As the flagship franchise and the face of the company, Nintendo is familiar with doing compilations and homages to our plumber friend’s history — we received a Wii port of the SNES Super Mario All-Stars for the 25th anniversary and Super Mario Maker for the 30th anniversary. It’s a fairly-well documented series. There are dozens of interviews with Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, a couple of books, and even an official Super Mario encyclopedia.
And yet I still find Nintendo’s documentation of Mario’s history rather disappointing.
Let’s start with Super Mario 3D All-Stars. I find it hard to give an actual review of the collection, which is why I went the analysis route instead. It’s a compilation of 3 classic Mario games, all superb in their own way. You can see in a nutshell how Nintendo pioneered and refined 3D movement, finding a harmony between analog character control, camera movement, and game environment. This collection is more or less the textbook on 3D game design. And yet it only feels like it was “good enough.”
Graphically, 3D All-Stars sports a resolution upscale with some well-placed texture / UI retouches, remaining faithful to the original art direction. They all look beautiful, even if Super Mario 64 is oddly not widescreen. Control-wise, all of these games have a strange quirk or two that felt jarring at first. Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy were designed in tandem with the N64, GameCube, and Wii controllers, so I expected some translation hiccups when playing on the Switch. What I don’t understand is why Nintendo didn’t offer some control options to make that transition easier. For example, F.L.U.D.D.’s aiming in Sunshine is un-inverted from the original, and the aiming is mapped to different triggers now. For a GameCube snob like myself, I was hoping for GameCube controller support so I could use the analog triggers and play it how I would on Dolphin Emulator. No such luck. In the end you can get used to them, but options would just make a smoother experience for everybody.
Considering all of that, this collection is still the best official way to play these games, and they can all be played portably. I got a physical copy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, and for a moment I hesitated opening it because of the value a sealed copy would have in the future, but then I realized that I would never part with this collection, so I just opened it anyway. I love having this. I love that Sunshine is finally getting some recognition; in fact, 3D All-Stars made me love it even more than I already did. I love indulging in this nostalgia trip. Playing the collection was like going down my three favorite roller coaster rides, and I just wanted to go back and ride them all again.
And yet… there’s a missed opportunity here. The anniversary release was the perfect moment for Nintendo to give some more historical context on these games and explain why they were so important. Miyamoto and the other Nintendo devs always talk about the NES Mario games, but rarely the others. My personal dream was to have an optional game mode where you can play through Super Mario 64 while Miyamoto gives a voice over (dubbed of course), discussing a certain level as you’re playing it. I played Portal and Portal 2 that way and I absolutely loved it. It set a new standard for historical preservation — it turns the game itself into its own documentary. It would give all veterans an extra reason to play this version of these games. But the most we ever get referring to the games’ history is the title select screen and the charming artwork on the loading screens.
And no, I haven’t forgiven Nintendo for skipping Super Mario Galaxy 2, either.
As far as extras go, there’s a soundtrack player, and… that’s it. No concept art gallery, no digital manuals, not even any menu options. Even the Wii release of Super Mario All-Stars, lazy as that port was, came with an art book in addition to the game.
I said it a while ago, but Nintendo as a company can be so frustrating to deal with, especially when it comes to accessibility and legacy content. It’s times like these that Nintendo reminds me they’re not my friend.
I know it’s not entirely fair to judge a game based on what it’s not, but I still feel like 3D All-Stars is missing those finishing touches. It’s a birthday cake with no frosting or candles, just funfetti sponge. I like funfetti, but doesn’t Mario deserve more than that? All these mixed feelings regarding the collection is a microcosm of how I feel about this anniversary as a whole. I have high expectations for Nintendo, and I don’t think they’re unrealistic ones, either. I’m not mad or stomping my feet demanding more, I’m just… disappointed.
Now the anniversary celebration is not over yet, and feeling disappointed doesn’t mean that I dislike everything that Nintendo has done for it. For example, I think Super Mario 35 is a bizarre yet fun online experiment (though it’s sad we can only play it for a limited time). And I’m elated to have almost every mainline Mario game on one official Nintendo system. It’s cool to have a special edition Game & Watch out there as well. But celebrating Mario with just… products… feels a bit hollow. If we aren’t getting commentary about the games’ development in 3D All-Stars, we should at least get it in some other form.
As I stated earlier this year, Shigeru Miyamoto is approaching retirement age. He and his colleagues aren’t going to be around forever. It’s time for Nintendo to compile a more definitive history that discusses not just the games, but the story of their development as well.
Now, I can sort of piece together the history of Super Mario Bros. from all of the interviews, papers, and books on the subject, but it’s not quite the same. The most “comprehensive” Mario history we have is the Super Mario Encyclopedia. On one hand it does a good job at describing the games themselves and showing the artwork, but again, what we really need are more interviews, like the one with Takashi Tezuka found at the beginning of that book, where he briefly discussed the development process.
I understand that Nintendo likes to keep sensitive things like how they develop games close to their chest, but if these developers are able to do one-off interviews, especially about games as old as the original Super Mario Bros., then Nintendo (or someone they hire) should be able to put together something for these 3D games as well. It doesn’t have to be academically thorough like Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, but it should still be a comprehensive, polished work.
This sort of history would take time to develop, though, and I would understand that this might not be possible given our current pandemic situation. It’s okay to criticize and be disappointed, but I think many fans out there are taking things a bit too far. It’s apparent that Nintendo had other plans for Mario this year – after all, Super Nintendo World was going to have its debut in Universal Studios Japan, and Nintendo was going to feature Mario for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which also fell through. Who knows what else they had planned that COVID-19 interfered with. Nintendo has been known for being a bit behind the times, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that the virus blindsided them and shut them down for a while. Criticism shouldn’t used to berate a company, but to call the company to action. None of us want these sorts of things to set them back that seriously again.
Video games are finally starting to be respected as an art form, at least in many circles. It’s time we not only preserve the most important games in an accessible manner, but also start telling the stories of these artists. If Takashi Tezuka’s interview is anything to go off of, these stories are inspiring. They come up with ideas, collaborate, overcome problems, and work incredibly hard. We need these stories for future game developers, journalists, and enthusiasts to keep and remember before it’s too late.