Super Mario 64 review – how does it play today?

by Martin Watts, 1 September 2018

Roaming the castle grounds in Super Mario 64

Super Mario 64 left an indelible mark on gaming when it first launched in 1996, influencing countless games that followed.

It was revolutionary for its time, but how does it fare over 20 years later?

Princess Peach's picturesque castle as it appears in Super Mario 64

What’s Super Mario 64 about?

In keeping with most Super Mario games, Mario must once again save Princess Peach from Bowser’s evil clutches.

Super Mario 64 is the portly plumber’s first 3D platforming adventure. Across 15 stages, you must reclaim the 120 stars that power Peach’s castle.

Technically, you only need 70 to see the credits roll, but going for the full amount is the most rewarding experience.

Bowser in the Fire Sea, Super Mario 64

The castle serves as an interconnecting hub world, and contains plenty of its own stars and secrets to find. It’s also acts as a playground of sorts, in which you can practise Mario’s moves.

By jumping into magical paintings that adorn the walls, Mario can transport himself to faraway lands.

Open expedition

As the first 3D game in the series, Super Mario 64 deviates from the classic gameplay formula. It’s less about getting from A to B, and more about exploring and interacting with the environment.

Each of the 15 stages contains seven power stars to collect. The first six of these are unlocked through individual, numbered challenges. You then have to collect 100 coins in a stage to acquire its final star.

Dodging the rolling black balls in Super Mario 64's Bob-omb Battlefield course

But that doesn’t mean you have do them in a specified order. If you find a star from a different mission then you’re completely free to pick it up.

In fact, you can move onto other stages and come back later – provided you’ve acquired enough stars.

It makes for a more free-flowing experience, especially when it’s easy to discover a star by mistake.

Diving into Dire, Dire Docks in Super Mario 64

The clue to finding stars lies in the mission titles, and some of these can be pretty vague.

It’s a deliberate ploy to encourage you to experiment and search every nook and cranny. That said, don’t feel bad if you need to look things up in a guide.

Climbing inside the Shifting Sand Land pyramid in Super Mario 64

You explore a range of different locales across Super Mario 64’s stages. Although the game recycles some of its settings, each level nevertheless feels distinct.

For example, Wet-Dry World’s star challenges revolve around raising the stage’s water level, whereas Tick Tock Clock demands precise, well-timed platforming.

A penguin challenges Mario to a sledding race in Super Mario 64's Cool, Cool Mountain

Races, treacherous slides, boss fights and search-and-rescue star missions add variety to the gameplay. Even by the 100-star mark, Super Mario 64 still feels exciting and fun.

The stages can’t help but seem small compared to today’s huge open-world games. But the impressive range of missions makes it feel like there’s lot to do.

The way Mario moves

Mario wouldn’t be Super Mario without having at least one or two special abilities. And in Super Mario 64 he has a large number of moves at his disposal.

Jumping from platform to platform in Super Mario 64's Tick Tock Clock stage

As well as jumping and attacking, you can perform advanced moves such as long leaps, backflips and wall jumps.

Running in one direction and suddenly turning the opposite way and jumping makes Mario perform a side somersault.

Rotating platforms in Super Mario 64

Mario can also swim, although he can’t hold his breath forever unlike some other Super Mario games.

That said, his oxygen and power meters are one and the same. So while taking damage underwater has added risk, you can also regain all your health by coming up for air.

The Unagi eel from Super Mario 64

It all feels incredibly fluid – not something that can be said for a lot of N64 games. The controls always feel responsive and precise, and never get in the way of playing.

By picking up special caps, Mario gains extra powers in addition to his innate abilities.

Walking underwater with the Metal Cap in Super Mario 64

For example, the metal cap makes Mario invulnerable (except for fall damage) and enables him to walk underwater. These caps only last a limited time, so you have to be quick when using them.

They’re fun to use, and add a little more variety to the stages in which they appear.

