Bringing three of the greatest 3D platform games of all time to a modern system in a sharp but no-frills package, Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a must-have compilation on Switch.
Mario defined the rules for the era of 3D movement in games, just as he defined the rules for the previous era of 2D sidescrollers, and it's a joy to revisit these early exploratory adventures in HD. If you're approaching them for the first time you might find them eccentric by today's standards, but the charm, craft and imagination on display is timeless and undeniable.
For the uninitiated, 1996's Super Mario 64, 2002's Super Mario Sunshine and 2007's Super Mario Galaxy are the red-capped everyman's first 3D adventures, and they share a common design core depsite vastly different themes and specifics.
You explore a sprawling hub area and unlock portals to fantastical and colourful worlds, each one holding multiple objects of power you need to collect by satisfying a certain mission or goal. It's a structure many games would borrow, but the tight running and acrobatic control of Mario — plus the iconic characters, incredible detail and outstanding music — sets these apart.
3D All-Stars does not contain ground-up remakes, but rather optimised ports of the originals. Each was initially designed to showcase its respective system's unique capabilities, so there was a danger they could have been made awkward in the move to Switch, but in general they're elegant adaptations. It would be easy to ask for more — a proper camera system for 64, refining of some rough edges in Sunshine, the inclusion of Super Mario Galaxy 2 — but as it stands these are the best officially available versions of three incredible games.
Mario 64 is showing its age with angular graphics and quaint over-explanations of basic video game principles, but even so it's striking how much Nintendo got right on its first try. This was the first game that made running around in 3D feel good, and in many ways it's still vital and exciting.
Peach's castle and the 15 varied worlds are filled with secrets and rewards in every nook, while missions like reuniting a mother penguin with her baby or coaxing a giant eel from a shipwreck are permanently burned into many a 30-something's memory. Some objectives now seem esoteric, but from hunting red coins down snowy slopes in Cool Cool Mountain to grabbing Bowser by the tail and whipping him into explosive mines, this hunt for 120 stars is completely worthwhile in 2020.
This version has seen some welcome tweaks beyond the resolution lift to 720p (with black bars; it's not widescreen), including a few fun extras originally available only in the Japan-exclusive "Shindou" re-release, like full controller vibration support. All the text, as well as certain 2D elements and textures, have been cleaned up to match the sharp look of the 3D graphics, and it makes the game so much nicer to play than any other official version.
Mario Sunshine, in which a vacationing Mario is joined by a sentient water nozzle and jailed for vandalism, is a delightfully weird game with a beachside vibe.
Following Mario 64 was never going to be easy, and Nintendo opted for something different by concocting all new character and enemy designs — many of which were scarcely seen again — and leaning into a bizarre narrative, creating what seemed like an evolutionary dead end for the series until 2018's Super Mario Odyssey.
Weird though it may be, Sunshine is no black sheep. The fundamentals of 64 are expanded and augmented by FLUDD; a water pump backpack that lets you hover briefly or shoot ahead of you to interact with puzzles and bad guys. It's a more intricate and difficult game, sometimes to a fault, but Isle Delfino and its inhabitants are hilariously goofy while the nine oceanic worlds are expansive and magical.
The tropical setting and ubiquitous liquid effects are stunning in Full HD and widescreen, while reflections have seen a notable uptick in quality. Some results of the game's famously hurried development are still clear — like a few wonky or unfair objectives — but others including a spotty frame rate and tight field of view have been eliminated.
Finally, Mario Galaxy is a direct about-face from Sunshine; streamlined for surprising and rapid-fire objectives across more than 40 out-there galaxies, it makes the previous games look slow and repetitive by comparison.
The focus on ground-based attacks and the constant playing with gravity brings a new dimension to the movement here, and each time you blast off from one planetoid to the next you seriously don't know what to expect. I particularly love how familiar enemies and power-ups from the entire history of the Mario series show up alongside wholly original concepts.
Galaxy was always a gorgeous game, but it shines in Full HD. Liberated from Wii's indistinct video, the visual art and design finally match the wonderful orchestral score for beauty and clarity. And while Nintendo had to make some control tweaks to the other games, it really had its work cut out for it adapting Galaxy, where the Wii remote's pointer and motion functions were both used constantly.
Using a Joy-Con in each hand most closely replicates the original controls, but the game plays remarkably well with a Pro Controller too. The two-player "co-star" mode is intact if you'd like to invite a helper to play, and if you don't have spare controllers using a single Joy-Con sideways works in a pinch. If you're in handheld mode the pointer has been mapped to the touchscreen. Thankfully, all methods make flicking your wrist to spin purely optional; you can just press a button.
It's worth noting that, unlike some retro collections, 3D All-Stars doesn't really offer anything beyond cleaned-up versions of the games and a trio of original soundtracks you can listen to on your Switch. It's also worth noting that Nintendo claims it will stop selling this collection at the end of March 2021, but it's hard to imagine these versions of the games won't be sold separately somewhere after that.
Logistical mysteries aside, this compilation is a lovely way to discover or re-experience three related but quite distinct pieces of Nintendo and video game history. It's not an exhaustive celebration of Mario's 3D adventures, but it's nonetheless an extremely enjoyable one.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars is out Friday September 18 on Switch.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.