The legacy of Mario 64’s iconic sound design
When it was released in 1996, Super Mario 64 was an instant phenomenon, wowing critics and captivating gamers with its groundbreaking 3D platforming, global nesting doll design, and stellar music. Looking back, the sea changes Nintendo made to the mario seems natural, but the leap from two dimensions to three was a huge challenge that came with a lot of risk. Nintendo basically had to bank on the reputation of its most valuable intellectual property and the face of its business on this killer new app.
Mechanically, mario 64 holds its own and speedrunners are still setting records with the game to this day. But it’s hard to overstate the huge influence the title had on the industry, as it not only showed game designers how to properly design for 3D, but also taught gamers how to comfortably navigate worlds. 3D immersive. One factor that helped gamers bridge this gap was its unparalleled use of sound.
Many famous Nintendo franchises, such as The Legend of Zelda, using sound to create identity through coherence. From game to game, the jingles Link hears as he opens chests and solves puzzles transcend different iterations of Hyrule, establishing familiarity and cohesion across the franchise. But Mario has always been Nintendo’s primary vehicle for radical reinvention, and that was especially true for the killer app that launched the Nintendo 64.
The game’s tone was still light and cartoonish, but Mario’s steps and jumps suddenly felt realistic rather than explicitly video game. Instead of spurting noises, Mario accompanied his jumps with squeals and squeals, which was a new way to approach immersion while still being spirited, childish, and happy. Footsteps sounded different depending on the type of ground Mario was walking on, and his powering up of the metal cap produced a slamming footstep. Subtle touches like these introduced the entire gaming industry to a new level of verisimilitude in audio feedback.
The Nintendo 64 did not have a dedicated audio chip like most previous consoles and its rivals, the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Dreamcast. Instead, the system relied on CPU resources to process sounds. As a result, most Nintendo 64 games feature heavily compressed audio files, with the console compensating with generous use of reverb.
Camera control cues
As Pac manThe rhythmic barrage of sound effects helps players hit the beat, mario 64 featured specialized noises to help players navigate its new 3D world. For example, the game has assigned noises to camera controls that provide players with additional feedback. Camera controls have never been an issue in 2D platforming, and Nintendo wisely determined that having a specific set of sounds to move Lakitu (Mario’s “camera man”) independent of Mario himself would help fans adjust.
Mario’s move to 3D also introduced other changes to the series’ long-established formula. The simplistic two-hit health system that worked in 2D might have been too much of a pain for players’ first outing in a 3D world, so Nintendo adopted a health meter similar to The Legend of Zelda‘s heart containers. To help players be aware of their HP, Nintendo has incorporated sound design lessons from this game into mario 64design. Although it can quickly become infuriating, the health alarm sound helps players be more aware of their surroundings. In short, SFX help teach players what to do.
Giving Mario a recognizable voice and vocal lines was perhaps the biggest risk Nintendo took with Super Mario 64. While Link is often cited as Nintendo’s prototypical silent protagonist, Mario had no audible voice lines prior to the release of mario 64. A voice isn’t just an add-on when a character has already achieved global recognition and universal appeal. It’s hard to imagine Mickey Mouse without hearing his voice, and now the same can be said of Mario, but finding the right approach was no small feat.
As Link received “lines” in Ocarina of time, his voice work was limited to harsh battle cries, damage feedback, and other miscellaneous growls. Mario, however, spoke recognizable words for the first time. For example, his greeting at the start of the game, “It’s me, Mario!” is one of the most iconic voice lines in all of video games. That said, Nintendo was still narratively conservative with Mario’s silence. Though he spouts slogans and jumps for joy, he never speaks in a narrative, preserving the supposedly universal relatability of a silent hero.
While many games set trends or even invent new genres, few titles change the industry as drastically as Super Mario 64and the sublime use of in-game sound is one of the many reasons it stands out from the crowd.
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