Flying high above Bob-omb Battlefield in Super Mario 64

You don’t need to master all of Mario’s moves to reach the end. But you will if you want to get all 120 stars.

Generally though, you can approach most obstacles and environments in more than one way. It’s another subtle design choice – like the loose mission-based structure – that reinforces Super Mario 64’s focus on player freedom.

If you’re going for the full 120 stars then you’ll need to brush up on your skills. Some star challenges feature especially tricky platforming segments.

Camera woes

Super Mario 64’s camera system is the game’s most noticeable flaw today.

Mario checks himself out in the Castle's mirror room in Super Mario 64

You can move the camera all the way around Mario, but it stops at set angles.

This means it’s sometimes very tricky to line up the camera how you want it. Instead you’re forced to move Mario at an awkward angle, which can make jumps difficult to judge.

Walls and objects can also block the camera, adding to the frustration.

Inside the Ice Block House in Super Mario 64

Stages with lots of moving elements, such as Rainbow Ride, can make managing the camera tricky. That’s because you have to line it up while also trying to time very precise jumps.

The camera is never so bad that it makes Super Mario 64 unplayable. But it may occasionally result in Mario’s untimely demise. Or at the very least slow you down by forcing you to stop and fiddle with it before big jumps.

Mystery of the Monkey Cage mission, Super Mario 64 on N64

Super Mario 64’s technical performance

Despite being one of the N64’s first games, Super Mario 64 runs very well.

The frame rate is generally very smooth and consistent. It occasionally dips, but it’s never enough to negatively impact your ability to play the game.

Getting a bird's eye view of Whomp's Fortress with the owl in Super Mario 64

The simplistic and vibrant cartoon art style really works in the game’s favour too. We personally think it holds up much better than the N64’s more realistic offerings.

Super Mario 64’s bright and colourful visuals mean it doesn’t look too dreadful on modern TVs.

Crossing Lethal Lava Land's draw bridge in Super Mario 64

It’ll look faded and fuzzy when hooked up to an LCD/LED TV using standard cables. But it’s still very much playable.

A CRT TV naturally provides the best experience. If you’re lucky enough to own an UltraHDMI N64, then you’ll want to turn on the gamma boost setting to get the most vibrant picture possible.

Big Boo in Super Mario 64

Super Mario’s MIDI soundtrack may be simplistic, but it’s undeniably catchy and often emotive. Whether you’re exploring an underwater cave in solitude or marching bravely into Bowser’s lair, the music evokes the setting superbly.

Conclusion

While some of its flaws are more noticeable today, Super Mario 64 still holds up.

It’s all down to the game’s overriding sense of freedom. You don’t have to play through it in a predefined order. And you can approach obstacles and platforming segments in a number of ways thanks to Mario’s various abilities.

Flying through the sky with the Wing Cap in Super Mario 64 on Nintendo 64

The stages you explore are small by today’s standards. But what does that matter when they’re filled with so much to do and interact with? Working out what to do, where to go, what to do next – it all makes for a very rewarding gameplay experience.

Mario celebrates beating Bowser in Super Mario 64

The camera will do its best to work against you at times. The frame rate occasionally dips. And some mission descriptions are a little too cryptic. But that’s about as bad as it gets.

Super Mario 64 was an revolutionary experience in 1996. That’s understandably no longer the case in 2018. But it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.

Our verdict

great

  • Excellent "free" mission structure
  • Varied gameplay with lots of fun ideas
  • Responsive, precise controls
  • Wide range of abilities and advanced moves
  • Bright, colourful and simplistic art style holds up
  • Awkward, limited camera gets in way of gameplay
  • Very occasional slowdown
  • Some mission descriptions can be a little too vague

To learn more about how review N64 games see our review scoring system page. Because we focus on whether a game is still enjoyable to play today, we try to avoid discussing a game’s development history, impact or legacy in our reviews.