Anyone who says “you can’t go home again” obviously never played a Mario game.
My history with the Mario games isn’t a secret. As soon as I could hold a controller I was transfixed, especially when jumping. Unlike in Castlevania or Street Fighter, jumping as Mario was dynamic. You could tap the button for short hops or hold it for extra oomph. You could even move back and forth while airborne. It was a revelation. Super Mario World was my original “play forever” game long before Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls hit the scene.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars, launching this Friday, is a collection of Mario games that chart the series’ transition to (and dominance of) 3D platforming. With this collection, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy have all been ported to the Switch in high definition, allowing me to examine them side-by-side for the first time.
My biggest goal with Super Mario 3D All-Stars—apart from writing the review you’re now reading—was to finally play and complete 1996’s Super Mario 64. 3D platforming was in its infancy then, and many looked to Nintendo’s seminal release as a blueprint for gaming’s future. Having grown up playing Mario games with my family, Super Mario 64 always intrigued me. But I never got to experience it first-hand due to our lacking a Nintendo 64.
As a result, I experienced Super Mario 64 divorced from its historical significance. My modern perspective screamed at its numerous frustrations, like the antagonistic camera and slippery physics. Early on, I was even ready to write off this classic as a dud that didn’t hold up.
But as I spent more time with the game—and switched from Joy-Cons to a Pro Controller—I couldn’t help but be charmed by its depth. I didn’t always have fun with Super Mario 64, but I grew to appreciate the ways in which Shigeru Miyamoto’s pioneering team tackled the many problems of platforming in 3D space.
With the addition of a Z-axis came more acrobatic techniques for the portly plumber. While the basic jump still plays a huge role, Mario can also long jump, wall jump, back flip, dive, and more. I was surprised by the various moves’ utility; I quickly learned, for example, that kicking during a jump could both gain speed and act as a mid-air brake of sorts, depending on the circumstances. Areas that at first seemed impossibly challenging eventually became fun obstacle courses in which to test Mario’s various abilities.
Don’t get me wrong, levels like Shifting Sand Land and Tick Tock Clock are still complete bullshit, but the exasperation I felt mostly gave way to determination.
As for how Super Mario 3D All-Stars’ port performs, I can’t really complain. The jump to Switch hasn’t introduced any obviously unfortunate consequences. In fact, while it still runs around 30 frames per second, the original’s occasional performance dips have been eliminated, and its control scheme translates well to modern controllers. If only that were the case for Super Mario Sunshine.
Sunshine, released in 2002 for the GameCube, is the odd duck of the Mario canon. Rather than forcing players to rely on Mario’s inherent vaulting skills, it provides training wheels in the form of F.L.U.D.D., a multipurpose jetpack powered by water. While a fun twist on the Mario formula, it also has the downside of sanding down the challenging edges.
Some of the most enjoyable moments in Super Mario Sunshine come when it forces Mario to navigate obstacle courses unaided, using only his jumping abilities. Even so, I get nostalgic for Super Mario Sunshine in the same way Nintendo 64 kids look back on Super Mario 64 as a defining moment in the series because, well, it’s the one I grew up playing.
Sunshine is the story of a vacation gone awry, with Mario framed for several incidents of graffiti and general mess-making across the luxurious Isle Delfino. He’s jailed—a rather distressing sequence for a Mario game—and subsequently tasked with cleaning up the vandalized island. And much in the same way Super Mario Bros. 2 introduced a slew of odd but enduring new enemies (e.g. Bob-ombs, Shy Guys, and Birdo), Isle Delfino’s native Piantas and Nokis have gone on to make charming appearances in subsequent games.
In any case, Super Mario Sunshine was the most exciting part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars for me. Being able to revisit areas like Pinna Park and Hotel Delfino with higher-resolution visuals felt like a dream come true. Unfortunately, the drastic differences between the GameCube and Switch controllers threw a wrench into my enjoyment at times.
