The always-interesting rllmuk forum has been discussing rather or not the Nintendo 64 flagship title Super Mario 64 is still, after all these years, the best 3D action platformer title. Mario's first 3D adventure spawned a number of imitators and clones over the years, some entertaining (Banjo-Kazooie) and some not so much (Chameleon Twist, for one). One particular comment in the forum discussion struck me, however:
Can it really be true that Nintendo happened to get it perfectly right on their first attempt, and everything is destined to be downhill from there?
My own personal history with the game is pretty much standard stuff for the most part: after playing Mario in 2D for years and years, I first saw Super Mario 64 on display at a kiosk at the local Blockbuster Video. Mario was sleeping at the start of the first Bowser level, and as I took the controller in my hand he stood up, ready for action. Then he walked straight off the side of the platform and fell into the abyss. Like I said, first time controlling a character in three dimensions and all. But after a few minutes I started to get the hang of it and by the time I reached the battle with Bowser I was hooked on the game and the 3D gaming concept itself.
Over the 1996 holiday season and into the first half of 1997 I tore through every piece, every platform, and ever part of Super Mario 64. I collected all 120 stars, met Yoshi, beat the big penguin at the icy slide race, and basically cleared every aspect of the game. Sometimes I wouldn't even play towards a goal, but would just guide Mario around the castle aimlessly. Moving him around with the control stick was pure fun, and controlling him became second nature. Super Mario 64 was the center of my gamer-centric social circle up until Mario Kart 64 arrived, and then Princess Peach's castle went to the shelf for a while.
Then came the games that tried to copy or build on what Nintendo had achieved. Banjo-Kazooie raised the bar and requiring simultaneous control of two characters, increasing the number of available character maneuvers. It was an interesting idea and certainly led to an enjoyable game, but something about moving the bear and bird around never felt quite right. The sequel, Banjo-Tooie, was ultimately more of the same. Donkey Kong 64 contained massive worlds, increasing the size of available gamespace from Mario 64, but was focused entirely too much on collecting items and trinkets instead of entertaining goals to complete. Item collection should be means to an end in a 3D platformer title, not the main focus of the game itself.
The list goes on and on: the aforementioned Chameleon Twist in which the 3D levels which was about as generic as platformers come, Bomberman 64 and its semi-broken camera system, Gex's mostly empty worlds, and the less said about Earthworm Jim 3D, the better. Even the next-generation era's Super Mario Sunshine, Sonic Heroes, and so on fail to capture that certain something about Super Mario 64.
So what does Super Mario 64 have that the other titles do not? Timing. Super Mario 64 introduced many players to the idea of a third dimension in gaming. Up until 1996 characters moved from left to right, occasionally up and down, and always towards an specific endpoint. Super Mario 64 changed that perception, at least for me, and evolved the platformer genre to a point that I had never considered or visualized. It was a breath of fresh air when 2D platforming was becoming stagnant, and I believe that it is that initial spark of realization that makes Super Mario 64 so magical. The fact that it is an amazing accomplishment in terms of character motion and level design makes it special as well, but it's that moment of clarity that gives the game a boost above its siblings. New 3D platformers cannot capture that magic, that moment, and that realization again until someone out there changes the platformer genre in such a way that players, for a brief moment, once again open their minds to new ways of exploring virtual worlds.