Review by AegisKnight2000
"Portable Super Mario 64 Can't Miss, Right?"
-Faithful and authentic reproduction of the original
-Added mini-map helps locate stars, coins, terrain etc.
-Ability to play as Yoshi, Wario, or Luigi a novel addition
-Additional content in form of more stars, new mini-games, game-play mechanisms
-Graphics, after a DS touch-up, look impressive
-Persistent camera issues
-Interface control and sensitivity issues
-Obtuse, ill-explained star objectives
-Constant mandatory use of the run button is tedious and uncomfortable
-Limited DS screen space makes certain larger areas too difficult to navigate
Intro: Super Mario 64 for N64 is a classic. We all know that. In my opinion, its impact on the genre of gaming is one of the greatest of its generation, along with titles like Metal Gear Solid, Soul Calibur, and Final Fantasy 7. So, the prospect of a portable DS copy of this title was enticing to say the least. The game is designed with admirable effort, and definitely succeeds in capturing the imagination and nostalgia of the original. However, persistent new flaws in the DS control scheme coupled with existing camera issues from the original often combine to sap enjoyment from the gaming experience. As such, expect a measure of tedium and frustration.
There is very little to complain about here. The graphics in the original were a pretty astounding 3-D achievement. With the upgrades present on the DS, this game really is pleasing to look at. It is every bit as lush and colorful as the original, while being touched up in all the right places. Character models are exceptional. Bowser has an appropriately edgy look, pink bob-ombs are adorable, goombas look as menacingly goofy as they should, and Mario's movements are fluid and well-animated. And they've all been given a sufficient eye-pleasing smoothness and crispness. The only complaints come from the mini-map and the problems with scale present on the DS. Scaling down the vast magnitude of Mario 64's environments into one tiny DS screen makes things occasionally difficult. And the mini-map, while a handy addition, is sometimes too poorly animated to convey sufficient detail. It often served me more as a compass than a guide with any detail. Still, those minor quibbles aside, the game really is gorgeous and graphically imaginative.
The sound and music department is never disappointing, and occasionally memorable. The atmosphere-specific music is usually capable of ingratiating the gamer into the appropriate mood. It never grates and typically serves as a pleasant backdrop, so nothing much has changed since the original N64 version. Some tunes are even catchy enough to stay with you, such as the Castle hub area theme, Bowser stage themes, and particularly the aquatic theme from Jolly Roger Bay. Typically, the music is a positive for this title.
The game features respectable sound, also. Cannon shots, Mario pounds, fire blasts, and water splashes all sound appropriate. Sound was an area of strength for the original and things sound even better here. The only real complaint is the (still) conspicuous lack of any genuine dialogue and the insert of silly sounds in the space where you might expect real dialogue. Of course, this does not detract greatly from the overall enjoyment of the sound, but along with the lack of a really epic soundtrack, it serves to justify the sound department falling shy of a 10/10. The sound and music elements are fun and appropriate, but hardly perfect.
Let's face facts. You're not playing any Mario series title for any significantly engaging plot. Much like with any Zelda game, you know the framework of the story going in. The primary objective might get tweaked or nuanced, and maybe a new character or ally will be added into the mix, but ultimately you're in it to adventure across whimsical environments, beat Bowser, and save that princess. This Mario certainly stays true to the formula. The theme of jumping into paintings and retrieving the power of the stars is an interesting take on the old formula, so credit is deserved there. It is also nice how objective completion within a stage painting will affect events and orientation of the stage during later objectives. However, ultimately, the story is a placeholder for the game-play, and will not substantially add or detract from your experience.
Unlike the story, game-play is the absolute predicate for this style of game. And without any elements of character building, the focus is placed squarely on adventuring elements such as control scheme, level design, fluidity, etc. The DS version of Super Mario 64 is a very mixed bag in this department. Level design remains a huge strength. Unfortunately, this version persistently bedevils you with controls that never comfortably fit the function, leaving you with an often frustrating experience. This is a stark contrast to the original which, despite a few legitimate camera control gripes, played rather smoothly.
