Review by Donald Love 87
Is a great console release game a great portable release game?
The Super Mario games have always been good at setting standards for the video game industry; with the Super Mario Bros and World games Nintendo showed how 2D platform games should be made, and even though the Playstation with somewhat good capabilities for 3D gaming was released a while earlier, it wasn't until the Nintendo 64 along with Super Mario 64 showed the world how a 3D platformer could work. With control perfection and great levels which you didn't even have to play in order, it's an obvious classic. For some reason Nintendo stopped developing new portable Super Mario games when the Game Boy Advance came out, instead opting for rereleasing the SNES games in pretty straight conversions. This continued on to the DS, but since the portable console power increased, so did the game converted; welcome to Super Mario 64 DS. Is it as good as the original?
Impressively enough, the graphics looks better on the DS than on the N64. The texture resolution seems to have been upped quite a bit, and while there never was any real problems with pop-up objects or draw distance fog in the original in the few instances there were it's been increased. For some reason the color scale has shrunk a bit, so while the original game had really vibrant green fields and blue skies here it just looks a bit more gray. Sure it isn't like a corridor First Person Shooter or anything like that, and it probably makes the textures more noticeable but it still feels a bit more serious than it did before.
The character models are also much smoother and softer than in the N64 counterpart, and something I like is that the new parts (more on those under gameplay) really feels like they belong here graphically and when it comes to design. Overall the graphics are really good looking, and it's easy to see why they chose to make this game; pulling off the graphics of an N64 game on a hand held device was a pretty big accomplishment.
Sound effects and music
Unlike the graphics, the sound is feeling pretty intact from the N64 version here. Sure, there are some differences in the sound chip and I'm pretty sure that the DS has the most advanced one, but since all you get here are tiny speakers (unless of course you use headphones) they can't really sound anything better than an N64 hooked up to a TV set. As for the melodies themselves, they are really nice; remixes and evolutions of old Mario material. The underground theme from Super Mario Bros has changed into a jazzy piece pretty far from the original bassline, but still very recognizable. The music that was new for SM64 is still sounding good too and fitting to the Mario legacy, and the music added specifically for this release also works very well with the rest of it. So everything's good when it comes to the music.
As for sound effects, most of them sound natural for the instances where they occur, and while you don't really notice them when they're there you'd miss them if they were not. When it comes to character voices, there are some more lines recorded than there were in the original game, but most of that are just extra "action" sounds for the additional characters. All in all, when it comes to the sounds everything's ok.
This is actually where things start to get interesting, and skew off a bit from the source game. In the original game Mario was the one invited to the castle and he had to explore it all by himself when he found out that Bowser kidnapped Peach during the time he was getting there. In the DS version, however, Mario is still the only one invited but somehow Luigi and Wario tags along too. After deciding it's no big deal that they join, they all go into the castle. A while pass, and this time instead of following Mario when he jumps out of the teleport pipe, Lakitu instead brings Yoshi down from the roof. So now you start playing as Yoshi who has to go into the castle and rescue his moustached pals.
Other than that; the situation is the same. Bowser is again holding Peach with the help of the hidden stars that he's stolen and given out to his minions which can be found in levels that you are transported to by jumping into paintings hanging on the castle walls. All doors found in the castle are locked either through stars or by keys, so the more you gather the further into the castle you'll be able to go. Obviously that's the big flaw in Bowsers plan; he always puts enough stars and keys BEFORE the required doors instead of actually locking Mario out. Of course it'd be a very boring game if otherwise, but it just proves that you should never really think about the story of a Super Mario game. So all in all the plot is pretty similar to the N64 version, and just like all Mario games, except maybe the RPGs, it's really basic and is there just as an excuse for the gameplay.
Well, here we comes to the part where the differences actually starts to matter, and where it's obviously a downgrade. As mentioned earlier, Nintendo has always seemed to make conversions of their previous console generation games on the current gen portable machines. Like Game Boy Color got Super Mario Bros Deluxe, Game Boy Advance got the Super Mario World and All-Stars version games. The problem is that the controls always seems to be one generation behind the consoles; for SMB Deluxe it worked, but the Advance games had to do without two of the face buttons (X & Y), and now with the DS they are there but it's missing an important part for 3D gaming - an analog stick.
The analog stick is a tough device to be without in a game like this; the very reason many things are what they are in Super Mario 64 are exactly because they were BUILT along the analog controls. Having to downgrade to a directional pad doesn't feel very good, even though it works better than you might suspect. But still, some moves like circling around the wooden poles to get them to give you five coins (don't ask me why, it just is that way) or grabbing a boss by the tail to spin him around just doesn't feel as natural as with a stick, and it goes wrong much more often. The camera is pretty much a mixed bag; while it was somewhat hard to control in 64 because the C buttons only allowed you to spin it around in quarter circle moves, here it's more customizable but has the issue of only being controlled by the touch screen (with the exception of using L to center it to behind you, but since you've got no stick that's tough too). There are some other control modes available than the default ones, but the problem with these is that they're based on you using the touch screen, and at least for me it's a problem to hold the DS, use buttons and the stylus at the same time; I don't have enough hands. I'm guessing if you do that ain't a problem. Just the touchscreen, which understandably is one of the features Nintendo wanted the game to show us, has some other unnecessary forced uses; like when you get asked if you want to save the game you can't pick your menu choice by using the pad, but instead you have to touch the screen.
Other than the missing analog control and touch screen, it feels pretty good. While the DS looks totally different from the N64 pad it's still possible to pull off all moves quite easily, and nothing important has been removed or joined; some only reassigned to a different part of the controller. So in all, while you might be looking at losing a few more lives to the controls in this game than you did in the original, it's still very playable.
