I'm seein' double here! Three Marios!
So...Man, where to start here. I'm sure not the first person to talk about this one, but I wanted to take my time with it a bit, play some more of everything, get stuff sorted. And, having put some good time into this and played all the various games, I've definitely gotten some thoughts built up!
Now, given the context of this...Not only can I not really review these as if they're brand new releases, I can't even review them as if they're new-to-me. I've beaten all three of these games before. I came up in each of their eras, and knew them deeply, but haven't been back for years. So we kind of have to do this as a bit of a looking back, and ask how they hold up as elements of historical record.
And, of course, figure out what parts are gonna feel weird from playing in a modern context. Because, woo boy, there's a lot of those.
Super Mario 64. The game that revolutionized, and damn near invented, (good) 3D platforming. It's been a long time since I've been in these lands, and even longer since I've been in them in the original context instead of the DS port...But man, does it still feel familiar.
And man, is this camera jank.
From a historical perspective, perhaps the two most interesting things of 64 are the movement, and the levels. Right out the gate, Nintendo just nailed Mario's movement and abilities. He has one of his deepest, most thorough sets of verbs in this game, and it makes the fundamental act of simply running around and doing stuff a delight. Jumps, dives, strikes, slides, there's a ton of variety in all of it.
And that feeds into the levels themselves. This is, in many ways, the birth of the level-as-playground philosophy. Each of the worlds you visit in 64 are densely packed with little quirks and things to play with, which feeds into the entire star collection system. The core idea is very much to treat each world as a toy box, a place to tinker and try all manner of different things. This design ethos, for better or worse, has been at the core of the franchise for over 20 years at this point. It even affects the 2D New Super Mario Bros. games, with their love of gimmick levels.
But rather than being something that developed gradually and over several games, it almost entirely came about right here, sprung fully formed from Nintendo's collective forehead.
Now, of course, the game does have some growing pains from its origins. I mentioned the camera, where the ratcheted design can often make it difficult to get the straightforward view you'd be looking for in the modern day. And while they were able to upscale the textures pretty alright, the game also suffers from one simple fact.
In playing it in 1080p on a big screen, I can really clearly see all the little tricks the game does to conserve resources. You can easily see Mario pop from his high-detail standing model, to his action-figure-jointed moving model, and if the camera pulls out, you'll definitely see him pop into his low-detail model. Or as I call him, Pointy Mario.
Yet there's a reason this game keeps coming back around. Why it remains a major speed running game, why memes and fanworks continue to pull from it. Nintendo polished this thing to a mirror shine back in 1996, and that core still holds up even now in the blighted hellscape of 2020.
So how did the second run at 3D Mario platforming go, after a good five years of seeing the field mature and grow and respond to 64's design ethos? It, gets...Interesting.
Perhaps the most obvious thing is that Super Mario Sunshine brings in a lot more story than the games before and after it, right when everyone was really leaning into trying to be cinematic. Which means lots of pre-rendered cutscenes. But this also brings us the first problem: With the assets for those FMVs apparently long gone, Nintendo just upscaled the video. It doesn't affect the actual gameplay, but these cutscenes show up a lot, especially near the start, and they, look...Not...Great.
They're a total mess of compression artifacts and interlacing, actually. Also, I secretly suspect that they have those assets, but building new video files outright from old assets in outdated formats was a lot more complicated than just taking the original video files and running an up scaling algorithm on them.
Now, gameplay wise, Sunshine actually holds up a lot better than you might recall. When you can see it as one game's experimentations and not fear that This Is Where The Series Is Headed, there's a lot more room to just enjoy the unique elements that the FLUDD brings to the table.
That said, as the middle child in this trilogy, it feels kinda weird. Mario's moveset has been compressed and simplified down, leaving room for the FLUDD techniques...But in the process, not only has Mario lost some of his interesting tricks, he's also lost a lot of core assets. I have definitely died due to accidentally diving off a ledge when I meant to do a kick or spin to adjust, and the lack of crouch means no crouch-jump, so I'm doing a lot of backflips.
There's also the issue of the camera being changed, so now it's un-inverted, and there's no way to change it. I just have to deal. And I can basically make it work, but given Nintendo's already been willing to hack the game to make this change in the first place, I shouldn't have to.
From the design perspective, though, Sunshine is a really interesting beast. It doubles down on that playground idea for its stages, rapidly feeding you a good variety of levels and interesting things to do in them. Mini bosses, things to collect, things to clean up with the FLUDD, and of course those funky little side areas where you lose the thing and just have to get by on sheer platforming skills.
