Super Mario 64 is a 3D platforming game. The player controls Mario in a variety of open environements of varying size and complexity, ranging from a small cubic room to large self-contained worlds populated by enemies, items, and friendly NPCs who can either provide limited assistance to Mario or are subject of one of the game's task.
To progress, the player must collect Power Stars by completing a variety of missions, ranging from tasks such as defeating a specific enemy, completing a puzzle, collecting a set amount of items, or besting a NPC in a friendly competition. There are a total of 120 Power Stars in the game, though only 70 need to be collected in order to complete the game. The Power Stars are split between the fifteen main courses, nine secret courses, and other objectives. The main courses contain six numbered missions each plus an hidden power star for collecting 100 coins. Though missions for a level are numbered, most missions can be performed out of order. Other missions, however, may only be completed by selecting a specific scenario from the course selection screen, as to prompt the appearance or dissapearance of a character or object needed to complete the task.
The game is primarily set inside and around Peach's Castle, itself divided in multiple rooms containing paintings that lead to the game's courses. Initially, the player can only access one of the painting and a limited section of the castle, but as the player collects Power Stars, the player will be able to unlock doors leading to the other courses and open up other sections of the castle by collecting a certain number of stars and completing a Bowser level.