I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where to start here. It’s a cliche to make jokes about Nintendo’s oddball decisions. I already wrote about the emulation angle in an op-ed, which is getting linked in here anyway. I could talk about the bells and whistles or lack thereof, but that feels too obvious as well. Everything about Super Mario 3D All-Stars feels off somehow. The lead up to its announcement, the release strategy, the contents, the branding. Also, the excitement despite all of that consternation. The narrative path for this release forks, leading to “lazy emulation,” “bare-bones features,” or “amazing games!” Super Mario 3D All-Stars isn’t just Mario history. It’s gaming history. It’s times, places and moments. 

It’s easy to take a look at the branding here and look back at Super Mario All-Stars, released for the Super Nintendo. This package included four different Super Mario games, and each once was a full remake with new sprites, music, everything. In comparison, Super Mario 3D All-Stars feels much less celebratory. It’s just the games! Sure, they’re all running at higher resolutions (and in one case a different aspect ratio) than before, but these aren’t remakes. They aren’t even “remasters,” whatever that means in a given moment. But the contextual gulf between these two releases couldn’t be wider.

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

I hear a common sentiment from people in the business of games, on either side, stating that video games are often a difficult art form to look back on, because they’re so dependent on technology. Games are still “products” in many ways, with selling points such as “features,” “fixes,” improvements.” We look at paradigm shifts, like innovations in camera control or physics engines, as video games getting “better.” Graphics are “good,” or “bad.” But when you look at it that way, as technology gets stronger it grows in complexity, diversity. New problems arise. Sometimes those problems are solved by community efforts in ways that are better or more efficient than “official” or corporate efforts, which are driven by market forces. And compounding these differences is a massive blockade of knowledge between the production and consumer sides.

Take another look at the original Super Mario All-Stars. These were NES games, 8-bit software all from the same platform, converted to SNES games, 16-bit software all on the same platform. We can’t assume it was cheap or expensive, and there were some stylistic differences, but it was clear these remakes were sharing resources. With Super Mario 3D All-Stars, the time between each game spans generations, massive leaps in technology, entirely different structures and systems under the hood. This isn’t a movement from one platform to another, it’s three different platforms. And all three of these games were drastically different, from how they look to how they run, feel, and play.

That’s why you don’t rebuild this collection from the ground up. That’s why you leverage emulation, despite the reaction you get when the fans find out. That’s why you don’t fully remake Super Mario 64. What has been done here, is three different games, from three different technological structures, modified to run on something that didn’t exist before. During a global pandemic that has everyone working from home. This is a masterful feat, especially if dataminers claiming Super Mario Galaxy’s source code was recompiled for native Switch compatibility is true. This is a herculean effort. It just doesn’t look like one as easily as something like a Mega Man or Jak and Daxter collection.

Revisiting these games will mean something entirely different depending on who plays them. Because Super Mario games were so defined by their hardware home when these games were new, the potential demographics for Super Mario 3D All-Stars are all over the place. Each of these three adventures are somebody’s childhood, warts and all. Now they’re all together, which feels tremendous in a way video game collections often don’t. Which makes the Disney Vault-style release strategy, which at the time of this writing will see 3D All-Stars banished to the secondary market come March 2021, all the more befuddling. 

What is the purpose of such a move, and how does one even evaluate what that means for a review? It’s a force outside of the software that is almost entirely irrelevant at this moment. But in just a few months anyone who wants this will, unless Nintendo starts selling these piecemeal or in some other more permanent format, have to pay well over retail price. We often look at older game collections as a way to preserve history, yet Nintendo has found a way to subvert that for no discernable benefit to anyone. It’s tragic, frankly.

But when I play these games again, when I watch my kid play them for the first time, does it matter that purchasing it was somewhat stressful? Is that why the Disney vault worked so well, because my generation is so deeply entrenched in storytelling media that recapturing past magic is worth brief panic and unplanned purchases? I can’t answer these questions in a satisfactory way for myself, let alone anyone reading this mess. But if you do get your hands on Super Mario 3D All-Stars, now or later, this is probably the best way to experience these games on official hardware, for the low effort of spending some money. Each of these titles look amazing running on either configuration of the Switch.

At the same time, all that hardware and systems transitioning I mentioned earlier does come into play in a bad way. You aren’t experiencing these titles as they were designed, and that does impact the potential of the experiences here. It’s somewhat less of an issue for Super Mario 64, but for Galaxy and Sunshine the controller uncanny valley is more discernable. Mario Sunshine made diegetic use of the GameCube’s pressure-sensitive triggers, which Nintendo tried and arguably failed to replicate here. Super Mario Galaxy was paired with the Nintendo Wii remote controller, and while the adaptation is more functional it’s still almost like Galaxy is speaking a different language than the original. 

This isn’t like figuring out if you hate scanlines or bilinear filtering on a retro re-release; it’s the actual form of play that has changed. These are inevitable compromises, and the solutions are never going to be perfect. Digital Eclipse’s SNK 40 Anniversary Collection innovated when adapting Ikari Warriors’ strange control scheme, and while it’s dumbfoundingly impressive it’s still not an accurate historical document. It’s a similar principle here - unavoidable, even necessary, but noticeably ahistorical all the same.

For me, Super Mario Galaxy was one of the last times I felt truly enraptured by the majestic unreality of a video game. It was one of the last times I approached a major game release without a critical eye, which I’m far beyond being able to turn off at this point. I’m loving the chance to revisit it here at this point in my life, without the burden of setting up older hardware or fiddling with emulation. And it’s portable! I love portable games, especially in 2020 when they’re console-tier experiences anyway. I don’t really need to replay Mario 64 for the umpteenth time, and I’m pretty Sunshine-agnostic. But this just proves my earlier sentiment.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is video games in 2020. It’s messy but deceptively ambitious. It’s confused about what it is, but there aren’t any good answers anyway. It was built in alien surroundings during a global disaster. The corporate machinations around it don’t make any practical sense. Nobody truly knows how it was made, but is an expert on how it was made. And yet if you’re the right person playing it at the right time, it’s magical. Now I have to score this. Mamma mia.


 Pros: 

  • Fascinating delivery of some of the most important games in Nintendo’s history, crossing the most distinct generational gaps in video game history.
  • All of these games hold up, even if you don’t think they do. Just stop expecting too much of Mario 64, dang it!

Cons:

  • The way it’s released is several degrees of baffling, which can cause existential dread with the right combination of outside factors.
  • No frills, historical content, behind the scenes material (presumably Dark Horse stole it all), weird menu UI. ESRB logo on cart sticker displaces logo.
  • Where’s Mario Galaxy 2?

Score: 8.5/10

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review