Simply put, this game desperately requires an analog joystick. A (small and often uncomfortable) directional pad simply is not sufficient. Moreover, the touch-screen control scheme simply seems too convoluted to be of service. The poor substitute of the D-pad was a persistent issue that constantly required adjustment and often caused movement and control issues where there should be none, in addition to mild physical discomfort. Timed jumps were harder, ledge walking was trickier, and evasive movements simply became a chore. This can't be ignored because adventure game enjoyment is largely derived from a comfortable and intuitive control scheme. Super Mario 64 for DS simply does not have this. Adding injury to insult, consider the fact that you constantly have to depress the run button (for speed and certain jumps) and the controls prove doubly uncomfortable. I felt that a button for not running would have been much more appropriate, as one alternative. So now, a technique like a successfully executed long jump, which now requires depression of 3 small buttons while tenuously maintaining direction with an ill-equipped directional pad, becomes a laborious process.
And let's not forget the original camera issues that were imported from the original. So far as I could tell, no effort was made to address camera difficulties. And given the new difficulties inherent to this DS version (small screen, tricky controls) the camera issues are now even more pronounced. Some levels, with few obstructions or tight corners, have no issues. However, other levels involving confined spaces frequently present this difficulty. You will often finding yourself with a close-up of a wall or obstructive obstacle when you are trying to swing your camera around to quickly get sight of an enemy, or maybe the next ledge or rotating platform in a timed series of jumps. At best, it's a mild annoyance, being an issue of stolen momentum while slowing you on your way to your objective. At worst, it's a source of significant frustration, leading to falls, damage, and having to re-try the stage objective due to little or no fault of your own.
Everything about Super Mario 64 DS game-play isn't bad. In other areas, the development team did make effort and progress. Most missions have some sort of directional guidance now, in the form of the mini-map. You can see geographic locations of mission stars, and red coin missions are made slightly easier through the presence of a bob-omb guide reflecting coin locations on the mini-map. The mini-map still isn't as clear or persistently helpful as I would have liked, but it's a handy addition. Additional stars and additional stage objectives were also welcome. Of course, objectives still occasionally suffer the difficulty of being too obtuse, but it's still nice to have more star objectives per stage. Also, level design remains as strong as ever.
Finally, the game introduces another ostensible nicety in the addition of playable characters beyond Mario. The additions are generally interesting to explore. They are not simple cosmetic additions, either. Each new character (Yoshi, Luigi, and Wario) feature slightly unique controls and advantages. It's enough to take notice, though you won't be blown away by the variety. At best, it allows a fresh approach, where you can use creativity to find new solutions for new and old objectives. However, at worst, it frustrates due to the persistence of obtuse mission objectives, as noted in the previous paragraph. The problem is compounded because now some objectives absolutely require completion by a specific character, which can lead to more frustration through wasted exploration.
This would be a 10/10, as the game returns all the fascinating wonderment of the original. Super Mario 64 DS features a lush and colorful world, ambient sound, a well-imagined castle layout, and fantastically diverse environments within the stage paintings; these are all ingredients for an ingratiating atmosphere. Stages are clever, unique, and full of personality. The games characters and NPCs (though certainly shallow) also possess some charm and personality.
Exploration of every nook and cranny of the castle is generally an enjoyable experience. The only issue persistently affecting this game is the control scheme. It is too persistent of an issue to ignore. So, in this instance, the wonderment of exploration is curtailed significantly by the disappointment of having such a difficult time controlling your chosen character in that environment. Therefore, the experience is less fluid and facilitated. Still, even so many years after its original release, I remain in awe of the achievements of this design. The conceptual design of this game is a significant strength.
***End Aspect Summary***
Conclusion: The updates are generally welcome. The portability is nice. The authenticity of a great original game largely remains intact. Meanwhile, some nice new content has been added. So this is the recipe for a successful port, right? Unfortunately, the answer is no, at least not entirely. The cumbersome controls, combined with camera issues from the original are obstacles that are simply too significant to overcome. Frustration, tedium, and unnecessarily sore fingers (from the tiny d-pad and constantly jamming on the run button) will combine to really sap enjoyment. The framework for an enjoyable game is still here, but in all likelihood, anybody not already enamored with the original will probably have difficulty completing this game. It's unfortunate, because the team responsible for this port obviously put forth great effort. However, they failed to address the very few fundamental problems of the original, and failed to (effectively) address new problems that would be inherent to the DS.
Extra Thought: Despite the updated graphics and portability of this version, I will probably trade this in and get the Wii Virtual Console version of Super Mario 64, due simply to the control scheme issues.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 05/26/09
Game Release: Super Mario 64 DS (US, 11/20/04)
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