So the second part of the game design analysis;
Story plots of Super Mario games never change; the princess is captured and its Mario’s job to defeat Bowser and rescue her. That’s the scene that was set in the original and that’s how it remains here.
Unlike the original NES version, Super Mario 64 wasn’t as much directly influenced by the restrictions and confines of the N64’s hardware limitations or its power, but rather it was built around its new controller and the desire to show its potential to the gaming audience. As console technology evolved, so did its controllers offering new ways to play and interact. New and more buttons were placed onto it as well as the addition of the analogue stick for movement control in 3D space which Super Mario 64 took full advantage of.
The first fully 3D Mario game saw Mario explore vast new open worlds with multiple objectives scattered throughout each. Instead of having set objectives to complete in each world, the player could take on any challenge in any order they see fit – although there still is a structure if you want to follow it.
While the 15 game worlds may not seem much at first, its their sheer size and scope that challenges the player from the moment they start to the moment they finish. The first world is the standard ‘training’ world where concepts and some ideas are introduced but as you progress throughout the game, more trickier challenges are thrown at you as well as new power-ups and ideas.
Everything that Mario games had introduced up until this point remain; coin collecting (100 grants an extra life), 1-UP mushrooms, series enemies etc. with new additions making their appearance – some would later go on to become series staples like red coins while others would only be seen in this game such as the wing cap or Metal Mario.
Controlling Mario was made through the analogue stick; a slight push forward saw Mario tip-toe whereas a full push saw him run – however much pressure was applied here dictated the speed he moved. A & B buttons have the same features although now 3 consecutive presses of the A button allowed Mario to make a triple jump and holding Z while pressing A allowed a long jump.
With 3D movement in 3D space, seeing Mario and it’s world became all the more important. It wasn’t just about following Mario in the centre of the screen anymore like in his 2D days, Nintendo had to find a way to allow the player to see everything important the needed to. The C buttons on the controller introduced and controlled the camera (which its in game self was controlled by Lakitu on a fishing rod) which the player could alter on the fly for a better view by swinging around Mario. Additionally, pressing R would allow a 3rd person view but this could only happen when Mario is standing still.
Level design varies greatly throughout the game with each world challenging players in different ways. Each world (bar the opening) has almost a staple platformer gimmick to them – water, snow, desert, lava etc but in these, each world had to be approached differently and had a different set of rules to learn in order for successful completion. Quicksand was instant death in Shifting Sand Land (although there it is possible to escape quicksand inside the pyramid); Hazy Maze Cave introduced an oxygen meter that depleted the longer you spent in the toxic caves forcing you to find your way quickly throughout and finding high spot to get your breath back; Tiny Huge Island was split into two almost mirrored worlds – one where Mario is micro and one where Mario is gigantic compared to the land. What’s not possible in one side is easy possible in the other.
Finally Rainbow Road. There’ no floor here, you’re up in the clouds with only a few magic carpets going from A to B. The skills you’ve spent the entire game learning and perfecting are really put to the test here where success or failure are one tiny line away.
As far as level design goes, I really think its practically perfect. It eases players in with a wide open playing field and not too much challenge the gradually it gets harder and tricker asking you to do more and be more risky in your play. Its never unfair and teaches you what you need to know before asking you do it.
Visually it does an excellent job of representing a believable world, even though its not as detailed or has as much going on in certain stages or areas as you might have liked. While a lot of the details have been put into the game worlds, the castle hub is sparce and empty in comparison. There’s not a lot to do other than go from A to B bar catching a rabbit or two or butt-stomping a couple of blocks to drain the moat. Its details like these which would be fixed or have lots else added to in later N64 games once developers had gotten to grips with the hardware and could really push it – but since this is a launch title with a mostly unknown level of understanding for the tech making up the machine, maybe a little forgiveness is due to its bareness in places or blocky looking features.
What I do have an issue with though and is well deserving of some critique, us something I really wish Nintendo would address in the various re-releases is its camera. Yes still works and yes it was groundbreaking for its time, that’s its problem – for its time.
Today camera control has come a very long way and going back to play SM64 its very easy to see how infuriating that camera actually is. It wont turn completely around Mario, instead buzzing at you when it can’t/won’t turn any further. It also moves viewpoint far too easily causing more mistakes than enough that can easily lead to unnecessary deaths and/or mistakes. And who thought a 3rd person view to look around a level was a good idea? Have you every tried getting a decent look around Rainbow Ride like this? Its just awful.
But through these issues SM64 is full of innovations. Its gameplay and design is still massively fun to experience and its still cited as inspiration in games today, 21 years after its release. It still holds up as extremely well and can easily challenge (and sometimes beat) a lot of today’s videogame offerings. How many other games out there can say that?