Mario 64 Playthrough Part 1

I'm planning to work on an essay reflecting on 10 years of game dev and artistic career trajectories (thinking about Miyamoto, and a few writers/artists) so I'm working my way through a bit of the 3D All-stars collection. Here's my commentary through the first 8 stars and Bowser. The part where I wonder about how hub worlds were envisioned might be interesting/new when it comes to Mario 64 writing!

Bob-omb Battlefield

1. Fight the King

(I'll be commenting by the area I'm in, then the number of the mission.)

It was kind of fun to run up the mountain, but I wonder how much of that is the novelty of the game. There's a lot of places you can entirely ignore, I remember it being fun to mess around here as a kid. Punching the king to pick him up was a little weird. Given how simple the map is landmark-wise, it does feel huge given your size and speed.

The first thing that comes to mind about the moveset is that it feels extremely floor-focused: there are a couple ways to move up but they all involve utilizing a varying amount of open horizontal surface. The wall kick is slightly finicky to pull off (especially at certain angles, I'd imagine). It also doesn't seem particularly useful, where it lands you is a small diagonal slope above your initial jump position.

The moveset, being very floor-focused, feels like it's going to be built around increasing complexity of floors and floor hazards, or figuring out how to efficiently use a floor space. There's also very little air control when tilting away from your initial jump trajectory. I feel like this might be a little limiting when it comes to level shapes. But it does seem to directly be based on previous mario designs which were about jumping in 2D. I'm curious how much of this continues on into Sunshine and Galaxy: personally I don't find it as fun, and I wonder if this could possibly lead into why so many gimmicks end up introduced in later games instead of stuff based around a core moveest? When there's not a ton of moves interfacing with walls or slopes, it's almost as if the 2D-ness of a mario is being applied into 3D - the moment you jump, that particular axis of vertical and horizontal movement is where all of the action occurs until you land, rather than 'mid-air' being a design space with more possibilities.

It's not surprising to find the 2D-ness in Mario 64, given that Mario 64 came after Super Mario World (2D platformers are always designed on, well, a 2D plane, usually not interfacing with walls that much).

2. Koopa Race

This was the same exact level as 1 but they made me do it fast. That feels pretty Nintendo-y, haha... I did wonder if you can do this without using the long jump (which I would assume), and you can, which is nice. Actually they give a lot of leeway for winning here.

I also noticed the tutorial about blocks at the beginning, pretty funny to see those blocks just sitting there. I guess that's technically the tutorial for picking stuff up, lol.

3. Get to the floating island

Not much to say here, I guess it's to emphasize that you're not going to be able to get everywhere in a level right away, and this is the first reveal. Also it shows that you can't use the Wing Cap yet, so I think maybe the designers are trying to nudge you towards going to other levels (after the first star, you get a tip saying to visit other areas.)

How did the hub world come about?

Okay, it's at this point I have to admit that the game structure is pretty clever! Relaxing in the castle and hopping between worlds is a nice way of pacing. I actually wonder how they happened upon this particular game structure (hub world + maps that slightly change based on the selected mission).

My guess: since it was an early 3D game they were probably testing movement in a test map for a long time before any real setting or level design ideas. Which (in my experience), when you're making a platformer, you end up with a surreal, flat landscape of many blocks as you test the various level gimmicks and moves. That landscape ends up fairly similar to the structure of, say, the castle's courtyard, or parts of Bob-omb Battlefield.

I think at this point, a designer would realize that it's interesting to explore in all 3 dimensions, so that means that you can't use a 2D style where you just go from left to right (like previous marios.) What if you had to explore a whole area to beat a level? Then maybe your levels are limited in size - levels become too long and the 'loop' of progressing in the game also gets difficult (with a lives system and no checkpoints). (Side note: I forgot about the red coin quests while writing this..)

So from there probably they decided "Well, let's just have multiple goals in a level".

I'm guessing that no one really wanted to do a SMB 1 or SMB 2-style world where stuff is linear. Sure, it could have worked to do something like SMB 3 or SMW, but if your stages have like 5-6 goals and you're limited to 10-20 stages, then that doesn't make for as much of a narrative arc as does some of the world maps in SMB3 / SMW.

So if I was thinking "no world map!" then it's like - what? A level select? That sucks, obviously.

A 3D platformer doesn't necessarily need a hub world. Maybe it's just one world you explore (like Sephonie lol), but then usually the game has some kind of story theme or like, world lore (Dark Souls) to it, and that doesn't seem to really fit with whatever mid-'90s Nintendo was imagining for Mario, which is fairly story-less. (A story-less, continuous 3D platforming world would be cool though, but sometimes I feel as if Marina and I are the ones who would have to realize that vision...)

I wonder if they picked hub world because they wanted to sell 'all the different areas' you'd go to? Not that you can't work in wild variety in areas into a game set in a single setting, like a big cave (... heh ...), but probably that's why Nintendo didn't go down that sort of structure. Jumping in/out of levels is a little more intuitive for entering a level with a new goal, too, when you don't have explicit story reasons for why levels have multiple goals.

