Take your pick. Super Mario 3D All-Stars is either a wonderful history lesson or a lacklustre rush-job. Or it’s simply bad. It’s not bad because its constituent parts are bad – here we have two of the greatest games ever (and Super Mario Sunshine) bundled together for the first time. It’s bad because it doesn’t do anything with history – it just chucks it all together and expects you to pay for it.
You can play the games and you can play some songs from the games. And that’s about it. There’s no accompanying material, no behind-the-scenes looks, no flourishes in menus or the games themselves. These are copy and paste emulations, nothing more, nothing less. And, for games, that’s not good enough. Gaming never has and never will be like other cultural mediums. Reading a book is passive. Watching a film is passive. Bingeing an algorithmically-suggested reality TV show on Netflix is definitely passive. Gaming isn’t passive – and Nintendo should know better.
Super Mario All-Stars, released in 1993, did the whole history thing right. It adapted, it improved and it added. It was both a compilation that celebrated four NES classics from the 1980s and also an artistic reinterpretation of those games. Super Mario 3D All-Stars really is just three games chucked together. And the title that suffers most from this is, unsurprisingly, the oldest: Super Mario 64.
Maybe Nintendo doesn’t dare touch a classic – this is, after all, perhaps the most important game release of all time. But it really shouldn’t hold it in such reverence. Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a missed opportunity to celebrate the past by building upon it. It doesn’t mean you disrespect history. It does mean that fixing the camera would be a good idea. Or improving the graphics. Imagine the brilliant level design of Mario 64 but with a functioning camera and updated visuals. And chuck in Luigi as a playable character, too.
Mario 64 feels very much like it was released in 1996. That’s perhaps testament to how ahead of its time it was. The 3D platforming revolution it created has had a profound impact on game development, but progress since has left Mario 64 feeling, understandably, old. The core game here is still brilliant, but it’s hampered by limitations that could so easily be fixed. This isn’t how gaming history should function. It is how a hastily packaged cash-cow should function.
It’s absolutely fine to both preserve gaming history and celebrate progress. It’s the same as releasing a remastered version of an old film, TV show or song. Doing so takes a piece of creative genius and gives it new life. And gaming allows you to be even more ambitious. You can take the old code and refine it, turning muddy textures and blocky levels into living, breathing worlds. Games are alive and gaming history is there to be built upon in a way that no other cultural medium can. Releasing lazy emulations does a disservice to the past. It’s a missed opportunity and means that, for all but the most dedicated, Mario 64 will reach very few new fans.
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The cynic in me believes that, one day, Nintendo will release Mario 64: Ultimate – a glorious 4K remake of its platforming classic, replete with all the bells, whistles and flourishes that the game deserves. The realist in me also believes that it will be a license to print money. Think Super Mario 64 DS but bigger and better. Simply put, in 2020 a hasty emulation of Mario 64 is a tough sell.
The other two games in the bundle, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy don’t suffer from the same tension between nostalgia and progress. Yes, Sunshine is still a hot mess, both infuriatingly brilliant and infuriatingly odd. It looks, for the most part, great on Switch. Nintendo has given it a widescreen update and the visuals, lifeless cutscenes aside, sparkle. The controls are still bad, but then the controls always were bad. That was kind of the point. Galaxy is just as good in 2020 as it was in 2007 – in no way is this a game that feels more than a decade old. This was, and still is, perhaps the greatest platformer of all time.
Two of the games are still contemporary enough to make sense in 2020. Sunshine perhaps passed enough people by to warrant a re-release with minimal tinkering while Galaxy is just so good that everyone and anyone should play it again. And then there’s Mario 64. People born in the year of its release are now 24. There are millions of gamers who have never played it. And if any game deserves a better celebration, it’s Mario 64.
James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton
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