By 1996, I was nine years old and had subscribed to Nintendo Power for all the latest info from the gaming world. One month, I got a VHS that promoted the Nintendo 64, the latest game system. I watched it but being quite young, I didn't realize how monumental this thing would turn out to be. However, when I watched the tape again a little while later, I really got excited. The video featured demos of three upcoming games: Super Mario 64, Pilotwings 64, and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. Needles to say, Super Mario 64 was the one that grabbed my attention. I got even more excited when I started seeing TV spots for it that fall. It looked really cool and was unlike any video game I'd ever seen before. I got to play a demo of it myself at Wal-Mart and, although it was brief, it amazed me. The graphics, the levels, the sound: Mario actually made noises and said words. Back then, I'd never experienced that before. It was awesome!
As you've probably predicted, I got my Nintendo 64 for Christmas as well as a copy of Super Mario 64 and the Player's Guide. When I finally started to actually play the game, I was completely immersed in the amazing worlds it offered. This was the first Mario game I'd ever played that wasn't a side-scroller but a full, 3-D world where you could explore and find new things. It was incredible. I loved the music, the levels, the good guys, the bad guys, the treasure hunting nature of the game; basically, this game never failed to impress me.
The basic plot is simple: Mario is invited to Princess Toadstool's castle for lunch (I'm not sure but I think this was the first time we found out her name was Peach). When you get control of Mario, you walk into the castle only to be greeted by a text box that tells you to leave, followed by evil laughter. You immediately come across Toad and if you talk to him, you'll learn that this is another plot by Bowser. He's stolen the castle's power stars and imprisoned the princess within the castle walls. You must collect all of the stars and defeat Bowser in order to save the princess.
The gameplay is that within the castle walls are portals to other worlds: each world contains seven power stars. At first, you can only go to the first world but as you get more and more stars, you can open up new parts of the castle and as a result, new worlds. When you enter a world, you can at first only select one star to go for but you get a choice of more each time you collect one. Collecting these stars involve you doing various tasks like defeating certain enemies, exploring various parts of the level, etc. Some are easy to find but others make you do some complex things. There's always one star that demands you collect eight red coins (which has become a staple of Mario games made since then) and another that you can get when you collect one hundred coins total in the level. It's not necessary to get the exact star you selected when you entered the level. However, not all of the stars are within the worlds. Some are hidden in secret areas in and around the castle. There are also special things you need to do get into further parts of the castle like find keys, drain the moat, collect special caps, etc. Despite all that you have to do, it never feels like busywork and it offers you new challenges that make the game even more enjoyable.
When you begin with the first floor in the castle, all four of the levels you can unlock there involve walking into a door and jumping into a specific painting. That deceives you into thinking that's all you need to do to enter courses but as you get into deeper parts of the castle, the levels get trickier to find. They involve you jumping into parts of the wall that aren't marked, defeating certain enemies that hold the way to the level, etc. As I said, there also special courses you need to unlock to active caps that help you get certain stars; there's the winged cap that allows you to fly (works best when you're shot out of a cannon); my favorite, the metal cap which enables you turn metal for a brief time and become invisible (Mario's metal form has actually becomes its own character in subsequent games); and the vanish cap that makes you transparent and enables you to pass through certain walls. The final level for each area of the castle involves you battling Bowser at the end of a tricky level of platform jumping. You fight him twice before the final confrontation at the end of the game. This is what I love about this game: it's never boring because you have so much stuff to do.
You got many of your classic Mario enemies like Goombas, Koopas, Bob-Ombs, Thwomps, Boos, Bullet Bills, etc., as well as some new enemies. Some are pretty standard like big spiders, big water-skimmers, bats, bad snowmen, while others are interesting. There are Fly Guys, flying Shy Guys that you jump on for an extra boost but can also be annoying because they tend to swoop down on you or shoot fireballs at you; Spindrifts, weird critters with rotating flowers on their heads that can be useful to reach high areas; Mr. I, a giant eyeball that you defeat by running around him, causing to spin himself out of existence; a crazy piano in a haunted house that actually comes after you and tries to bite you; Klepto, a buzzard that will try to steal your hat; Fwoosh, a cloud that will blow you away, and so on. This may have been the game that introduced Chain Chomp, a giant black ball with teeth that's chained to a post and actually barks like a dog. One of the worst enemies is Bubba, a giant fish that will swallow you whole if you don't get out of his way. There were also this crates that would fling you around when you grabbed them. When they would break open, you'd get coins but you had to be careful not to let them fling you into a dangerous area like lava or quicksand.
