Is Nintendo’s only DS launch title a super remake or just a quick cash-in?
I won’t bore you with a recap of Super Mario 64’s influence on the gaming world. If you’ve never played this classic -- one of the most important games ever created -- go out and buy either the N64 original or the new DS remake immediately. That’s an order.
Everyone else should be reading this review to find out how Super Mario 64 DS serves as a flagship launch title for Nintendo’s fledgling handheld, or whether it adds anything of worth to the original game. That’s a “yes” on both accounts, although I can’t say it as emphatically as I would like to. SM64DS is a huge, meaty game that could easily serve as your only DS game for several weeks and still hold up to further playing through the years. The game also sets a standard for how the touch screen can be used instead of an analog joystick, although the standard could be higher. And yes, the new content is substantial and mostly interesting, if rather peripheral.
By far, the biggest difference between the original and SM64DS lies in how the games are controlled. The original game pioneered 3D character control with the N64’s analog joystick. It was a precision instrument, and the game took advantage of the player’s deeper level of control with demanding jumps and the famous battles with Bowser, which required you to rotate the joystick to swing the King Koopa by his tail. On the Nintendo DS, there are three control schemes to choose from. One uses the D-pad for movement and shoulder and face buttons for actions, with the touch screen only handling camera control and fine-tuned character movements. The other two use the touch screen for primary character movement and have two different button assignment schemes. The most versatile option is Dual Touch Mode, which sets up identical function layouts for each side of the system and can thus be used by either right- or left-handed people and with either the stylus or thumb pad. All of these schemes have problems and are adapted to some gameplay situations better than others. Controlling Mario with the D-pad is clunky and feels positively wrong for this veteran of the N64 controller. The touch screen modes are more natural and turn out to be surprisingly functional with an hour or two of practice. By dragging the stylus or thumb pad from the center of the screen out to the edges, you simulate the act of pulling a joystick away from its neutral point. Simply tapping the screen has no effect, which protects you from accidental touches. Unfortunately, the sensitivity of the touch controls is too low and can’t be customized. This means that you have to drag the stylus out to the very edge of the screen, right up against the plastic frame, and hold it there for long periods of time to make the characters run at full speed. If you started the drag too far off-center on the screen, the character will not be able to reach his full sprint. The distinction is hard to nail without looking at the touch screen as you start to run or when you change directions, which makes the races with Koopa the Quick and other sections of the game harder than they should be. It’s also difficult to run in a smooth circle, since the touch screen is rectangular, and this flaw can cause problems with the many spinning enemies and when grabbing Bowser’s tail. Still, the touch modes are quite functional and feel better the more you play. When I finally confronted Bowser’s final form, I was cursing his powerful attacks and the bomb placements, not the controls.
SM64DS is fundamentally a port of the original game, but there are a number of additions, minor alterations, and structural changes that make it seem closer to a full remake. The main new feature is being able to control four distinct characters, just like in Super Mario Bros. 2. You start the game as Yoshi, who can “flutter jump” and eats enemies and items with his tongue instead of attacking with punches or kicks. Yoshi is probably the easiest character to control and is the most versatile, since he can start each level with a cap to (temporarily) take on the form of one of the other characters, once you have that character unlocked. Mario can wall jump and is the only character that can use the wing cap to fly. Luigi is the lightest character. He jumps the highest and can run on top of water for a few seconds, and his back-flip starts a spin jump that hurts enemies and can propel him over long distances. Wario is definitely slower than the other characters, but he is strong and heavy, which means he can break blocks that no one else can. An expanded wing of the castle contains doors that let you switch characters, and most levels have caps that let you briefly transform into another character to complete specialized tasks. The caps are a clever way to keep you from constantly running back and forth to the character-switching room; instead, you can stick with the character you like the best and just transform when necessary. The switch box caps from the original game have been spread out among the four characters, and Yoshi and Mario have new abilities, so the characters are sufficiently distinct to give this whole feature some gameplay value. The other new power-up is an old-school red/white mushroom that makes your character grow to huge proportions. It’s hilarious to watch and play as a gigantic Luigi tramples enemies and obstacles like ants, and you can knock over a series of items to start earning 1-ups, just like with chained stomps in the old games.
There are no full new levels in SM64DS, but there are a few new small areas where you can earn secret stars and keys to unlock the other characters. Each of these areas even has its own new boss. Additionally, at least one new star has been added to every original stage, and some of the old stars have been modified or replaced with new challenges. Many of the new objectives tie into the multi-character system as described above. Sometimes the stage layout itself has been altered to accommodate new stars. Oh, and you remember those annoying rabbit chases, right? Now there are dozens of rabbits to catch, each one giving up a key that unlocks one of the touch screen mini-games. These mini-games are completely unrelated to the main adventure and are accessed directly from the game menu. Some of them are pretty boring, but many are amusing for at least a few minutes, and some are addictive and deep enough to seize you for hours. You probably wouldn’t want to buy SM64DS just for the mini-games, but they sure are a great bonus feature and a nice break from the occasionally frustrating adventure. The same goes for multiplayer, which is a simple scavenger hunt but can be played with only one game card.
SM64DS may not be the pinnacle of DS graphics programming, but it manages to improve upon the original version in many ways. The characters are more detailed, for instance. The color scheme is not quite as bright, as flat-shaded polygons have been given texture maps; the change is a positive one for the most part, and the game is still quite colorful. The frame rate is smooth and reliable, proving that the system can handle an engine this advanced (and hopefully much more) with no problem. The only step backwards is the lack of texture filtering in the DS hardware, which causes large surfaces (mainly walls and hills) to look pixelated. The difference is conspicuous if you are highly familiar with the original game, but it becomes less noticeable over time. The soundtrack is still full of classic songs, most of them introduced in Super Mario 64 for the first time. They are packed with stereo separation effects, which are showcased by the DS’s built-in stereo speakers. You’ll want to play with headphones for the best sound, though, because the music can sound a bit mushy through the speakers. A few sound effects have been changed from the original, and new voice work has been recorded the characters. Leslie Swan has a few lines of re-recorded speech as Princess Peach, while Charles Martinet’s work consists of grunts and exclamations by the playable characters.
Taken as DS launch title, Super Mario 64 DS doesn’t quite fit. It makes rather poor use of the dual screen displays (the map feature is largely useless), the touch screen control isn’t exactly perfect, and it runs the risk of establishing a long trend of N64 ports that might crowd out original games on the system. Yet, on its own merits, SM64DS is an exciting, revamped version of a monumental game. It is still immensely fun and challenging after all these years, and all the new features will keep even veterans of the original on their toes. This is a finer 3D platform action game than you will find on any of the current consoles, much less any handheld system. Add to this mountain of quality a host of mini-games and single-card multiplayer, and it’s hard to imagine why any DS owner would want to miss out on reliving Super Mario 64 or playing it for the first time.