Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Super Mario 64 in 3D All-Stars: quick first impressions.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars was delivered this afternoon, and I removed the game card for Breath Of The Wild from my Switch for the first time since I started playing over eighteen months ago. (Another story, of course.)

Nearing the release of Super Mario 64 in 1996, I had printouts of development screenshots on my bedroom wall, and spent long periods waiting for short clips – seconds of silent gameplay crushed to near-indiscernibility by video compression – to download through our family's first dial-up modem.

Then, my family moved from my lifelong rural home to a new town in a new country, days before the start of my high school years. That clean chasm separating geographic and academic phases of my childhood aligned precisely with the transition from Nintendo's two-dimensional achievements to its outset into the three-dimensional worlds of the Nintendo 64. No e-mail for a while hence, and phone calls back to friends were permitted but costly. And so, in a bare townhouse apartment with my family, I would come home from school, complete homework, and return to Super Mario 64.

I had exhausted its star supply in a few weeks, but I would continue to play for months, largely to revisit and relax in my favourite locations. I appeared as a runner-up in a Nintendo Power contest for imagining a futuristic game system – a headset that would use lasers to infer the shape of your surroundings to superimpose graphics on them, now termed augmented reality – but was also listed that month for a competitive time on The Princess's Secret Slide.

Today, I fetched the first few stars in this new version of Super Mario 64. By now I had accepted there was no secret remake of Super Mario 64 in the wings, but even during that short session, I found it a fundamentally different experience in several ways.

Foremost, graphically. High definition, as a standard, was revelatory for film and games. The main hurdle for games to render in high definition is processing power, and here Nintendo famously remained conservative in the face of its competition. (Years later, as Kaz Hirai announced the graphically-charged PlayStation 3 would sell for "599 US dollars," Miyamoto and Iwata seemed to feel the Wii's 480p resolution was acceptable if the soul and spirit of "fun for everyone" remained intact. The Wii was priced at 250 USD, and a story broke later that Miyamoto had wanted it to cost a mere hundred.)

Super Mario 64's high-definition status today is debatable: for technical reasons, its aspect ratio remains short of 16:9, and its height doesn't extend to the display's vertical extremes either. But to compare with prior versions? The Wii's Virtual Console provided the game in the aforementioned standard definition, which was an upgrade from the original's now-almost-unthinkable 240p.

Even so, that original resolution was significant to me. This constraint affected the entire system, and thus, the game's entire universe, like a law of physics. The primary font for dialogue, which was upgraded for the new version by hand, was originally a bitmap font in the true sense: the style of the text's curves and endpoints was an artistic negotiation between the lightheartedness of the designer and the rigidness of pixellation, and the result was achieved by harmonizing the two. It was the same balancing force that gave pixel art its charm, here as though exerting a final breath of influence before disappearing into the much less pixellated future.

HD, on the other hand, allows for detail. It gives you what magnifying glasses or binoculars give you in real life: the ability to shift your focus from the action's intended subject to the crow hopping across the far street; a sense of autonomy within a prescribed vista. Where Mario had once shrunk into the distance to the height of a few pixels, he now shrinks to still an appreciable rendering of himself, and the wide area around him remains equally explorable by the eye.

That shrinking into the distance is afforded by a feature seldom seen in games since Super Mario 64: the ability to configure the "R" button to hold the camera in place rather than following Mario around. The alternative was to use "R" to follow Mario closely, almost over his shoulder, but I almost never touched that. On the contrary, I loved this camera-holding option and used it frequently. In a word used more commonly, it was cinematic, appealing to the part of me that might imagine flying vehicles zooming through a backyard ditch as though it were a massive trench, the lightness in the stomach conjured by an impossibly smooth ride down a zip line, or a meadow as seen from a tall building. You could lock the camera before dropping from a high platform to ground level, setting up a vast overview of the full terrain, then release it, allowing the camera to swoop all the way back in. As an option, it seemed deserved. After all, Super Mario 64's areas were areas, each to be regarded, soaked in, and appreciated for its area-ness.

Also to that end, and worth more than a passing mention: Super Mario 64 was one of his only adventures to that point without a time limit enforcing pace or expediency. Not only could you stop and smell the proverbial roses, but you could allow Mario the time to stretch, yawn, and make himself cozy on the floor to nap.

Yet another fundamental difference revealed by this version's detail: Mario's model, when sufficiently far from the camera, is swapped for a considerably less detailed secondary model: the shape of his head is more primitive, and his moustache and eyes are somewhat more tucked together – until he stops walking, at which point he's replaced by his familiar model for the animation of his idle state. I had read this swapping-out of models was a clever accommodation provided by the Nintendo 64 to safeguard performance, and I had seen it games like Pilotwings 64, where a faraway building might snap from a simple to a more complex shape when approached by plane. While I had known the polygonally-rich Mario benefitted from this trick, the low resolution of the original obscured it well, and I never noticed it. In the new version, it's plain as day. I suppose this could be seen as illusion-breaking, but to me it feels like another clearer window into the nature of the game's universe.

Finally, the new version includes rumble support, originally absent until the arrival of the "Rumble Pak" with Star Fox 64; an accessory that plugged into the controller, significantly weighing it down. The Joy-Con's ability to vibrate was deemed "HD rumble," describing smaller motors with nimbler attacks and releases, producing sensations I would describe as "finer" than the bulkier originals. Apparently rumble support was added to the original game in what's known as the "Shindou" version, which brought tweaks to Mario's voice samples and curbed the ability to chain backwards long jumps used to dexterously bypass the endless staircase.

What delighted me, though, was the experience of picking up a Bob-omb. Naturally I expected it to remain intact for a few seconds before detonating. What I didn't expect was to feel it ticking. It was a dimension of the experience I'd never known: an insistent, fairly rapid tapping against both palms at once.

Again, I'm only a few stars in. I thought this might have turned out more of a rare posterity purchase, but all that from one short session? Two decades since that first journey, I may be called to reclaim every star. And that's without even touching Super Mario Sunshine – one of the few Mario games whose completionist badge I never neared – and Super Mario Galaxy, which to my mind remains the clearest expression of Mario's soul. I expect more surprises.