Today is the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Nintendo 64 in the United States. I could try to think back and remember what it was like to play the groundbreaking Nintendo console, with its 3-D graphics and analog stick controller, for the first time. But why rely on hazy memories, when I could just dig up what I wrote about it at the time?
September 29, 1996 was the official launch date of the Nintendo 64 game console in the United States, not to mention Super Mario 64, the first 3-D Mario adventure (and one of the earliest free-roaming, polygon-based 3-D action games period). But it didn’t quite work out that way. With the concept of a “launch date” not yet fully ingrained into the gaming industry, more than one store started selling their Nintendo 64 machines the second the shipments arrived, as early as September 26. That’s when I picked up mine. I was 16, I’d just gotten a job bagging groceries, and I was rich (relatively).
I’d actually played Nintendo 64 for the first time, after two years’ worth of drooling over screenshots in videogame magazines, earlier that month at a demo station in Toys “R” Us. At this point in my life, people were more apt to pay me to bag groceries than to write about what I thought of a videogame. But I raced home anyway, and breathlessly dumped all of my thoughts about the machine, its wild new controller, and its flagship game into the pages of Video Zone, my black-and-white, 12-page, photocopied fanzine. Today, through the miracle of me never throwing anything away, we can read what it was like to play Nintendo 64 when it was release 20 years ago.
My piece began:
Wow. I actually got a change to play the amazing Nintendo 64 today. I mean, wow.
Before even playing the game, just getting to hold the Nintendo 64 controller for the first time was enough of a trip. Again, I’d been staring at this weird monstrosity in photographs for a year now, not understanding how it would actually work. The concept of an analog thumbstick, now a staple of any game machine, was brand new. I didn’t understand what it would even feel like to operate.
The controller itself is really surprisingly easy to handle, but if I hadn’t seen the diagrams in all the magazines about how you’re supposed to hold the thing and use the analog pad, I never would have figured it out (had to teach my brother how).
The stick, which I thought was going to be small, squat, and slow to push (like Mario) actually turned out to be long, thin, and springy. This makes you tend to want to make Mario run all the time, though that’s hard to keep doing.
The proper way to hold the Nintendo 64 controller was to hold the central grip with your left hand and the right grip with your right, ignoring the left flank of the controller entirely. My brother did the rookie move of putting his left hand on the left side and stretching his thumb all the way over to the analog stick in what had to be an extremely uncomfortable position. Later I learned that some players actually played through the entirety of Mario 64 like this.
I haven’t played it enough to tell you that it is unequivocally the best game ever, but what I’ve seen is smashing. The control of Mario is actually intuitive, thank God. Wherever you want to move him, your fingers simply react accordingly. Yes, it’s 3-D, but for some glorious reason, moving Mario is easier than ever. The camera angles can get a little annoying at times, but it’s breathtaking when you reach a summit and can see the whole world.
The entire idea of playing a game in freeroaming 3-D and having it feel natural was simply alien to me. In my limited experience with 3-D games to that point, the control schemes were always awkward and non-intuitive. Super Mario 64‘s control scheme had an incredible level of polish, although Nintendo was still struggling with the relationship between the player and the “camera”—understandably, since this was one of the first games in which those two things were controlled separately.
I’d just played my first contemporary 3-D videogame, and I was sufficiently blown away. Of course, I’d had a Nintendo 64 pre-ordered at the local Electronics Boutique for months, so I didn’t need this demo to justify my purchase. Sunday, September 29 was the official launch date. But on Thursday the 26th, I logged on to America On-Line after school to find reports on what we then called the World Wide Web that some branches of K-B Toys had broken the street date and started selling the units early. My Electronics Boutique of choice was located directly across the mall from a K-B, so I called in the hopes that they’d started selling them as well—and they had.
Coming home with my prize, I finally sat down to play Super Mario 64 in the comfort of my own home. Emerging from the haze some weeks later, I wrote my final review.
Technically, the graphics stand up well. As everyone likes to say, there is no pixelization up close at all. That means that you can whip Bowser around your head and his face can be flat against the screen, with the same amount of detail that he had far away. The polygons do break up, but only in extreme circumstances.
This is interesting to read again, to see what exactly it was that surprised us at the time about the nature of polygonal graphics. Yes, when Mario’s face got close to the “camera,” it was still defined by detailed, fine lines—because the game was changing the size of the triangles it was drawing on the fly. Of course, some of the objects in the game were actually 2-D sprites, which means they did become blurry and pixelated if you got too close. But it was more impressive to see what didn’t. Polygon “clipping”, or the camera passing through elements of the game and breaking the illusion of reality, is not even a solved problem today.