There were two big innovations to Mario games and gaming altogether in Super Mario 64. One was the variety of moves you could make Mario do. While in the past all Mario could do was jump on enemies, here he had a variety of moves and attacks like backflips, sideflips, wall kicks, punching, ground pounds, jump kicks, sweep kicks, you name it. He could also tiptoe and do simple walks instead of always running and you could also slide and ride on Koopa shells. These may seem trivial but at the time, it was impressive. The other innovation was the N64's camera system, which allowed you to turn the camera so you could get a better look at what you were doing. I liked the way they explained this in the context of the game: a Lakitu with a news camera follows you around, reporting on everything you do for his news show. You could also switch to a camera position directly behind Mario, which came in handy for instances where you had to cross bridges over large gaps. There was also an option where you could make the camera stay in one position and you venture off. It was interesting and was fun to play with but it never had a real practical purpose. The camera wasn't without its faults. If you got to the edge of something, the camera would jump many times in a row, which made it hard to concentrate on getting away from the edge. Also, the camera would sometimes get stuck and wouldn't move where you needed it to. This would become a problem in many games to come that used this system.
What I liked about the courses is how each one of them was unique and some had characters and enemies specific to them. When selecting stars, certain characters and conditions would only be present for specific stars. There are also signs throughout the levels. Some tell you basic things whereas others give you hints about how to get stars in the level. What I'll do now is go through the courses and say what I liked and disliked about them.
Bob-Omb Battlefield: As with most games, this first level is a good introduction to the game as well as being a nice place to get used to the various controls. You meet the friendly Bob-Omb Buddies here who open up cannons on the course. (There would be Bob-Omb Buddies in other courses that you would need to talk to open the cannons there.) I liked fighting the Big Bob-Omb for the first star, racing Koopa the Quick for another star (he was never hard to beat), and playing with Chain Chomp to get a star. It's a basic course but a great introduction.
Whomp's Fortress: This place is a fortress on a floating island. Here, you fight the gigantic Whomp King and after you defeat him, an enormous tower appears at the top of the fortress. There are some interesting enemies here as well. There are sleeping Piranha Plants that you have to tiptoe up to defeat; otherwise, they'll wake up and bite you. There are Bullet Bills that shoot out of a box near the tower but attacking them does nothing but injure you so it's best to avoid them. One star is one where you need to flush an owl out of a tree at the start and grab onto him so he can fly you up to it.
Jolly Roger Bay: I love the calm, peaceful music in this level. If you get into the water, a much more melody driven type of music starts playing behind the calm main theme. Here, you can do stuff like enter a sunken ship in the middle of the bay, find a pirates treasure in an underwater cave, and blast a stone pillar to find a star. After you've gotten the first star out of the sunken ship, it'll be at the surface when you select other stars and you'll have to do things like run up its side and avoid sliding toxic boxes, which can be quite difficult. There's also a giant eel that swims around the deepest part of the bay. He does have a star at the end of his tail at one point but he can take a good chunk of your health off if he bites you.
Cool, Cool Mountain: The first of two snow levels, this level is a mountain that's apparently floating in the sky. It can be quite difficult since it's so slippery and in the sliding parts, it's hard to control where you're going. There's a frozen slide in a cabin at the beginning of the course. You slide on it twice: once just to get to the bottom and second to race a penguin so he'll give you a star. There's a shortcut you can use but if you use it when racing the penguin, you'll be disqualified. Speaking of penguins, there's one star where you need to bring a little lost penguin to her mother. The good news is she's at the beginning of the level; the bad news is that her mother is at the very bottom of the mountain and getting her down there can be challenging because if you hit a wall while sliding you'll lose her and she never sits still. There's another baby penguin on the roof of the cabin behind the mother but she's just a decoy. (It always bothered me that you can never find her mother.) The hardest stars to get are one where you need to guide this snowball down the mountain to where a snowman's head is so it can serve as his new body and another where you need to do some tricky wall kicks.
Big Boo's Haunt: A haunted house filled with ghosts, a crazy piano that tries to eat you, books that try to bite you, falling bridges, and a haunted merry-go-round. It's not a very big level but some of the stars can be tricky to get. You have to battle several Big Boos, avoid flying books in a library, ride the aforementioned merry-go-round, and defeat a gigantic Mr. I. Not much else to say about this level than it has some pretty scary music to go with it.
Hazy Maze Cave: This is a favorite level of mine because even though it's small, it packs a lot of different areas in. There's the actual Hazy Maze, which is full of toxic gas and you need to either stay above the gas or get a Metal Cap that makes you immune to it. (This area is also full of bats and bullet spitting enemies, which can be annoying.) There's a black hole where an endless supply of giant boulders fall down into it. You have to be careful not to fall down the hole yourself or get smashed by the boulders. There's a construction site that involves some tricky jumping and climbing puzzles. Finally, there's an underground lake inhabited by a blue plesiosaur. I always like to look off into the distance when I first get to the lake and watch the dinosaur swim around in the darkness. It looks cool. The player's guide says that the dinosaur will hurt you if you get too rough with her but I've never found that to be true.
