25 years ago, Nintendo released Super Mario 64 – and video game design would never be the same again

What’s the most influential video game of the last 25 years? Chances are, right now you’re thinking of Grand Theft Auto III or Halo or even Fortnite – all good guesses, but all wrong, too. No, the right answer is a decidedly more family friendly affair: Super Mario 64.

Released way back in June 1996 to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s new console, the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64 pioneered several major innovations that would change video game design forever. I’m not just talking about 3D platformers, either; almost every genre – from first-person shooters to sandbox free-for-alls – owes a massive debt to Shigeru Miyamoto’s ground-breaking masterpiece.

Not convinced? Then this rundown of Super Mario 64’s three biggest design breakthroughs – its “free” camera system, analogue stick-driven control scheme, and non-linear level design – should be all the proof you need of the game’s lasting legacy. As Mario himself would say, here we go!

Giving players control of the camera

Before Super Mario 64, 3D video game camera systems largely fell into two camps: fixed and first-person. The fixed system involved developers presenting each level (or sub-level) from a pre-determined angle, which left players’ movements restricted to what they could see from that set vantage point. Meanwhile, the first-person system – while less constrictive – was limited to whatever was visible in the player’s line of sight and wasn’t compatible with third-person gameplay (for obvious reasons).

Super Mario 64 introduced a new system: a “free” camera controlled by the players themselves, not unlike a director shooting a movie. This was born largely out of necessity; the game’s third-person mechanics and strong emphasis on unconstrained exploration were incompatible with either of the existing approaches, forcing Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo to think up something new.

“Anyone who makes 3D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from [Super Mario 64]… is lying.”

Grand Theft Auto III writer/producer Dan Houser in The New York Times

Was the system they came up with flawless? Far from it; the camera controls were notoriously clunky even back in 1996 and render the original, non-remastered version of Super Mario 64 almost unplayable by modern standards. But the underlying concept – giving players control of the camera to better navigate the virtual world around them – wasn’t just genius, it was a literal gamechanger.

Its impact was almost immediate, too; developers industry-wide quickly adopted (and refined) the “free camera” system following the release of Super Mario 64, including Nintendo’s other mega-influential N64 hit, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The player-positioned camera is now a core component of pretty much every third-person 3D video game around, and its arguably Super Mario 64’s biggest contribution to modern game design.

Introducing a new way to move

Super Mario 64 didn’t just change the way we viewed video games’ virtual environments, though – it’s pioneering use of analog controls redefined how we got around within these environments, too.

True, the Nintendo 64 controller itself is a polarising bit of kit, thanks to its unique shape and layout which makes it almost impossible to access all its buttons at any one time. However, love it or hate it, there’s one feature of this distinctive gamepad that’s an indisputable stroke of genius: the analog joystick.

This was a first for video game console controllers; before the N64, players primarily moved their on-screen avatars with the D-pad arrow keys or (less commonly) with a separate joystick peripheral. The N64 controller was the first time players had access to both on a single controller – a huge breakthrough made possible by Super Mario 64.

“[It’s] still my favourite game of all time. I still have vivid memories of all the different levels. The control is still pretty much unrivalled. It convinced me that games were art.”

Valve co-founder and Half-Life co-creator Gabe Newell in Nintendo Life

See, the Nintendo 64 controller and Super Mario 64 were developed in parallel, and as Miyamoto’s vision for the game’s free-wheeling exploration started to solidify, it became clear that a D-pad-based control scheme wasn’t going to cut it. So, while the controller wasn’t designed solely with Super Mario 64 in mind, the game certainly informed its development, particularly the inclusion of an analog stick.

And honestly? That’s a good thing – because it provided the perfect showcase for why the analog stick control scheme was the future for 3D gaming. With the analog stick, players could navigate the game’s expansive virtual environments with a full, 360-degree range of motion while the stick’s pressure sensitivity allowed them to set Mario’s pace without holding another button. This kind of freedom and precision is taken for granted today, but a quarter of a century ago, it was unheard of.

Admittedly, Sony’s rival console, the PlayStation, took the analogue stick approach to the next level with its Dual Analog Controller a year later – but it all started with Super Mario 64.

Popularising non-linear level design

Speaking of things that started with Super Mario 64, let’s not forget its contribution to non-linear level design, either. Although the game didn’t invent the idea of a vast virtual sandbox for players to explore at their leisure, or of players being able to choose which level they played next from a suite of available options, it was the first to combine both these concepts into one seamless experience.

“…the idea for the huge variety of missions within a level came from Super Mario 64.”

GoldenEye 007 director/producer Martin Hollis in Zoonami

By giving players a main hub where they could roam freely and build up their skills before taking on a varied range of missions, Super Mario 64 set out the template that practically every other non-linear or open world game has built on since. This is especially true of the GTA and Red Dead Redemption franchises, which took Super Mario 64’s diverse sub-level model and really ran with it to deliver some of the biggest games of all time.

Rewriting the rules of video game design

Super Mario 64 rewrote the rules of 3D video game design, plain and simple. It changed how we viewed and navigated virtual environments, and what we did while we were in them. So, the next time you adjust an in-game camera, thumb an analog stick, or run wild in a digital sandbox, remember – Super Mario 64 made it all possible.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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