Do you really want to touch Mario?
Super Mario 64 DS will be the top-selling Nintendo DS launch title and probably one of the highest selling games that will ever be released for the system. I can tell you that much even two weeks before launch. It’s an enhanced port of one of the best games ever made, now portable and including new characters, an extra level, and a ton of mini-games. There is nothing to stand in its way. But is it any good?
Well, yeah. Nintendo wouldn’t let this one out the door without being great. The version I played was still not final, but it could be played from the beginning and had all the critical elements in place. The first thing I noticed was the interactive title screen. We all remember playing with Mario’s face, but the scene is quite different on Nintendo DS. When you click on the hand icon (instead of starting the adventure or entering multiplayer mode), Mario’s face turns into a hand-drawn sketch, which you can then pull and stretch just like the polygonal face on N64. There’s another option that lets you draw a face yourself and then play with it in the same way. This feature can also be used for Yoshi’s face, and probably for Luigi and Wario too, though they weren’t available in this version of the game.
Starting the adventure mode, you find that things haven’t changed at all from the original version, at least in the setup. Peach still invites you to the castle. Lakitu still flies in with his camera. Bowser still laughs when you open the castle door. In fact, if you are playing as Mario, the game is apparently an exact port. But inevitably, you will end up transforming into the other three characters, either because some goals require their unique abilities, or certain tasks just become easier. Yoshi can just eat a runaway bunny rather than dive and catch him, for instance. The bosses require much different strategies depending on the character you have. When playing as Yoshi, King Bob-omb throws bombs, and you have to eat them with your tongue and spit them back out at the huge boss. You switch characters by entering special doors near Peach’s Secret Slide, and there’s another door there which leads to Toad’s mini-game shop. But what if you’re on Cool Cool Mountain and need to take the baby penguin down to his mother, but he won’t let Yoshi carry him in his mouth? The game will tell you to look down at the map, where you’ll see a Mario cap somewhere in the level. Defeat the enemy guarding it, and Yoshi will immediately morph into Mario and be able to play out the rest of the level as him. This system seems to be designed to prevent too much backtracking to the character-switching rooms. At the same time, it adds a new challenge, because you will lose the hats if you get hit, and it’s easy to imagine that sometimes even finding the hats will be its own puzzle.
Control was a big question with this game back at E3. Without an analog joystick, how can Mario 64 feel natural? The short answer is: it can’t. However, Nintendo has put forth an honest effort to give a couple of alternatives. The default mode is to control the characters with the D-pad and holding B to run. Though simple, this setup is clunky and probably will not work well once the platforming becomes more demanding. The weirder but more effective way is to use the touch screen like a joystick. Every Nintendo DS system ships with a wrist strap, which also has a little plastic nub that can be placed over your thumb. The nub has less friction than your skin and works surprisingly well. However, I felt that the analog sensitivity on the touch screen was too low, and it seemed like I had to push my thumb way out to the edge of the screen to make Mario run at full speed. I’m also worried about what to do if I lose the strap, because this control mode does not work well at all with just the tip of your thumb or finger. You could use the stylus, but most people don’t hold the stylus and use the primary joystick with the same hand. The touch control method will probably feel more natural with practice, but it can’t get around the fact that a touch screen is not the same thing as an analog joystick, and this is a game that literally defined how joysticks are used for control in a 3D environment. Playing Super Mario 64 without a joystick is like playing Donkey Konga without the drums. It works, but it’s awkward and not as much fun.
The bank of mini-games is not as superfluous as you might expect. There are several dozen mini-games to unlock, and from the selection I was able to play, it looks like they will be great little time-wasters for when you want to take a break from the main game. Most of the mini-games use only the touch screen, yet are more complex than Mario Party mini-games. Each one has multiple difficulty levels, and sometimes the harder levels play much differently from the early ones. A good example is the “Where’s Waldo”-type game, which tells you to find one character’s face out of a pile of other faces by touching the correct one with the stylus. It’s absurdly easy at first, but after the first few levels, you’ll be looking at hundreds of faces layered on top of each other. The tell-tale mustache or hat you’re looking for may be only barely visible. Some levels have rows of faces scrolling across the screen, so you have to find and click on a moving target. This game kept me occupied for several minutes, and it’s just one of many games to be unlocked.
I didn’t get a chance to play multiplayer this time, but NOA’s presenters did show it off for a few minutes. It looks identical to the E3 demo (which was multiplayer-only), but with more levels to choose from. Also, you can now find caps and transform into other characters within a multiplayer level, which may have some strategic purpose. The goal of multiplayer is still to find stars scattered around the level, and you can also steal stars from other players by attacking them. It should be plenty of fun and accessible for anyone, especially since you only need one game card for a four-player game.
Super Mario 64 DS has a lot going for it, even if you ignore that it’s a handheld version of a classic that has never been re-released. The control situation worries me, but hopefully the thumb-nub method feels better after a few hours of playtime. The graphics have also taken a hit, due to the DS’s inferior texturing abilities. Still, there’s a lot to love in this gigantic game. We’ll have a full review soon!