Sure, with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World there was a world map overlay that acted as hub, and you controlled Mario along the path yourself, even with the option of taking alternate routes or finding secrets and shortcuts along the way. While this gave the player some choice and control over picking one level or another, you always had to go in relatively the same linear path already established in order to get to end game. There wasn't hub world exploration or a free-roam mode, just a map you could move your marker along how you saw fit.
When Super Mario 64 came out, however, it took all that conventional wisdom and threw it out the window. With the higher graphical power of the newest Nintendo console, the Nintendo 64, the Mario development team decided that the only true way to show off Mario on the new system, and help him reclaim his throne on top of the gaming kingdom, was to present Mario in ways that fans had never seen or experience before from this franchise.
For starters, the game was a 3D game with a camera that rotated 360 degrees, allowing the player to move and control Mario in any and all directions they wanted to go. Not only that, however, but they did away with the linear map progression hub, instead implementing open-world style kingdom to explore at your will, with pictures acting as the different levels you would travel to in your adventure. All you would have to do is jump into a painting and be transported to that level. As long as you had enough stars banked to get to that area, you were free to go to whichever levels you wanted to at your own leisure.
Speaking of stars, the actual in-game gameplay was drastically, and radically to be honest, changed up for this brand new Mario adventure. The standard time limit was removed, as was the ever so pointless points tracker. The flagpoles being the final destination of the level was dropped as well, as challenges and puzzles were added to be what the player was after in order to complete the level. Each challenge resulted in grabbing a star to add to your collection. Because of this, each level warranted several playthroughs each, with some levels changing depending on which star you were going after, or dropping you into a previously unknown part of the level.
The star challenges themselves were revolutionary, as you would go from climbing to the top of a mountain for one, to hunting down a star attached to a giant eel under water in another, and everything in between, like racing a penguin in a downhill sliding race or chasing a rabbit around until you caught it for another. Every challenge felt different and unique, and some were just so hard, it was nice being able to go to a different challenge or even a different level if you needed a break from a tough one and coming back to it a later time.
Power-ups were re-imagined also, making them brought on by finding different caps, like one with wings to fly, or a metal one to sink in water and also be protected from fire. It was a nice touch, and even more shocking when Mario would lose his hat, as seeing such an iconic character stripped of something so recognizable, made you look at him in a different way.
Going back and playing this game again, I had to be careful, because it is one of those games that when I start, I don't want to stop. I have Super Mario 64 to thank for my obsessive collector habit, I think, as getting the bare minimum of stars just was never enough. I felt like I was cheating myself out of a portion of the game if I didn't go after all 120 stars, and even now days, despite beating that game a countless number of times, I can't help but get a little anxious knowing I didn't do everything I could in the game.
Man, I need a vacation. I wonder if Mario has ever said that, after all his Princess saving and Bowser stomping?