Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Game Review: Super Mario 3D All-Stars (Nintendo Switch)


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo 
Platform: Nintendo Switch

The 'All-Stars' moniker carries prestige when it comes to the Mario brand courtesy of a beloved 1993 compilation of all the Mario platformers up to that point, improved with modern graphics, physics and controls. It was one of the earliest and most successful examples of the gaming remaster, which has in modern times become commonplace: take a highly rated game from a previous console generation, tart up the visuals and plonk it on a new system for either new gamers to enjoy or old fans to pony over their cash a second time for an improved version of a previously enjoyed experience.

Nintendo have not so much taken up this trend as been consumed by it: the Nintendo Switch's predecessor, the Wii U, was a dismal failure financially, shifting a meagre 13 million units during its four years on the market - as a point of comparison, the Switch has sold in the region of 61 million in a similar time frame. This disparity in sales has led Nintendo to port many over their Wii U games over to the Switch, having presumably realised that there are millions of gamers who never had the chance to play them. While financially prudent - ports are quick and easy - this is frustrating for those of us who own both a Wii U and a Switch, particularly as these ports are not exactly high effort. Unfortunately, that comes to a head with Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a release which despite the historical importance of its three assembled games, represents Nintendo at their laziest.

In fairness to Nintendo's Wii U ports, those games originated on a modern system already and thus relatively little could be done to improve them visually, particularly as the Switch and Wii U are not far apart in terms of computing power. The three games in the 3D All-Stars collection, however, come from much older console generations. There's an argument to be made for preserving these games in their original form, but that's perfectly achievable by selling the titles individually on Nintendo's digital services, as has been done multiple times before for Super Mario 64.

Preservation is important, but considering Nintendo are marketing this game as part of the 35th anniversary of its mascot plumber, a genuine remaster of these older games, with improved visuals, controls and quality-of-life enhancements, would have felt like as much of an event as the original All-Stars on the SNES. Instead, it feels like a title rushed out to fill a hole in the release schedule, hardly a worthy fate for games this important.

None of the three games are a perfect fit on the Switch platform, with two of the three games requiring functions which have since been removed from modern hardware. For Super Mario Galaxy, the gyroscope in the Pro Controller is not a completely natural substitute for the precision of the Wii remote pointer - one of the great losses in the evolution of gaming technology - and while it only takes a short time to adapt to the new method of collecting the star bits scattered across the screen, it never feels as sharp or natural. In Super Mario Sunshine, the pressure-sensitive triggers required to control the range of Mario's water cannon, FLUDD, are also long gone, making certain challenges a little more awkward than they used to be.

Super Mario 64 fares most comfortably in this respect, with its controls perfectly suited to modern controllers. Unfortunately, being almost a quarter of a century old, it is also in most dire need of modern refinements elsewhere. The limited camera control in particular is a constant frustration, both in 64 and Sunshine. Modern games allow players to use the right control stick to move the in-game camera in all directions, finding the precise angle which suits them most comfortably. Sunshine and 64, the latter especially, are both far more limited and it is an infuriatingly common occurrence for the camera to skip behind objects or walls during moments of precision platforming.

In 1996, this was excusable: a game like Mario 64 had never existed before and Nintendo were writing the rules to often stunningly accomplished effect as they went along. Modern gamers have lived with decades of improvements in camera control, however, making the early shortcomings all the more glaring. Unlike Sunshine, where the FLUDD's jet-pack function gives the player a certain amount of leeway to correct mistakes, a mistimed or misplaced jump in 64 often results in death, or at least having to repeat a stretch of gameplay all over again. Challenging which involve jumping between aerial poles become especially hard to judge without the optimal angle. Collecting one particular star in 64's Lethal Lava Land, which involves timing a jump between poles in a volcano while a flamethrower circles above, is an especially egregious example.

