Super Mario 64 DS (DS) review
"The game that defined the DS in unintended ways"
While it feels underwhelming to buy again the same game for a newer system, many Nintendo systems had a new old Mario game at or shortly after launch. SNES had Super Mario All Stars, the Gameboy Color had Super Mario Deluxe, the Satelliteview had BS Super Mario Bros USA, and the Gameboy Advance had the Super Mario Advance series. All of these reissues were remakes with new features that made the experience new to veteran players yet close enough to the original game as to not feel out of place. This fight was designed for the analog stick, not the D-pad or a touch screen, and it feels all sorts of wrong. New powers like the P balloon go a long way to making Mario 64 DS feel like a new game. Starting the game as Yoshi was a great touch. Finally, the Mario pachinko we all wanted.
Mario 64 might be the only game that has the distinct honor of being a launch title for two different systems, the N64 and the DS. As flagship launch titles, each game was intended to showcase the features and innovations of the console, to give players a glimpse of what the system could do and the starry future to come. Retrospectively, both games also highlight the inherent flaws of each console and are marred in many ways by their own ambition.
Both versions of Mario 64 are a package of contradictions. I can think of no two other games that can elicit such nostalgic bliss and unadulterated rage, sometimes at the same time. They are both carefully crafted, innovative, train wrecks of joy and despair, brimming with hate-stalgia for days players of my generation want to return to so they can never go back to them. I hate how much I love Mario 64.
The Undeniable Masterpiece Beneath
Enough has already been written about the original Mario 64. It is one of the most forward-thinking games ever made, single-handedly defining how 3D games should work and setting standards by which games are still judged today, yet crumbing to pieces went judged against modern standards.
Mario is rough. The camera is notoriously absentminded, panning in ways that are unexpected and never quite able to rotate to the playerís desired angle. Completing the adventure is more of a battle against the Lakitu behind the camera than Bowser. He will move unexpectedly while Mario is in mid-air, suggest depth and distance that isnít accurate, and deceive the player in various ways to missing jumps, walking off platforms, and otherwise falling to death.
Itís easy to point out these issues now, but in 1996 who knew that the player even needed to control the camera in a game? Several decades later, there are cracks all over this golden coin of a game that were previously not laid bare. There was no way for contemporary players (or developers) to know that Mario 64í camera was bad--there were no games with good cameras to compare it to. The awkwardness of its physics, itís baffling collision detection, and the other oddities of a pioneering 3D title did not stand out.
That was Mario 64 though. Expectations were different in 2004.
Lakitu: Slayer of Dreams
Though Mario 64 wrote the rules for 3D platformers, by 2004 we finally figured out how these things should actually work. Games like Banjo Kazooie and Conkerís Bad Fur Day made vast improvements in camera direction and control. Dual analogue controllers allowed for analog control of cameras as well, leading to much better precision for the player. Mario Sunshine, for all itís faults, had a more manageable camera than most N64 games before it. This is the result of having a dedicated camera stick and design lessons learned from the mid- to late-90s.
It is therefore surprising Mario 64 DS did not learn from these lessons. The camera operates like the original, throwing itself behind objects, moving when you donít expect, and otherwise trying to kill Mario at all opportunities. Given the graphical differences between the two versions, I can only assume that the DS version is using a completely new 3D engine. How it was that the camera quirks remain is a mystery. There must be something inherently necessary about how the camera functions in Mario 64 that prevents its behavior from being modified. Perhaps the way it moves on its own is required for navigating through the gameís worlds in such a way that would be difficult if the player had full control over it.
There is evidence that the development team was aware of these issues. Many of the game's perilous have been modified to make narrow edges wider and to add safety platforms near the bottom of stages. This is most noticeable in Whomp Fortress and Tick Tock Clock, where many new platforms have been added to catch the player before falling off the stage.
Like the original game, the camera is locked to specific angles and canít just move freely. The player now has the added joy of needing to coordinate their hands to actually manipulate the thing. With the hybrid controls, the player must actually stop Mario and lift the stylus to access the camera controls on the touch screen, bringing action to a halt more than it should for viewport babysitting.
