I can’t stop thinking about Super Mario 64.
If you had asked me years ago what my favorite childhood games were, I don’t think Mario 64 would have even come to my mind. I certainly played it a lot when it released. I wasn’t great at completing games (I’m still not) but I had my torn-up little Player’s Guide and I pushed through to the end. I pored over every corner of the world. I did my best, and certainly enjoyed it.
Now, thanks to the popularity of Mario 64 in the speedrunning, glitch-exploiting, and VGM remix communities, the game feels like it’s been brought back onto the forefront of my mind. For the past year or so, it seems to pop back into my brain almost every day. And each time, it brings the same question.
Why was Mario 64….like that?
If you’ve played it, I think you know what I’m talking about. Right? Why was it like…that? Why was it…weird? Why does it feel so different from other Mario games?
Super Mario 64 seems to play with an strangely wide swath of emotions. Or at least, playing it seems to invoke a variety of feelings in me. Loneliness, tension, horror, melancholy. I’ll admit up front that nostalgia, and being young when I experienced the game, are big factors in this. I imagine it may be the same case for you.
Super Mario 64 is the first major Mario game to be rendered and controlled in 3D, and is also the first major Mario game to be a “Sandbox Exploration” game. This means that you spend your time exploring the levels like giant playgrounds. You have the freedom to do things at your pace, discover different corners of the world, and tackle things in whatever order works for you. They’re not linear, skill-based obstacle courses, as players were used to.
Because Mario 64 was a “first” in so many ways, it’s not surprising that it’s a departure from previous Mario games. While some series made the jump from 2D to 3D with an attempt to emulate exactly how their 2D games played, Nintendo felt that Mario 64 would inherently have to play differently from the games that came before.
And with hindsight, I think it’s fair to say that the end result does not feel at all like the games that came before, or after. Right…?
Honestly, I’m just gonna cut to the chase here. Mario 64 does not feel like it fully belongs in the same series as Super Mario World, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario 3D Land, and the rest of the series’ history. It feels bizarre. And I’m not talking about the gameplay or the controls, I’m talking about the vibe.
A Wide Palette of Emotions
Nintendo’s series have always shifted from decade-to-decade and game-to-game, but this game feels strange. As a kid and as an adult, Mario games have always felt the same way to me. You’re playing a cheery, fantastical, storybook adventure. You’re the cartoony hero, Mario, and you’re hopping on Goombas and flipping over platforms to get to the right side of the screen and save the day. Mario himself is a jolly, outgoing, confident guy. He can do anything with a smile. He’s, well, the perfect mascot.
But when I play or think about Mario 64, I get a completely different story. A different feeling. If I had to describe what the game feels like, I’d be at a loss for words. It feels like…a dream. Like drifting through sleep, nightmares and all. Or maybe it feels like a doll that’s been brought to life. A child’s plaything moving about on its own, exploring the world of playsets and imagination. Compared to how the Mushroom Kingdom has been fleshed out in other titles, it doesn’t feel like Mario 64 is “really happening.” It has a dream-like quality.
Even Mario himself doesn’t feel quite the same. The low-poly graphics are perfectly suited for ambiguity, making Mario a blank slate. He’s like a toy, or a puppet, or a stand-in for the child playing. Even though Mario isn’t exactly the most fleshed-out hero in fiction, we generally get a read on his personality and emotions through his face and body language. Whether it’s hand-drawn promotional art or the more higher fidelity 3D models of the Gamecube and beyond, we always have an idea of what Mario is like. But not here. As he travels from world to world, is he brave? Is he scared? Is he sad? This game, more than any other Mario title, seems to invite you to project your own interpretation onto him.
Mario has a history of running and jumping his way through a variety of environments with a variety of moods. In both 2D and 3D titles, he generally crosses jolly woods, serene oceans, scary haunted houses, and fire-spewing volcanoes. While Mario 64 follows this trend, it carries a different vibe than the rest of the series. It just doesn’t quite match the 3D Mario games that came after.
As the console generations went by, more recent 3D Mario titles have had the time and the ability to add all sorts of cartoony touches that make everything feel consistent. With the exception of Odyssey’s experimentation with art design, all levels are generally molded and shaped to all “feel like Mario.” Scary levels are made to only be scary in the Mario sense of the word. Same can be said for serene levels. Back in Mario 64, in a moment of frantic pioneering of this new genre, they didn’t have the same capability. Everything feels raw. Things feel unexpected and out of place. Each emotion feels dialed up to eleven, whether they were meant to or not.
In the game’s defense, it does make efforts to capture that cartoony, cheery, mascot feel of the Mario series. Bob-Omb Battlefield, Cool Cool Mountain, Snowman’s Land, and Rainbow Ride all feel pretty close to what I would expect from a “Mario game.” There are several tracks with bouncing basslines and triumphant trumpets that feel part of the well-established moods in the soundtracks for New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 3D World, and more. On the rare occasions that you encounter dialogue with friendly characters, it typically reads the way you’d expect.
But as far as I can tell, that’s basically where the cheeriness of Mario 64 ends.
A Quiet, Unspoken Horror (With Your Pal, Mario)
This game is like, incredibly scary, right? Or at least unnerving?
If you played it as a little kid (which, let’s be fair, is a large part of the intended demographic) you probably know what I mean. I found this game terrifying. I felt a small knot of tension in my gut when I played it. It’s more frightening and uneasy than any other Mario game I can think of.
