Monday, January 14, 2013

Operation Nostalgiaway: "Super Mario 64"

For years, Andy's Nintendo 64 - the first console he had ever owned - had been kept down at his family's old beach shack, so everyone down there could have a fun rainy day TV fun machine. But then the Wii came along, and no-one wanted to deal with cartridges and wires and blowing the dust off of things! So now Andy has his N64 and all its games back in his house, and we can commence the replaying of all his childhood favourites with the critical, cynical eye on adulthood can bring with... 

Operation Nostalgiaway!

So. I'm an adult now - legally, anyway - and I have quite fond memories of my childhood. I really do! And, well, most of my childhood involved playing videogames. The first console I ever owned was a Nintendo 64, which I shared with my brother, and I played all the classics. Like 1080° Snowbaording. And Cruis'n USA. And the A Bug's Life videogame. Also, though, not hilarious titles, like Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and Super Smash Bros. ...oh, fine, one more hilarious one. Mission: Impossible. That one is utter garbage, eh.

If you don't know what "nostalgia" is, then for god's sake, pick up a dictionary and learn some English words you dirty foreigner! ...ahem. Anyway, it's rather obvious that all my bright memories of 007: The World is Not Enough and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire is blinded by nostalgia for the days when I wasn't a pube-bearded, glasses-wearing, socially-maligned and vulgar-mouthed asshole. Which is why, I think, it would make a very interesting experiment indeed to play through the games I have really fond memories of because I was a cute little kid and not a cynical, detail-obsessed, grumpy old goof. The experiment commences now. This is Operation Nostalgiaway; enjoy it, folks! Cos I may just be ruining my entire childhood in the process...

The first game I'm going to posthumously revisit is Super Mario 64, the dodgy tree sprite-riddled 3D debut in the Super Mario franchise, and featuring the first polygonal moustache that didn't have spaghetti spilled on it. Mama-mia!

How I Felt Then...

Super Mario 64 and me have a strange relationship. Back in the Nintendo 64's prime, it was an elusive bugger; my two most pertinent memories of it include it being too expensive for me to buy, and almost playing it at a friend's house but the cartridge was busted so we just stared longingly at it pretending that we were playing it. No, no, I wasn't a street urchin! I had plenty of games to play on the N64, and we rented games for it often! Super Mario 64 just so happened to be just out of my - our, even - reach. Every time we got close, it was one step ahead.

Far as I know, it was some time since the initial "HOLY CRAP I NEED TO PLAY THIS GAME" period that we actually happened across Super Mario 64. Playing it was like a dream. I remember the game being full of wonderment; a massive castle to explore, worlds trapped inside paintings, a giant lizard man to swing around and throw into bombs... it was like a fairy tale! Super Mario 64 was filled with possibilities, filled with fun and adventure, and every time I looked up at Peach's Castle I thought I AM ENTERING A MAGICAL REALM HERE. Super Mario 64 was surreal to me.

Then Banjo-Kazooie came along. And Super Mario 64, well shit. It can go fuck itself. Banjo-Kazooie had that same fairy tale wonderment, only, the combat was actually satisfying. And the scary level was actually scary (save for the goddamn piano, alright, that was scary)! And... and the bird! He's walkin' around on his little legs! And you can shoot eggs out of its mouth and butt! Yeah. Fuck you, Super Mario 64! There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is Buzz Lightyear! ...I mean Banjo-Kazooie!

...How I Feel Now

It is strange. I feel there must have been some time when I played Super Mario 64 and thought, "god, this game is nowhere as good as I remember it." I reckon it was when I was a teenager and hated everything that wasn't Grand Theft Auto. That seems about right. Anyway, I do recall I launched up Super Mario 64 and said to myself that the platforming phsyics handled like arse, because I started playing it just now and I'm like, what you talkin' 'bout, this platformin' be tight!

That's what strikes me about Super Mario 64 out of the gate. Man, Mario handles incredibly well. His jumps have a weight to them that is more impressive than I could possibly recall, and the way he runs around and does his flips and such... it's incredibly satisfying. Also, while the muddy 3D graphics are muddy in the way that N64 graphics just are, they are much better than I remember. I recall that Mario looked like a broken assortment of jagged polygons that barely resemble a man - as far as what's represented on-screen... he doesn't look half bad. I can tell he is Mario, and that is more than I remember it being.

So, yeah. So far, the handling of the character feels good. It's loose enough to feel like actual jumping, while tight enough to have decent control of Mario's assortment of moves. And running around the castle overworld, there's definitely a charm to just playing this game that I never comprehended before. Then I stepped into a level. ...oh, no.

Ohhh noooo.

...there is no denying it. Super Mario 64's levels are... they're sort of a mess. They can be expansive at times, and they're fun to run around in, but I get the feeling that Nintendo wasn't really quite so sure how to make 3D platforming levels. ...well, since it's their first attempt, I suppose that makes sense, but there is a... frustration to the way the game approaches risk/reward that is notably absent from almost every 3D platformer that follows. 

In 2D platformers, the key element in risk/reward is your precious time. When you fall down a pit in Super Mario Bros., you are sent back to the beginning of the level to try again. The reward comes from collecting coins that may be in hard-to-reach areas that, once you collect 100 of them, gives you an extra life. This extra life lets you fall down more holes so you don't lose all your lives in one go like some kind of loser - when you do lose all your lives, you have to start the game from the very beginning. It's pretty simple - you fall, you start over. Nintendo obviously tried to take a similar approach with Super Mario 64.