A welcome improvement allows the player to snap the camera behind the character, a la Ocarina of Time. It doesnít stay there and will go ballistic later, but this does help regain orientation in some specific areas.
Despite all the advances made in 3D game camera design, Lakitu remains Mario 64 DSís true final boss.
The Start of the DS Touch
As a showcase for the fledgling Nintendo DS, Mario 64 DS needed to highlight the two things that made the DS unique--itís touch screen and itís dual screens.
For the former, Mario 64 DS is brilliant. Most games can benefit from the additional screen, and having a persistent, non-obtrusive map and access to other information without pausing works great for this game. Whether using the second screen in this way could be considered innovative or a natural purpose, countless games in the DS and 3DS library relegate the second screen solely for this functionality.
The touch screen implementation in Mario 64 fairs worse. While Mario 64 was designed around analog controls, the DS has no analog input. The player has a few options, each with their own advantages and disadvantages:
I ended up using the stylus hybrid setup, which is the least terrible. The tendency for the on screen ďcontrol padĒ to drift with the stylus frequently results in running out of room on the touch screen, forcing Mario to walk because I couldnít move the stylus any further in that direction. I would need to lift the stylus (stop moving) and reposition it. This becomes a bigger problem during intense action, such as boss fights or fast platforming, when the player can afford less constraint, making already frustrating segments much worse than they need to be.
Uncomfortable controls were something inherent to the Mario 64 experience from the beginning. I was one of many people who, upon using an N64 controller for the first time, grabbed the sides like any other controller. It was not obvious to me that I should hold the part with the analog stick. Of course, the difference is that once one understood how to hold an N64 controller, it made sense. The controls in Mario 64 DS never enjoy such a revelation--they never feel natural. Moving Mario around never becomes the joy that it was in the original game.
Perhaps Mario 64 was not the best title to showcase what could be done with DS hardware.
Original entitled Super Mario 64 ✕ 4, Mario 64 DSís defining feature (besides being a DS game) is its four playable characters. The original game is noteworthy for giving Mario a full set of abilities from the start and not gating the player like other 3D platformers like Banjo Kazooie. Mario can triple jump, wall kick, slide, back flip, and even crawl from the moment the player takes control.
The three additional characters in Mario 64 DS have similar movesets, but with some be special abilities and nuances, similar to Super Mario 2 (US) and Super Mario 3D World. Yoshi has his signature flutter kick to extend jumps and replaces Marioís punch with the ability to swallow enemies, but otherwise handles in a familiar way. The floating Luigi can twirl and can do his little wimpy punches in mid-air. Wario is heavy and slow, but is the only character that can break some blocks and is the only character capable of using the metal cap. There are also new character-specific power-ups such as the P balloon (from Super Mario World) and fire flowers.
While it is possible to run most courses with any character, some stars are now designed around or easier with a specific mascot. For example, stars that require a metal cap can only be completed by Wario now. Some stars with tricky jumping will be easier with Yoshi and his forgiving flutter jump while Marioís access to P balloons and wing caps can trivialize accessing certain heights.
Characters can only be clumsily swapped out in a specific room in the castle, which seems to discourage experimentation and variety. To mitigate this, once a character is unlocked their caps will appear at key places in each course. These caps allow a different character to temporarily inherit the special abilities of another character. Unfortunately these caps are lost after one hit and almost always disappear before the characterís injury animation finishes playing and the player manages to get the camera to find the thing.
Having the different characters is a great addition to Mario 64, but it feels cumbersome. Thereís not enough reasons to switch characters and requiring the player to backtrack through the castle to do so encourages the player to skip situations that need a specific character rather than experiment. If there were more differences between characters and if it was easier to switch between them, Mario 64 DS could have been so much more.
Stomp the Starstruck Sneak
Having gotten 120 stars on all three save files in Mario 64 as a kid, it would be an understatement to say that I played the original a lot. It was a game I greatly enjoyed and I came back to frequently for years. It is surprising to me that Mario 64 DS actually feels new despite being such well-trodden territory.