For me, this idea isn’t even limited to the obvious moments you might remember that made you jump at a sleepover: the Chain Chomp leaping towards you, the haunted piano, the freaky eel monster that doesn’t belong in this game’s universe at all. I’m talking about a general, blanketed vibe of uneasiness throughout the entire game.
A lot of this has to do with technical limitations. Being one of the first ever 3D sandbox games, there was no way the developers could make a fully fleshed out world with a cast of exciting, cartoony NPCs. They also couldn’t dress the environments up with a level of detail that makes it look more lived-in, more natural, or more inviting. But understanding the reasons in hindsight doesn’t change the fact that the effect is profound.
Mario 64 feels isolating. It feels lonely. It feels creepy. There’s no sense of a world or community to save or citizens to root for you. There’s very little sense that you have any friends or allies at all. Nobody has your back. I never felt brave, adventurous, or like a hero playing this game. I felt trapped. Like waking up from one nightmare just to find myself in a surreal, new one.
In Mario 64, even returning to the hub world isn’t an escape.
Peach’s Castle is one of the most lonely, most unsettling places I’ve ever explored in a video game. It’s vast, empty, and dreamlike. It feels less like a real castle or home and more like a dollhouse, or a winding labyrinth. Hidden passageways sweep you off your feet into the clouds, deep into the ocean, or sliding down into the darkness. Every mirror, every staircase, every painting, and every pool of water seems to hide some sort of secret. Bowser’s power over the world is inescapable. Paintings of Princess Peach morph into his image. Locked doors echo with his booming laughter. Stairs extend into infinity to halt you. Traps open in the rugs beneath your feet.
The only escape, the only safety you can run to as a young kid is to leave the castle and escape Bowser’s reach entirely. And what are you greeted with there?
The castle grounds are one of the only areas of the game (and likely most Mario games) with no musical score. Just the sound of distant birds chirping and your own footfalls. This contrast, which must be intentional for some purpose, reinforces the idea in the back of my brain that this is all some sort of drifting dream that you can only barely escape from. In fact, even as a kid I sort of felt that this audio mixing (the feeling that in some areas the sound effects feel much louder than the music) made things feel just slightly lonelier, sending a slight chill up my spine. Every movement and impact seems to echo, like I’m exploring a house that’s been long abandoned.
While I’m only putting these feelings into words now, these were things I always felt when playing Mario 64. I even distinctly remember occasionally playing the game with the TV muted and with pop music playing on a boombox. These play sessions made me feel braver, and more at ease. It took me out of the immersion and allowed me to continue playing it as “just a game”, as opposed to a sandbox that pulled me into the world really strongly. Even watching gameplay footage now just puts me back into the game, locking me back into this mysterious castle.
It may be very easy to explain all of this away with “It’s one of the first major 3D games, what did you expect?”
Technical limitations and trailblazing mean trying new things and not fully having control over your end product. Many games from the Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 era don’t look or feel the same way they were intended, especially with hindsight.
While I agree wholeheartedly with this explanation, I do think it’s worth noting that other early low-poly games don’t have quite this same vibe. Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Sonic Adventure all find ways to inject their personalities into the work itself. Even if rough around the edges, they find opportunities to add that level of cartoony charm, humor, or heroics. They follow through with more of what you’d expect from video games. Even other Mario games on the Nintendo 64 deliver more of the expected mood, such as Mario Party, Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, etc.
Mario 64 feels like something else entirely. It’s a “sandbox” game in the truest sense of the word; like an empty children’s playground. It’s like a toy-box that’s been spilled over and taken apart. It’s much less like the nail-biting, adrenaline-fueled skill challenges of past platformers and more like a medley of dreams you’ve been pulled into. It’s an odd game with a blank-slate hero who pushes onward no matter how much he’s pulled around. It’s got an incredible soundtrack (which warrants a deep-dive all on its own and was almost the subject of this piece) with an unexpected palette of emotions. Everything about the game leaves me with one question.
Is this the game they intended?
A Lucky Accident
Depending on the circumstances, it can be hard for a creator to know exactly what their creations will invoke in the audience until after the process is over. It’s also similarly hard for game developers to know what effect their pioneering will have on players when they’re exploring so many new waters.
Mario 64 had a lot on its plate. It was the testing ground for new technology, new development techniques, new art styles, and more. It not only ushered in a new console but also became the measuring stick for a genre that didn’t even have a name yet. In all the excitement of the time, it’s quite possible that the developers (and the adult players) felt that the game was “just the newest Mario game” and it was simple as that.
Maybe it is that simple. Maybe this game is no different from Super Mario World before it and Super Mario Sunshine after it. Maybe it’s the age of the player that determines how a game will impact them, not anything within the material itself. Maybe there are kids out there who feel this exact same way about Galaxy and Odyssey, and will someday put their feelings into words.
This game is both beautiful and terrifying to me. I don’t know if that’s what the developers were going for. I have not heard or seen any extensive chronicling of what the developers’ intentions were for this game outside of the obvious. I would love to read any interviews or post mortems on what the creators were going for. It can be really hard to find Nintendo’s thought processes written out, untouched by the PR/marketing cycle intended to promote the game at launch.
Please let me know if you find anything.
Because until then, Super Mario 64 is still a dream I haven’t quite woken up from.