As revolutionary as the jump to polygons was back in the mid-90s, there were a few teething issues here and there, visually.
The 16-bit era of consoles delivered crisp, detailed spritework that brought our favourite characters to life, from the hand-drawn aesthetic of Yoshi’s Island to the unnerving catacombs of Super Metroid.
While the form would not reach its apex until the following generation, it was, for the most part, scrapped in favour of the 3D perspective. Although these graphics blew our minds at the time, they have not aged nearly as gracefully, and even some of gaming’s biggest stars look a bit awkward on the Nintendo 64.
Some efforts were better than others, however, so it’s worth exploring the moment they happened upon a formula that worked.
Yoshi (Mario Party, 1998)
Since Shigeru Miyamoto first envisaged a dinosaur companion for Mario to ride on, back in the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Yoshi was always intended to have a frame catering to transport.
His fate was sealed. His favourite show would be Mr. Ed. His preferred basketball pickup game was HORSE. He’d get around town in a banged-up Hyundai Pony, looking wistfully out the window and wondering what could have been.
Once he at last debuted in Super Mario World, he very much fit the look and feel of a reliable steed, but his overwhelming popularity meant that he would carve out his own place in the company’s echelons in short time.
Over the years, Yoshi has become more compact and streamlined, standing further upright until the notion of riding him seems like an awkward proposition. Modern Yoshi would likely look at anyone attempting to mount him and angrily shout, ‘are you fucking right there, mate?’
The progression of this fluctuated back and forth, but the early genesis found in Mario Party is an excellent starting point. He’s not as gangly as the model used in Super Mario 64 and Super Smash Bros, and his eyes are simply adorable. I’d argue that he was cuter in this trilogy of N64 games than he’s ever been since. I hope he’s single.
Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong 64, 1999)
There was no way Rare’s take on Donkey Kong wouldn’t bring home the golden trophy (of fruit).
Not only were they responsible for sculpting the edgier, hipper, banana slammier facial features that he continues to sport to this day, this game also had the benefit of the Expansion Pak to beef up its memory resources. Gimme them poly’s, we’re going ape.
Picking on Super Smash Bros again, the DK of that title is a lumbering, awkward beast with curious anatomy. Starring as the protagonist in Donkey Kong 64, however, he was lively, fluid and vibrant.
The only other model that comes close, in my mind, was the one found in 2000’s Mario Tennis. This version was indeed a step up from what had come before — and indeed even a dedicated family man who brought his son to work — but lacked in the endless sense of energy and personality Rare injected in the ape they made legendary.
Does Mario Tennis’ DK have his own song and dance number? I rest my case.
Pikachu (Hey You, Pikachu, 1998)
Never was Pikachu a hotter commodity than it was in its premiere generation. Its vibe was still taking shape around this time, so its transition to 3D was a little smoother than most.
In all truth, they pretty much nailed it with their very first release in 1998’s Pocket Monsters Stadium. This Japan-only release preceded the sequel that would be known as Pokemon Stadium internationally, and the electric mouse looked quite stunning.
A seamless blend of a polygonal body with sprites for its eyes and mouth made it feel truly expressive, potentially assisted by the character’s round and simplistic design.
Despite this, we’re giving the award to Hey You, Pikachu, for amping up its range of emotions and personality. Pikachu was now a moody bitch, and it was going to make you suffer for your incompetence. Shout into the microphone all you like, it already knows all of your sins.
Princess Peach (Mario Tennis, 2000)
Hot take: I think this is the standout N64 model for the monarch formerly known as Toadstool, and to take it a step further, I would argue that she’s been on the decline ever since.
The first thing we have to address are the hands, because yes, they are absolutely massive. Beyond that, however, her facial structure is just lovely. The anatomy is on point, with big, doleful eyes that look like they’ve seen some serious shit.
Long story short, I simp for Mario Tennis Peach. Don’t judge me, if it works out I’m financially set for life.
As of the GameCube era, they completely retooled her look, and we ended up with the version we’ve got today. It’s really not my cup of tea, there’s something quite uncanny about that face — it’s not at all regal, so why should we respect her opinions on tense political matters?
No thanks. I vote Bowser. Maybe I marry him, too, he’s also rather wealthy.
Mario (Super Mario 64, 1996)
In actuality, the Nintendo 64 was not a great generation for Mario’s self-image. Too often, he looked vacant or drab, with the exception being the delightful Paper Mario.
Obviously, that game doesn’t qualify for the purposes of this list, so we’re taking it right back to the beginning and anointing the original model from his very first 3D platforming romp as the highest standard.
Just like the reverential game in which it was found, this edition of Mario was frantic and elastic, seemingly capable of anything. His facial features would contort and pivot through a gamut of sentiments, and there were also a few nice little details, such as a pudgy roll of flab protruding from his overalls. Big was beautiful, baby.
Likely due to increasingly large cast numbers in his subsequent appearances, Mario’s polygon count would be scaled back and stripped down in Mario Party and Super Smash Bros. The latter does get credit for introducing his kawaii blushing face, though. When are you bringing that back to the franchise, Sakurai?