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Mario gives the peace sign under a star Image: Nintendo

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Super Mario 3D All-Stars review: Not even Sunshine can ruin this collection

3D Marios, of varying quality

It’s easy to divide the Super Mario franchise into two buckets: 2D games and 3D games.

While the 2D Mario games have been progressive, often building from the one that came before, the 3D entries tend to diverge pretty wildly from one another. The 3D Marios have introduced new mechanics, while veering off in unexpected directions. Sometimes it’s for better, and sometimes for worse.

Nintendo has now collected three of the most memorable 3D Mario entries into a single package for Nintendo Switch: Super Mario 3D All-Stars includes Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. Despite every entry being a 3D Mario game, the titles are vastly different from one another.

Whether the collection is right for you really depends on how you feel about each individual game, and the Switch-specific enhancements that have been brought to them.

Super Mario 64

If you weren’t playing games when Super Mario 64 came out (maybe because you didn’t exist yet), it’s hard to describe what a revelation it was. There had been 3D games before, but none of them felt as fluid and alive as Mario 64.

The first time I dropped into the courtyard of Princess Peach’s castle, it melted my brain. I just ran around, climbing trees, sliding in the grass, and swimming through the moat, simply for the fun of it. No game before Mario 64, including the 2D Mario games, had made bouncing around the world while doing nothing this much fun.

And remarkably, even 24 years later, that’s still true. Mario 64 is a blast to just mess around in, in the same way that rolling over sand dunes in Super Mario Odyssey is endlessly satisfying. Mario may not have every single one of his newer tricks at his disposal, but some of his core staples — the long jump, the triple jump, and the backflip — were all first introduced in this game, giving the player a wide array of options to tackle the many platforming challenges ahead.

Mario jumps up a ramp, aiming for a goomba, in Super Mario 64 Image: Nintendo

But while the core gameplay has held up against the ravages of time, the visuals aren’t always so ageless. Mario 64 on Switch has been upscaled for modern devices, while still maintaining the original game’s 4:3 aspect ratio. This means that clean lines and solid blocks are sharp as diamonds. Mario may look a bit boxy, given that he’s made up of just a handful of polygons, but he never looks blurry or washed out. Any single-color objects in the world — like Mario’s overalls, or a koopa’s green skin — still look great, as single-color textures scale up perfectly to higher resolutions.

But much of Mario 64’s world consists of textures that aren’t just single colors. The grassy hillside outside of Peach’s castle and the surface of the water in Dire Dire Docks both look like they use textures that were created two and a half decades ago, for a system running at 320x240. Bring that resolution up to modern standards, and those textures look like a blurry mess. Purists should be thrilled, as updating a classic game with new textures is fraught with its own problems, but if you’re looking for a more modern twist on Mario 64, you won’t find it here.

Other enhancements that have been added over the years to Mario 64, like the different playable characters in the Nintendo DS version, are also absent. This is as close to what people played back in 1996 as you can get these days.

If you can overcome some of the dated visuals and a lack of new features, Mario 64 remains one of the greatest platforming games ever made. Far from just a museum piece, it’s a challenging thrill to play, even alongside modern platformers directly inspired by it.

Super Mario Sunshine

Nintendo took six years after the massive success of Super Mario 64 to release another 3D Mario game. What we got was one of the worst Mario games ever made: Super Mario Sunshine.

I have no doubt that there are Super Mario Sunshine defenders out there. And, to be fair, it’s not a truly terrible game. But there’s a magic to the precision that Nintendo brings to its biggest franchises, whether it’s a mainline Zelda or Mario or Metroid game. That precision, that Nintendo magic, is missing from Super Mario Sunshine.

A flower vomits ink onto the ground Image: Nintendo

Sunshine doesn’t work on a number of fronts, but the simplest explanation for its failure is that it’s clumsy. The game centers around Mario using a water-powered jetpack to solve various platforming challenges. Unfortunately, I constantly find that I’m fighting with the game to try to get it to do what I want, thanks to cumbersome controls and a weak camera system.

Platforming sequences that would take me one or two tries in any other 3D Mario game take me more than a dozen in Sunshine. Maybe it’s because the jump input didn’t register properly, or maybe it’s because the camera wasn’t behaving. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t switch my backpack to the right mode at the right time.

