I think the Mario 64 port might be the coolest thing to happen on PC in 2020. Yeah, yeah, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Cyberpunk 2020, blah blah blah—here's a beloved game that has been brilliantly reverse-engineered and programmed to run on the PC, inspiring a community of modders to learn how it works and do entirely new things with it. There are tons of texture mod projects giving it a better makeover than Nintendo is doing with its own re-release on the Nintendo Switch, but that's really just the beginning of it. Modder Darío has something more ambitious already working inside Mario 64: ray tracing.
As with Minecraft and Quake 2, there's something especially striking about ray tracing in an older, simpler graphics engine. I think in modern games that are already incredibly detailed, it's a lot harder for the reflections in a puddle or the beams of light coming through a window to really stand out. But a 25-year-old game suddenly getting realistic lighting and surface reflections? That is noticeable. Also, I think it's really funny.
The image above is the perfect example—Mario has such a simple 1996 character model, but Darío's custom renderer brings the best of 2020 technology to bear so we can see him in this droplet. Or, as Darío put it more eloquently:
Next-gen developers: Raytracing hardware is so great, we can finally do accurate reflections on water puddles and car windows!Me: raytraced metal mario motherfuckers pic.twitter.com/07ioVkZhpzOctober 11, 2020
The mod is still a work in progress, and doesn't seem like it'll be playable for awhile. Darío has soft shadows working, too, but said the current code was "VERY unoptimized" on October 8, and there's probably still a lot of optimization left to go. But it's actually playable (at 720p, 30 fps) on a GTX 1080, which doesn't have any built-in ray tracing hardware. I'm guessing the end result will run quite well on a GTX 2000 or 3000 series card.
Darío doesn't plan on combining the ray tracing renderer with other popular mod projects like Render96, which is adding hi-res textures to Mario 64. But the end goal is to "make the solution modular enough so it can be integrated into their project if they wish to do so with minimal effort."
Dario's latest tweet shows how flexible his renderer will be. Inevitably other modders will end up playing with it and doing wild things with Mario 64's graphics.
Making some slow but steady progress towards having an actual material system that is applied based on the model instead of looking at texture IDs. No model editing required, as this is processed on runtime. Right now I hooked this material editor only to Mario for testing. pic.twitter.com/FAjUL6hpqAOctober 22, 2020
Another mod adds online co-op for two players, which sounds like a great way to replay Mario 64. Especially given how many character replacement mods there are now. The most sensible mod of them all is clearly this one, which adds true Mario Bros. superstar Waluigi into the game. Wahhh. That's just common sense.