The original version of Super Mario Sunshine took full advantage of the GameCube controller’s wonderful analog triggers. Those lovely feeling, pressure-sensitive inputs provided an amazing amount of control over Mario’s water gun. You could pull the trigger just a bit for a short dribble or click it all the way in to go full-on turret mode. In the Shadow Mario chase sequences the triggers had a very obvious sweet spot that made these encounters a breeze, letting Mario trail his doppelgänger at a safe distance while continuously dousing him. That muscle memory is what makes these encounters so frustrating in the Switch port.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars’ solution to this problem is pretty smart on paper. The right bumper now lets you stand in place and shoot with precision aiming, while the right trigger is akin to pulling the GameCube’s analog trigger to about the three-quarters mark. That overshoots the sweet spot, making it far less useful in practice, especially when it comes to those Shadow Mario showdowns. As the trigger is the only way to run and shoot, you have to rely on its slightly-too-far stream of water to damage the enemy, with no way to subtly adjust for his changing position. This diminished control scheme doesn’t make the encounters impossible, but it’s sure to ruffle the feathers of Sunshine veterans.
Also perplexing were frequent bouts of slowdown. I recall the original Super Mario Sunshine running smoothly no matter how many characters were on screen or how much water I’d spray. But in the Super Mario 3D All-Stars port, several trips back to the main hub late in the game are plagued with stuttering, as if the Switch is struggling to keep up with visuals that, apart from the resolution upgrade, were handled just fine by the 19-year-old GameCube. Again, this small inconvenience doesn’t ruin the experience, but it does commit the cardinal sin of video game ports: reminding you that it’s a port.
The last of the trio, Super Mario Galaxy, arrived at a time in my life that’s mostly a blur, so I don’t have a reliable memory of its intricacies. I recall being impressed by the setting—I really liked jumping back and forth between tiny worlds like some sort of Italian elder god—but other than that, my biggest memory of Galaxy is intensely disliking the motion controls, which were all too common on Nintendo’s waggle-happy home console and that still hold the Switch port back somewhat.
While it brought back Super Mario 64’s long jump, Super Mario Galaxy is still a wholly different, simpler beast. And unlike Super Mario Odyssey, there is little hidden depth in Galaxy. What you see is mostly what you get. Which is fine! This is a Mario game, after all, the perfect way to take a break from that latest run through Dark Souls or the copious maps and menus of Crusader Kings III.
Whatever challenge the game held on the Wii came largely from motion controls that were mostly reliable but never felt reliable. It always seemed like the game’s life-saving mid-air twirl came just a second too late after swinging the Wiimote. As such, I was overjoyed last week to report on Super Mario 3D All-Stars adding button inputs to Galaxy.
But that doesn’t mean motion controls have been entirely removed in Super Mario 3D All-Stars. Some of the more frustrating Galaxy mini-games, like manta surfing and rolling atop a Star ball, are still tied entirely to your ability to perfectly maintain your controller’s position and balance in the real world. This is just as much of a problem on the Switch as it was on the Wii, and really slams the brakes on the fun every time they show up.
For better or worse, the Super Mario 3D All-Stars port of Super Mario Galaxy is a faithful recreation of the original game, providing the player with beautiful galactic vistas and slamming them back down to the ground with the occasional motion-controlled annoyance.
It’s clear that Nintendo intends for Super Mario 3D All-Stars to function as a time machine, but for me, it’s also an inter-dimensional portal. I can remember where I was when I first played Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, and now I have strange memories of an alternate childhood playing Super Mario 64 too.
More than anything, however, Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a time capsule. The series’ progression from one game to the next provides a fascinating look at how Nintendo almost willed an entire genre into existence and then, just as quickly, scaled it back to just the bare necessities without missing a beat.
Every game in Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a triumph, a clear indication of why Mario has remained an inextricable part of gaming history. They don’t even have to tell you how to jump in these games anymore; Nintendo knows that every player’s thumb will inevitably hover to the appropriate button.
Although I have my qualms with this collection—strange inconsistencies in the Super Mario Sunshine port chief among them—it does what it set out to do: chart Mario’s evolution from a bushwhacking pioneer to the inimitable mascot of 3D platforming.