The only other problem I had with the visuals was that the camera guy, Lakitu, was drunk. In a 3-D game, you must have fluid camera motion, which SM64 lacks greatly.
Amazing how much I knew about 3-D game design having literally only played one game! How simple it was to be 16. Mario 64 definitely would have been served by a better camera, but it was also the first step in a long battle that hasn’t quite been perfected yet even now. That said, this was right around the moment where I started to be a bit more analytical and questioning about certain design decisions in the games I was playing.
Mario’s voice actor Charles Martinet not only gives Mario a cute voice (not like DIC cartoons’ unappetizingly gruff garbage) but makes him sound like a damn eunuch.
I was a little off-put by the, let’s say, surprisingly unique take on Mario’s voice presented for the first time in Super Mario 64. Clearly I liked it better than Captain Lou Albano’s blue-collar, butt-crack-showing chain-smoker from Saturday morning cartoons, but the extreme falsetto seemed to be too far in the other direction. But today, could you ever imagine anything else coming out of Mario’s mouth? (Sorry for the teenage judgment, Charles.)
The object is to collect 70 of the castle’s 120 stars and defeat Bowser. To do this, you must venture inside the paintings and accomplish a certain task. Luckily, the inane garbage is kept to a minimum (you know, like “collect all the coins/flowers” crap) and the quests for stars are much deeper, requiring you to complete adventures of sometimes Zelda-esque proportions, or simply accomplish an objective.
However, the inane crap does remain somewhat intact, since in each level/bonus level, you must collect all the red coins for a star, and in each full level you must collect 100 coins for the final star.
I wish I could go back and tell myself that such mindless “collect-a-thon” padding elements in videogames were going to get far, far, far worse.
Miyamoto’s vision for his games was to create an environment where players would feel the same way as he did as a child when he would explore caverns, not knowing what was around the next corner. This just doesn’t happen for me in a 2-D game! However, with SM64 I found myself feeling exactly the same way he must have felt. I think I first understood it when I was going down this elevator in Course 6 and I didn’t know where I was. Right now I’m sure I could draw a map of the whole level, but then I felt such a surge of anxiety, and I realized that I had basically become Mario and we were exploring together a vast new world. It’s scary at first but once you and Mario face the challenges, more new experiences await, and you realize that this is what video games are supposed to be.
I remember this moment quite clearly, even today. I had gotten into such a flow state that I found myself legitimately frightened about the prospect of turning a corner. There was something unique about playing games in 3-D that was so surprising.
Super Mario 64 is the best game of all time. It’s not perfect. Trust me, it’s not. The polygon breakup can get laughable and the camera guy is an idiot. Some of the objects/enemies are… get this… SPRITES… and there is minor foreground pop-up. However, the ingeniousness of the game, combined with the fact that it is simply a blast to look at and to play, more than makes up for this fact.
In hindsight, and removed from the context of 1996, these criticisms may seem unfounded. Creating 3-D worlds on the Nintendo 64 certainly had some element of compromise—the platform wasn’t powerful enough to build absolutely everything in polygons, and so judicious use of sprites, where it made sense, allowed designers to create more detailed gameplay scenarios. Camera issues were not so easily solved.
But my criticisms here were less about the experience itself, and more about the promise of Nintendo 64 versus the final product. Nintendo’s marketing machine, finding itself up against the Sony PlayStation, had worked overtime promising us the moon—a Silicon Graphics-powered 3-D workhorse that would deliver nothing short of “reality” onto our tube televisions. But Super Mario 64, the game that led the charge, didn’t really get the memo that the Nintendo 64 was a no-compromises product. The design of Mario 64 was all about clever compromises, an attempt to deliver on the grandiose promises of the Nintendo 64 using the mundane reality of the actual hardware.
What I didn’t realize at the time, filled with optimism for the Nintendo 64 generation, is that I actually wouldn’t end up playing the damn thing that much. Games at the quality level of Super Mario 64 were to be few and far between. And one of my next grocery paychecks went straight to buying a PlayStation, which had much more content—lots of it in 2-D, of course, but content nonetheless.
But that didn’t matter much 20 years ago, when I was playing the best game I’d ever played.