This review originally appeared in E145, January 2005.
Ever since its release, gaming commentators have struggled to write the perfect essay on Mario 64. Something to capture its accomplishments as eloquently as it catalogued its flaws; something to convey its irrepressible joy as well as codifying its structural innovations. But doing justice to the dynamism of videogames with staid, static words has never been easy, and Nintendo has just rendered the exercise entirely pointless. This DS conversion is the finest dissertation on Mario 64 you will ever read.
It’s hard to imagine a more thankless task than being asked to retool a game which is famed for the perfect symbiosis it shared with its original platform; it’s also hard to imagine how the company could have done a better job. Mario 64 DS is a testament to how well Nintendo understands its own game. What makes it so interesting is that it’s also a testament to how much and how little gaming has changed since Mario first woh-hoo’d his way into 3D.
Mario 64 – whether on an N64 or a DS – is extraordinary. It’s become a trope of lazy journalism to accuse every derivative platformer of the last eight years of being an equally lazy ‘Mario clone’, but none of the copycats have come anywhere close. No one has dared replicate the freeform structure, leaving scores of challenges open to the player at any one time. No one has hidden whole worlds away, curtained behind fake walls and disguised by magic mirrors. And those worlds themselves are like nothing before or since. Rather than taking its set of building blocks and skinning each identikit level in spring/summer/winter or lava/ice/beach, Nintendo takes you to places which are intimidatingly bizarre. Instead of safe, flat playgrounds or fat tunnels of fun, these are levels that have outhouses, detours and lost, subterranean towns. They’re irregular and asymmetric, awkward and intriguing, and the changes that you ring – though basic and blocky by current standards – remain magical. For nostalgic veterans and wide-eyed newcomers, Mario offers as vibrant an adventure now as he did then.
Which is all to the good, because it’s an adventure which is fundamentally incompatible with the DS’s controls. Let’s be clear: the controls work. There’s no doubt that they function effectively and it’s an enormous credit to Nintendo that they do so at all. The three options allow you a good choice of compromises, swapping between D-pad and touchscreen with easy – and necessary – improvisation. However, even once you’ve rewired your brain to adjust to these new control patterns, it will never feel like anything other than a compromise. The elation of simple movement, which will perhaps remain Mario 64’s most significant contribution to the gaming canon, cannot be replicated on such an ill-suited device. And the consequence of this inherent clumsiness is a subtle and strange recalibration of the familiar Mario 64 universe.
Planks are wider (or is Mario smaller?), enemies have shrunk (or has Mario grown?). New power-ups are tucked into the game’s tougher challenges, letting Mario float dumbly up to a precarious ledge where once he had to scramble smartly. The three other characters all possess abilities which shortcut the game’s challenges, letting you hover mid-jump, run over water or destroy multiple enemies. But even once you’ve explained these away in terms of the hampered control scheme, the concessions keep coming. Helpful bob-ombs now provide a map for each level’s eight red stars, taking some of the challenge (and all of the frustration) out of combing each area for that tell-tale wink of scarlet. It seems that Nintendo has looked at the new generation of gamers the DS is intended to court and decided that they aren’t up to the starkness of the challenge on which the last generation cut their teeth.
It has certainly decided that they have more delicate eyes: as part of Mario’s reworking, his colours have been muted and modernised. The sharp blocks of pure primary have been replaced with softer, subtler textures. It’s a purely aesthetic change which some will resent and some will applaud, but what’s inexplicable is the reworking of NPC design, the elegant cartoons of the original having been replaced with the bug-eyed, fat-grinned caricatures of a thousand kids’ TV shows.
It’s a rare lapse of judgement. The difficulty tweaks and the new characters are a necessary and appropriate evil to sustain the game in its new, twin-screen environment. The other additions – the silver star challenges, the new hidden levels, the extra boss battles – range from harmless bonuses to genuine improvements. The minigames (see ‘Mini mope’) will become constant DS companions, and multiplayer (beamable to other, non Mario-equipped DSs) successfully replicates the knockabout amusements of Mario Kart’s Battle mode.
It’s clear what Mario 64 DS is. Nintendo has sped its console to market in a timeframe which left it needing a revolutionary launch title and not enough time to make one. As a result, it had to abandon the possibility of making a new game to showcase the DS’s strange talents, and settle instead for making new a game it already had. It succeeded, but Mario 64 DS is a magnificent execution of entirely the wrong content. Happily, despite its age, that content is so robust and remarkable that the result is still surprising, spectacular and, yes, downright Super.