my spine.
More than any other Mario game, Super Mario 64 is all about Nintendo's feisty Italian stereotype. No other game has relied so heavily on the simple joy of manipulating Mario in a playground of primary colors.
Dear Mario: Please come to the castle. I've baked a cake for you. Yours truly-- Princess Toadstool, Peach
After Mario emerges from that familiar green pipe, he touches down directly facing Princess Peach's castle. She has invited him in for cake. All signs suggest we should enter that castle right away, but who among us does? No. Instead we leap for joy. We run and jump and slide and dash and somersault and swim, all for fun. Just messing around. Just seeing what this little guy can do. Adventures await inside the castle, but why rush things when this part of the game delivers such simple delights?
Even after entering the castle, Miaymoto and team offer the player a small room that serves no purpose aside from encouraging the player to play, performing wall kicks and triple jumps, practicing all the moves in Mario's repertoire.
More than any other developer, Nintendo understands the tactile ambrosia of a controller married to motion; the subtle rush of making Mario leap, glide, and land exactly as you intend, with your fingers. How best to describe that feeling? It's a shame humans can't purr.
But I want to return to Mario's grand entrance because it signals a recurring message sent from the game to the player: Mario is now a superstar. To be sure, he's always been the main attraction, even when previous Super Mario games allowed us to play as other characters, like Yoshi.
But by focusing so much attention on the player's control of Mario's robust array of moves in Super Mario 64, Miyamoto clearly elevates Mario's star status (in a game about collecting stars), and the series has never looked back. Super Mario 64 is Miyamoto's magnum opus because it's the purest expression of his core design philosophy: it must be fun to simply play with Mario in a playful space with no other objectives at stake.
In other words, the role Mario plays in Super Mario 64 differs from the one he played in previous games. In the 2D Super Mario games, Mario functioned as an acrobatic sidescrolling avatar, steadily progressing from left to right, overcoming challenges, acquiring new abilities along the way. Tremendous fun. Brilliant level design. Super Mario World remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of video games. But in Super Mario 64, our plucky plumber transcends avatar to also become the player's animated toy - in the purest, most delightful sense of the word.
Quite apart from conquering its levels and locating all its stars, Super Mario 64 begins and ends with an exhilarating set of moves that never cease to be fun. Each presents a challenge to the player, requiring precision without feeling finicky. Once inside the castle, these moves serve a practical purpose, of course; but precisely executing them - choosing the right move and pulling it off at the right moment - is icing on an already tasty cake. Some moves, like the backward somersault, initially seem superfluous; but when you pull one off just as you're about to deal a knockout to Big Boo...well, victory tastes even sweeter with a little extra sauce.
If you've never played Super Mario 64 - or if revisiting the game sounds enticing to you - it just so happens we've begun a playthrough of the game over at Vintage Game Club. Please feel free to jump in and join our friendly conversation. We'd love to have you.