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Meet The Modders Building The Super Mario 64 You Saw In The Ads

The Render96 team is creating an "HD" version of Super Mario 64 based on the rendered advertisements and art published in Nintendo Power.


For players of a certain age, the Nintendo 64 is a sacred monument to nostalgia. However, the system's low-poly aesthetics and obvious technical limitations can make revisiting beloved games like Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Banjo-Kazooie a shock. This inspired one group of modders from trying to create an improved version of Super Mario 64 that isn't based on modern standards of graphical fidelity. Instead, they're recreating the colorful, ultra-saturated art renders from the game's promotional materials.

"I was amazed to see the '90s promotional renders being given new life and actually playing the game with them," says Render96 project lead "DorfDork." "It's still a surreal experience for me."

Though Super Mario 64 is famous as the game that introduced true 3D platforming to the masses, it has remained relevant through the intervening years due to its competitive, hype-filled speedrunning scene. The game's modding community has existed for decades in a primordial form, primarily working through emulators like Project64. The release of an unofficial PC port of the game in 2020 reignited interest in hacks and level packs, allowing a new generation of modders to play around with it far more easily than ever before.

When DorfDork heard about the reverse-engineered PC port of Super Mario 64, he was amazed by the level of technical prowess on display. It didn't take long for him to decide to leverage the port's improved modding support to fuel his own project. With a number of different "HD N64"-style projects already in development, DorfDork decided on a more tailored approach: recreating the very specific art style of the N64's promotional materials for splashy exclusives like Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64. Render96 was born.

"The '90s 3D style was ingrained in my head through countless advertisements and magazines I would read as a kid," DorfDork says. "I would make arts and crafts based on those styles and place them around my room. When I was creating the 3D models, it was fun to deep-dive into the tiny details and figure out what the original artist's thought process was."

As a child of the late '90s myself, I also have tremendous nostalgia for the early 3D era of gaming. The vibrant colors, smooth textures, and simple reflections of the period seem quaint today, especially now that we've achieved near-photorealism in projects like The Last of Us 2 and God of War. Such "photorealism" will be scrutinized for its every minute flaw five to 10 years from now. That said, the early three-dimensional graphics of the N64 represented not only the cutting-edge of technology, but also an unexplored domain that would transform the very face of gaming itself over the next few years.

The idea of retexturing old 3D games to modern standards is nothing new. In fact, Render96's HQ texture pack lead "PokeHeadroom" says he was inspired to work on the project by YouTuber Nerrel, who published an immaculate HD texture pack for The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask back in 2021. While Nerrel redrew every texture in the game at a higher resolution, the Render96 project is all about keeping the art style true to the Silicon Graphics origins of the Nintendo 64.

"It didn't have much to do with the look we were going for, because we were trying to keep it as accurate as possible," PokeHeadroom says. "I wanted to showcase the amount of research that went into finding each texture. Nerrel's pack gave me the motivation I needed. It was that 'if he could, why shouldn't I?' type of mentality."

In fact, the Render96 modders are so dedicated to this "vanilla" aesthetic that they've dedicated themselves to finding and matching the source textures that Nintendo developers used to craft the game's assets in the first place. You can find their library on, and it's a very impressive repository of raw textures that were used not only in Super Mario 64, but other turn-of-the-millennium games like Ocarina, Sonic Adventure, Banjo-Kazooie, and more.

In the early days of 3D gaming, these pioneering developers relied on data disks filled with raw, high-resolution assets, as well as other stock images. Those assets were then manipulated or altered (or not, as the case may be) and then downsized to fit the brutal limitations of these early machines. For example, the N64 had a mere 4MB of RAM for most of its lifespan.

The blurry ground and wall textures that look so muddy and washed-out to us today had to be compressed within an inch of their lives just to fit on the cartridge. The group's wiki states that most of these matches were found through Google, machine translation, and persistence alone. One contributor named "charlyCN" put in hours, if not days, looking for the haunting skybox texture of the famously-weird level Wet-Dry World, only to finally determine that it's an image of a city in Yemen. Now that's dedication.

"It’s fairly time-consuming to figure out if you don’t know where to start," says Render96 texture research lead "Fanamel." "I would start by digging through anything that might be related, or even Googling things like 'Texture CD 1994' translated to Japanese. I got incredibly lucky with SM64, because Google Photos graced me with a Japanese texture CD case that happened to have previews on the back of it with an image that looked exactly like a SM64 texture. We then found out Nintendo and other Japanese companies would frequently use this company's photos, which narrowed it down a lot."

Of course, cleaning up these textures isn't an exact science. PokeHeadroom says that even though the Render96 team has been able to find more source textures than they ever imagined, he still wants to go back and redraw some of the originals to make them look better on the project's B-side branch. "The project has helped me grow immensely as an artist," he says.

In the past few months, Render96's levels mod has fully leapfrogged its early texture-replacing remit. The latest footage looks like the fever dream of a '90s kid who fell asleep reading the official Super Mario 64 player's guide. The mod's rendition of Bob-Omb Battlefield is particularly impressive, bringing life and depth to a level that many players can navigate blindfolded. A big part of the visual appeal is Dario's ray tracing mod, since the SM64 engine cannot handle complex lighting on its own.

These days, it can be easy to forget that the video games of the '80s and '90s had an air of incompleteness about them. The chunky pixels of Super Mario Bros. require a child's imagination to fully bring the character of Mario to life. That's what motivates Fanamel to continue grinding on the project.

"I personally loved the partial mysteriousness they have," Fanamel says. "I found myself wondering how the games would look if they were more like the high-quality renders. Since I've actually learned how they work, I really have a fondness for the unique feel the lighting brings to the table. Modern games usually try to stay away from that kind of lighting."

Like a lot of people my age, I remember poring over the 3D renders of Super Mario 64 levels in Nintendo Power and the game's official strategy guide and thinking, "There's no way that graphics could ever look that good." Now that the Render96 team is beginning to make that a reality, it really shows how our conception of "good graphics" can change along with the technology itself.

Though photorealism remains the dominant art style in gaming, we've also seen indie developers embrace the low-poly aesthetics of early 3D titles, especially in the horror space. The Render96 team hopes that contemporary developers who aim to work in this milieu will use its asset library as a reference when creating their own hauntingly-muddy textures.

"When it comes to professional games, I feel like there isn't much demand for it," says Fanamel. "A lot of professional 3D artists aren't in a rush to use visual styles that can be viewed as primitive…Right now, to accurately replicate the style within a game, you need a GPU capable of real-time ray tracing. Not too many people have that yet, but I do think it should be possible to fake the look in a convincing way with lower requirements."

With the technical strides that modders have made in recent years, the release of true HD texture packs for the most beloved N64 games seems almost inevitable. But while the smooth, vibrant look of the late '90s ads might not be to everyone's taste, it's a logical conclusion of a decades-old process. The artists who crafted the iconic renders of these well-known levels likely never expected Mario to actually run and yahoo-jump his way through them, but the fans are finally fulfilling that unspoken promise more than 25 years later.

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