Despite these shortcomings, Mario 64 remains exhilaratingly bold and ambitious. Modern gamers will likely struggle with the controls for a time, which are far less user-friendly than would be expected these days, but as with the original Resident Evil titles and their notorious 'tank' controls, the antagonistic relationship between controls and player makes it more satisfying when they are mastered, being difficult but essentially fair in a way the camera's failures are not. Although the game's stage designs can sometimes seem similarly clunky, its sheer range of ideas and the freedom it offers for exploration remains a thrill. The game's age undeniably shows and those who did not experience it on its original release will likely find many of its design choices frustrating, but its commitment to the ebullient joy of playing in the third dimension for the first time is as exciting as ever.

The enormous advance in console power between the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube eras may make Super Mario Sunshine look closer to the Mario games with which modern gamers will be more familiar - some fuzzy texturing aside - but the design choices which were criticised even at the time make the game the weakest of the three on offer and the most frustrating, despite being six years younger than 64.

 The game's controls are somewhat more responsive than those of its predecessor - although there is a hair-pullingly annoying delay to Mario's jump when the character is moving at speed - but the stage design seems deliberately constructed to frustrate the player with a requirement for pinpoint precision jumps and movement which neither the camera nor controls are quite equipped for. Stages also diminish in spectacle and ambition, with later ones feeling more static and predictable than earlier ones, giving a feeling of perpetual anti-climax. To describe the final full stage, Pianta Village, as an afterthought barely does justice to how half-hearted its design feels.

The game is mostly enjoyable and its tropical aesthetic give it a vibe unlike any game in the series before or since, but its difficulty feels artificial. If 64 has the volcano star as emblematic of its control failures, modern gamers can look forward to Sunshine's notorious pachinko machine challenge, an exercise in anti-fun which takes a long time to complete and offers fatal consequences for a single misjudgment of the game's wonky physics.

It is unsurprising that Super Mario Galaxy fares best of the three games on offer. Although the Switch's lack of a pointer makes certain challenges feel a mite less precise than they did originally, none require the kind of accuracy or speed which pose a serious impediment to the player's progression, unlike Super Mario Galaxy 2, whose highly precise pointer challenges are almost certainly the reason it was not included in this collection despite being the finest of the 3D Mario games to date. Galaxy's gravity-bending puzzles and planetoid navigation give it the same thrill of discovering a new form of movement as remains so powerful in Mario 64.

Unlike that game, Galaxy adds the benefit of over two decades of refinements in 3D game design, being not only visually richer - the art style is so beautiful as to aesthetically stand toe-to-toe with modern games despite being thirteen years their senior - but better at communicating the requirements of its challenges to the player. Where 64 in particular gave players only a single, vague hint at what they were expected to accomplish to collect each star, mitigated by having the freedom to collect most in any order and thus allowing progress by accidental discovery, Galaxy is considerably more linear in its design, forcing almost every star to be collected in sequence, but benefits from a clarity of purpose which allows players to have a good idea of what to do and where to go even while allowing a controlled degree of exploration.

Galaxy is not without its rough edges, with the controls sometimes very occasionally losing track of Mario's intended direction when making complex movements on the more unusually shaped structures, but it is by considerable distance the friendliest game on offer for modern players and the one whose excellence is least compromised by age. Despite its greater linearity, its pioneering soul feels of a piece with Mario 64. 64 is a game many will play to experience the most important legacy in 3D platforming. Galaxy is a game which even to this day can be played and enjoyed strictly on its own terms.

The importance of these games - well, 64 and Galaxy - makes it all the more disrespectful that Nintendo saw fit to release them in such a bare-bones package. If there's one trait which characterises all three, even Sunshine, it is generosity, a readiness to give the player everything they have in service of a good time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it has been dulled by age, but there is rarely any point in these games where the design feels compromised or undercooked (let's put Pianta Village to one side for now). For better and worse, they aimed as highly as they could every step of the way.

3D All-Stars, as a collection, is the antithesis of that ethos: everything from the packaging to the menus and the sole bonus feature (a separate player for each game's soundtrack) feels like Nintendo hurrying a half-finished product out of the door. The quality of each individual game and even the original Super Nintendo All-Stars only highlights the shortcomings and missed opportunities of the package as a whole. [ 6 ]


No comments: