Let's a-Go, Mario!
Super Mario 64
There are a number of games that I hold dear to my heart. These are games that, despite other titles coming out, newer and supposedly better titles, I still spent hours, days, months, and more playing these games. They're games like Chrono Trigger, like Borderlands. Games that, for me, defined their genre in a way other, competing titles, simply couldn't. When some asks me, "what's the best game for this genre?" I'll automatically trot these games out because there's simply nothing better.
When it comes to 3D platforming games, there simply isn't a better title than Super Mario 64. Yes, there are prettier games at this point, games with more polish, more gimmicks, more to do and see. But when it comes to simply getting into a platforming game and appreciating an open world to explore as you run, jump, and bop your way through the stages, Super Mario 64 has everyone else beat. Hell, it's better than every single one of its sequels (and the one remake) from Nintendo. Super Mario 64 simply can't be beat.
Loading up the game, even now, reveals so much about how the game expects you to play. Simply put, there's no hand-holding. Nintendo, over the years, has taken to doing more and more extensive tutorials, expecting that players simply can't experience a game for themselves, they have to be told how to play it first. You have to learn about your squirting backpack before you can use it, or you have to be told how to navigate the planets before Mario can shoot off into the galaxy. Cappy has to have long conversations with you simply so you can play the game. Nintendo started doing this kind of excessive over-catering to players with Ocarina of Time, but Super Mario 64 came out just a short few years earlier and it doesn't have any of that cruft. You just get to play.
Go into the opening area, right outside Peach's castle, and the game just lets you run around. You can see how it feels to play the game before you even get into actually having to do anything. It's sly about its guidance, simply leaving you to figure things out for yourself. Once you get into the castle, for example, there aren't a lot of places to go because thee doors are locked by stars. Go into Bob-omb Battlefield, though, and you'll soon find a star. And then more, and soon it'll click that the stars you have can open doors. Nintendo could have given you a side-kick that told you all this, but instead you just get to do it yourself.
The free nature of the game is also seen in each of the worlds. Very often, every star you can get in the world (or, if we want to be specific, painting) can be grabbed from the start if you know what you're doing. You're free to roam off the beaten path, pick and choose where you go, and the game never stops you once. This is a game designed to give you as much freedom as you can get as you roman its many worlds. Nothing here stops you from doing things your way, not even once, and there's a magic to that the more recent Mario 3D adventures lack.
I think about this as I play games like Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. Those are games with a similar construction to Super Mario 64: individual areas with a set number of star-like objects to get. But in those games, you have to do one star to unlock the way to thee next. Very few areas provide open access to more than a star at a time, and the areas shift and change depending on the star goal you've selected. It's not free roaming, it's a guided experience, taking something away from the player in the process.
Coming out in the mid-1990s, collection-a-thon games were all the rage. Get all these different kinds of coins, find all these different bananas, do all of these things to one-hundred-percent the game. And yet, even here the simplicity of Super Mario 64 shines through (no pun intended). You have one thing to collect, stars, and while one of the seven stars in each world is tied to collection 100 coins in said world, those coins are all out in the open, just waiting for you to grab them. You're never scouring a stage for hours on end to find every stray nook and cranny. Super Mario 64 wants you to have a fun time simply exploring the world and enjoying its journey.
The game is pure Mario, through and through. Coming after Super Mario World in the mainline order, Super Mario 64 sticks to the basics of what made a Mario game worked: platforming and adventure. There were no gimmicks, like Cappie or Squirtie or whatever else thee games would add later, and you were just expected to run, jump, and explore the levels. If you had played a Mario game before you knew what to expect here and the fun was in taking those skills and putting them to work.
Honestly, even now, the game controls amazingly well. While the graphics of the Nintendo 64 haven't aged well over the years (many great games look down right awful now), the play mechanics that Nintendo packed into this title still shine through. This is a crisp adventure with tight, responsive controls. For my money, Mario has never controlled better than in Super Mario 64 and that's because Nintendo took the time to do the game right. This was the showpiece for the Nintendo 64 and, to this day, it still holds up.
Yes, it doesn't look as pretty as it used to, and yes, later games in the series have put more mechanics into their adventures to give you more to do. Maybe this game would bee even better if Luigi or other characters were playable (although considering Super Mario 64 DS, with its four playable characters, isn't as beloved as this title, I would argue otherwise), but the sheer single-player joy of Super Mario 64 cannot be understated. Nintendo, out of the gate, nailed 3D platforming and defined that genre for years to come.
Many other games from the classic era tried to make the jump to 3D after Super Mario 64 thinking they could do what Ninten-did. Most of those first attempts failed. They didn't have Nintendo's eye for perfection, their dedication to getting their games right. It helped, of course, that Nintendo built they hardware so they knew what could be done, but they also set out the guiding game to show how 3D space could be utilized. Many other early 3D games simply failed to learn those lessons and stumbled for it.
But it's the fact that Super Mario 64 is still fun, even now, that really shows how good the game is. Many, many platforming games have come since this title. Some have been good, a few even great, but Super Mario 64 is still the game that made the genre. Play all the others you want, I'm taking another journey through the paintings of Peach's castle.