Thing is, Super Mario 64 takes place in a fairly consistent, 3D world. The Power Stars you collect aren't end-level rewards like the castles you take back in the original Super Mario Bros., they're really just another form of coin, scattered like a scavenger hunt around the level. Banjo-Kazooie approached this by making their levels like little open-worlds, where each Jiggy (Star) is hidden in a certain place on that open map, or is rewarded when you solve a puzzle. Nintendo didn't have the foresight to predict that Banjo-Kazooie was going to do it like that and to preemptively rip them off, so they didn't. Instead, most of Super Mario 64's Stars are perched atop high things.

The risk is that if you fall down you have to climb back up.

This is one of the most frustrating approaches to difficulty I have ever seen. It seems like Nintendo taking their 2D sensibilities into the 3D plane, but it means that your loss of progress is much more immediate - and much more heartbreaking - than simply "going back to the beginning". No, it outright hurts to watch Mario plummet off the edge of a tower as you helplessly hit the A button to see if he can't save his fat little arse from intermittent failure. It's nowhere near as painful to just die and lose a life - no, that actually has a fairness to it. You've lost progress, sure, but there's actual indication that something bad has happened. Super Mario 64's failure states come from the kind of lost progress, the kind of loss of time that is just... it's hard to sit through.

When Mario falls into lava, he grabs his little bum-bum and screams out as he is thrusted upward uncontrollably from the heat. When Mario is crushed by a falling rock, he is squished and walks slowly for a while as his body springs him back up to normal. When he hits the edge of a wall, he is stun-locked for a bit as he sits, spinning his head in a confused daze. It might not seem like much, but combine it with falling off of cliff edges and having to scale the large structures all over again... there's so much of Super Mario 64 that is nothing but climbing structures. Maybe 60% of the levels are large structures that need to be climbed. Mountains, or the insides of clocks - hell, even just the overworld is a castle which you're making your way to the top of. Some levels take place on a horizontal planes, and they're the most fun, but when you've got a 3D game about jumping, the vertical element becomes more obvious than on a side-scrolling 2D plane. You can't really ignore it. 

The best levels in Super Mario 64 explore that more Banjo-Kazooie flavoured puzzle solving element, but they are, unfortunately, far and few between. Nintendo were pioneers, let's put it that way, and it shows that they were, for how clever they were as designers and artisans and craftspeople, exploring territory that was a new frontier for them, an undiscovered country. Needless to say they stuck their great big "Nintendo" flag into a few spots of ground where they would later discover Crab People lived underneath; Crab People who would come up from the ground and drag us underneath, and eat our bones. Nintendo didn't know that when they made it! They had been making Mario platformers in 2D, now they had to do it in 3D! It was the start of something beautiful, but made giant smears on its own face, and became uglier for it. Speaking of ugly. N64-era textures. ...that is all.

...and then there's the camera. That goddamn camera. 

It's something that is often ignored nowadays, because the idea of a "camera" in a 3D space just seems obvious. But when you think about it... there is absolutely no easy way to go about it. The way a camera works in a 3D game will directly influence level design and the way the game feels to play, and Super Mario 64 is directly influenced by its camera in that the camera is shit. 

It's one of VERY few games where the camera is merely a first-person view of an entity that is actually in the world - a lakitu, sitting atop a cloud with a camera on a stick, filming Mario from afar. There's a section of the game where there's a mirror where you can see it very easily. Point is, that object that is in the world gets stuck on other objects in the world, like walls and ceilings. OH.

And it makes sense... if the camera can go through walls and objects then that just makes no sense, right? Games since Mario 64 have shown that, yeah, well, the camera can and should go through level geometry. Not in all cases, sure, but the idea of a camera seeing through walls is what makes most camera systems in 3D games actually possible, especially the ones that are directly controlled by the player. You have such minimal control over the camera in Super Mario 64... it really just go to multiply the frustration of the frequently poor level design and approach to risk/reward. 

In a word? Frustrating. Super Mario 64 is an archaic frustrating mess so frequently. It has great ideas, and some of them hold up pretty well, but it's just so obvious that this was something that had yet to have the crinkles ironed out. A lot of the stages in Super Mario 64 are giant cubes in which Mario can swim or fly around, hunting for items that are out of the N64's view distance's reach; directionless rooms filled with items to collect, no real grounding. ...and that matches pretty much what I thought of Super Mario 64. A surrealist dreamworld, that's for sure. It's just it plays about as well as a surrealist dreamworld would play - that is to say, not very well at all. 

Oh well. I still love Super Mario 64. As I said, the actual platforming physics are satisfying as hell. It even looks decent enough - it has ugly textures and polygons, sure, but no denying it has a charming cartoon-esque style regardless. It even has a monkey which steals Mario's hat and you have to chase it around, and that's damn cute. Damn cute! Adorable as hell. But when you keep falling down the cliff and having to run back up, your time's been wasted, and Mario doesn't have a hat so it looks weird, and I don't blame you if at that point you turn of the N64 and stop playing.

Also, Yoshi shows up, but you don't even get to play as him. What the fuck.