Super Mario 64 DS
What's 3cm tall and has aged better than Judy Dench? It's Super Mario 64, whose DS incarnation is the flagship title in Nintendo's DS launch lineup.
Super Mario 64 is the game that many will associate with their very first steps into the big, bright new world of 3D gaming. It is the game that will spring immediately to the forefront of almost any gamer's mind when asked to name the greatest videogame of all time. It is a game that revolutionised its industry like only a very few had done before it.
It's the first and, in the eyes of many, still the best 3D platformer that there ever was. It was the first 3D world to explore, the first game to utilise proper analogue control, the first game to use a fully manoeuvrable camera, the first game on the N64. Mario 64 has quite a lot of firsts under its belt; in fact, it's possibly the most innovative game of all time.
Upon first sampling, everything in Super Mario 64 was entirely, deliciously, wonderfully new. It had everyone running around in circles, trying to master the strange new method of control known as the analogue stick, simultaneously wrestling with the new, free-roaming 3D camera in a new, bright, primary-coloured environment made from some of the home console platform's first real 3D polygons. Never before had players been able to look upon an entire sprawling level and know that they could get to and interact with everything they could see. Nothing will ever be this new again, not before full-on virtual reality hits us; the leap between dimensions is something that can never be recreated by any sequel or recreation. It was like magic.
Of course, we're all used to that sort of thing these days. Now, practically nothing about this game is new except for its host platform, the Nintendo DS. Normally, a reviewer would feel obliged to criticise a company for re-releasing a game that's eight years old in order to launch a new product. But when that game happens to be arguably the greatest ever made - one which many would be delighted to have an excuse to play through again - a problem arises. Do the same rules apply to this most unique of cases? Does re-releasing a game that is remembered so widely for being the first in so many areas undermine the whole point of the game? Can the joy of seeing Super Mario 64 released on a new handheld device honestly be marred by the knowledge that we've now seen it all before? Hmm. Tricky.
I need not waste words explaining the premise of Super Mario 64, as it is quite possibly the one game that every respectable gamer will have played. However, several new additions and adaptations have been made to this pivotal piece of Nintendo history on its second official release. Now, we can control four different characters and search for thirty extra stars in the course of our adventure. Yoshi, Luigi and Wario (and the extra jump-distance and special abilities which they bring with them) add much to the game, often helping to compensate for the occasionally uncomfortable format-transition that the game has had to make.
Also new is a selection of unlockable minigames which, to be brutally honest, vary in quality from abysmal to mildly entertaining. They are nonetheless an effective introduction to the new gaming capabilities that the DS supposedly opens up, and like Feel the Magic XY/XX, they display an intriguing array of gimmicky uses for the touch screen. Their appeal is short-lived, but they serve as an excellent technical demo with which to impress the awed and fascinated bus or train passengers that enquire about your brand new DS when you take it lovingly out of your pocket. Chasing rabbits around the Princess' castle in order to collect the minigames arguably provides more entertainment than the games themselves, but they are an interesting addition and a harmless diversion for players stuck with nothing to do on a five-minute bus journey.
Save these additions, though, everything is almost exactly the same as it was eight years ago - except, that is, from one immediately noticeable key factor, something that was absolutely intrinsic to the enjoyability of the game eight years ago. Because the DS lacks a thumbstick, this conversion uses a selection of rather strange and (at first) quite awkward control methods, which often involve the touchscreen as a sort of analogue-substitute. There is something to cater for all tastes, from lefties to stylus-users to stubborn individuals who refuse to stray from the D-Pad despite this recent handheld evolution. Most, however, end up expending the several hours' practice necessary to familiarise oneself sufficiently with using the DS' thumbstrap on the touchscreen in order to guide Mario and company around the expertly-designed levels with a level of precision almost akin to that of the N64's analogue stick. Almost.
For herein lies Super Mario DS' innate problem; however exactly the levels copy the N64 originals, however comfortable the control system eventually becomes after hours of practice, it's still not quite the same. A little bit of the game's charm and effect has undeniably been lost in translation. Super Mario 64 was created for the Nintendo 64, from the control system to the camera to the whole premise - choosing a game so intertwined with its original host platform to port to another was quite a misadvised choice on Nintendo's part.
That said, however, they've done the best job possible. The levels have been adapted slightly to lessen the frustration that could so easily have been visited upon the player by the limitations of a smaller screen and novel-but-slightly-inferior method of control, and the extra characters' faster speed and hovering jumps make those difficult-to-judge leaps a little bit more possible. In fact, the difficulty of the game in general has taken a downturn - no bad thing, considering the fact that most people would prefer not to be driven to throwing their new DS across the room in frustration. For the veterans among us, though, those 150 stars might come just that bit too easily - though the game will definitely deliver a respectable number of gameplay hours if one wishes to exhaust it.
And, thankfully, it's almost impossible not to want to exhaust it. Super Mario 64 is still today as brilliant and immersive a game as it ever was. The sheer breadth, depth and freedom of imagination of its designers is apparent in every level, in every one of the game's hugely varied, bizarre and unique challenges. From racing penguins to shrinking oneself to diving for buried treasure to climbing to the top of a massive clock, Mario 64 never leaves you wanting for variety. Everything about the game will still bring a smile to your face, from the music in Bob-omb Battlefield to the beautiful peace of Jolly Roger Bay. Mario 64, old or new, is still one of the best games ever made - this is a fact that must not be understated. Of course, if you didn't 'get' the game first time round, there's little chance you will now, but the chances are that there won't be too many DS owners in this situation.
The presentation of the game is worthy of commendation, too. The harsh colouring of the N64 original has been toned down and the graphics all seem to work together a little better than they did previously. The whole game is very easy on the eye. The sound, too, is fantastic - the tunes are as catchy as ever and comfortingly familiar, and suit the game's cheery atmosphere absolutely perfectly. SM64 represents a harmony between game concept, music and presentation that stands among the best.
Super Mario 64 was special for many reasons. Though the DS version cannot re-create the original's most astounding qualities - namely, its ease of control and boundless innovation - it retains a lot of the charm, challenge, imagination and variety that made it great. This may be an old game, and a somewhat questionable way to start off a new handheld generation (for nobody wants to see the endless classic ports that the Game Boy Advance is subject to), but that shouldn't detract from its unquestionable quality.
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Super Mario 64 DS
Direct feed gameplay, no audio (480x360, 1.3Mbps)
Super Mario 64x4
E3 2004: Direct feed gameplay (640x480, 1Mbps)
Super Mario 64x4
E3 2004: Showfloor gameplay (640x480, 1Mbps)