When the Nintendo 64 launched in the United States in September of 1996, players had just two games to choose from: a flight simulator called Pilotwings 64 and the latest entry in one of the most popular series in video game history. Super Mario 64 dragged its titular plumber into a fully realized three-dimensional world for the first time. In doing so, it helped introduce gamers to the agony and ecstasy of the adjustable camera—an element that would quickly become standard in games, but that was almost as brand new as the N64 itself in the autumn of ’96. As part of 1996 Week, four A.V. Club staffers got together to talk about Mario 64’s then novel, often frustrating camera system and how games built upon it in the years that followed.
Mario isn’t the first character you see in Super Mario 64, unless you count that bendable, disembodied face on the start screen. The opening cinematic, which swirls around the moats and towers of Princess Toadstool’s castle, ends with everyone’s favorite red-clad plumber leaping from a green pipe, at which point control is officially ceded to the player. But before that dramatic entrance, and right at the beginning of the cinematic, the spotlight falls, however briefly, on a different figure: a lowly, bespectacled Koopa, nestled into a floating cloud, a camera dangling from his fishing line. That Mario’s first 3-D adventure begins with a close-up of the cameraman speaks volumes. What it says is, “Get acquainted with this guy. You’re going to be working with him, and also against him, a lot.”
Mario 64 wasn’t the first 3-D platformer, but it was probably the most influential—the game that dragged the genre out of its infancy, standardizing and popularizing many of its key components. One of those components was the interactive camera system, in which players became responsible for adjusting their own vantage point on the action. Most games before Mario 64 worked with a fixed viewpoint; the idea of putting the player in charge of how they were seeing the game’s world was so novel, so fundamentally different from the way games traditionally functioned, that the designers had to find a way to explain the concept. Their solution was to incorporate a literal cameraman—a fourth-wall-breaking sidekick who could be called on to supply a wider view of the area or to flip the perspective around when something was suddenly obstructing your view. To explore a 3-D environment, we all had to start thinking like filmmakers, using composition to our advantage.
Of course, for modern players, adjusting the camera is basically second nature; if you’ve played a 3-D action game sometime over the last couple decades, you probably instinctively know that the right analog joystick will shift the vantage. But in Mario 64, you had to learn to incorporate camera movement into play. And this could be a painful process—not just because it was new but also because the camera system in Mario 64 (controlled by the C buttons) was far from perfect. I can still recall instances where I missed a platform because the camera suddenly, arbitrarily began panning away from the pertinent area, or when it would get caught against a solid surface, blocking my view and tormenting me with that obnoxious buzz indicating that my floating Lakitu friend just couldn’t move any farther in a given direction. The camera hindered as much as it helped, is what I’m saying.
What do you guys think? Do you have memories of wrestling with the Mario 64 camera? And do you think games have dramatically improved the camera function in the years since?
I do have memories of fighting that camera, Alex. It’s such a memorable part of the experience that in my view, Mario 64 is the game that established the camera as a de facto enemy—a mostly unseen nuisance that stands in the way of your quest as much as any Goomba or Thwomp. In that light, it’s appropriate that Nintendo assigns cinematography duties to that bespectacled Koopa you mentioned, Lakitu. Players first encountered Lakitu in Super Mario Bros. on the NES, where he hurtled bright orange creatures of spiky death from his cumulonimbus perch. (The North American manual for the game romantically described Lakitu as “the mysterious turtle who controls the clouds.”) The effect of Lakitu’s “pets” in Super Mario Bros. was markedly similar to the impact of his dodgy camerawork in Mario 64—you become unsure of your footing, you probably jump around in a panic, and a sudden confusion muddles what might have seemed like a straightforward path ahead.
But even if he does sometimes act like an enemy in practice, what I like about Lakitu in Mario 64 is how assiduously he maintains his role as a neutral observer. Aside from the opening spiel about the camera by the “Lakitu Bros.” and a bit of advice in early stages of the game, Lakitu stays out of your business. You don’t even see him unless you look in a mirror that hangs in one room of the castle. This is typically thoughtful attention to detail by Nintendo. The designers anthropomorphized (or turtle-morphized) the relatively new concept of the player-controlled camera to make it more accessible, but they resisted any urge to make Lakitu a companion to Mario. That maintains a sense of solitude, which is key to preserving the game’s sense of adventure. When you, for instance, plumb the murky and enchanting depths of Jolly Roger Bay, it’s more exciting to feel lonely and imperiled than to be conscious of a sidekick who’s hovering behind your head. Regular readers already know that I’m fascinated by loneliness in Mario, and Lakitu always leaves you alone. A paragon of objective documentary filmmaking, he refuses to intervene when there’s trouble, content to watch in his viewfinder as you drown.
I wouldn’t change a thing about the Super Mario 64 camera, not just because I romanticize its cold clumsiness but also because, on the whole, the camerawork is actually quite good. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Nintendo’s developers managed to design this feature as well as they did. As countless other games of this era demonstrated, it’s a steep challenge to manage the movement of both a player’s avatar and an untethered camera through the 3-D game space. It was all too common then to be playing a game and suddenly have the camera jam itself inside your character’s body at a tight corner, say, switch direction entirely, or end up on the wrong side of a wall. Super Mario 64 has these issues on occasion, but they’re relatively rare, which is especially remarkable when you consider that the game’s level design makes use of vertical space more than most games—so Nintendo had to contend with three axes of movement, not just two.
I agree wholeheartedly, John. In retrospect, it’s not perfect, but as a first stab at making this work, it’s an amazing accomplishment. When replaying it in preparation for this discussion, I never felt like the camera was actively harmful, unlike in many games that followed in its wake, so much as it was limited. Because you control it with those four directional C buttons, you don’t have the precision you need to really make this kind of camera system work. Instead, you’re stuck choosing between a handful of fixed-angle changes, swooping around Mario in 90-degree increments. Finding the best view for something as simple as jumping up the floating blocks in Dire, Dire Docks takes more finagling than it should because you can’t get in there with a second analog stick and spin the camera to the perfect position as you can in modern games.
But I do think Nintendo smartly designed the game in such a way that those moments are few and far between. When it calls for precision, it’s usually in a scenario that’s meant to be a big challenge. Otherwise, you’ve got the freedom to screw up safely. There are even some fail-safes built into the mechanical details that help compensate for the camera’s inferiority, like the way Mario reliably jumps off a pole in the direction he’s facing with the same trajectory and distance.
Of course, this is all stuff I’ve noticed after replaying the game over the last few years. I think I was 7 when I played it for the first time, and while I’d been playing for a few years up to that point, I suspect I didn’t come into it with the same brain full of muscle memory and notions of how video games worked that you guys did. For me, the idea of a 3-D world with a camera that you controlled as you moved Mario wasn’t some transformative concept; it’s just the way things were. That Mario might control a little weird and that the camera didn’t always work as intended never crossed my mind. This was one of my first times playing video games as a real, conscious human being (I had fiddled with an NES and Genesis, but I’m pretty sure I had no idea what I was doing), so there wasn’t any adjustment period.
I learned what video games are with Mario 64, so I’m curious what the experience was for you guys who’d been absorbing the rules and nature of video games before this came along. What was it like encountering something this different for the first time?
I remember trying Mario 64 for the first time on one of the then ubiquitous in-store display kiosks, which encased the console in a plastic dome with two controllers sticking out at oblique angles, so that the thing looked like a robot with three-fingered hands. I just didn’t get it. And I admit that I’ve wondered—out loud, in fact, while sitting in the living room with the used Xbox 360 my wife had gotten me—whether the design of the controls had gotten more intuitive or whether my hand-eye coordination had just improved over the course of becoming a grown-ass man.
I guess I’m the perfect test case here. I was always a computer snob, and the aforementioned 360 was the first console I’d owned since the Super NES. Consoles were something my friends had. (If you were a Russian of my generation, it was probably the Dendy, a Taiwanese Famicom clone with an elephant mascot, which I wanted so badly despite owning the superior SNES, because kids are irrational when it comes to status signifiers.) And so, as someone who didn’t get a lot of at-home practice with console controllers while the consoles themselves went through several generations of evolution, I do think controls have gotten less awkward. Or is it just that I’ve gotten so used to the idea that digital spaces have a camera?
As someone who played a lot of top-down strategy games, point-and-click adventures games, and isometric-perspective RPGs as a kid, I have a certain nostalgia for locked-in perspectives. So I’m going to turn this around into a different question: Do you think that the prevalence of the “camera” has contributed to games looking more the same than not? There are only so many good ways to design a free-floating (or first-person) point of view and only so many ways to proportion a game environment for it.
If we’re tackling the way games “look” from a compositional point of view, then yes, it has been limited. As you said, Ignatiy, if you’re giving the player the control of the camera, there are only a handful of methods and angles that actually work. This is more of a mechanical inevitability than artistic stagnation. You need to see your character and the world around them, but also enough of what’s directly ahead of them to properly navigate. It’s why the closest behind-the-back view in Mario 64—where the perspective is locked in place about a foot behind Mario—has little practical use.
Now, if we’re talking about how interactive cameras have affected the aesthetic of games, I think there is a bit of truth to what Ignatiy is saying, but to me, that truth really begins and ends with the genre that Mario 64 spawned. While there’s a ton of imagination and diversity within each of them, the 3-D platformers that followed—Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro The Dragon, Donkey Kong 64—were very much in the same format and style of level design. The art would change drastically from one cartoon aesthetic to another, but the look of the overall worlds—lots of room to safely wrestle with the primitive camera and controls, challenges taking the form of smaller areas that demanded precise movement—was pretty similar. That would even hold true to a degree as the industry moved into the PlayStation 2 era, and new platformers like Jak & Daxter made their debuts. By that point, though, games were mixing elements from all kinds of genres and their worlds had started to increase in detail to the point where attentive developers were able to get so much personality into their creations that the underlying similarities aren’t as noticeable. You got games like Psychonauts and Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, which were built from ideas that started all the way back with Mario 64 but twisted them into clever new forms.
It’s important to remember that Mario 64 was the start of a single evolutionary branch on the third-person video game tree, rather than the primordial trunk from which everything else has sprouted. A few months after its release, Tomb Raider would popularize another kind of third-person camera, one that used the same locked behind-the-back perspective that was so useless in Mario 64 but pulled back to reveal more of the world. Of course, shooting things was a core part of that game, and this fixed perspective would prove to be perfect for aiming. Between that and the more free-floating camera system of Mario 64, you have the basis for pretty much every third-person 3-D game that’s been released ever since. It’s at the heart of everything from Uncharted to Grand Theft Auto III to Journey.
I don’t know if anyone here has played Spot Goes To Hollywood, the Sega-only sequel to Cool Spot. It’s one of the relatively few pre-3-D isometric platformers, and it’s a complete fucking slog. (I say this as someone who’s a sucker for isometric perspectives.) You guide your little 7-Up mascot around levels that are half empty space, and what you’re looking at the whole time is the tiled floor, rendered in those brownish baby-shit-puke tones that were the unique purview of the Genesis/Mega Drive. Allowing the player multiple directions of movement requires a different scale and plenty of running space, but it also requires that 3-D camera to be able to pivot and look up; otherwise you’re just staring at the ground.
Like you said, Matt, there are only so many ways to design a 3-D platformer, and there’s really only one good way to design a platformer for a locked perspective. Good 2-D platformers are more alike than not; the only things they can really mess with are speed and the player’s ability to move vertically and horizontally. So isn’t it a little bit of a chicken and egg scenario? The proportions, vertical drops, and pictorial pleasures—those semi-transparent rainbows, those pyramids and geometrically cut mountains—of Mario 64 are directly related to the camera, and vice versa. The side-scrolling obstacle-course design of traditional platformers is the only thing that works consistently with a locked perspective. The camera changes everything. It makes the rules.
But that’s always been a part of gameplay, right? I used to love vertical-scrolling shoot-’em-ups—those pew-pew-pew jet and star-fighter games—where you were always playing with and against the movement of the scroll. Even first-person shooters operate around limited point of view. So perhaps it’s not the novelty of the camera that set Mario 64 apart, but the sense of proportion in its design. The spaces are very legible, and John is right to mention that it has fewer issues with clipping (serious, fun-killing issues, that is) than many 3-D games of its time. Being first is good, but what really matters is being the first to do something well.
Matt, you mentioned the influence those early 3-D platformers would have on non-platform games. Across genres and consoles, we’ve settled on a handful of ways of allowing the player to control what they see, and of course, that’s also influenced how the games themselves are designed and played. Which raises a dangerous speculative question that I’m going to hand over to Alex: What haven’t we thought of?
I think I may lack both the technological know-how and the imagination to predict the brave new frontier of intelligent camera systems in video games. The changing of the camera’s role that Matt has described is more a process of finessing than a series of enormous leaps—which is to say, the way Mario 64 used the camera two whole decades ago isn’t that different, in the grand scheme of things, than the way games use it today. Every art form reaches the point when the advances become more about refining existing language than inventing a new one. That’s my hands-in-the-air way of admitting that I’m not remotely sure of what new way of looking designers could foist upon players. Does the gaming world have its Stan Brakhage?
VR could play a role—and maybe it already is, for all I know about the games currently toying with that technology. But given that part of the appeal of VR is that it comes close to making your actual POV the game’s POV, I’m not convinced that this doesn’t just portend a more responsive, detailed generation of first-person action games. (Ditto augmented reality games, which kind of make the camera the whole show.) Perhaps the change will reflect some new advance in the way we process all visual information. I’m struck by the notion that one day we could be playing games that require the simultaneous monitoring of several vantage points, like David Bowie watching 10 shows at once in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Whether widespread screen addiction makes this future more likely (because who doesn’t toggle between their laptop and their phone these days?) or less likely (because who would have the attention span to master that system?) is a question I’ll leave everyone to ponder.
What I do know is this: Because of their participatory component, video games make artistic leaps in conjunction with practical ones. In other words, few advances that make games harder for the sake of, say, creative expression, tend to stick. Mario 64 introduced its camera system as a necessity—one that happened to mother some invention in the games it influenced. The next revolution in video game camera function will be utilitarian: In games, you can’t make that great leap forward if it doesn’t start with the player making a little leap onto a moving platform.
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