Greatest Game of 1996: The Real Winner: Super Mario 64

On September 29, 2006, my buddy and Stew Over contributor Tyler and I wheedled my mom into driving our 14-year-old sleepy-eyed selves to Target at 5:30 a.m. for what I anticipated would be the greatest moment of my short life: the release of the Nintendo 64.

The release of a new system had never generated this much excitement with me before. I was too young to remember the launch of the NES, and although I remember being excited about getting my SNES, I still had to rely on my parents to buy games for me back in 1991. This time I was prepared. I had saved all the lawn mowing and dog walking money I had earned over the course of the summer. I had sold the rest of my Magic cards to earn $100 toward the purchase. I was all set to buy my system, an extra controller, and two games: Mario 64 and Cruis’n USA.

Prior to Mario 64’s release Blockbuster was a real company

Nintendo was ready to take my money, too. They had the hype train rolling well before the launch. In fact, I had even played the system prior to its release. Over that summer, the Big N had set up kiosks at the local Blockbuster Video where you could play the first level of Mario 64. A few gaming moments have blown me away, and seeing Mario in 3D tops my list.

Picking up the N64 controller for the first time was a completely new experience. Video game controllers prior to the N64 had a boxy shape and contained a directional pad and several buttons. The N64′s three-pronged design was incredibly foreign at the time. An analog stick and a trigger button, both of which are mainstays of today’s controllers, were first introduced here. And using that stick to control Mario? Absolute magic.

The invention of the analog stick coincided with the invention of moving in 3-dimensional space. Prior to the N64, most games were played on a 2-dimensional plane, and you moved from left to right across the screen. Now, you could move in any direction you wanted to. The sense of freedom you felt was incredible. And don’t forget flying! Putting on the cap and soaring through the air made me feel like I was doing it myself.

Thankfully 1996 was a different era

Because I had played Mario 64 and the N64 before launch, I knew what to look forward to, but all this small taste did was make me want it more than ever. So when the morning of the launch came and I told my mom that I wanted to get there at 5:30, she thought I was crazy. Of course, compared to today’s midnight launches, sleeping out overnight, and preorders months ahead of time, getting to the store 3 1/2 hours before Target opened doesn’t seem so off the wall. We were the first ones there, but by the time the store opened, a crowd of 20 to 30 people had amassed. Target had received only six systems, and there was a mad dash once the doors opened.

I still read EGM…

One more wrinkle to this story that illustrates the change in media coverage surrounding video games is the lack of real knowledge we had about the system’s launch. I mentioned earlier that I wanted to get Cruis’n USA at launch. I had played the arcade game a ton, and when the most current issue of EGM said it was a launch game, I made sure to scrounge up the extra cash to buy it. The only problem was that the game didn’t release with the system. Only two games made it out: Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. I had to wait until Christmas to finally play Cruis’n.

I got the system home and played Mario 64 for hours. Every new level was a joy to explore, and the race to get 120 stars with my friends was on. I asked for nothing but N64 games that Christmas, and it quickly replaced my Super Nintendo as my favorite system. It took a couple of years before I invested in a Saturn and a Playstation, and I have great memories of the N64; however, it was certainly a transitional time for Nintendo.

The dawn of a new era

The N64 is widely considered the moment in time when Nintendo stopped dominating the industry. Sony’s Playstation was released the next year, and the disc-based system produced graphics and music that simply couldn’t be replicated on Nintendo’s cartridge-based system. The presence of more adult games such as Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo really pushed the industry closer to where it is today. That shouldn’t, however, detract from the great impact the N64 had. Besides the analog stick and 3D gameplay, the N64 made a strong push toward multiplayer gaming on home consoles. The system launched with four controller ports, thus encouraging developers to make games that could be played with multiple people. GoldenEye came to define a generation of kids playing games and introduced the console crowd to the first-person shooter, which is far and away the most popular video game genre today. The torch was passed from platformers like Mario to shooters like Bond on the N64.

Tune in again next week, when we take a closer look at GoldenEye.

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