The basic premise of the game is pretty much identical to the original game, but if you haven't played that one we can have a little lesson. As mentioned, the hidden stars of the castle has been stolen and handed out to Bowsers minions who can be found in the paintings spread out across the castle. This means that the castle acts pretty much as a "hub" level where you can find the entrances to the other levels; mostly they are disguised as paintings but there are some others that you'll have to discover yourself. You're not allowed to go everywhere in the castle at once, though, but instead has to collect a certain number of stars to open doors. Some doors also require a key, which can be found by beating a boss stage.
Each of the 15 levels featured in the game has seven "missions" for you to complete. These range from anything to normal exploration to a miniboss battle, from puzzles to footraces. The game gives some hints on where they're found in the "pre-level" screens, where you see the name of the mission you're about to start. On that screen, the stars show up in order, and starts with number one and then shows the next one when you finish the first. If you know the place of a later star, it's entirely possible in many levels to gather that one first, and the pre-level screen will show it as finished but still suggest the lowest number not-gotten star for you to play next time you enter. Whenever you get one of the "mission" stars or lose all your energy, you get thrown out of the level (losing all energy means you lose a life too). You can also re-play stars whenever you want, by picking them from the pre-level screen. That's only useful if you want to replay a boss battle or a level sequence which later stars lock you out from.
In addition to the seven stars you can find in each level that way, you can also get an additional star in each level by collecting 100 coins. There are also 30 special stars you can collect outside of the levels by accomplishing certain tasks around the castle like talking to Toad or playing a mini level. All of these adds up to the 150 stars that are in the game. One thing which is particularly nice about all this is that if you find a star too hard to get, you can just choose to skip it and try another one instead. The last boss level opens up at just 80 stars, which are only about 53% of the stars in the game (even nicer than SM64's 70 stars of 120 = 58%). This makes the game suitable not only for the crazy people like me who wants to go for everything, but also for the players who want a more casual experience but still want to beat the final boss and being able to see the credits. Somehow though, I feel that gathering stars is a little bit more complicated in this release than it were for the N64, since here you have all four different characters to think of - and while all characters can get many of the stars, there are some that are exclusive to certain characters. While SM64 only had Mario and the powers he unlocked, here you need to first free and then use the right character for each star. Thankfully, you won't have to run to change characters every time you want to try something new, since you can find caps in the level which lets you transform into that character until you get hit, but it's still an extra step which in several cases slow down the pace of the game.
One thing which is a classic when it comes to Super Mario games are the powerups. While the original game had three switch palaces where you could unlock caps that would either give Mario the ability to fly, become metal (and thus being able to walk underwater) or to become transparent to walk through walls, here there's only one switch palace and one kind of cap block. The difference comes from who's opening it; Mario will still get the ability to fly, either through the classic cap or bounce/hover in a P-balloon like state. Luigi becomes the transparent one and Wario will become metal. Yoshi will get the brand-new ability to breathe fire. It's somewhat fun, but as mentioned it slows the game down a bit since you need to go get the correct character for the situation. Also, while it's ulitmately a case of taste, it's still hard not to think that these are way less interesting that the cool things found in SMB3 or even SMW... anyone remember the frog suit? And wasn't the cape cooler than a cap, that one could even double as a weapon!
Though one thing which SM64 was, and still is, great at is how focused it feels. While it has become a bit muddled by the multiple characters, it's still all about the stars. You won't need to collect dozens of different objects; all you need to make it through the game is stars, 100 coins (which eventually will lead to a star anyways, and you could play through the entire game without noticing) and a few keys which are there more as plot progression items than collectibles. Most of the levels also feel pretty small and easy to get an overview of and not like some later platforming games where they're maze-like and very easy to get lost in. It's very straightforward.
One final thing that's been added are minigames, which can be accessed either from a room in the castle or from the main menu. Some are unlocked from the start, while others has to be unlocked by catching rabbits (like Mips in the original game) which are located in different set parts of the castle depending on who you're playing as. The rabbit catching is pretty ok; it isn't really like it distracts from the stars since you only do it when you're passing between levels, but the minigames feel a bit bleh. They range from ones where you break Mario's fall by drawing trampolines, to casino games, to analog pinball machines (I know it's got some other name, but can't remember it now) to picking out a face in the crowd. It's fun to try some of them out, and it seems like all of them are just to showcase the touchscreen, but it's not something that'll make the game last long after you've collected the 150 stars.
So, what is there to say about this portable conversion of Marios first 3D adventure? It isn't as straight of a port as the GBA games were, and while some changes were necessary - like some control tweaks - others, like the additional characters, feels fun and fresh but less important. What's odd is that just these changes are a double-edged sword to the game; it certainly makes the game more interesting for those who've played the original, but it also make the game lose a bit of focus and it's harder to find the same flow that was so apparent in the N64 version. It's a bit hard to pinpoint, but the game doesn't have the same feel of quality to it that the original, or any of the older Mario games do. Choosing to make a 3D game without any form of analog control is probably the biggest culprit, and while the mechanic of playing as Wario, Luigi and Yoshi is fun it would've been interesting to see some more changes done to Marios missions instead. Maybe some extra powerups? Something like that. As it is now, I give Super Mario 64 DS a 7 out of 10. It can surely be worth your time, but just don't keep your hopes up for an overwhelming gaming experience whether you've played Super Mario 64 or not - in every important aspect, the original is better.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Super Mario 64 DS (EU, 03/11/05)
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