Games, unlike other traditional forms of media aren’t purely a product of its creator. The meaning of play is derived as much from the mechanics created by the designer as the player who interacts with them. So, when I tried designing a run of trying to do a flawless run of a world without failing or having to backtrack, I stumbled discovered Mario 64’s most acclaimed element had a very critical flaw in it.
The primary reason I chose to play through such a run was to see how Super Mario 64, being the trendsetter and the guidepost for 3D platformers fared in terms of pure focus on flow and fluidity. Jumping into Whomp’s Fortress in World 1-2, I realized that this was going to be a far more difficult run than I had imagined. According to the rules I had set for myself, I could neither take any damage nor could I backtrack which meant that once I had walked over a certain space, I couldn’t retrace my steps in the same direction again.
Jumping across the moving platforms and dodging enemies was easy, it was trying not to fall off little ledges which was the true challenge. Mario 64 as innovative it was about its control scheme and camera back then hasn’t exactly aged well. Some of the controls feel a bit off and the camera while often helping you out is still remarkably clunky and often counter-intuitive in certain worlds more so than others.
But not being allowed to retrace my steps revealed critical flaws of an element I always thought Mario 64 had excelled in – its level design. Granted, like all Mario games, Mario 64 is quite exceptionally creative in this department, making variations big or small, but since it was the series’ first attempt of creating levels in a three-dimensional space, and it stumbled on a lot of new problems, chief among which was backtracking.
Every time I fell down a ledge, I was faced at the prospect of backtracking which I couldn’t do according to my designed play. So, I had to restart. This repeated far more than I finished a flawless run of a level.
What’s interesting to note is how backtracking is far more magnified as a problem in 3D environments, especially when you frame it in comparison against a 2D side-scrolling Mario where backtracking is an impossibility. In contrast, Mario 64 is plagued by that. Some of the early shorter and more linear worlds lack it but by and far, most worlds in Mario 64 as they grow larger and more connected have large amounts of backtracking among them.
From a design standpoint, I could see this as the game allowing players to recollect some of their coins but for someone like me who was trying to do a flawless run without any hiccups or falls, this only resulted in not just frustration but just how meaningless the entire chunk of backtracking was. A section I was backtracking almost felt like a scenery in a passing car – something you faze out from purely due to your disinterest in it.
If you follow the rules and play Super Mario 64 the way it was designed to be, it is still an admirable relic but a relic that hasn’t always aged in a best manner. Seen from a specific type of play outside the designed rules, Super Mario 64 has a fundamental problem in one of its most acclaimed elements and one could never quite get over that obstacle. Literally, in the case of my designed run.