Even with my complaints about the controls, I do think this is perhaps the game most helped by the repackaging. Sunshine had its troubles when it came out originally, born mostly of the fact that it and Luigi's Mansion failed to be the perfect 64 followup of everyone's childhood dreams. But, taken here, as a piece of history...Sunshine is still pretty dang good.
SUPER Mario, GALAAAXYYYYYY
Now let's go to outer space.
Super Mario Galaxy has perhaps the most interesting challenge as a re-release, because it is so deeply, deeply tied into the specifics of its home console. The Wii had a control scheme unlike anything else, and that made for a lot of very unique quirks that Galaxy had to incorporate...And thus, work around.
So, they actually got pretty clever here. First we have the use of gyro aiming if you're on a controller for the pointer, letting you pretty easily sweep up and shoot star bits. It's not quite as perfectly intuitive as the Wiimote was, but it honestly works really well.
The handheld solution, I'm...More mixed on. When in handheld mode, the game relies on taps and swipes on the touchscreen to replicate the pointer. This actually works a bit better than the gyro aiming for things like menus and galaxy selection, but it makes collecting star bits a bit more of an...Active process than even the gyro aiming. The core beauty of snatching up the star bits was in how you swept them up casually while on the move, and that's a lot less so in handheld mode.
But talking core gameplay...I am so very, very happy they added a spin button. You can still waggle for spin if you've got the muscle memory, but being able to just hit a dang button makes things so much more reliable and easier. And that's an incredibly useful thing, given Galaxy's core design ethos. It doubles, triples down on the toybox side of the previous games' playground-and-toybox design. Instead of having fewer huge areas, what you have are these small, tight little loops with lots of weird side sections that you'll only take a spin star off to for their very specific gimmicks. There are entire maps that basically exist to act like the no-FLUDD challenges of Sunshine, just a single area with one neat gimmick to explore for just a hot minute.
That said, it's also probably the best example of that toybox design, except maybe its direct sequel. These areas are polished and primed, and because they only have to work for one or two rounds through them, plus all of the crazy things Galaxy is already tinkering with, they're able to get really experimental and try some neat stuff.
The one oddity that still lingers, though, is probably how limited Mario himself is. While crouching is back, dives and strikes are totally out, boiling his core, non-luma based moveset to barely more than the 2D games. This leaves it as a curious contrast to the central design principles behind both 64 and Sunshine; the first with its incredibly varied moveset, and the latter peeling off just enough to give room for thorough interactions with its new gimmicks. Galaxy, by contrast, seems to want you to have just enough to be able to mess around in the worlds themselves.
It's different, to be sure.
Swing your arms, from side to side
So where's that leave the whole package?
That's the tricky part. As a set of games, these are fuckin' great, right? If it's your first time playing these, or just your first time in like 20 years, you're gonna have a great time. The emulation is solid, I never had anything truly go wrong, and the stylization means these games hold up way better than a lot of their contemporaries. Sunshine's water effects still look absolutely gorgeous to this day, for instance, and even 64 has a bold, stylish charm that holds together.
But, and I'm far from the first person to say this, there's the issue of how little else is here. We've seen what thorough celebrations of gaming history look like. I've reviewed collections where the games weren't even that good, but I recommended them based on the sheer weight of how much historical context and behind-the-scenes content was included.
All we get in 3D All-Stars is the menu with the three games, and then an OST for each of them. They're not even tied up in a good music player, so having them there mostly just makes me kind of frustrated and wishing they were on Spotify.
Also, real talk? The entire idea of only selling these through March, at least in their current form, is some serious artificial-scarcity bullshit. For the most part, I've generally been fairly easy on Nintendo when their stuff has a way of disappearing off the shelves. I've assumed that a lot of the time they just deeply underestimated what people wanted, or had some other thing they were more interested in devoting resources to.
But just...Taking a collection off the market six months after it comes out, isn't that. That's just trying to force everyone's hands.
And the worst part is...The games are good enough that that wasn't necessary. I'm still gonna tell you to buy it. I still think these are three fantastic games. I still think even just having the three of them side by side is well worth $60, even if I'm griping about lack of other historical content!
I'm not even sure they're gonna actually sell more copies doing this. There's a rumor that they'll be breaking up the collection to sell each game individually after March. We'll see how that holds. But for now...I mean, yeah, it's totally great and you should absolutely get it.
Just wish I could say that without the nasty aftertaste of corporate politics, is all.