December’s cover story revolves around the best in video games. We’re gearing up to celebrate 2016 and announce the winner of The Free Cheese Game of the Year, as well as additional awards, but in our Retro Spotlight feature we’ve been highlighting the great games from years past.

We previously highlighted Mother 3 for 2006 and Grand Theft Auto III for 2001, now we’ll look at 1996 and one of the games that created a brand new landscape for video games.

Super Mario 64 pioneered platforming in the third dimension. It was one of the first to do it, and definitely the first to do it well. The Nintendo 64 controller allowed the player to gain camera control, something that was key to navigating a brand new dimension for Mario. It also allowed the player precise control over Mario with its analog stick, plopped right in the center of the controller.

I unfortunately never owned Super Mario 64. I can’t remember why we never got a copy of the game, but we missed it at launch and never went back for it. I had played moments of it at a friend’s house, and I remember swapping the controller back and forth to progress further and further toward Bowser.

I don’t think it was until I was much older that I had the opportunity to lose myself in Super Mario 64, and I remember the first time I looked up inside the beginning area of the castle. The moment when you are suddenly transported to the sky to learn how to use the Wing Cap was forever marked as one of the coolest discoveries in a game.

The biggest impact that Super Mario 64 leaves on me is Nintendo’s ability to create and specifically to innovate. I go back and forth on the notion that Nintendo stopped innovating somewhere in the 1980s and instead iterates on those old ideas, and the fact that still the company leads the way. Super Mario 64 is one example that shows Nintendo and its talent at a high point.

While the industry was moving toward compact discs and full motion video sequences, it laughed at Nintendo for sticking to cartridges. In fact, many developers left behind close partnerships with Nintendo in favor of a new technology and an escape from Nintendo’s proprietary hardware stronghold. Third parties were no longer stuck with Nintendo as the only viable option to make money and so: they left. It was the start of the Nintendo we know now; the Nintendo that puts out its own hardware and outstanding software to support it, without anyone else there to help carry the console along.

Where other companies would politely bow out of the competition or adhere to the changing market in order to stay alive, Nintendo just kept going as Nintendo wanted. While everyone looked ahead to the end and began to cut each other off in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Nintendo left the road entirely and found some weird vehicle we’d never thought of; Nintendo found a new path with a different end in sight and just started heading that way.

Super Mario 64 was the turning point for Nintendo. We could be having a much different conversation right now surrounding Nintendo. We could have the Sega conversation, the PlayStation conversation, the Apple conversation, or the Atari conversation. At that moment in the mid 1990s, every company was changing to work toward the same goal of total living room and life dominance. Nintendo could have become any of these companies had it changed one idea but instead, it stuck with tradition and kept along at its own pace.

The innovation in design within Super Mario 64 made a console that the industry didn’t care for suddenly viable. The Nintendo 64 became host to many influential and important games, not just for Nintendo but for other companies as well. Without the success of Super Mario 64, we’d never see the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Smash Bros., or Goldeneye 007.

My lasting memories of Super Mario 64 are simple flashes. If I think about this game, my brain greets me with Bowser’s mocking laugh, the chirping of birds as you race through the courtyard, climbing a tree until vaulting from a handstand, and of course the sound of Mario for the first time as he shouts “Wa-hoo!”

1996 is a tremendous year for video games, and a quick peek at a list of the year’s releases will remind you of the influence that this year had on the future of video games. Of them all, Super Mario 64 is the one that outshines the rest.

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Posted by Joe Dix

Joe is the creator of The Free Cheese. He eats a lot of pizza and takes thousands of pictures of his pugs Oswald and Earl every day. He has a disorder that causes him to believe that he is Batman and his favorite video game is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

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