Super Mario 64 isn’t the most popular video game of all time, but it very well may be the most influential.
The title has enjoyed unrivaled prestige since releasing in 1996, and even 21 years later is remembered fondly by its fans as one of the greatest games ever made. Opinions on why Super Mario 64 is one of the best games ever made vary from person to person, but there’s one fact about the title that supersedes opinion: it’s had a massive impact on the world of video games.
Super Mario 64 was not the only 3D platformer in its day, but the conventions that it introduced have been emulated many more times than those of its contemporaries. The game introduced concepts that many gamers take for granted in this digital day and age. Believe it or not, Super Mario 64 was the first video game in history to have a freely controllable camera that moved independently of the main character. Such a feature is a given in 3D games today, and Super Mario 64 was the first to pioneer the technology.
Additionally, Super Mario 64 was one of the first video games to feature varied mission design. Longtime fans may remember that Mario could undertake several quests in each of Super Mario 64’s worlds, and that functionality was yet another first that the title introduced for video games. That concept went on to inform everything from the design of other 3D platformers to side quests in modern open-world titles. Everything from a quest in Skyrim to an exploration opportunity in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild can trace its lineage back to Mario jumping around for stars.
Super Mario 64 was also one of the first titles in gaming history to give players at-the-time unprecedented control over movement speed. Until this game came around, most video game characters had two speeds: running and not running. Super Mario 64 was one of the first games to allow players to inch or walk forward at whatever speed they desired, a feature that is so common in modern games that most gamers don’t even think about it. That such rudimentary features of modern game design exist because of this title is testament to how influential its design has been over the years.
Originally, Super Mario 64 was supposed to be a linear title, with the 3D graphics being more of a technological gimmick than an integral part of the gameplay. Early on in development, though, the team opted to trade in linearity for open-world roaming, which was yet another relatively new function for video games. What few games did include open-world design back in the Nintendo 64’s day also gave players only so much time to complete an objective, but Super Mario 64 allowed players to explore worlds at their leisure.
None of these features may sound all that exciting or revolutionary on paper: a controllable camera, adjustable movement speed, and being able to explore a world at whatever pace is preferred are givens in today’s world of game design. It’s important to understand that though these features are mundane in contemporary gaming, they were revolutionary in Super Mario 64’s heyday. Super Mario 64 even had an indirect influence on the development of Half-Life; Gabe Newell became convinced that video games were art after playing the game, spurring him to co-found Valve and develop gaming’s most influential shooter: Half-Life.
Of course, Mario 64’s success had a more direct impact on video gaming by siring the genre of open-world platformers. Dozens of games ranging from Conker’s Bad Fur Day to Donkey Kong 64 to Banjo-Kazooie wouldn’t have been developed if Mario hadn’t been there to blaze a new 3D trail. Nintendo continues to manufacture these titles today, and though seldom exceptions like Unbox and Yooka-Laylee still roam about the market, open-world platformers have largely died out outside of the Nintendo-sphere.
As for Mario, the success of Super Mario 64 propelled Nintendo to fabulous heights, and the game’s innovations went on to have an impact in video games of all shapes and sizes. Everything from side-scrolling platformers to adventure games to even shooters draw some design element from what the game brought to the table, making Super Mario 64 one of the most important video games in history.