Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a wonderful history lesson

 theverge.com  09/16/2020 13:00:00   Andrew Webster

At their core, 3D Super Mario games are all about the same thing: collecting shiny things. It could be stars, or moons, or whatever shines are. Sure, theres lots of jumping and boss battles and navigating tricky puzzle-like spaces. But its all in service of gathering up lots of glittery objects, which in turn open up new areas to explore. What makes the series work so well are the creative ways Nintendo plays around with this premise. And thats on full display in the new collection Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch.

3D All-Stars is a sort of modern take on the original Super Mario All-Stars, which gathered the NES trilogy of Super Mario games together for the then-new SNES. In this case, the focus  obviously  is on the 3D entries in the series. The collection spans three console generations with the inclusion of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy, all of which remain largely unchanged, aside from a few tweaks to make them fit on the Switch.

Whereas the original All-Stars only covered a single console, the 3D version spans a much longer period. Two decades separate Mario 64 and Galaxy  and a lot changed during that time.

Whats fascinating about playing these games now is seeing the different ways they approach the same goal. In Mario 64, things are relatively straightforward. It was Nintendos first time creating this kind of open-world playground, and the levels are all relatively free-roaming spaces where players can jump around. They really do feel like classic 8-bit levels reimagined in three dimensions. Sunshine followed a similar structure but introduced a new tool for interaction, with a water pack that let Mario both temporarily fly and squirt water to hurt bad guys or clean up muck across a tropical island. Galaxy, meanwhile, was a dramatic departure, introducing bite-sized planetoids that constantly confronted the play with new gameplay concepts, which frequently involved shifts in gravity.

In each game youre collecting star-like things, and you have largely the same tools at your disposal, most notably Marios various jumps. But the experience still feels drastically different from one game to the next thanks to these contrasting philosophies.

These arent remakes or significant remasters. Each of the three games is almost exactly as it was when it first debuted, and there are aspects that havent aged particularly gracefully. Some of these issues are superficial: Mario 64 is extremely chunky with muddy textures, while Sunshines cutscenes have a blurry, hazy feel to them. The worst offender, though, is the camera. Mario 64 in particular suffers from a sticky camera, where its often hard to place it where you need, which can make some of the trickier platforming sections more difficult than they should be. The game was revolutionary at its time, but in 2020 the camera feels frustratingly archaic.

Despite the few rough edges, all the games are playable, and I even found myself acclimating to some to the finicky camera issues over time. Galaxy, in particular, still looks and plays incredibly even though more than a decade has passed since its release. The eclectic, sparkling sci-fi art style hasnt aged a bit. The only real new feature is the inclusion of touch controls, which replace some of the motion controls when youre playing in handheld mode. In a nice touch, you can also listen to the complete soundtracks for each game whenever you want. (Theres a music mode where you can turn the screen off and use your Switch as a massive MP3 player, just like in Smash Bros.)

The package is somewhat bare-bones, but the games included make it compelling nonetheless. Its rare that 3D games remain fun and interesting so long after release, but its a testament to Nintendos designers that this feels like a crucial Switch release, something to get excited about rather than complain about yet another Mario 64 port. Ive been jumping back and forth between all three games, and while Im having fun moment to moment, the most enjoyable part has been seeing the way the series evolved over time, as 3D became the standard in game design. You can even spot plenty of direct influences on 2017s Super Mario Odyssey, which featured a world design that felt like a cross between Mario 64s wide-open spaces and Galaxys tiny, interconnected playgrounds.

Of course, there are other ways to play some of these games, and it would be nice to have added titles like Galaxy 2. But having these pivotal games altogether in one package on the Switch makes them incredibly accessible; its been nice to be able to pick up the tablet and squeeze in a few stars when I have some time. It might just be the most entertaining way to explore the history of 3D game design.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars launches September 18th on the Nintendo Switch, though Nintendo says it will only be available until March 31st, 2021.

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