Lethal Lave Land: This is one of the more difficult areas because wherever you turn, there's hot, boiling lava. If you fall into it, it doesn't mean instant death but Mario jumps around, screaming and if you don't steer him to a platform, you could lose a life. There are some enemies called bullies that can be very annoying with how they knock you around and they can be challenging to knock into the lava. There's a moving Bowser jigsaw puzzle that you have to be careful on or you may fall into the lava. The inside of the volcano in the center of the level has some really difficult tasks, especially the one where you have to climb to the top to get a star.
Shifting Sand Land: A desert with a lot of hazards. There's quicksand that you can escape from in some spots but mean instant death in others; a buzzard who'll steal your hat after you take his star; whirlwinds that come out of whirlpools but can be helpful in reaching difficult areas; and the big pyramid in the middle of the level, in which you have to fight either the guardian or scale to the very top. (Once you enter the pyramid, you can never exit unless you die, quit, or get a star.)
Dire, Dire Docks: Very small swimming level. There's a whirlpool at the beginning that is hard to avoid and means instant death if it sucks you in. The biggest part of the level involves a dock where Bower's submarine is parked. (My biggest complaint is that once you've defeated Bowser the second time, the sub is gone from the docks and never reappears. I liked the sub and wish it remained.) The pole-jumping you have to do at the dock to get the red coins is difficult as well as having to follow this manta ray and swim through the rings he leaves behind. There's even a point where you have to combine two caps to get a star.
Snowman's Land: The other snow level, this one can be very challenging. There's a frozen maze at the start with a star that can be hard to get because it's a bit difficult to see what you're doing. There's another maze inside this igloo on the giant snowman which isn't hard to navigate but can be frustrating at points. Climbing the giant snowman is easy enough but when you get to ice bridge in front of his face, you need to use the penguin crossing the bridge as either a shield or transport; otherwise, the snowman will blow you away. There's also freezing cold water, some which will damage you instantly and others that will gradually take away your health if you stay in it too long.
Wet-Dry World: This is an interesting world where the water level depends on how high you were when you jumped through the painting. There are switches here where you can raise or drain the water level. (Needless to say, some stars will require specific levels in order for you to reach them.) There's also an underground area that you need to access to get various stars.
Tall, Tall Mountain: One of the hardest levels by far, there are plenty of places here where you can easily fall to your death. There are rolling logs, mushrooms that can be difficult to jump onto, a cloud that will blow your hat away, monkeys that will steal your hat, and a dangerous slide inside the mountain that can trick you into going into a dead end. There's one star that's floating atop a mushroom separate to the mountain and getting there without dying is extremely difficult.
Tiny-Huge Island: This is a fun level that has two entrances. One is a giant painting where you enter the level normal-sized and with everything else enormous; the other is a small painting where you enter giant-sized. Details of the actual island change depending on what size you are when you enter. There are warp pipes that you can enter to shrink or enlarge yourself. You race Koopa the Quick again (a shorter but harder race than before), climb to the very top of the island, fight giant piranha plants that spit fire, and defeat an enrage giant caterpillar. There's one section with strong winds that can blow you into oblivion if you're not careful, Bubba the fish that can swallow you whole, and secret horde where red coins are kept.
Tick Tock Clock: The inside of the big clock you encounter. It's a difficult level with frustrating jumps, moving platforms, and a fall to oblivion. When you enter the clock face, where the hands are positioned affects if the gears inside the clock are moving fast, slow, or stopped altogether. Stopping the clock is the easiest way to progress through the level but not all the stars can be reached when the clock is stopped. Try to get some stars when the gears are moving fast if you want an added challenge.
Rainbow Ride: Since this is the final level in the game, it's only natural that it's also the hardest. You ride on a flying carpet that takes you to various platforms floating up in the sky. There's a big floating ship, a gigantic house at the end of the rainbow path, a maze where you have to wall kick to get red coins, crazy rotating platforms, and platforms that change shape. Believe me, I lost a lot of lives when I first got to this level.
You don't have to collect all 120 stars to complete the game but it opens up some extras. When you do get all of them, you can find Yoshi on top of the castle and he'll give you a hundred lives as well as a special triple jump. To end, I guess I'll talk about the fights with Bowser. The first one is easy: all you have to do is grab Bowser's tail and swing him into a bomb. Simple. The second time is trickier because he moves faster and can tilt the platform when he jumps on it. Still, you only have to hit him with a bomb once. The third and final battle is the most difficult. You have to throw him into three bombs and after two hits, he destroys all the edges of the platform, making it difficult to line up your shots. He also shoots a lot more fire than ever had before and he still moves fast. But if you're patient, you'll eventually beat him. The ending is pretty cool with the only actual spoken dialogue in the game as well as nice music over the ending credits.
After Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario 64 was the biggest gaming experience in my life. It was a fun, in-depth adventure that I had never experienced before and even though video games have come a long way since then, no game has been able to match it for me. I still look back on when I first played that game with nothing but smiles. Ah, good times.