The basic premise--that there are now four characters--does a lot in this regard. Starting the game playing as Yoshi felt like school yard rumors of yore come true, as do the new power ups. Many of the gameís more boring stars have been remixed or replaced with new stars, and thereís an additional 30 stars to find in new secrets and new levels.
The new levels fit well with the original, though they are smaller and only three stars compared to the seven stars in the main courses. Some of them, like Sunshine Isles are neat but too small to have lasting value. Others like the Big Boo Battle are more linear compared to the exploration-heavy courses elsewhere in the game. Goomboss Battle is one of the better new courses, with a non-linear structure and different layers to explore.
Some of the other extra stars have been tacked onto existing levels. The Bowser levels, for example, now have an additional star each where the player needs to pound a timer switch and grab the star before it disappears. Other new stars have the player collecting silver stars that bounce around the map and are dropped if the user takes damage. There are even a few new bosses tacked onto existing stages.
Many stars are designed around a specific characterís abilities. For example, only Luigi can use the vanish cap now so some of the stars in the Big Boo Haunt are now exclusive to him. Wario is resistant to heavy winds, so stars protected by them are easier to get if you select him instead.
As a whole, the new stars fit seamlessly with the original and do a lot to make the experience fresh. If only the character-switching mechanic had been better utilized.
The Diff-initive Version
Mario 64 DS is a different kind of definitive game. The core Mario 64 experience is still there, but the experience of playing with the touch screen is so different from an N64 controller. The new stars and new content are great and the additional characters are fun (albeit sloppily implemented), but if the player canít control the action they are not going to enjoy the game.
If you are able to get a handle on its controls, Mario 64 DS is very fun. If youíve played Mario 64 several times already, the DS version has enough new features and changes to make it feel new again. But thatís only if you can get over the fact that you need to play it on a DS. The system Mario 64 DS was designed to showcase turns out to be the very thing that holds it back.
The lack of an analog stick for a game whose primary innovation was analog controls highlights just how difficult it is to control a 3D game without that sort of precision control. The three control methods offered by Mario 64 DS have trade-offs that are differently inferior to the original input scheme. In this way, Mario 64 DS's legacy is one that undermines what it was trying to do for the DS, to show that it was capable of innovative 3D gaming.
Except Mario 64 DS was an unexpected showcase for what the DS would become.
Whether it was some stroke of genius or dumb luck, it is the mini games--the feature that just looks like an afterthought--that are the true legacy of Mario 64 DS. The DS became quite popular with people who did not previously describe themselves as gamers. It was a rise of casual games that fit so well with a touch screen interface that opened the floodgates to games like Nintendogs, Letís Get Cooking, and Art Academy that redefined what we called a video game. There was also lots of mini-game party nonsense and lots and lots of shovelware.
Most of the mini games in Mario 64 DS are not very interesting or inventive. Thereís one that plays out like Whereís Waldo, where the player needs to tap the missing character before time runs out, which is not very fun. Thereís some casino games. Thereís one where you have to roll a snowball down a hill using the touch screen to control it. Thereís pachinko. My favorite is one where Yoshi sits forlorn and the player picks petals off a flower using the touch screen playing ďloves me, loves me not.Ē
A lot of these mini games leave the result to random chance and are not particularly fun. They are not the quality seen in Gameboy Gallery and Game & Watch Gallery on Gameboy. These mini-games are low-tier, low-effort diversions that are fun to play for a few minutes but lack depth and lasting appeal.
With all due respect to the DS and itís strong and abundant library of high-quality and innovative games, the legacy of Mario 64 DS is its mini games and the seismic change Nintendo's platforms were about to endure.
This fight was designed for the analog stick, not the D-pad or a touch screen, and it feels all sorts of wrong.
New powers like the P balloon go a long way to making Mario 64 DS feel like a new game.
Starting the game as Yoshi was a great touch.
Finally, the Mario pachinko we all wanted.
Community review by dagoss (July 26, 2021)
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