As Super Mario Bros. essentially defined the 2D platforming genre, so Super Mario 64 defined the 3D platforming genre. It remains one of the best examples of the form, though as part of a new genre, it is not without its growing pains.
The core of Super Mario 64, as in its predecessors, is its controls. Mario controls beautifully with the analog stick on the N64 controller, and you’ll spend most of your time using it and the jump button. The other main controls consist of an “attack” button and a crouch button, both of which are highly context sensitive and are quite intuitive once you get a basic handle on how the game works. Mario can pull off an array of jumps here, based both on button pushes and how he’s currently moving. Perfecting things like the triple jump, wall jump, and long jump are key to mastering Super Mario 64.
Unfortunately, as great as Mario’s controls are, the camera controls in SM64 are frankly not very good. Nintendo had the right idea, offering four C buttons in an approximation of a modern camera stick, but as buttons, they don’t allow for very fine control. You can generally swing the camera only in 45-degree increments and in two useful zoom levels. You can approximate a first-person view to look around, but the camera is still quite limited. This might all work well enough, except the camera tends to rotate on its own as well, making simple straight-line runs into perilous treks.
Mario’s excellent controls and crappy camera combine for some interesting gameplay. Unlike modern games, fighting the controls almost seems to be the point of Super Mario 64 at times. Instead of making it easy to execute complicated moves, the game tests if you can manage them yourself. And that’s fine, it’s just a different mindset than current games tend to have.
Indeed, execution is the name of the game here. Each of the 15 courses has seven stars to collect, six of which require you to fulfill some specific criteria that can get quite challenging. The worlds are all relatively small, but densely packed with things to do and find, and many worlds contain a secondary area as well. The seventh star in each course requires you to find 100 coins, which generally means exploring every inch and exploiting all of your skills.
Super Mario 64 is not a perfect game, but it’s extremely fun, featuring several incredibly memorable worlds. Sure, it doubles down on ice and water worlds, but even those are pretty interesting. There are a lot of tiny issues with the game, particularly pertaining to being screwed over by camera movement, but it makes up for them by letting you perform some awesome moves. Bottom line: if you want to play a 3D platformer, you need to play Super Mario 64.