So why a castle...? Probably they brainstormed or had story ideas laying around until coming upon some kind of building or garden to explore, and eventually the castle. Mario... Peach.. Bowser. Homage to tradition. The notion of a hub world obviously isn't entirely new in the mid-90s, all sorts of adventure games/JRPGs have overworlds which are kind of like proto-platformer-hub-worlds, so it was a matter of finding the right "overworld" for Mario 64. I wonder how much Nintendo used other games as reference, probably they were at least thinking about Dragon Quest and Zelda, where the dungeon/overworld relation is fairly similar to the Mario 64 castle/level relation. Maybe they thought about what a 'world map' is in SMW/SMB3, and then tried to shift that 'world map-ness' into a 3D space. I wonder how much of Nintendo's '90s innovation can be related to potential tension between Miyamoto and designers like Yuji Horii (who have been in interviews together.)

Since the levels have all sorts of wacky settings, there needed to be a way to unify getting to those levels without feeling incoherent... probably leading to the idea of paintings (or less imaginatively in other platformers, magical portals). The setting of a castle that's not immediately fully exploreable provides a nice forward motivation.

Of course I'm sure it wasn't all reasoned out this easily or in that particular order! But it feels fairly easy to see how all the decisions probably came naturally in response to previous games.

Back to the game...

4. Red Coins

Okay. So for one, I understand why you'd do this. 3D spaces lend themselves nicely to hidden stuff, and it's fun to find nooks... so it's really cheap to make 'find 8 things!' into a goal.

But this is also where the game starts to lose me, and it's where the camera starts to become a serious issue as 'finding 8 red coins' is something that demands good camera controls... which this game does not have. I think 64's camera is well-suited for going from point A to point B, but trying to find stuff involves pressing the camera-rotate button, trying to catch sight of a red coin, and in 3D platformers you usually want to not be fighting the camera a lot.

There's no way to track the red coins you've found, and I think dying resets the count (lol), making this a - at best - tedious - and at worst, immensely frustrating, type of level. I believe every level has this type of quest so, uh... heh... looking forward to that (not).

That's not to say it's not fun to find red coins, but maybe there could have been 10 and you just need to find 8, etc. Or a smaller amount, so that in harder levels, it's not as punishing to die and lose your red coin progress. I wonder if they tweaked this in the DS version.

5. Fly to the sky

I clearly can't do this so I leave the level. I don't get why I get kicked out to the foyer, though.

Level 4 - Snow Mountain

The first door I saw was the 3-star door so I went into it. Snowman world! It's funny there are three paintings and two of them do nothing.

1. Slip Sliding Away

The game tells me to go into the cabin - probably because the first thing you'd think (with that level title) are to slide on the mountain itself! Well, no, it's a sliding minigame. I don't get why they put sliding in this game - I know old Marios had it, but it kind of sucks (hard to control), but I didn't die somehow. At the end I see an arrow on the wall pointing up to a yellow box. My wall jump doesn't get me there. One day i'll find a use for this move!

2. Li'l Penguin Lost

I do like how level names are like small clues!

I find the penguin on top of the cabin. It takes me 20 seconds to pick the damn thing up. I guess now that I've practiced sliding, going down the mountain isn't too bad, but this is way easier than the sliding course! While investigating a block, I drop the penguin and it steps on a tiny slope, permanently waddling where I can't pick it up. I die and start over. It takes 10 seconds to get back into the level.

At this point I'm realizing that it's pretty weird they figure out all this 3D design but no one stopped to rethink lives or try checkpoints? Oh well...

Well, this mission sucked too. Holding the penguin meant my entire moveset was reduced to walking and jumping and avoiding some enemies. Narratively it was kind of funny I guess... which I can appreciate.

3. Big Penguin Race

Well, no tip about where the race is, but I guess one could have figure out that it was the original sliding track in mission 1?

I try to cheat, fall down the track, take fall damage, am passed by the penguin, and then die. I don't get the priority of the NPCs in the world. Why are they withholding the power stars? We need to stop Bowser!

The 2nd time, I fall again. It takes me 4 seconds to hit the kill plane and die.

I remember working on the Sephonie demo and a tester mentioning that the 2 seconds to fall out of bounds felt long (I agreed and quickened it), and then it also occurs to me that someone on some Switch review blog is going to give Sephonie a 65/100 for not having enough checkpoints, complaining about 'having to replay sections of the level to try something again', and they will also probably call the story confusing.

...As this occurs to me, I get kicked out of the painting and decide I'm not going to try again, because the next mission is probably an 8 red coins level and I don't want to do that.

Level 2- Whomp's Fortress

1. Chip off Whomp's Block

"What's a Whomp?" I would wonder (if I was playing this for the first time). I enter the level and get a tip about cameras and sneaking up to enemies. I should mention that reading signs and talking to NPCs in this game is really hard! It takes a few tries, and for some reason you can climb onto signs...?

Well, I know to get to the top. I actually don't do much jumping, doing a weird high flip to skip the first half of the level. The rest of the level is just running and awkwardly navigating some thin sections.

I actually like the boss, I like how this one is a slab and the first boss was a sphere. Maybe there are cone and cube bosses?

