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There have been countless platformers that have come and gone. Most of us have completely forgotten about all those shoddy wannabes, such as Croc and Gex and Tork and all those other pudgy mascots with attitudes who have either put their studios out of business or have been prostituted out so much that the brand is worth less than a burnt cigarette butt partially smoked by Charlie Sheen *cough*Sonic*cough*.
But one platformer, one mascot, one brand has managed to stand the test of time throughout the ages due to being impeccably designed by the grandfather of modern gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto. I'm talking about the one 3D platformer that you can actually pop in and play, and enjoy it as much now as you did back then... I'm talking about Nintendo's Super Mario 64.
Why is the game still one of the best around, even compared to today's standards? Well, there a few things that seem to help the game gleam and glow amongst all the greyish-brown military games flooding the market, and a lot of it comes back to simple things that some developers seem to have forgotten about in this day and age.
Controls Are Still SolidIf you play most games from the 32-bit/64-bit era, the one complaint that seems to stick out amongst most others – apart, of course, from the ugly graphics – is that the controls suck. The original Crash Bandicoot? Controls sucked. The original Tomb Raider? Controls sucked. Jumping Flash? Controls sucked. Super Mario 64 was one of the rare (and first) games to make use of an analog stick for pin-point precision controls. You could slightly move the stick forward to have Mario tip-toe past sleeping enemies, or crawl, or walk, or jog, or bust out into a rapid sprint. You could wall-hug, wall-hop, triple-jump, back-flip and even perform a punch-kick combo. Not only did Mario 64 offer players a lot of control over the character, but it was exceptionally smooth for a game so old, and yet the controls still hold up even compared to today's standards.
Colorful And Inviting Art-StyleWhile the graphics are obviously dated, Super Mario 64 still has a strong artistic appeal. From the opening scene where you get to pull, stretch and deform Mario's giant head, to the start of the game that gives you a panoramic view of Peach's castle, the visual depiction of a 3D Mario world was done with such taste and excellence that it still manages to stand the test of time despite the low poly-count and, blurry textures and pixelated sprites. The thing is, the graphics may show their age but the art-style does not. The bright vibrant colors, the mid-saturated tones and sharp use of RGB scale still makes Super Mario 64 pop like so very few games manage to do after nearly 20 years. The game certainly can't compare to something like Crysis or Ryse as far as tessellation and shader techniques go, but that doesn't mean that Super Mario 64 isn't as inviting as ever once the title screen pops up and you hear the iconic voice of the plump little plumber.
Challenging But Creative Level DesignsGreat art, smooth controls and snappy gameplay will only take you so far. A lot of games that manage to get the aforementioned features right sometimes fail in other areas, namely the level design. Super Mario 64 didn't have that problem. The levels were ingeniously clever. There were some stages that challenged your timing, other stages that challenged your coordination, other stages that challenged your wits. Each level offered something slightly different so players could make use of all of Mario's skills in different ways. Even having direct successors like Super Mario Galaxy and Galaxy 2 on the market, the levels in Mario 64 are still unrivaled for their unique take on different platforming challenges, from racing a penguin downhill, through icy caverns, to swimming through a wrecked ship to that timeless “Dire docks” song, Super Mario 64 still has levels to this day that are as fun as they are challenging, and that is a true rarity amongst many titles these days.
Tons of Unlockables/SecretsIn an age where cheat codes and secret stashes are relegated to DLC (or worse yet, premium disc-locked content) it was and still is a refreshing treat to play Super Mario 64 over and over again, only to find that there's still some small little thing you may have missed the first time through. There are Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the game like a sugar-coated cherry placed on a cupcake sitting amongst freshly baked batch. Players, however, were encouraged to explore and experiment and fail. Players were rewarded for taking risks and sometimes going off the beaten path to unlock special hats that granted Mario various unique abilities, or surf on a turtle shell like a skateboard, or find a certain classic character hidden in hard-to-reach part of the castle. Super Mario 64 was ripe with secrets and it helped the game accomplish something that's very rare in today's breed of AAA titles: replayability.
Flying Is Still Infectiously FunI know people have 101 other reasons why they still like Super Mario 64 but I can't get over the Wing Cap. I'm sorry, it's just so infectiously fun! To this very day there is a thrill of excitement and giddiness when you bop that red box and see the dual-winged red cap flutter down and hit the ground. It was like an invitation to awesomeness. The Wing Cap wasn't a large part of the game and only had one dedicated stage, but the few times you did get to use it just made the game feel that much more magical. Miyamoto and crew really nailed down what it meant to have fun in a game like Super Mario 64 and some of those moments were expertly crafted (and captured) with the use of the Wing Cap. Once the theme got underway you knew you were in for a good time, and that still holds true to this very day.