At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, ''Super Mario 64'' take center stage

By Ty Burr
Updated May 31, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

On the first morning of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the power in the main convention hall went out. The epilepsy-inducing light shows blinked off, the thunderous backbeat of overloaded speakers fell silent, and millions of dollars’ worth of computer equipment went dead. Then, after about 20 seconds, everything roared back to life.

You couldn’t ask for a better metaphor for the uncertainty — the fear of being unplugged — that lurks beneath the multimedia industry’s constant hype. Spread out over several hangar-size halls at the Los Angeles Convention Center, this year’s E3, held from May 16 to 18, was a window on the near future, revealing games and technologies that could transform our leisure time in the coming months. It was also an earsplitting mosh pit of deal making, celebrities, sound, and vision, all signaling the confusion of an industry still searching for a pot of gold.

Last year at this time, CD-ROMs were white-hot, and the Internet was a beast slouching in the background. But lackluster disc sales and the rise of the World Wide Web have created ripples of panic among the more than 57,000 computer wonks, joystick junkies, and ponytailed Hollywood suits who attend E3. The result: schizophrenia. CD-ROM publishers announced plans to distribute their products exclusively online; computer companies and videogame behemoths introduced cheap Internet/TV hybrids; online services (which make money from subscribers) unveiled their websites (which will be available for free).

Still, E3 showed the multimedia industry trying hard to put on a happy face, with all the lavish partying, surreal exhibits, and bikini-clad booth bunnies that entails. And amid the cacophony, it was possible to discern a few grace notes and bum tunes.

Star of the Show: Super Mario 64. Ready to be scorned by the press, the public, and rivals Sony and Sega, Nintendo’s long- delayed 64-bit game system and its debut title instead made converts of them all. With eye-poking graphics, absurdly vivid sound, and creamily smooth controls, Super Mario 64 redefines the videogame as a compellingly fluid 3-D world. ”It’s a terrific machine and Mario is a great game,” opined a Sony spokesperson. That’s right, a Sony spokesperson.

Surliest Appearance By A Major Star: Guest Michael Douglas donned Virtual i/O’s VR goggles for a brief photo op and even briefer session with the press. The actor’s friendship with the company’s principals, though, didn’t extend to average Expo-goers: When asked a question by a fan as he was leaving, Douglas muttered back, ”Just go buy the f—ing thing, okay?”

Best Schoolyard Scuffle: The Sony/Sega price war. On the first day of the show, Sony announced a $100 cut for its PlayStation game system, from $299 to $199. Sega brass, caught completely off guard, matched the offer the next day, slashing the price of their Saturn from $249 to $199. ”It was so tacky,” said a Sega spokesperson about Sony’s ambush announcement. ”We’re dominating the market and they know it,” countered a Sony spokesperson. Neener-neener-neener.