The Emulation in Super Mario 3D All-Stars is Pretty Cool, Actually

Software emulation is dope!

Nintendo is releasing a sequel of sorts to Super Mario All-Stars this week. And unlike the SNES remake compilation, Super Mario 3D All-Stars has quickly become a point of controversy in the Nintendo community. And for the most part, the list of grievances is definitely warranted. From the lack of bells and whistles, to the extremely bizarre release strategy, you can justifiably raise your eyebrows. But as someone who is into things like game preservation and retro emulation, I’m not as down with the other point of controversy, the nature of the ports themselves. Companies using emulation to re-release classic games gets a lot of flak, and frankly I think it’s unwarranted, especially in this case.

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Super Mario 3D All-Stars comprises three games spanning three console generations. The list includes Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. These are games from the N64, GameCube, and Wii respectively. Leading up to 3D All-Stars coming out, many have been curious about how the team got these games all running on the Switch, especially with the aspect ratio and resolution changes to Sunshine and Galaxy. Turns out, as evidenced by folks in the datamining community, most of this stuff is powered by emulation. That has led to a lot of misleading headlines, and accusations from fans calling Super Mario 3D All-Stars lazy or half-assed.

Related: Four More Classic Games Come to Nintendo Switch Online on September 23

On some level I understand why. Emulation is a niche in the wider scheme of things, but it’s ubiquitous in spaces like these where everyone is dialed in. And for folks like us emulation is easy, it’s a thing that, if you’re interested, takes little time and effort to operate. So when word comes out that an official release uses ROM files or emulation, it’s understandable to see that association come about. But the reality of emulation is more complex than that – Nintendo didn’t simply grab ROM files and emulators from the internet, load them onto a cart, and call it a sixty-dollar day.

Galaxy in particular is really interesting. It appears they recompiled the original code to run natively on the Switch CPU, but everything else (GPU/Audio) is running in the emulator.

Interesting trick!

— OatmealDome (@OatmealDome) September 15, 2020

From the same source that broke the emulation news, we also see that a lot of work went into making these games run on the Switch. That’s especially true for Sunshine and Galaxy. Both of these games use proprietary emulators that were developed in-house by one of Nintendo’s European dev teams, and in the case of Galaxy, the game’s actual source code was recompiled for native Switch compatibility. The emulator was only used for recreating the Wii’s GPU and other platform-side guts.

Essentially, that’s what emulation actually is. Under the hood, it’s software developed to reproduce the conditions needed to run these games on different hardware. This is not a low-effort venture by any stretch of the imagination. Full ports sound nicer on paper, and I can understand why folks hoping for more than a high-res version of Mario 64 especially are disappointed. After all, the SNES All-Stars featured full remakes of the original Super Mario Bros. series. It’s a strange parallel, but sometimes with technology advancement comes bigger, stranger hurdles.

It’s easy to point to the age of a game and think it should be easy to get it running on modern hardware. But it isn’t! Emulation efforts for things like the Wii and 3DS have been multi-year projects that are still not considered finished. Even with retro platforms like the SNES or Sega Saturn, the community-driven projects are still unfinished from certain perspectives. After all, while SNES emulation appears to be solved, nobody has been able to accurately recreate the system all the way. There are still major differences between playing a real SNES versus a software version.

Nintendo has way more resources of course, compared to community-driven emulation. And that’s why the team behind Super Mario 3D All-Stars was able to create those proprietary emulators in record time, and get the code for Super Mario Galaxy running natively on the Switch. Emulation is far from lazy – just look at releases from M2 such as the Sega Ages Phantasy Star release, or Digital Eclipse’s work on the Mega Man and Street Fighter collections. Those are powered by proprietary emulation, and it’s all super impressive how these teams managed to get the games running as well as they do!

All that said, I’m definitely still scratching my head on this whole limited release window thing, and I fear Nintendo’s going to turn around and split this up into three separate purchases or something. It’s also weird how there’s very little in the way of bonus content, although the soundtracks being included is pretty cool. And it seems like there are some control issues, especially with Super Mario Sunshine. But even with those points of consternation, it’s important to think about the work that actually goes into software emulation. It isn’t as impressive to us on the other side as a full port or remake, but when you think about what the actual scope of creating a new emulator is, it’s actually kind of mind-blowing! It’s even ok to not be impressed with the end result, but let’s make sure we still give credit where credit is due, and stop calling game developers lazy. 

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About the Author

Lucas White

Lucas plays a lot of videogames. Sometimes he enjoys one. His favs include Dragon Quest, SaGa and Mystery Dungeon. You can find him on Twitter @HokutoNoLucas. Wanna send an email? Shoot it to [email protected].