In the end, it all comes down to confidence. You can launch a console – or, in this case, a handheld – at any price point and with all the promises you like, but if you don’t walk the walk and talk the talk, then you’re destined for trouble. Nintendo should know this by now. They really should. Having been comprehensively trounced at retail by both the PS1 and the PS2 – despite having, in both cases, a technically superior offering, arguably better games and, in the latter case at least, a far cheaper product – it seems inconceivable that they haven’t learned their lesson.
Yet here’s the DS, a white elephant of a console if ever there was one, a bold experiment that no-one yet really knows what to do with. Launched virtually head-to-head with Sony’s PSP, it clearly lacks its competitor’s technical grunt and chav-friendly stylings. The DS, therefore, stands or falls on the strength of its games. It needs Nintendo to lead the way, to show the world how to use its innovations, to propel the DS into the hands of eager gamers with gameplay experiences the like of which they’ve never seen.
So what do we get? A re-release of an eight-year-old title, with added mini-games. All things considered, it’s not the greatest of starts.
Of course, if you’re going to do a rehash, you can’t get a much better starting point than Mario 64. Even after all this time, it’s a fresh and vibrant experience, more satisfying and more open-ended than almost any 3D platformer that’s followed it (including, sadly, its own sequel). There’s still something magical about Mario’s tree-climbing, shell-riding, cannon-firing, slip-sliding adventure that no other game has really managed to capture. The graphics, on the relatively tiny screen of the DS, look almost as good as they did on a big TV all those years ago, and the variety of tasks in the game still has the power to surprise. While rival games have all too often descended into dull collectathons (Rare, we’re looking at you), Mario 64 has the player throwing giant bombs off mountains, racing penguins down slides, fighting ghosts in haunted houses, and reassembling separated snowmen. And that’s all in the first few levels. Later treats, such as Wet-Dry World with its changeable water level, and Tiny-Huge Island, almost two levels in one, reach heights of creativity that have rarely been seen since. The revamped controls take some getting used to, but with a choice of D-Pad, stylus or thumbstrap control – or a combination of all three – and the bottom screen doubling as an analogue touchpad, most gamers will find something that suits them and, with practice, may even be able to match the control they had in the original.
Even for veterans, then, Mario 64 is still well worth revisiting. Chances are that you’ll have forgotten just how good it actually is. Happily, there’s also has a reasonable amount of new content here to entice old hands back into the fold. The main game itself has been remixed and extended. There are no new levels as such, but with an extra star per course and fifteen new Castle stars, there are new challenges liberally scattered throughout the game. New doors and paintings reveal hidden areas, and familiar locations have been given a new lick of paint. Even completing the game now requires more stars than before. It’s a nice addition, and although a couple of new courses would have been welcome, there’s just enough here to ensure that the player remains constantly on his or her toes.
Meanwhile, Mario has been joined in his quest by Yoshi, Luigi and Wario. Each character has specific abilities and, once unlocked, the player can switch between the four to solve specific puzzles and open new areas. Although it’s a nice novelty and adds variety to the game, it’s not quite the innovation that might have been expected. Fully 90% of the game can still be played through as Mario, and very few of the puzzles make much use of his sidekicks’ new abilities. Yoshi’s ability to swallow enemies and fire eggs, for instance, is barely touched upon apart from one new boss battle early in the game, and thereafter you’ll mostly use Yoshi only when his longer flutter jump is required (which also makes some sections of the game substantially easier). Much the same goes for Luigi’s invisibility and Wario’s metallic coating, both straight swaps for the blue and green switch puzzles from the original game, which have now been removed. When the multiple character system really works – for instance, when you need to switch back and forth several times in the course of a single level – it adds a lot to the game, but these instances are few and far between and for the most part the new system is little more than a gimmick.
Mario 64 DS also includes a number of mini-games, 36 in total, unlocked by catching rabbits in the main game with each of the four characters. These are clearly designed to show off the system’s new abilities, and for the most part they’re a creative bunch. Whether you’re sorting bob-ombs onto different-coloured mats, playing shove-ha’penny with shells, or firing catapults at invading parachutists, you’ll find the best of these to be enormously addictive as well as an excellent demonstration of what can be achieved with a stylus and a little imagination. Sadly, the quality control isn’t all it should be. Of the 36 games on offer, nearly a quarter – virtually all of Luigi’s games – are dull, simplistic gambling games; one of Yoshi’s titles isn’t even a game at all; and several games find themselves repeated with only very slight variations. In total, there are probably about half a dozen truly great games here, and maybe a dozen more that you’ll find yourself coming back to from time to time. It’s not a bad average, but should have been so much more.
Finally, there’s multiplayer, a simplistic romp around cut-down levels for up to four players. It’s mildly diverting and can be played with a single copy of the game, but with only one game mode (chase the stars, essentially) and four levels, it’s unlikely to entertain for any length of time. As a demonstration of the wireless link-up, it works fine, but as a multiplayer game there’s simply not enough to it to keep you coming back.
Scoring Super Mario 64 DS is a difficult task. On the one hand, it’s Mario 64 – undoubtedly one of the greatest games ever made, and one whose lustre has barely been dimmed by the passage of time. If, through negligence or youthfulness, you’ve never had the chance to play this gem, then the purchase of Super Mario 64 DS should be compulsory. The rest of us, however, will find that Nintendo’s flagship release for their new console is in fact a game we’ve already played and completed. Many of the new additions – specifically the four-character system and the multiplayer – appear to have been shoehorned in at the last minute, and the whole thing has the faint but distinct whiff of a rush job.
What the DS really needed was a new Mario adventure that lived up to the quality of its predecessors and also showcased the system’s new features. Nintendo’s handheld arms race with Sony has clearly precluded this kind of development, and what we’re left with is a great, but old, game that’s been given a bit of a scrub and a superficially shiny new coating. Super Mario 64 DS, then, is the gaming equivalent of Lucas’s ham-fisted Star Wars special editions: fantastic entertainment, to be sure, but something of a cash-in all the same. It’s only really a compulsory purchase for those that missed the game first time around, and with all the goodwill in the world, for the DS’s premier launch title, that’s a disappointment.
Note to Nintendo: Very good. 8/10. Must try harder.