When Super Mario 64 hit the scene eight years ago it was widely considered one of the biggest technical leaps in video game history, prompting at least one magazine to call it the “Best Game of All Time.” Like the original Super Mario Bros., this 3D version spawned a flurry of copy cat games that all tried to one-up the Italian plumber at his own game. Yet even with all those other games from all those other companies, it’s Mario 64 people remember with fond memories.
Eight years later Super Mario 64 is still an impressive game, though clearly dated. The fact that it essentially introduced the world to a well-made 3D platformer will never be forgotten, even if games have improved on the theme in substantial ways. Perhaps the ultimate compliment, however, is that Nintendo has decided that it is strong enough be the flagship game for not only one system launch, but two.
Super Mario 64 DS is basically a faithful port of the game that launched the Nintendo 64. The first time around it was not only a giant leap forward in the way the game looked, but also how it played, thanks to Nintendo’s analog N64 control. The more time people put into Mario 64, the more they got used to the analog stick; slowly weaning gamers off of the archaic D-Pad. Nintendo could breathe a sign or relief, gamers loved the analog control, and it became one of the games biggest selling points.
This time around we’re presented with another such advancement in the evolution of gaming, a touch screen. Unfortunately for Nintendo the whole touch screen idea is not as instantly useful as the analog stick was. In fact, I’d dare say that Super Mario 64 DS is a questionable launch title for a system with such specific qualities.
The game itself remains largely unchanged, with all 15 worlds returning with the same obstacles and challenges. You go through the castle looking for various picture frames to jump into; each setting up a series of challenges you will need to accomplish to earn a star. In total there are eight different stars in each stage, so expect to be doing all kinds of missions in the various worlds, all based on famous Mario locales. You have a fire stage, an ice stage, the desert stage, not to mention a whole oversized world and one where you’re mostly underwater.
To spice things up Nintendo has added the ability to play as different characters. You start out as Yoshi, who plays much like Mario, except that he can use his tongue to eat enemies (and ultimately turn them into eggs). Eventually you will unlock Mario and the game will be pretty much as you remembered it eight years ago. Later in the game you earn Luigi (whose jump seems to float, much like it did in Super Mario Bros. 2) and Wario, a character that is able to break large obstacles simply by punching them. Not only do these characters have their own moves and abilities, but they also power up in completely different ways, with Yoshi turning into a fire breather to Wario being able to walk underwater.
Also new this time around are 30 new stars that can be picked up around the castle. This may sound impressive, but a lot of the challenges are pretty basic and are nothing like what you get in any of the 15 main worlds. These additions ultimately do not add up to a whole new experience, but do manage to make it a little fresher for those of us who have played through Mario 64 before.
The game itself looks almost exactly like the Nintendo 64 original, which was not a bad looking game for being a first generation title. The characters move in brisk fashion and they animate with as much expression as they ever did. Although it’s presented on a smaller screen, this Nintendo DS version looks exactly like you’d want Mario 64 to look, all the way down to cool water and fire effects.
Where the game runs into problems is in the control, which would not have been an issue if Nintendo would have released the DS with an analog stick. But here you’re limited to using either the D-Pad, which is imprecise for a 3D platformer like this; or using the touch screen, which takes some getting used to. No matter how much you fiddle around with it, there is no good solution for the control, and has the potential to turn you off of the game very early.
This is not to say Mario 64 DS is a bad playing game, but without the analog control it feels much, much different than you remember. With the touch screen you can make Mario move much like it was with the analog stick, but it’s sometimes hard to find the center, which can result in way too many preventable deaths. You can also use the D-Pad to control, which is a better fit, but seems to introduce a few unique problems. For example, running is done by holding the Y-Button now, which can sometimes get you into trouble when making simple jumps to moving platforms.
I won’t say that Mario 64 DS is derailed by the control set up, but it certainly isn’t as much fun as it once was. Stars that should be easy to obtain are occasionally made excruciatingly difficult because of the control, to the point where it will take everything you have to work up the desire to try it again. Things aren’t made any easier with the out-dated camera system which has a strange way of working against you at all the worst times.
Not only is the touch screen used for game play, but it also displays a helpful map. Here you will find where the stars are, as well as where the red coins are located. Some purists might yell and scream that this is simply making the game easier, but the challenges are still difficult even if you know exactly where you’re going. It would have been nice to see the second screen used for something more than just a map, but it’s something that wasn’t in the original game so I’m not complaining.
Outside of the story mode you will find literally dozens of mini-games, each taking advantage of the touch screen in one way or another. In many ways these games are better at showing off the system than the Mario 64 portion, but probably wouldn’t have sold on their own. Each of the four characters in the game have their own sets of mini-games, which are earned by catching rabbits hopping around the castle in the story mode. Not all of the mini-games are worth more than a glance or two, but there are a few gems that you’ll be playing long after you’ve saved the princess (or grown bored trying).
There is no denying that Mario 64 is a great game to have on any system, but this port it fails to take advantage of the cool new features the Nintendo DS promises. If you can overlook some control issues you’ll find quite a lot of game play that will have you going for months to come. It might not be the “Best Game of All Time”, but it’s a rock solid game that everybody should play through at least once.
It may not show off all the cool stuff the Nintendo DS can do, but it is a fun port of one of the best games of all time. If you can get around the control issue, you will be entertained for months to come.