The history of video games features incremental improvements and mighty leaps. Think about the space between the original Super Mario Bros for the NES and Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo five years later. Although the graphics are better and the world is bigger, the core gameplay is pretty much the same—Mario traversing environments, usually left to right, running and jumping on and around enemies and hazards.
But as Nintendo prepared to release its fifth-generation console, the Nintendo 64, the company knew that incremental improvements on the formula weren’t going to cut it. The next Mario game needed to take a mighty leap into the third dimension and do for platformers what the original game had done in 1985. And 25 years ago, Nintendo did just that. But the path to get there would be a long and winding one.
Back to Reality
Nintendo began development on the Nintendo 64 in 1993, under the code-name “Project Reality.” The SNES had been out for three years in Japan and during that time electronic gaming had entered a period of rapid evolution. Home computers began delivering experiences housed in immersive 3D worlds, filled with fast action and visceral thrills. It had become obvious that the old-fashioned, sprite-based graphics of the 8- and 16-bit consoles were no longer hip and cool.
This wasn’t the company’s first venture into 3D graphics, of course. Star Fox in 1993 was a Super Nintendo game that, with the aid of a special chip inside the cartridge, pushed a whopping several hundred polygons in 256-by-224 resolution. But the end result was still fun and entertaining, and during development Mario mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto started thinking about ways to take the plumber into the third dimension.
But how? The marvel of Super Mario was how each level was like a carefully composed jewel box of problems to solve, giving the player clear goals and limited tools to accomplish them. Miyamoto’s team originally experimented with an isometric perspective and a fixed path along it, but quickly realized that this was just the same old game with a trick camera. To truly make a next-generation platformer, Mario would have to move freely along all three axes of motion.
Roam If You Want To
Nintendo wasn’t the first company to try and pull off a 3D platform game. In 1984, Dave Theuer developed I, Robot for Atari’s arcade division. The first arcade game rendered exclusively with solid, flat-shaded polygons, it starred an abstract android hopping across platforms to change their color while dodging hazards. It was only produced in small quantities and didn’t find success, but other developers iterated on the concept with games like 1994’s Geograph Seal and the next year’s Jumping Flash.
The issue with most of these games is that they lacked character. The primitive technology of the era couldn’t deliver the personality that popular platforming franchises like Mario and Sonic traded on. So in developing Super Mario 64, Miyamoto and crew spent a massive amount of time on their main character, giving him a whopping 193 different animation patterns to make his movement in the world seem believable.
Because Mario was front and center for the entire game, he needed to be engaging no matter what he was doing, “like an animated cartoon.” While previous games had added pixels and detail to the simple character, Super Mario 64 made him fully realized in software, with vocal outbursts and more flexibility. In addition, they realized that his movement needed to be more intuitive. Previous games traded on the player’s ability to estimate jump distances accurately, but in 3D that’s much harder to do. So Miyamoto changed the focus from precision to exploration, a decision that permanently changed how Nintendo thought about its games.
In the modern era, people think of Nintendo as the most family-friendly, low-difficulty provider of electronic entertainment. But those of us who are old enough to have lived through the NES games remember that many of the titles in the 8-bit era and beyond were almost impossibly hard. Some, like Battletoads, have earned legendary status for the amount of frustration they gave players, but even more popular titles presented significant challenges for players wanting to complete them.
Making players accomplish that kind of challenge while also grappling with a whole new way of perceiving the world seemed like too much to ask, especially as a launch title for a new console. So Miyamoto and crew conceptualized a new approach to the franchise. Instead of a series of discrete muscle memory tests that needed to be beaten in a limited span of time, Super Mario 64 blended reflex action with problem-solving and environmental awareness.
Even more interesting, the team did something on this new game that they normally avoided: having children playtest it. Adult playtesting was obviously a big part of Nintendo’s quality control process, but kids were unexplored territory. After watching a group of middle schoolers for half a day, they realized something: even though they weren’t accomplishing a ton of progress on the game’s goals, they loved the experience of moving the chunky plumber around enough that it didn’t matter. That’s when Miyamoto’s team realized they’d made something special—a game that could be enjoyed even if it wasn’t conquered.
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The free-roaming aspect of Mario 64 introduced a new wrinkle into the genre: camera control. While the 2D entries in the series took place within a fixed field of view that scrolled to keep our hero firmly in the center of the action, manipulating that viewpoint in three dimensions, where objects could wind up in between the character and the screen, presented a problem. There were way more options to consider.
Previous 3D games had primarily either been viewed from first-person perspective or with a fixed camera. Nintendo’s greatest innovation was to treat the camera like a character—in this case, the floating Koopa henchman Lakitu, who was repurposed as a tagalong documenting Mario’s escapades. The controller’s new analog C-stick let you steer the little guy around to change your perspective, lining up jumps and scouting the area ahead.
For gamers in 2021, this is second nature—every console controller comes with dual analog sticks precisely to enable this kind of system. But in 1996, it was absolutely revolutionary. The simple incorporation of camera control as part of the core gameplay experience was the evolutionary leap that platformers needed to jump into the new generation, and the world of action games was permanently changed by it.
All the Stars
Super Mario 64 was an immediate success both critically and commercially. As one of the Nintendo 64’s launch titles, it sold half a million copies in its first three months of release, becoming a system-defining game. It also laid the groundwork for the entire genre of 3D platformers. In addition to the camera innovations, the game’s hub area that led to multiple levels that could be completed in any order became a staple of the genre, as did the level goals being changed from finding the finish line to collecting stars.
It wasn’t long before a new generation of platformers started hitting the market, just like the 8-bit era saw hundreds of Super Mario Bros clones. Some were good, many were not, but they all took inspiration from the decisions made by Miyamoto’s team to push the genre in a new and risky direction. Third-person action games of all types owe Mario 64 a huge debt, whether they admit it or not.
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