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

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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, there’s lots of jumping and boss battles and navigating tricky puzzle-like spaces. But it’s 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 that’s 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.

What’s 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 Nintendo’s 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 you’re collecting star-like things, and you have largely the same tools at your disposal, most notably Mario’s various jumps. But the experience still feels drastically different from one game to the next thanks to these contrasting philosophies.

These aren’t remakes or significant remasters. Each of the three games is almost exactly as it was when it first debuted, and there are aspects that haven’t aged particularly gracefully. Some of these issues are superficial: Mario 64 is extremely chunky with muddy textures, while Sunshine’s 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 it’s 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 hasn’t aged a bit. The only real new feature is the inclusion of touch controls, which replace some of the motion controls when you’re playing in handheld mode. In a nice touch, you can also listen to the complete soundtracks for each game whenever you want. (There’s 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. It’s rare that 3D games remain fun and interesting so long after release, but it’s a testament to Nintendo’s designers that this feels like a crucial Switch release, something to get excited about rather than complain about yet another Mario 64 port. I’ve been jumping back and forth between all three games, and while I’m 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 2017’s Super Mario Odyssey, which featured a world design that felt like a cross between Mario 64’s wide-open spaces and Galaxy’s 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; it’s 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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