Two decades ago, exploring a 3D world of polygons seemed like a far off fantasy. PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and contemporary PC games tried their best to make running through the third dimension work. While some experimental titles got close, gaming reached a major turning point in 1996 when Super Mario 64 launched with the Nintendo 64 and is arguably the best game that system ever saw (give or take a Legend of Zelda). After that June 23 worldwide release, no one would play games the same ever again.

Now that Super Mario 64 has turned 20, it might be easy to overlook what a trailblazer the game was. Just as Super Mario Bros. set the tone for hundreds of 2D games that followed it, so too did Super Mario 64 influence an entire genre for years to come. Read on to see the most important ways that Super Mario 64 changed gaming forever. Let’s-a go!


Mario’s freedom of movement immediately captures your attention as soon as he pops out of the pipe in front of Princess Peach’s castle. That opening area is an open playground to figure out every new move Mario has from the start, all with Mario shouting out his cartoonish excitement at every movement. More so than in his older 2D games, Mario comes to life with his shouts of joy during a somersault or exclamations of fear as he’s knocked back by some enemy. Super Mario 64 turns its star into this living cartoon character who is more real than any mascot before.


Mario’s wide range of motion is made possible by the Analog Stick at the center of the N64’s controller. The traditional D-pad input on older consoles really limited your range of motion in 3D games, usually keeping players locked in the kind of tank-like movements seen in Resident Evil. Mario could run circles around the leads in other games thanks to that Analog Stick, and it wasn’t long before similar controllers were released by Sony and Sega to give their games similar flexibility. It’s impossible to imagine playing current games without analog input, and Super Mario 64 blazed that trail with N64’s trident of a controller.


Super Mario Bros. popularized the platformer template of running from one end of the stage to the other, but that couldn’t really work in the massive 3D sandboxes of Super Mario 64. Areas like Bob-omb Battlefield or Whomp’s Fortress may have a traditional boss battle that nets you a single star, but that’s just one of multiple tasks to complete in a stage. Super Mario 64 might keep flinging players back into the same painting, but you could count on a novel new assignment once the mustachioed plumber landed. Filling up a huge stage with multiple objectives is an economic use of space for big budget 3D platformers like SMB64, pushing developers to find multiple uses for the same area.


Finding your way around those vast stages isn’t so easy if you can’t move around the camera, which very few games did back then. True, Super Mario 64‘s Lakitu camera controls feel a bit limited now, and the N64’s four C-buttons can’t compare to modern devices like a second analog stick. But at a time when most early 3D games either glued the camera in place or just locked it in a first-person perspective, Super Mario 64 let players move the camera however they wanted, which was absolutely necessary for gauging the distance of a jump. If you close your eyes, I bet you can still hear the sound of the camera zooming in and out.


The Nintendo 64 wasn’t known for its vast library, so early games like Super Mario 64 needed to keep pulling players back in even after Bowser had been beaten. That’s why each course in the game is littered with trinkets like Red and Gold Coins to search out, sending players back again and again to find every last hidden item. Games like Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro the Dragon would keep building on that by adding more and more collectibles, sometimes overwhelming players with piles of junk buried in every inch of a game. But Super Mario 64 found a good balance of adding collectibles without overdoing it.

So happy birthday Super Mario 64! Thanks for shaping the games getting made even now. I’m sure we’ll still be seeing Super Mario 64‘s influence in games for at least another 20 years.

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