Nintendo set itself a nearly impossible goal and achieved it with SM64. Look closely, Mario's lineage is 2D -- not ideal material upon which to base the most intensely scrutinized 3D videogame ever. But videogames are, in the end, meant to entertain. And entertainment is at the heart of this fantastic title.
Like many previous Mario games, experimentation is integral to the experience of playing. You must explore everything, leave no rock unturned, no mushroom mute, no door unopened. Mario himself has so many possible movements, and the environment is so intensely interactive, that even the least experimental players will spend hours on the first level without achieving anything in particular.
The game is initially less accessible than previous Mario titles, although the three-pronged analog controller isn't really where the difficulty lies -- the joypad itself performs excellently. Overall, the biggest obstacle in the game is finding the correct viewpoint. The camera, which moves on its own (unless directed manually by using the four gold buttons), tries to find the optimal angle to view the action, though occasionally you're simply not able to see where you're going. Additionally, frustration sets in as you spin the camera around while simultaneously attempting to run across a moving plank or tip-toeing across a tiny ledge. But getting the hang of SM64 is all a matter of practice , and as soon you catch on, you will execute these skills unconsciously.
The variety of levels and scale each world is simply breathtaking. The game consists of 15 massive courses in which Mario can attain seven stars per course, with numerous secret areas and bonuses, including 15 extra stars (for a total or 120 stars). It'll surely take the average gamer 60 hours to reach the third and final Bowser and free the princess (not to mention find Yoshi), so the game's replay value is bountiful.
And despite all of their saccharin-sweet cuteness, the graphics are magnificent. Shigeru Miyamoto's dream of producing an interactive cartoon has been fully realized -- the animation is lavish, the textures rich, and even the most superfluous touches have been completely executed. SM64 is not perfect, however. Despite the efficiency of the hardware's Load Management, draw-in is noticeable, and occasionally gamers will look right through walls or objects. Still, this is as close to perfection a game has ever been (64-bit, no less).
Super Mario 64 also puts Nintendo's preference of "silicon over CDs" to the test, with pleasingly familiar results. Most owners of either a Saturn or a PlayStation (or both), have by now acclimated to long load times, though grumblingly. Super Mario 64 will remind them of how gaming used to be: load time is nil, and reaching a playable level is only a matter of seconds. From the time you switch on the unit until you're done, the flow is seamless, and moving from one game area to another is instantaneous. Nintendo's musical prodigy, Koji Kondo, turns in an inspired performance, somehow finding room on the small cartridge to create the appropriate music for each world. Even though some tracks are cheesy, others, like the sitar-laden score of the first fire level, are more than effective in setting the mood for the level, and are as atmospheric as any Redbook audio. Also impressive are the sound effects: Mario's onscreen antics are matched by grunts, whoops, and hollers, fleshing out his spunky personality.
As a whole, the flagship N64 game more than makes up for any painful delay (or delays) imposed upon the unit's release. SM64 is complete in every way, and the challenging experience of working toward each new level is far greater than the game's minimal flaws. Nintendo's craftsmanship and zeal for creating fantastically enjoyable games has never shown through more than in Super Mario 64.