This level strikes me as nicer than the snow mountain, maybe because I'm going up (rather than down.)

I recall I almost have enough stars to get to Bowser! Well, I know the other level is a water level, so that means it's back into this area.

2. To the top of the fortress

Wait a minute! The top of the fortress? I just did that! I have to do it again? Aw... well, at least by the 2010s this issue would be fixed in Super Mario Odyssey... I'm reminded that I actually just did the same thing in Bob-omb's Battlefield.

I climb up the normal way, avoiding the pushers and retracting platforms. The "2D-ness" of the level design feels really sharp here, I'm basically moving in a straight line. I try to skip part of the level, but slide and fall to my death. Hubris...

2nd try. I explore other parts of the area to find a faster way up. There's a closed cannon. That would've been useful! Oh well. I realize the same song is playing as in Bob-omb Battlefield. I remember games can get away with reusing songs like that, especially if it's an AAA game, so maybe I ought to as well... (nefarious laugh).

When I get to the two-way path where you can sneak around the pirahna plant or use the falling bridge, I try the falling bridge. A tutorial tells me how to avoid falling by hanging from the ledge: I end up falling anyways.

I get back up. It occurs to me that it's weird why I can't comfortably jump across (because of the camera angle!), given I have like six types of jump. I hang on the bridge, press up, and immediately fall down. I am starting to think that maybe I should just skip the bridge entirely or actually try jumping.

As I climb the fortress for the fourth time I start to think about the metacritic score of Super Mario 64. It is 94. I also start to to think about what I'm doing with my life... and I wish there were checkpoints or something. Anyways, this time, I ignore the sign's advice and walk straight across the bridge and it's fine.

I should point out that Mario 64 has a lot of of camera-angle-changing zones in it that are always keeping the camera at a reasonable orientation. I'm glad I didn't have to be the guy setting those up! Sounds tricky... Sephonie has precisely zero, so I would like to thank the creators of the right-stick for saving me the trouble...

Also I want to shout out that it's nice that when you pause it zooms out and shows you a sorta birds-eye view of the area. That's a nice and weird touch/replacement for a minimap.

Bowser Level 1

I now have 8 stars! I am feeling very exhausted by this game, the level design is either missing the point (with sliding) or feels like an awkward fitting of 2D to 3D. It's fun to run around the levels and just aimlessly wander, so that's fun. I wonder how much this full jumping moveset will get used! (And then I remember the Bowser levels.) I go to the big star door. It's Peach! Not, it's Bowser! I fall down. I think the visual gags in this game are pretty good.

Well, I want to move onto Sunshine, but I will persist for the time being.

Finishing the level is fine, but it's starting to dawn on me: I don't like jumping! I'm starting to feel that the jump - theoretically the core of this game's moveset - is hard to control, hard to be precise with, especially with the stakes of restarting the level if I die, there's almost no desire for me to use a move like double or triple jumping because how on earth am I going to predict that move's distance when I'm not even confident predicting my first jump's distance? Every time I jump I hesitate and feel cautious, and I'm not sure how I could build up an intuition here without good control with the camera.

More checkpoints would definitely help - they could build more interesting/challenging sections and I'd feel ok experimenting. But basically I'm playing this level sort of like a first run in a Dark Souls level - tediously and carefully, but without the visual exploration of Dark Souls.

Well, I get to bowser and beat him. Throwing bowser feels pretty imprecise but I get the timing of it and win. Bowser falls on his ass, then fade-spins (on his ass) into the sky before a key explodes out of nowhere. Nice!

Closing thoughts

I think movement feels pretty good (in a flat area lol), of course, but it's clear just how much of this game is growing pains from 2D to 3D and a fundamental issue with the N64 controller. I actually feel like this game being sort of janky is the hardware's fault, which is kind of sad... the remarkable number of camera-adjustment zones in the levels speaks to the camera system basically being a hack to get around the N64's controller.

The level design feels a bit too ready to entirely give up on exploring jumping and shuttles me to boring quests focused around walking or searching. The jumping is clearly something I'll grow used to, but so far, when the level design does explore jumping, it is surprisingly punishing and built around tedious, repetitive setbacks, ranging from replaying a section - to dying entirely - for failing a jump. Some repetition is expected in a platformer but what I have to re-do has been tedious.

I'm fine with jumps/movement with a fairly fixed trajectory, but 64's movesets feel at odds with the levels - if movement is fast and jumpy then the camera has to make that a bit safer to pull off, and it doesn't feel like it's working here, yet.

I am also sort of angry because it's inspired so many other games to have these ridiculous movesets but then level design where I make the same hop 20 times while holding forward. Oh well.

There is of course a seed of something good in this game, but the hardware (as in controller - the graphics are great and straight-to-the-point) wasn't really there, and maybe the designers weren't there, either - it is much easier to shuttle a game's design down the '8 red coins!/sliding race/penguin quest!' style of heterogenous design, and I know people enjoy that... but I just find it less interesting! I actually think a mod (which I'm sure exists) - either player level packs or the vanilla game - with a modernized camera, would be pretty fun, maybe? It'd feel less frustrating getting acclimated to the style of movement.