The future is now...again.
For a simple-minded plumber, Mario always seems to be at the forefront of gaming revolutions. He was the hero of breakout coin-op smash Donkey Kong, he was the main reason people bought into the NES, and he was the first mascot to get a driver's license. His greatest moment, however, might have been when this trailblazing proponent of polygons ditched his spritely duds and went geometric in the revolutionary Super Mario 64.
So it comes as little surprise that Nintendo would like everyone to remember this essential shard of gaming history when they're powering on its immediate future. The Nintendo DS has arrived, and every red-blooded Nintendo fanboy knows that a Mario game is bound to be lurking around here somewhere.
Welcome to Super Mario 64 DS, a game you have played before, a game you have never played, and a game you may or may not want to play now.
I'll explain. Super Mario 64 DS is an updated version of Super Mario 64. It features the same plot and gameplay of its forbear with a few new tweaks to honor the eight year gap between systems and strange abilities of the new handheld device on which it now appears. Nintendo obviously knows that releasing a new system without a Mario game is a bad idea (*cough* Luigi's Mansion *cough* ), and while this isn't exactly a new game, it's based on one of the best.
And so once again, Princess Peach invites Mario to her castle for some cake, then promptly gets kidnapped by Bowser. This time around, though, Mario isn't anywhere in sight, because him, Luigi and Wario were locked up by Bowser as a sort of pre-emptive strike. Who's left to save the day? How about that good (for nothing) dino, Yoshi? He's no longer at the top of the castle waiting to be discovered as a secret character, instead being the first playable character in Super Mario 64 DS.
He might not know how to fix a sink, but Yoshi does a pretty good Mario imitation as he roams around the castle, hopping into paintings in order to track down the game's 30 stars. For the most part, this is handled just like it was on the N64, though Yoshi can suck up enemies and has a floatier jump than the mustached wonder.
Soon enough, you'll find Mario and the others, at which point you can freely switch between them. This new dynamic adds some spice to the game. Many stars can be acquired by any of the four characters, but some can only be accessed by using character-specific abilities. You might need to use Luigi's increased jump to reach a high ledge or Wario's super strength to break a barrier blocking off another area. The differentiation between the four isn't particularly huge, but it can be fun exploring the various levels as different characters.
The other really big change is found in the game's control. The standard control scheme simply replaces the analog stick of the N64 with the DS D-Pad and uses the triggers to handle the camera, which is just as hard to deal with as it was eight years ago. A lot has changed with third-person platforming since this game first broke down barriers, but I guarantee you will fall to your doom more than a few times due to the stubborn, dated camera.
In an effort to take advantage of the DS, there are two other control schemes available. Both let you use the touch screen as a makeshift analog stick, which theoretically makes for more precise movement. In reality, it's hard to get used to and seems to have been included as more of a nod to the gimmicky nature of the touch screen rather than a well-conceived, new way to play. A better use of the bottom screen is as a map, which comes in handy when trying to find stars.
You'll need the help, too, because despite its age, this is still a large, tough game. It's a cakewalk for the first few stars, but the later levels are very tricky and will test your platforming mettle. It takes a steady hand and a great memory to breeze through Super Mario 64 DS.
If you get stuck, the game serves up some extra content in the form of "Rec Room' mini-games, which are surprisingly cool. Only a few are available at first, but you can access more as you play through the adventure by capturing rabbits, totaling about 30 games in all. These make great use of the touch pad and include everything from simple games of memory to a groovy little game in which you shoot a giant slingshot at parachuting bob-ombs. They definitely extend the game and offer a nice respite from the occasionally frustrating camera and star searching of the main game.
But that's not all " there's a multiplayer game here as well. It's playable wirelessly by up to four DS owners using only one game cartridge, which is cool, but the game itself is pretty lame. Running around simply whacking one another for stars isn't very refreshing considering this is brand new tech.
To its credit, that tech is sweet. The game looks very much like it did on the N64, which is pretty amazing since you can now carry it in your (oversized) pocket. Some of the textures have been smoothed out and the animations seem improved, but at a glance it's a convincing port.
That includes the game's audio. The surround sound of the DS is impressive, and while the bleeps, bloops and cutesy soundtrack aren't exactly orchestral quality, they come through with sharp clarity.
It is supremely difficult reviewing a launch title for a strange new system like the DS, but in this case, you should already have a good idea what to expect. Super Mario 64 DS is a solid platformer that offers some notable alterations to a proven game and will surely please fans. However, it's a little odd looking so far back into Nintendo's past as we invest in its future, and you can't help but feel a sense of d'j" vu while traipsing through what is essentially a port. That's not exactly riveting for a launch title. Mario might be on the cusp of another revolution, but haven't we been through this one before?