Christmas day, 1998. Two years after the original release of the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 back in June 1996, I finally got my hands on it. I remember playing it at a friend’s house over summer and rushing home, begging my parents for a Nintendo 64 just so I could play it. “We’ll have to see what Father Christmas leaves you under the tree,” they said.

I was quietly optimistic, but at the same time, her words were no guarantee. Thankfully, Father Christmas delivered the goods on Christmas morning, and that opening coin chime followed by Mario’s iconic catchphrase, "it’s-a me, Mario," remains, to this day, of the most magical moments in gaming I’ve ever experienced.

Although voice actor Charles Martinet had previously voiced Mario in Mario’s Game Gallery for PC, those opening lines were, to my ears, Mario’s first-ever words. From those lines, right through to the closing credits that were essentially an action-packed show reel for its revolutionary camera system, Nintendo demonstrated that they had put enough creative flair into Super Mario 64 to establish itself as one of the most important games of all time, and they were absolutely pivotal in pioneering the future of 3D platformers.

Shigeru Miyamoto (the series creator) had been toying with the idea of a 3D Mario game for some time. Mario’s 3D worlds were waiting to be explored in a variety of ways, and Miyamoto would dedicate most of his time fine-tuning Mario’s movement, camera angles and ultimately how easy Mario was to control.

In an interview with Giles Goddard—who was part of the 15-person team developing Super Mario 64—the coder stated that Miyamoto’s main job was to sit down with the programmers and play with the controls and camera to shape how the game would feel. He claimed these aspects of design were "fundamental to the entire game."

The amount of time Miyamoto spent meticulously playing with Mario’s movement is evident before you’ve even hit the start button. I’m talking, of course, about the hours we all spent manipulating that giant, wobbly Mario face in the opening menu screen, just one of the many features Miyamoto threw into the game to show us how much work went into it, as well as allowing us to have a lot of fun in the process.

After revisiting Super Mario 64 on the Wii U, I’m still blown away by the fluidity of Mario’s movements, from the way he rhythmically bounces with perfectly choreographed landings to the wall-bounces, attack combos, ground-pounds and backwards jumps.

These movements grant the player complete freedom for exploring the worlds, with the castle’s foreground serving as an introductory playground from the moment you first burst out of that green warp pipe.

Super Mario 64 is perfectly paced: you never feel overwhelmed with any of the challenges Super Mario 64 throws at you, thanks to its unique level design and gradual implementation of new gameplay elements. Each stage brings with it new gameplay elements. Whether you’re racing the Mother Penguin in Cool, Cool Mountain or ascending the monolithic tower that is Whomp’s fortress, you’re slowly introduced to these new gameplay elements, rather than having everything thrown at you all at once.

While Super Mario 64 rewards and encourages exploration, it never forces it. With the exception of the linear structure of the Bowser stages, you are free to play Super Mario 64 however you want. Unlike previous Mario platformers, where the goal was simply to get from one side of the map to the other, Super Mario 64 lets you decide how you’re going to get around.

After beating Koopa the Quick in Bom-Omb Battlefield, jumping back into the painting for the third time allows you to jump on his back, steal his shell and use it to essentially skate around the map. I spent a lot of time aimlessly riding around the area just for fun, and also because the music was so damn catchy.

That’s what great Nintendo games have always been about: fun. Super Mario 64 oozes with delight, and it’s difficult to consider any part of the game boring by any measure. Miyamoto wasn’t content with Mario just moving around, he also granted him the ability to fly; further emphasizing his focus on exploration. I remember making my way back into the castle entrance hall and being beckoned by a giant beam of light, shining down into the center of the room. As you change the camera perspective to look up, you’re transported to one of the game’s many hidden areas.

Secrets have always played a big part in Mario titles, and Super Mario 64 is no exception. Mario 64 nods to its 2D predecessors in the form of familiar hidden colored switches, one of which appears in the aforementioned hidden area. Hitting these switches will turn previously unusable boxes into item boxes, and controlling Mario as he flew through the air felt great, especially considering the fantastic use of sound effects and music as you swoop up and down through the air to gain momentum. The way Mario bobbed up and down in the air paid homage to the cape ability in Super Mario World for the SNES.

Some of my favorite moments in Mario 64 involve the sound effects and music created by series composer Koji Kondo. The all-familiar sounds you would expect from a Mario title sound better than ever, but it’s the way Kondo builds atmosphere through his use of music that really stands out.

One key moment occurs as you descend deeper and deeper into the depths of Jolly Roger Bay. Working your way from the sand into the blue water below, the track slowly builds from a minimalistic, aquatic melody to grow deeper in texture with the gradual addition of more instruments; finishing with a track that doesn’t sound worlds apart from Liquid Drum & Bass being pumped through a Nintendo 64 sound chip.

Other iconic moments in the game are the never-ending staircase, the juxtaposition in movement when Mario erratically bounces around the map as he burns his ass on lava, draining the water in the castle moat, catching a glimpse of yourself in that giant mirror and realizing that the camera angles in the game are literally down to a camera crew following you around.

If you leave Mario idle for too long, he’ll eventually fall asleep. As he stands still, you’ll also notice him blinking and waving his head from side to side. Small touches like these help Mario feel more alive.

I was actually quite reluctant to revisit Super Mario 64, out of fear that my memories of it were purely nostalgic and wouldn’t hold up today. All too often, revisiting a game you haven’t touched in over a decade results in an anticlimax; nostalgia can be cruel like that. When you play it on the original Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64 doesn’t look quite as good as it used to, but it is still as much fun to play as it was 20 years ago. For a glossier performance, you can revisit it on the Nintendo Wii U.

I think Super Mario 64 is the greatest 3D platformer ever made. It’s a video game that took the Mario formula and literally turned it on its head, and, just like the shackles that bound the Chain-Chomp in the first stage, Super Mario 64 delivered a ground pound to the typical Mario conventions that had defined the series, and dared to try something new. Thanks for setting Mario free and doing a fantastic job of it, Miyamoto. Here’s to 20 years of Super Mario 64—the most fun I’ve (still) ever had playing a video game.

Super Mario 64 turns 20 today. It’s available to download from the Nintendo Digital store for Wii U.

For more in the way of retro gaming content, check out our round up of the 10 best retro gaming consoles available now.

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