There’s a lot working against the core gameplay of Super Mario Sunshine, and that doesn’t even begin to address the terrible idea of fully voicing this monstrosity, a mistake that Nintendo has never made again with a Mario title.

Which is a shame because, visually speaking, Sunshine looks terrific. Going directly from Mario 64 to Sunshine in the 3D All-Stars pack is eye-opening, thanks to Sunshine’s full 1080p resolution (when the Switch is docked) and widescreen presentation. While some of the textures look a little washed out when put alongside a modern title like Odyssey, the tropical setting has aged quite well, with simple but clean environments that never strive for realism, opting instead for legibility.

But yeah, sorry, the game itself isn’t fun to play. You can try to gut it out, but it’s a miserable experience that should have been expunged from the Mario canon long ago.

Super Mario Galaxy

After that unfortunate detour, we’re back on track! Super Mario Galaxy dropped five years after Sunshine, and it’s clear that in that time, Nintendo clarified what makes a good 3D Mario game: tight controls with constantly surprising, and evolving, platforming challenges. With very little voice-over.

Super Mario Galaxy was universally praised when it debuted, thanks to its ingenious level design. There’s really no telling what a Mario Galaxy level is going to throw at you. One minute, I’m long-jumping across the surface of an asteroid trying to escape its gravitational pull, and the next, I’m side-scrolling through a classical 2D-style level, before being shot like a rocket through space to handle a huge boss fight. Galaxy is packed with unexpected moments like these, making each new batch of levels a surprising treat.

Mario and Bowser square off in Super Mario Galaxy on Nintendo Switch Image: Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Nintendo

But, despite the praise back in 2007, there was a common refrain: People wished it wasn’t so reliant on motion controls. In the original version of Galaxy, every spin attack required a waggle of the Wii Remote (among many other motion-centric features in the game). There wasn’t a great gameplay reason for it; it likely had more to do with Nintendo having recently launched a motion control-based console.

With Super Mario Galaxy’s arrival on Nintendo Switch, the most glaring motion control sin has been rectified. Yes, you can now spin-attack just by pressing a button, thank God. But there are still many remnants of that era in this version of Galaxy, usually to the detriment of the game itself.

A simple example: If you’re playing on a docked Switch, selecting menu items requires you to use a pointer, powered by the gyroscopes in your controller, to aim at them. This pointer appears throughout Super Mario Galaxy, and it’s used to collect and fire colorful Star Bits that show up around the world. If you happen to be playing in handheld mode, the pointer can be controlled by your finger, swiping the screen to collect Star Bits and tapping it to fire them at enemies. Have you ever tried taking one hand off the controls in the middle of a Mario game? Imagine having to do that multiple times in every level. Think about the heft of the Switch, held in one hand as you awkwardly swipe at the screen with the other while trying to maneuver Mario with the left stick.

Neither of these motion control options — in docked or handheld mode — is great, and they distract from the overall fun of Super Mario Galaxy, which has some of the finest platforming levels Nintendo has ever produced. A version of Super Mario Galaxy stripped of all of these motion control features would simply be a better game. Having the spin attack assigned to a button now seems to be an acknowledgment of this; it’s just a shame that Nintendo didn’t go all the way with that approach.

And yet, Super Mario Galaxy is easily able to overcome the annoyance of the lingering motion controls, reaching heights that few games can manage. If you missed out in 2007, count yourself lucky to be able to experience this game for the first time in full, HD glory.

The ups and downs of 3D Mario

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a perfect re-creation of an imperfect batch of games. In the case of Super Mario Sunshine, those imperfections are far too consistent and devastating to recommend the game.

Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, though, are both fantastic. The quality of both titles is so high that some unfortunate drawbacks (dated visuals in the former, motion controls in the latter) aren’t enough to stymie the pure excellence on hand.

If anything, Super Mario 3D All-Stars shows the breadth of what a 3D Mario game can be, and much of that is truly excellent.

Though seriously, y’all, Mario Sunshine sucks.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars will be released Sept. 18 on Nintendo Switch. The game was played using a download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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