Super Mario 3D All Stars and the Power of Nostalgia

Why nostalgia is the crucial ingredient in fully enjoying Super Mario 3D All Stars

Who can remember shopping in a Virgin Megastore? More specifically who can remember those little airplane-style screens they had, with massive padded headphones on a chain that you could use to try out a game? I do, and it was there in 1997, age 13, that I first saw Super Mario 64 in action.

Back then, there were no videos of games available anywhere – we got our previews of games from our beloved gaming magazines; pouring over the latest screenshots before we’d even left the newsagents. To only read about the experience of Super Mario 64 and see screenshots of it, none of that prepared you for seeing it in action for the first time.

After the NES and SNES, even seeing an N64 controller in real life was amazing back then; its delicate joystick sat centre-stage in the weirdly ergonomic three-pronged design. To get your hands round one and make those first tentative movements as Mario in 3D was a long-jumping leap forward for players. We were able to see games in a whole new dimension and I can’t imagine how we could ever get a generational leap forward like it again.

On playing Super Mario 3D All Stars, I obviously had to jump straight into Super Mario 64 first. The muscle memory felt like riding a bike – I didn’t need to think about Mario’s move set or controls, I was instantly linking triple jumps to wall jumps. Run in a circle and you can almost feel the original analogue stick under your thumb. It’s been over 20 years since I’d last played this game but apparently that didn’t stop my brain knowing full-well which fake walls hide secrets behind them. People hate the camera in this game, but for me this was the first 3D game camera I ever learnt; somehow it still feels natural for me (the trick is to not try and control it; let the game serve you up its suggested view and work with that).

Having never played Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy, I was eager to try these two out too. Who are these people with the self-discipline to play through them one at a time anyway? I want the whole to stuff the whole box of sweets into my mouth in one go damn it. Let’s load up Sunshine.

And that’s where the wheels fall off for me.

How do I do long jumps? What is this water cannon thing strapped to my back? Mario games excel at making the controller invisible in your hands – his movements are an extension of your unconscious thoughts. Sunshine’s Fludd gets in the way of that as Mario’s movements have to be combined with this mechanical interface. I keep falling off ledges in a way I never do on Super Mario 64. Why does this game feel so difficult?

Do other people feel like this, I wonder? My social media feed is full of people playing all three games and it’s fascinating to see the different takes on the games – no two seem the same. How can everyone have such different reactions to playing these games again? I realise that the critical factor in this collection is nostalgia.

If you’ve never played these games up until now, I can fully understand how 64 would seem like a broken mess; a relic of a bygone era where camera and movement were still to be fully understood. If I’d have played Sunshine previously, I’m sure its brutally unforgiving controls (as they feel to me) would feel more natural. That opening FMV cutscene would’ve felt cutting age at the time; to me it looks like a blurry failed experiment.

I don’t want to unfairly criticise Sunshine; I’m sure there’s a brilliant game there and I’ll keep persevering with it. My point is that I missed the chance to play it when it would’ve felt like a natural evolution of what came before it, before my brain had been rewired by modern gaming. I skipped the training and now my brain’s been ruined. I lack the muscle memory I can apply unconsciously to Mario 64 to overcome its similarly dated design, but it’s too late to build it with Sunshine.

Which brings us to Super Mario Galaxy. How Nintendo went from Sunshine to Galaxy in one 3D Mario game is utter remarkable to me. This one was also new to me, but it doesn’t feel like I need to make any allowances for it. It plays perfectly still to this day. The newly HD graphics look as good as any current game releasing for Switch. The fiddly camera, the awkward controls; they’ve all been perfected.

Over these three games you can see the triple jump Nintendo took to perfect their approach to 3D game design. When Mario triple-jumps, as he executes his final jump and nails the landing he lets out a self-satisfied “Ah-ha!” This is what playing Galaxy feels like to me; Nintendo know they’ve mastered their craft and so they can be free to run wild with ideas.

On the one hand I can’t believe I’ve never played this game before but on the other I’m so happy I get to experience it now, looking so good in HD, experiencing it for the first time alongside my four year old son. There’s real magic here.

Given that this package is one so built on nostalgia, much like the Switch in general, it’s a shame that Nintendo didn’t do more to make us all misty eyes and wistful over our lost childhoods. I’m happy with how the games look – they’ve all been made to look pin-sharp but remaking them with modern graphics would’ve taken away some of their charm, or made their design shortcomings all the more apparent. But I can’t help but think though of the Link’s Awakening remake. Open up the classic Game Boy steelbook and you’ll see monochrome screenshots from the original. There was real love put into that special edition. Next to that, Super Mario 3D All Stars seems bare bones. I would have loved an art gallery, or digital versions of the original manuals to read through. Where is the special edition with an N64 box style steel-book?

I can understand why lots of people have highlighted this. Personally I think it’s because we all hold a special place for one or more of these games and we want to see them celebrated. Having them available to play again is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but it would have been great to see Nintendo go all-in with the celebration.

For someone picking this game up today, I’m certain they will love Galaxy, and frankly that game alone is worth the price of admission. But 64 and Sunshine? I think people will get a different degree of enjoyment out of these two, depending on if they’ve played and enjoyed them before. Complete newcomers need to be prepared to see these two as historical curios they might not get on with. Still, everyone that loves gaming owes it to themselves to play Super Mario 64 at some point.

Now please excuse me, I promised my son we’d get the last two stars we needed to make it to the centre of the universe and we both can’t wait to see what we find when we get there.

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