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a person holding a Nintendo 3DS showing the Super Mario 64 DS start screen Photo: Ana Diaz for Polygon

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A great Super Mario 64 port already exists, on the Nintendo DS

The DS version improved on the original in key areas

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

I love it when Mario tells me “goodbye.”

I almost had forgotten this small detail. I remembered it upon revisiting Super Mario 64 DS on my Nintendo 3DS after hearing about the announcement of the return of Super Mario 64 in Super Mario 3D All-Stars.

Nintendo announced Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Sept. 3, unveiling it as a collection of three beloved 3D Mario games — Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy — repackaged for the Nintendo Switch, all in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the plumber’s original game.

This will be the first re-releases of Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy since their original debuts in 2002 and 2007, respectively. However, Super Mario 64 is no stranger to re-releases. The game came to the Virtual Console on the Wii and Wii U. But before either of those ports, there was another version of the game: Super Mario 64 DS.

Not only was it a standout launch title on the original Nintendo DS, but Super Mario 64 DS also showed how to make a re-release special.

Mario 64 DS wasn’t just a carbon copy of the Nintendo 64 game. It added a plethora of new content. This included a whopping 30 new stars, entirely new areas, and secret stars. It brought in Yoshi, Luigi, and Wario as playable characters. It also boasted a catalog of 36 touchscreen-based minigames. Those are just some of the highlights.

I’m not here to say that more content is inherently better. What made this port work was that the new content enhanced and improved on the experience of the original game.

For example, being able to play as Yoshi fixed a problem in Super Mario 64: Mario’s limited jump. Yoshi’s long and high jump made certain areas infinitely more playable. Yoshi transformed clunky platforming on Tall Tall Mountain into a significantly smoother and less frustrating experience.

Another way in which Super Mario 64 DS distinguished itself as a port was that it wasn’t just designed to be playable on the DS. It was made for the DS, and it showcased the handheld’s new features. The DS did have its flaws; I don’t think anyone in the history of humankind would willingly use its clunky thumbpad. However, Super Mario 64 DS still made touch controls useful at points. For example, the stylus allowed me to navigate narrow and more intricate paths.

a person using a stylus to play Super Mario 64 DS on a Nintendo 3DS Photo: Ana Diaz for Polygon

Also, those touchscreen minigames? They were really fun and weird. There was one where you’d just play as Yoshi and pick petals off a flower, while the screen alternated between “loves me” and “loves me not.” Like, what? Also, you could play some of the minigames with other people via Download Play. That meant that even if a friend didn’t have Super Mario 64 DS, you could still enjoy some fun Mario Party-esque shenanigans together.

The game was also not afraid to take risks. It even went as far as to change up the story slightly. Super Mario 64 DS veered away from the damsel trope in the original game by starting the player off as Yoshi, who gets tasked by Lakitu with saving Mario first. The player’s first mission was to try to save Mario, not Peach.

That’s not to say that the changes are the only highlight of Super Mario 64 DS. Porting a game is also an act of preservation. A good Mario 64 port shouldn’t take away the best parts of the original game or switch things up too much. There was never a point with Super Mario 64 DS when I felt, Oh, this is not Super Mario 64; this is too different or experimental.

The port did introduce new gameplay, but more importantly, it preserved and built upon the aspects of the original N64 version that worked well. Remember how it felt to stumble into a twisting slide behind a stained glass window for the first time? Well, this re-release remembered that, and it added more secret spots to discover.

And of course, Super Mario 64 DS displayed one of my favorite things about Nintendo games: the love and the attention to detail.

When you boot up the game, a big face of Mario pops up. If you touch Mario’s face with your DS stylus, he will react. Then there’s my earlier example of Mario saying “goodbye” to you when you close the DS. Little details like these make the game memorable, and are representative of a Nintendo game at its best.

I still see Super Mario 64 DS as a standout example of how to port a game well. Obviously, not every design team working on a port will end up redeveloping so many aspects of the game like this one did, but I appreciated the effort that went into it.

Even though it looks like the new Super Mario 3D All-Stars will lean toward direct ports, I still can’t help but hope Nintendo keeps a few surprises tucked up its sleeves.