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Super Mario 3D All-Stars review: A bare-bones nostalgia warp zone

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In the early ’90s, Super Mario All-Stars was among the first titles to suggest that important old console games—like the early 2D Super Mario Bros. series—shouldn’t be stranded on the obsolete hardware that originally hosted them. The collection also popularized the notion that older games could be improved with new technology while still preserving their original intent.

Now 27 years later, widespread backward compatibility and regular remasters (including those from Nintendo) have made that concept more de rigueur than revolutionary. Thus, Super Mario 3D All-Stars feels weirdly anti-climactic.

On the one hand, it’s a collection of three of the best 3D platformers ever made (well, two-and-a-half of the best, at least) in a format that’s more easily compatible with modern TVs and the Switch’s convenient portable form factor. On the other hand, that’s pretty much all it is.

Other classic gaming collections try to prove their value with new gameplay features and digitally preserved historical artifacts. Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a much more bare-bones collection, where Nintendo has done just above the minimum amount of work necessary to get these games functional on new hardware.

Getting control

Super Mario 3D All-Stars product image

Super Mario 3D All-Stars [Switch]

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To be clear, Nintendo has done a little more than throw some old ROMs into a new Switch-based emulator. The user interface and in-game instructions in each game, for instance, have been updated to refer specifically to the Switch controls. (For example, the intro screen to Super Mario 64 says “Press +” rather than “Press Start.”) There’s also a pause menu that lets you switch quickly between the three included games or read through a single-page reference for Mario’s controls.

3D All-Stars also updates older Nintendo control schemes to work with the Switch Joy-Cons and Pro Controller. In Super Mario 64, for instance, the camera movement that was mapped to the four C-buttons on the N64 is now controlled by flicking the right analog stick. That feels a little weird, especially in situations where a more flexible, freely rotatable camera would be welcome (as we’ve seen in recent unauthorized PC ports). In general, though, the game’s default camera programming still usually delivers a useful and cinematic viewing angle without much player interference.

Super Mario Galaxy needs a bit more finessing to replicate the functions of the original Wii Remote. For one, Mario’s all-important spinning punch move can now be performed with a tap of the Y button, in addition to the normal controller shake. This is a welcome change that both increases the precision of a crucial in-game action and eliminates the need to constantly shake the entire Switch during handheld play.

Without a Wii Remote, though, it’s trickier to move the game’s on-screen “star” cursor (used to pick up and shoot star bits and grab certain in-game objects). In docked mode, the cursor flits around based on very small movements detected by the controller’s tilt-sensitive gyroscope. This isn’t as precise or intuitive as the Wii Remote’s IR pointer, but after a little practice, it’s generally accurate enough.

In portable mode, though, you control the star cursor by tapping or tracing your finger across the screen. This is a pretty awkward ask, requiring you to temporarily remove one hand from the Switch’s physical controls briefly while supporting the entire unbalanced weight of the Switch with the other. It may well be the best solution possible for a difficult use case, but mostly it reminds us of some of the most uncomfortable moments of 3DS touchscreen tapping.

Rose-colored glasses

Aside from those minor changes, these games play and look almost exactly like their original counterparts (right down to retrograde 30fps frame rates on Super Mario 64 and Sunshine). I say “almost” because the games feature what Nintendo describes as “improved picture resolution” on the Switch’s more powerful hardware.

The effects of this change are most noticeable on Super Mario 64. There, original UI elements like pixellated, blocky text have been replaced with lettering that looks smooth on an HD display. And while in-game enemies and items still appear in their original, comically low-polygon models, their sharp edges now come across as charmingly retro.

Where Super Mario 64 suffers is in its environmental textures, which don’t appear to have been redrawn to look any sharper on higher-resolution screens. Thus, fields of grass or rocky mountains look like smeared, muddy messes on a big-screen TV in a less-than-endearing way.

Sunshine and Galaxy manage the HD transition better, with fewer apparent artifacts that look out of place after upscaling. Sunshine feels a little less claustrophobic, too, in a screen-filling 16:9 aspect ratio.

All in all, though, there’s no wholesale graphical overhaul here to give the same “wow” factor as seeing 16-bit versions of Mario’s 2D enemies in the original All-Stars. Through some bog-standard upscaling, Nintendo has merely managed to make these games match the decidedly SD images in your memory.

Revisiting the classics

Small changes aside, the question remains: How do Mario’s early 3D adventures hold up after anywhere from 13 to 24 years of advancement in 3D game design?

Super Mario 64 is still an utter classic that introduced the wider gaming world to quick, unencumbered movement in a 3D space. The game’s environments can feel a little sparse and empty from a 21st-century perspective, but the wide-open courses are still a masterclass in player-focused design, full of small touches that gently guide players to the hidden items they need to find. And while some of the game’s challenges seem a little simple now that analog sticks aren’t a new control paradigm, 3D All-Stars is a perfect chance to relive them.

Super Mario Sunshine, on the other hand, continues to be frustrating. The game has plenty of interesting ideas, chief among them the water-spraying hover nozzle—a talking backpack unit named FLUDD—that gives Mario more precise mid-air movement than ever. The game’s heavy use of sun-drenched visual design infuses the proceedings with a strong sense of place, too.

That said, Sunshine‘s gameplay itself feels less focused than ever in 2020. In-game areas feel overcrowded and often lack any strong sense of direction that even hints at where players should go next. The controls also feel a bit squishy and imprecise for the Mario series, especially in bonus areas where FLUDD’s hover nozzle is briefly removed. The camera feels less precise than needed, too, usually operating on an unguided swivel that requires constant fiddling to point in the right direction.

Super Mario Galaxy synthesizes the best of both of these previous games. While the 2007 game’s gravity-bending mechanics can get disorienting (especially when the camera ends up upside-down relative to Mario), it also allows for plenty of experimentation with interesting and challenging new environmental shapes and platforming situations.

Jumping between small, individual planetoids lets the game maintain endless innovation and a steady pace of novel ideas. And the spinning punch introduced in this game allows for easy control of momentum near the end of a jump, granting a precision over landings that was missing from jumps in previous 3D Mario games.

Is that all, folks?

As great as at least two of the games in 3D All-Stars are, it’s hard not to dream of what this collection could have been. The inclusion of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which expanded on some of its predecessors’ best ideas, would have nicely rounded out the package, for instance (and mirrored the four-game selection in the original All-Stars). A full overhaul of the games’ graphics could have been a showcase for the last 24 years of advancement in 3D rendering, too.

More than that, though, a collection like 3D All-Stars would have been a great chance to celebrate Mario’s recent history. In-game extras like concept art, developer interviews, or even playable prototype areas could have given fans a new appreciation for games that many players probably feel have already been picked clean. And while the ability to play each game’s soundtrack inside the game is nice, the included songs are not hard to find all over the Internet.

It might seem petty to ask more from a $60 package than to collect some of the greatest 3D platforming games ever created. At the same time, games this great deserve more respect and attention than the slapdash collection Nintendo has put together here.

The Good

  • Still some of the best examples of 3D platforming you can find.
  • Controls are generally well-adapted to the Switch.
  • HD upscaling makes the games look as polished as your memories.
  • Playing these classics on a portable for the first time.

The Bad

  • Original graphics show their age in places.
  • Super Mario Sunshine‘s control frustrations.
  • Pretty much none of the extras we’ve come to expect from classic gaming collections.

The Ugly

  • The absence of Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Verdict: Buy it if you missed out on any of these classic games the first time around or if you want to relive them again in a more convenient form.

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