Exactly twenty-five years ago, on June 23, 1996, Super Mario 64 was released in Japan; accompanied the launch of Nintendo 64 not only in Japan, but also in the rest of the world. To be precise, in September 1996 in the United States, and in March 1997 in Europe. It was the first three-dimensional video game dedicated to the plumber, but not only: its innovative reach was much, much wider. It is probably not easy to understand, having not experienced it at the time, what this innovative work by Shigeru Miyamoto really meant for gamers all over the world and for the industry itself. We will try to remember it in this ours special for the 25th anniversary of Super Mario 64.
The development of Super Mario 64 lasted three years, and ended only a month before the final release, around May 20, 1996. Not many people worked on it, at least by current standards, and not even in relation to The Legend. of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which would arrive two years later. According to Miyamoto’s reconstruction, on average the staff would have been between fifteen and twenty people. A cross between the small teams that shaped the two-dimensional titles, and the much more numerous ones that would arrive only a few years later.
Apparently the idea of a Three-dimensional Super Mario obsessed the master since the days of the Star Fox processing, with which the Super FX chip was introduced, which allowed the Super Nintendo to manage advanced two-dimensional graphic effects, but above all a rudimentary, albeit futuristic, polygonal look. The first concepts of the title seem to have provided a linear level design, a sort of transposition of the classic mechanics, with an isometric view, in a three-dimensional context (a kind of Super Mario 3D World, in practice).
But for Miyamoto it wasn’t enough. Super Nintendo wasn’t powerful enough, and its pad wasn’t right for the needs; furthermore, the canonical structure was not sufficiently pyrotechnic to demonstrate the potential of three-dimensional gaming. And this is the first aspect to take into consideration: Super Mario has always been a platformer, but two episodes in particular were made with a more ecumenical intent, namely to move the standards of action games much higher than in the past. . A vocation, even out of necessity (given the absence of references), more universal than usual.
We are talking about Super Mario Bros., which has redefined two-dimensional action games in many aspects; and, of course, Super Mario 64. A game that has marked, perhaps more than any other, a before and an after.
Super Mario 64 was the last game officially directed by Shigeru Miyamoto (because, in fact, it also followed Ocarina of Time even if the credits go to Toru Osawa, Yoichi Yamada, Eiji Aonuma, Yoshiaki Koizumi and Toshio Iwawaki). The development team about this project has something special: the creative core marked the encounter between Super Mario’s past and his future. There are, in leading roles, the two historical figures related to the plumber: Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. There is the legendary composer of the saga, Koji Kondo. But to them, with an equally important position, is added Yoshiaki Koizumi: the protege of Miyamoto, the man who – after this episode – would have taken care of the new adventures the plumber.
It seems that teacher and pupil have worked even at night to perfect the three-dimensional movements of the Italian-American mustachioed, the true beating heart of the work, modifying detail after detail: moving the center of gravity by a few millimeters, arranging the animations. There are legendary tales about Miyamoto mimicking the ideal movement of swimming, with his torso resting on a chair parallel to the floor, and Koizumi next to him recreating it within the game (yes, let’s imagine the breaststroke part).
And the movements, perhaps more than anything else, have made Super Mario 64 immortal. Previously there were other polygonal games, and also other three-dimensional games; but no one, even remotely, had ever been so cohesive, perfect and harmonious as Super Mario 64. The movements of the plumber were immediately designed for the analog control stick, at a time when, among the competition, the analogs were not even present in the pad.
It is still difficult, twenty-five years later, to find works in which the movement of the character is so modulated in relation to the inclination of the stick: in Super Mario 64 the protagonist moves on tiptoe, walks slowly, walks, walks quickly, runs light, it runs intensely (and we have left out a few shades, no doubt). Compared to the beautiful and shortly following Tomb Raider, the difference is astonishing: in Super Mario 64 it seems to actually control a person, in Tomb Raider a heroine who moves rigidly within a grid.
It seems to actually control a person, we said; and it is true, yet that person had – has – extraordinary acrobatic skills. Super Mario 64 is full of jumps: long jumps, triple jumps, vertical jumps, backward jumps, crouch jumps. And each leap is accompanied by a different exclamation of Charles Martinet, the voice actor of the plumber: a lucky partnership that still persists today.
The controls could have been extraordinary even within a linear game; also in a Crash Bandicoot-style title, to quote the most famous, which of the old two-dimensional platformers was a direct continuation. As we anticipated earlier, Miyamoto and Nintendo were not so interested in creating a three-dimensional platformer, as much as a action game as they had never seen before.
For this reason the game design and the level design were enslaved to the exaltation of the exceptional three-dimensional movements, and to the exploration of their potential. Instead of linear levels – with a beginning and an end – an initial area was generated to explore at will, the Princess Peach’s Castle with its garden, from which access, jumping through magical paintings, to all the other paths (fifteen). Each of these levels had six stars (plus one, generated by the collection of one hundred yellow coins), to be collected in a recommended but not mandatory order. In practice, as in many open world today, but in a less guided way, you would go around the stage until you found an area of interest that hid a star. Only some stages showed the linear legacy of the classic antecedents, and would have been forerunners of what would become Super Mario Galaxy: we are referring to Bowser’s stages, more linear and less exploratory paths than the others.
The commercial success of Super Mario 64 has been very great: it is the best-selling game for the Nintendo 64, with almost twelve million copies. An admirable achievement, but inferior to many previous plumber titles. The true triumph of the work lies in his cultural impact: in the following years, Super Mario 64 would be the North Star to follow. A new bible of game design to read, study, catch and imitate. A guide to transporting every two-dimensional brand in three dimensions.
A guide that has also generated small monstrosities. Given its beauty, every software house felt obliged to embrace the three dimensions, even when it didn’t make too much sense: see Mega Man Legends, see Castlevania 64. Super Mario 64 gave the illusion that the three dimensions were the only one. possible future, that the gaming 2D were dead, or dying. And the first victim of this approach was Nintendo itself, which relegated the two-dimensional series of the plumber to a basement for fifteen years.
However, this is certainly not the fault of Super Mario 64, whose quality and impact remain inimitable. No one after him has managed to recreate a similar effect, for magnificence and influence: motion controls failed, high definition failed, virtual reality failed. The combination of Super Mario 64-three-dimensional gaming was something so new and perfect that it constituted a meteorite, a meteorite that has extinguished what was there before, and created a new ecosystem.
As the emperor Hadrian legendarily said, as Marguerite Yourcenar realistically wrote, “Rome will perish only with the last city of men”. Here, by translating the concept and lowering the context, Super Mario 64 will only perish with the latest three-dimensional game.