I reckon Super Mario 3D All-Stars will give video game preservationists a lot to think about. I find myself thinking about video game preservation a lot lately. I imagine this is because I’ve reviewed a lot of remasters and remakes in the last few years. Super Mario 3D All-Stars is neither a remake nor a remaster. It is a straight port of Mario’s first three forays into 3D platforming.
The package contains Super Mario 64 (1996, N64), Super Mario Sunshine (2002, GCN), and Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Wii). All three games appear to run via emulation, which means nothing has been tinkered with. The controls have been remapped, the games have been upscaled to 1080p resolution, and now get a silky smooth 60fps frame rate. They are preserved exactly as they were when retail versions were shipped. When we’re talking about games of this calibre, a straight port is the kind of move that earns a preservationist’s nod of respect. You don’t mess with a masterpiece, let alone three. You let them speak for themselves.
Three of the greats
And boy, can they speak for themselves. For a game released almost 25 years ago, Super Mario 64 is still so much fun to play. The first true 3D platformer, Super Mario 64 was a mind-blowing experience at launch. Nothing like it had ever appeared on a home console before. In 2020, it could easily be considered quite basic, but the thought and care that went into its core design still shine through. The jumping and movement still feels fast but precise. The challenges still range between laughably easy to hair-tearingly difficult. Only the look of the game’s flat, coloured polygons truly shows its age. This is offset by the fact that the game now runs in 1080p60, removing the muddy filter that was the N64’s visual hallmark and making everything feel crisp and hard-edged.
Super Mario Sunshine has long been regarded as the black sheep of the family. It’s a fine Mario title and introduces many of the concepts that would go on to define the Galaxy games, as well as 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey. When Mario embarks on a sunny island holiday, he expects to be handed a fruity cocktail upon arrival. Instead, he is instantly jailed in a case of mistaken identity, and put to work cleaning a resort he had no part in vandalising. Your primary mode of interacting with the world is FLUDD, a sentient backpack that can spray water out of a nozzle on a pole. The backpack can be switched between modes, allowing Mario to fire a jet of water at different targets or convert it into a water-powered jetpack to levitate him onto high platforms. The game does a LOT with FLUDD, always looking to use the water spraying mechanic in ways that make sense and give you actions that are fun to perform.
Finally, we have Super Mario Galaxy, one of the accomplished Mario games ever made. Super Mario Galaxy was a return to the N64 era of game design, of doing a lot with very little. Instead of crafting open maps with lots of things to investigate, Galaxy breaks its worlds down into individual galaxies full of smaller, spherical micro worlds. Each world effectively becomes a little, self-contained challenge, and every success fires you off to the next little world. It’s a bold experiment that pays off huge — the self-imposed design constraints mean every world has something interesting on it, something fun to do. It displays rare confidence in its design and feels like it fully explores the space. Galaxy‘s take proved to be fertile ground; Nintendo ultimately made an even better sequel that, sadly, is not included in this package.
Where this package falters is in the controls. And this is where the argument for making small changes when re-releasing classic makes a strong case for itself.
Of the three titles in this package, Super Mario 64 is the one that benefits the most from a controller remapping. The N64 controller remains, to this day, one of the strangest ever designed. To be able to enjoy the game with a Switch Pro Controller is a blessing. The only area where Super Mario 64 could have done with a tweak is in its camera. You can only move the camera around Mario in short bursts, and forward or back in preset steps. You can also stop Mario dead and look around. For those who’ve gotten used to being able to rotate and position a 3D camera however they want, this will no doubt be frustrating. Beyond this minor annoyance, the game feels as great as ever. It was by far the standout game in the package for me, and worth the price of admission on its own.
Super Mario Sunshine is where the problems start to creep in. Accurately manipulating the water jet was truly infuriating. No matter how I played the game — docked, handheld, with the Joy-Cons separated, or on the Pro Controller, it felt really hard to aim the water in the direction I wanted it to go. This is a problem because spraying water at enemies and onto other surfaces is the game’s primary verb. You’re doing it all the time. FLUDD’S jets really could have used a small tweak to make them feel more responsive. Of the three games in this collection, Sunshine was the one I spent the least amount of time with precisely because of this problem.
Super Mario Galaxy runs into controller problems of its own. Porting a game designed for the Wii, famous for its remote-style motion controls, was always going to be a challenge. The Switch also has motion controls, but they are different from that of the Wii. Galaxy was also designed with a passive second player in mind, someone who could pick up a separate controller and collect the falling star bits as the main player progressed through the game proper. In the original, even if you were playing single-player, the Wii remote was held in the right hand and the nunchuck in the left — your directional controls were separate from the motion controls. You could point the remote at the screen to pick up gems and still pilot Mario around without issue.
That’s not how this port works, with directional control of both Mario and the icon strapped to the left Joy-Con. It’s a pain in the butt and a huge oversight. The icon needs constant recentering to be useful. It also means you have to pop the Joy-Cons off the console even while docked or in stand mode to get the full effect. The whole problem stems from what was, at the time, little more than gimmick functionality. You could simply have the star bits pull towards Mario when he goes near them and the larger game wouldn’t be altered a jot.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars is ultimately a mixed bag. It contains three of the greatest Mario games of all time in a single package, and it’s genuinely thrilling to have them on modern hardware. They stand the test of time and are still fun to play today. That said, it’s hard to feel like Nintendo hasn’t taken a shortcut or two with the package as a whole. By choosing to simply emulate the titles exactly as they were in their heyday, aa slew of unforeseen problems are created in the here-and-now. This isn’t the kind of problem that ports, remasters, and remakes typically run into, but Nintendo isn’t a typical company. Their individualistic approach to hardware design, and building games around the capabilities of that unique hardware, makes porting anything from the N64 era forward a real challenge. The design philosophies embraced by one system are not a 1:1 map on any of the others.
It’s easy for PlayStation or Xbox to embrace remasters across generations because neither of them has meaningfully altered their approach to hardware design in 20 years. Both companies found a format and controller design they liked and stuck with it. Nintendo doesn’t do that — it’s why we love them — but it’s also why they have work harder on a project like this. Each of these games is a masterpiece in its own right, and it’s disheartening to see Nintendo treat them this way.
This is why video game preservation matters. It’s important for new generations to experience these titles in as close to their original presentation as possible. If it had come from anyone but Nintendo, this would be a knockout collection. But when the situation is as unique as this, touches of modernity may be required. Mere emulation is not enough.
THREE-AND-A-HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Three of the GOATs; Great to have these games in 1080p60 at last
Lowlights: Lazy controller mapping; No real consideration for play experience on modern hardware
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Super Mario 3D All-Stars review conducted on Nintendo Switch with pre-release code provided by the publisher.