Review: Super Mario 64 DS (DS)

A modern masterpiece, marred

When the GameBoy Advance launched back in 2002, it landed with a port of Super Mario Bros. 2, not exactly the most fondly-remembered of plumber outings but one that still hit the mark by fitting the platform to a tee. Come 2005, Nintendo hit on the idea of launching the DS with a revamped Super Mario 64, showing off all the machine's powers and offering newcomers the chance to experience one of the company's greatest ever games.

Super Mario 64 was nearly ten years by the time the DS launched, so Nintendo set about revamping it for the 21st Century. Adding playable characters Yoshi, Luigi and Wario opened up the levels in new ways, with each gaining a power-up similar to the various caps in the N64 original. In fact, it's the first ever Mario game where the main man himself is an unlockable character, requiring the collection of eight Stars before you can even don the plumber's cap. Now that's innovation.

Once you've gained access to the main man, it all becomes pleasingly familiar: climbing trees, wall-jumping, backflip jumps and all the classic moves come flooding back, but also present the biggest (arguably only) obstacle to Super Mario 64 DS's true greatness: the controls.

In its original form, Super Mario 64 pioneered analogue control, granting total precision over all Mario's movements in true 3D for the first time. It was a true watershed moment for the industry, introducing the new standard in game control and genuinely revolutionising how we interact with games. Arguably the DS has gone on to do the same, yet here the two clash. Simulating the analogue thumbstick with the touchscreen was a halfway house, attempting to offer the same precise control that the DS's traditional D-Pad and buttons couldn't match. The biggest drawback to this control scheme is the lack of any feedback; although an onscreen target indicates how far you're pushing the virtual stick, it could never replace the tactility of a real thumbstick. The “thumbshoe" packaged with the original DS was an attempt to encourage this style of control, but there's also a good reason it never caught on.

The stylus controls work far better elsewhere, with the introduction of brand new minigames that quickly highlighted the new console's versatility and accessibility. With tile-flipping puzzles, simplistic card games and the infuriatingly addictive Shell Smash, the minigames were every bit as playable as the game itself and a great deal more enjoyable than most DS titles released in the console's first months.

Graphically, the game was more advanced than its N64 brethren, with more detailed textures and character models bringing the game firmly up-to-date. It's easy to be blasé about the original game nearly fifteen years on, but seeing it improved is a good reminder of what a great first 3D transition this was for Mario. It's almost a shame the Virtual Console release is so faithful to the N64 original; had it included DS graphics it would be an absolutely essential purchase.

Conclusion

It's a shame to criticise such an accomplished launch title for its controls, but Super Mario 64 was designed to maximise the freedom offered by analogue control and, though versatile, the DS's touchscreen simply isn't an adequate replacement. The wealth of minigames and size of the game itself still provide plenty of value for money and as one of only two Mario platformers on the machine you'd be hard-pressed to find many quality alternatives.