Super Mario 3D All-Stars, releasing this week on Switch, attempts to capture one specific and important arc of Mario's presence with upgraded versions of Super Mario 64 (1996, Nintendo 64), Super Mario Sunshine (2002, GameCube), and Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Wii) into a single collection. Between 1996 and 2007, Nintendo broke our collective brains by successfully bringing Mario into the 3rd dimension and, over time, refined what that meant.
There is no gaming character who has been as relevant and longlasting as Mario, the Nintendo icon that has, time and time again, redefined expectations and pushed at gaming's design boundaries. Mario's unbelievably long history and incomparable track record means you playing the series in order is to experience the evolution of video games in real-time.
3D All-Stars is a collection of very good games that are a joy to have on a portable machine, but in 2020, especially in the presence of spectacular updates to games like Tony Hawk' s Pro Skater that successfully bridge nostalgia with the present, it falls frustratingly short. It is simultaneously an incredible package, one that I'm going to spend dozens of hours with the rest of the year because these games are so damn good, while also full of missed potential.
Invoking the "All-Stars" name is a specific reference to Nintendo history, because it recalls when the company packaged a superb collection of 2D games under the Super Mario All-Stars banner. Super Mario All-Stars featured updated graphics, tweaked physics—they even pick and chose which glitches to keep in. It was Nintendo paying respect to its past—again, finding ways to bridge nostalgia with the present, while losing nothing along the way. This is not an "all-stars" effort, as nice as it is to have Super Mario Galaxy running at higher resolutions and higher frame rates. It's a package that's propped up because it features some of Nintendo's finest—yes, including Sunshine.
Who, exactly, is going to boot up 3D All-Stars so they can listen to three game soundtracks, which don't even continue playing when you're tabbing through the Switch UI? There's no artwork to page through, no documentary to watch, no insights into the obviously fascinating development that lead to the creation of these three important works. You'll learn more about what it was like to make these games from The Washington Post than the collection itself.
It's possible the barebones nature of 3D All-Stars is another consequence of COVID-19's ongoing disruption of the video game industry, but nonetheless, 3D All-Stars arrives after the infamous "gigaleak," where parts of Nintendo's secretive internal history were exposed through leaks. Can you imagine if 3D All-Stars featured an alternative version of Mario 64 where Luigi was playable? Instead, it doesn't even include 3D camera movement, forcing players into the frustrating restrictions of 1996's yellow "C" buttons in 2020's analog era.
I mean, c'mon, no widescreen support?
Having the games side-by-side shows how much Nintendo has quietly refined and polished Mario's presence in 3D since his debut, while revealing how tough it can be to revisit the past. Mario 64 is one of the most important video games ever made, but it was also released 24 years ago, and 3D All-Stars somehow makes the game feel even older. It's a game that, at this stage in its life and part of a $60 re-release, would benefit from some real attention.
It's hard to imagine someone without nostalgia glasses being able to appreciate Mario 64 in this form, which is a shame, because man, I still remember the first time I laid eyes on it. It was the summer of 1996, the summer of Will "welcome to Earth" Smith, and a few months before the Nintendo 64 launched outside Japan. Everything I knew about the first 3D Mario, the game that was supposed to change everything, was from my monthly bible, the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly. I obsessed over every screen shot and every tiny detail.
My family went to the movies pretty often, and next door to one of the theaters we frequented was this quaint video game shop. While my dad waited in line to buy tickets, my mom would let me roam around the store and gawk at things we couldn't afford. That shop was DieHard Game Club, the same one that started the magazine Game Fan, and it specialized in importing games from Japan. It was, in essence, a sneak peak at the future.
My eyes caught movement from a TV in the corner. It looked like, and turned out to be, Mario running around a castle. I figured it was a promotional tape meant to hype up the release of the Nintendo 64, but it quickly became apparent that, no, this was, my god, a copy of the Japanese release of Super Mario 64. There it was, running in front of my eyes, and DieHard Game Club was charging money for you to play the game in 10-minute increments.
I don't remember how much it cost—I want to say it was $10—but it didn't matter. Someone else was queued up, my dad had finished waiting in line, and paying money to play a game that you couldn't take home was, understandably, something my mom scoffed at. Still, the chance to simply gaze at Mario 64 for a few minutes was itself a reward, and convinced me I would happily turn in every SNES cartridge hidden under my bed to Funcoland, to ensure I could afford a Nintendo 64 when it finally came out later that year.
When I finally played Mario 64, it was hard to process. I didn't know video games could do this. It's hard to explain the gravity of this now, when 3D movement has become so normal.
It's possible Nintendo looks at Mario 64 and doesn't want to mess with it, but lord almighty, here's a statement I didn't think I'd be saying: time and time again, Activision has shown how to expertly handle updating classics. Whatever you think of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, it's undeniable they've treated each franchise with respect, while also understanding quality-of-life modernizations and visual upgrades, a way of matching up your memory of a game with the reality of playing it now, are important.
If Nintendo was a purist—and granted, there are plenty of players who are, too—just toss the original game in there, too. But 3D All-Stars takes no such steps with Mario 64.
The other games, by virtue of simply being more modern, do more with less.
Importantly, I cannot wait for 3D All-Stars to reignite the "Is Super Mario Sunshine good?" debate, because I am firmly in the pro-Sunshine crowd and this game, more than any other in the collection, benefits from some minor updates, most notably going widescreen.
Sunshine is a ferociously weird game, one that ditches the tight platforming that has forever defined the franchise in favor of having players awkwardly fire a water gun to fight enemies and navigate around with a water-powered jetpack. Mario games pride themselves on being effortlessly approachable, while Sunshine rejects that notion and asks you to try something radically different in Mario clothing. I've always thought Sunshine worked, despite and because of its quirks. The bright and poppy world invokes Super Mario Odyssey vibes, and is the most experimental of the bunch when it comes to asking players to interact with the world in odd and surprising ways. The controls still suck, but it's wildly inventive. I adore it.
And what is there to to say about Super Mario Galaxy, a game that transports Mario's platforming to a world of spheres without feeling weird, without missing a beat? It's a trip, and arguably remains the most visually inventive of the whole franchise. Outside of how awkward it is to collect star pieces in handheld mode—a requirement to unlock certain challenge courses—it's tremendous. Among the pantheon of Mario games, it's up there.
I played so much Mario 64 as a kid that every level is implanted into my brain, and so after collecting 20 stars, I'm good, you know? In 2020, I'd need a much better reason to dedicate another chunk of hours to that world again, and it's not present in 3D All-Stars. But it's been long enough since I've played Sunshine and Galaxy that, combined with looking fantastic, they might as well be brand-new games. There's no doubt I'll be finishing both of them while propped up on the couch, watching my Chicago Bears blow yet another football game. Life goes on, but a few things remain constant: Mario games are good and the Bears still suck.
3D All-Stars is a paradox: a collection of great games and a missed opportunity. These games deserved better, a respectful contextualization of their place in the history books. But ultimately, in my heart of hearts, I'm just happy to get a chance to declare this: Super Mario Sunshine was good.