I don’t think there’s ever been a better decade for video games than the 90’s. The sheer number of classic games and characters that debuted during that time period is staggering. Street Fighter II, Sonic the Hedgehog, Goldeneye 007, Final Fantasy VII, Mortal Kombat, DOOM, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider. The list goes on and on. I may have started playing games in the 80’s, but the 90’s were when I fell in love with them. And there is one game in particular that remains to this day an all time favorite and stands out as the first (and possibly only) time that a video game felt truly magical to me.
Super Mario 64
I was 18 years old in the spring of 1996. At that point I was spending most of my days playing some of the last great SNES games to come out like Super Mario RPG and Yoshi’s Island. I had only recently gotten my first full time job at the local comic book shop and it was the first time in my life that I had a decent amount of expendable income. I remember my older brother and I going to the nearby Toys R Us (I don’t remember what our original reason was for going) and discovering something that would change the way I looked at all video games.
I know… it sounds a bit over-dramatic, but I cannot overstate just how mind blowing it was to walk into that store and see the playable kiosk for the Nintendo 64 for the very first time. The console wasn’t due to hit store shelves until that fall and for months I had gone over every detail and screenshot in the pages of magazines like EGM and Gamefan (where it was called the Ultra 64 early on). This was in the time when internet access was a novelty, not a part of our everyday lives like it is today, so there was still a great air of mystery surrounding the games that we played and how they were created.
I waited patiently while the person in front of me played, glancing over his shoulder to see what was going on. When it was my turn to play I rushed to the kiosk and grabbed the controller. Today we look back at the N64 controller and laugh at how bizarre it is, but at the time it felt completely revolutionary. As the game began and Mario leapt out of that green pipe into the caste courtyard I remember feeling like I was witnessing something magical, something I never could have imagined possible before. In recent years we’ve become so accustomed to incremental changes between console generations, we’ve forgotten how the switch to 3D gaming completely changed the rules of gaming. In my three and a half decades of playing video games I’ve never felt the same sensation as I did that afternoon at that toy store.
I explored every nook and cranny of that beginning area, learning how Mario controlled and looking for any secrets that could be hidden within. I don’t know exactly how long I stood at the kiosk, or if anybody was standing behind me waiting to play, but it felt like I was there for hours, completely engrossed in this amazing 3D world. Eventually I put down the controller and grabbed one of the white tickets to go and pre-order the console (complete with a free rad commemorative Mario t-shirt). It was the first game console that I purchased with my own money, and it felt awesome.
I could hardly contain my excitement when that September day finally came and I got to pick up my Nintendo 64. We rushed home and Adam and I rigged up our Mom’s stereo speakers to the television to get surround sound. I have a vivid memory of the sound of the birds chirping in the courtyard of Peach’s castle. It’s weird the little details that can stick with you after so many years, but I can hear them like it was yesterday.
Over the next several days and weeks we lived in that world. From the peaks of Cool, Cool Mountain to the depths of Jolly Roger Bay, we made our way through that incredible 3D world. I’ve been playing games since the early 80’s which means that when I started playing, they weren’t much more than a single pixel against a black screen. I’ve seen gaming grow from a time when we would have to imagine that a single square was a person or spaceship, to now when it can sometimes be hard to differentiate between a digital world and the real world. And in all of that time I don’t think any technological leap has felt more profound or impactful as when I played Super Mario 64. It was a revelation, and it was the beginning of a new era in gaming.
Many games have come and gone in the years since that are objectively better than Super Mario 64. The Mario series itself has seen several classics in the years since he first leapt to 3D. But while it might not be the “best” game in the series, it might be my favorite and I’ll never forgot the magical feeling of experiencing it for the very first time. I don’t know if that kind of feeling will ever come again. I don’t know if anything can capture that sense of awe again (virtual reality has come close). Maybe I’m too old and cynical now to be wowed in the same way that I was as a kid. But if it doesn’t, I’m glad that I got to experience that feeling the first time around.