I have never lived on a planet without Mario.
The star of the Super Mario series turns 35 this year. I am 31.
That makes him — and the dozens of Super Mario games he stars in — convenient checkpoints for my life. When I was 5 years old, I pissed my pants playing Super Mario World. Super Mario 64 was shared between my brother and an unexpected new challenger vying for valuable play time: a step-brother. Super Mario Sunshine, on the GameCube, was something I played when my friends couldn’t come over after school for rounds of Super Smash Bros. Melee.
Mario is so persistent across my 31 years that I have, worryingly, dreamed of his moustache on other people’s faces.
On Friday, Nintendo is releasing a new Super Mario game that’s not really a new Super Mario game at all: Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The collection, for the Nintendo Switch, features three of the most lauded 3D Mario titles of all time. Our sister site, GameSpot, reviewed them all favorably when they were first released. Super Mario 64 got a 9.4 in 1996, Super Mario Sunshine, the black sheep of 3D Mario games, got an 8 in 2002. Super Mario Galaxy, for the Nintendo Wii, received a 9.5 in 2007.
Those kinds of scores are why there’s so much hype around the collection. And I get why people are excited to play All-Stars, even if it doesn’t include Galaxy 2. Alone, they are a trio of great video games. Impeccably designed. Highlights of their generations. They mark important milestones in Mario’s 3D life. And my life.
But here, in the cold light of 2020, they are simply an exercise in memory.
Memories are fickle things. They flicker to life, then disappear before you can fully grasp them. There’s a tendency for the best parts of video games like Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Sunshine to ossify in your mind and the worst parts to melt away. Sometimes you forget about a thing. Eventually, you forget that you forgot about the thing.
All-Stars is a nostalgia box you rummage around in for a few hours, trying to pull out the ephemeral feelings locked deep within your lizard brain. During a pandemic, it seems like this is “the game we need right now.” But when you put the controller down, you’re confronted with a harsh reality: your memory of these games is the best thing about them.
Perfect for the Switch
Galaxy is nowhere near as good as I remember. In fact, in 2020, I would argue it’s not a very good game. Before 3D All-Stars was released, I read up on some of the discourse around Galaxy from 2007. In my head, it’s an absolute masterclass. Did my memory play tricks on me here? Or have I changed?
And then there’s the awkward and clumsy Sunshine, which has none of the traits that made Super Mario 64 great and is far too absorbed in being different that it loses sight of what really makes Mario… Mario. That sliding long jump in Super Mario 64? Fun. Sticky. Neat. It isn’t even in Sunshine, but your brain sure as hell will try it anyway.
I’m not going to relitigate all the arguments for and against each title here. I do, however, want to make some technical notes.
When you get through the loading screen, the game drops you in a simple menu where the three titles are displayed alongside the three soundtracks. The presentation is drab. It gives a short overview of the title, the year it was released and… that’s it. Click A to start.
All three games provide slight graphical enhancements over their originals. If you can recall playing those games, All-Stars will feel like putting on a pair of prescription glasses. Everything seems a little sharper, a little less blurry, a little more magnified. Colours pop a little more.
But the oldest of the lot, SM64, comes from the Age of CRT TVs. It’s played in a box with nice thick bezels around each edge. It’s aged poorly.
And there are control-related hiccups, too. Movements and button presses lost in translation. As beautiful as Sunshine is to look at (Delfino Plaza is so bright and sunny in All-Stars), the camera and the hovering just do not serve you well with Joy Con, no matter how much they’ve been “optimized.”
The motion controls of the Wii were a core element of the gameplay in Galaxy. You used the Wiimote to perform a spin or grab “Pull stars” or jump between planets. It feels like a drag here. Adding in touchscreen functionality in handheld mode is super unwieldy. And I know it’s probably not fair, but it just feels wrong to touch the screen with your bare hands in 2020 (before adjusting your face mask and rubbing hand sanitizer across the webbing between each digit).
It’s these little issues that really get at the core of what this collection is about. Whether you enjoyed the originals or not, the collection torches the Perfect for the Switch meme. These Mario games aren’t perfect for the Switch. They are products of their time, ripped from the past and dropped into the present with little thought.
The perfect Mario game for the Switch already exists. It’s called Super Mario Odyssey and it’s a freakin’ masterpiece.
Nintendo is going to make a lot of money from Super Mario 3D All-Stars. It’s already the second most popular game on Amazon for 2020, trailing only Animal Crossing. It’s a guaranteed success. And Nintendo have upped the ante a little by making this collection a limited release. You can’t buy it after March 2021. Why? Well, there’s no real explanation. With the revelations prior to release these games are all being emulated, it’s almost certain Nintendo has other plans to distribute these games to the Switch in the future.
What’s fascinating about this collection is just how obvious Nintendo’s play is here. The marketing materials are a laundry list of empty platitudes. Nintendo, the Japanese gaming giant renowned for being fiercely protective of its IP, is happy to just push out a Mario collection with slightly smoother polygons and call it a day. It’s happy to make the package feel like a commodity you won’t be able to get in the future. These games are supposed to be a portal you take to The Good Old Days.
But the act of actually playing these games feels like a chore. The high comes when you first boot them up. I remember this. A dorky smile, a few “wahoos” and then… nothing. The high is gone.
Am I just getting old? Maybe. Are these games really not for me anymore? That’s a possibility, too. Has 2020 ground my capacity for joy down to a fine dust and scattered it into the wind? Well, yes, but I am not sure how relevant that is here. I’ll have to get back to you in 2021.
What frustrates me even more is Me. The human being that loves these video games and grew up with these video games. When I think back, I can’t recall the frustration of Galaxy’s spin attack or its nonsensical hub world. Super Mario Sunshine didn’t feel so unwieldy or decidedly anti-Mario. Super Mario 64? In my head, it’s pure joy. I can’t help but chase these memories. I’ll probably even buy Super Mario 64 on my Neuralink Augmented Reality Brain Chip in 2034 for the low, low price of $69.99.
Because I haven’t lived on a planet without Mario. And as slipshod as Super Mario 3D All-Stars is, I’m not sure I want to.