Super Mario 64

This is among my very favorite games of all time.

Released in summer ’96, Super Mario 64’s attempted rival, Crash Bandicoot, never really stood a chance when it came out later that fall. I enjoy comparing these games immensely and highly recommend reading Making Crash Bandicoot which explains a lot of the climate around that time, as well as some stuff of interest to game programmers.

Where Crash is tightly constrained, Mario is free to run around. Where Crash feels like he has two moves (jump and spin), Mario feels like he has a million (jump, double jump, AND triple jump, ground pound, side jump, long jump, ducking, punching, kicking, diving…). They’re both collectathons of a sort, but whereas Crash is about grabbing about a hundred crates in each stage, Mario is about a handful of stars, with different collection methods for each one.

Given Mario, and a completely featureless void, you could still have fun. Despite this, Nintendo was kind enough to give us Peach’s Castle, filled with interesting secrets, unlockable rooms, and lots to explore. There are insanely creative levels, like Wet-Dry World where the water level depends on how you enter the level, or Tiny-Huge Island, where a similar concept applies to Mario’s scale relative to the world.

Take a listen to the soundtrack, which fantastically captures the fun spirit of Mario. I implore you to find a musical moment out of place—I’m convinced it can’t be done.

This game also sits just before a multi-year onslaught of “collect everything” games—think Spyro or DK64—and somehow manages to avoid more of the usual collectathon pitfalls than those games do. There’s more variety here, not just in level layout but also in the mechanics used to get any given star. You’re breaking a wall, or flying around with the Wing Cap, or outswimming an eel, or traversing a maze, or sliding down a snowy mountain, or waiting for a magic carpet on a rainbow trail, or swinging Bowser around by his tail. This game is the joy of 3D platforming.

While I’m probably forgiving more than a few things that any modern game would be criticized for missing, I don’t have true nostalgia glasses on. The first time I played this game was about 15 years after it came out. It’s just that fun to play. For what it’s worth, I like it more than Odyssey or any other game in this series. Although the original Mario has arguably had a greater cultural impact, if I could only show three games to aliens to explain our video game culture, this would be one of them.

Play it if

You’re a human being.