Version tested: Wii
One tragic casualty of the game industry's creep towards digital distribution is videogame packaging.
Games are, by definition, ethereal: arcane lines of code that push clusters of coloured light from pixel to pixel on electronic displays. The boxes they come in help ground these esoteric journeys of mind and screen in reality. They bottle our experiences. We can read their labels, share specimens with each other and feel their weight in our hands – none of which is possible with a file downloaded to a hard drive.
Boxes make the intangible tangible. Digital distribution offers convenience, but it does so at the expense of experience. And Nintendo has always understood the value of experience.
Super Mario All-Stars, which bundles together four of the series' formative 8-bit titles, enjoys packaging that is both commemorative and celebratory. The smooth, dusky, Famicom-mauve cardboard box is emblazoned with a gold wreath, inside which stands a Mario sprite, facing right: poised and ready, as ever, to run off into the inviting distance. Understated but thoughtful, like a Criterion Collection version of a cherished children's film, it strikes a balance between playfulness and austerity.
Even Nintendo doesn't indulge itself in as many commemorative re-releases as its cinematic counterpart, Disney. But Super Mario Bros. is no run-of-the-mill classic. For over 20 years it remained the best-selling game ever, shifting over 40 million copies worldwide and popularising a character that, by the 1990s, had become more recognisable amongst American schoolchildren than Mickey Mouse.
Moreover, Super Mario Bros.' iconography has come to define games in popular culture. The red splash of Mario's plumber costume, the unfashionable cap and moustache, Koji Kondo's irrepressibly joyful theme tune, the squat, shifty-eyed Goombas and the spike-backed kidnapper, Bowser, all symbolise video games to much of the world. Mario's most important game is 25 years old; we should absolutely throw him a party.
Physically, the re-release has been treated with an appropriate degree of care and attention. Inside the box, there's a compilation soundtrack of music from the series, along with sound effects – trills and warbles that can be pinned to every action and reaction in the game from memory. Likewise, a booklet outlining the origins of the series, and featuring comments from creator Shigeru Miyamoto and never-before-seen artwork from its development, is a welcome bonus.
Sadly, in the game, contemporary spit and polish is nowhere to be seen. This is, instead, a ROM dump of the Super Nintendo title, Super Mario All-Stars, which eschews Mario's debut in Donkey Kong and the subsequent arcade game Mario Bros. and instead bundles Super Mario Bros. and its sequels together, repainted in 16-bit sprites.
The code remains untouched from its debut 17 years ago; the copyright line on the title screen reads 1993; the on-screen instructions are written for a SNES pad, not a Wii controller, Classic or otherwise. Without 60hz support, the games must be played bordered and with the slightly fuzzy definition that plagues emulated SNES games when played on a modern flat-screen television.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. No, because each of the four games on offer still sparkles with creativity and assured design; they're not mere museum pieces, picked out as crucial stages in gaming's evolution, but also as vibrant, relevant and exciting experiences today. Yes, because, when throwing someone a 25th birthday party, it's a little stingy and awkward to put up the same decorations you used for their 8th birthday party.
Presentation aside, each game here remains a triumph, the SNES incarnations arguably preferable to the NES originals thanks mainly to the convenience offered by the save slots.
The first game in the set, Super Mario Bros., defined the platform game (or "Athletic Game" as the genre was known internally at Nintendo at the time). It arranged the nascent vocabulary of its genre in the most eloquent and engaging ways. The physics, in particular, are note-perfect; Mario's trajectory when lifting off, his weight in the air, and his speed when settling into a run are all perfectly expressed.
The precision afforded by the controls allows the level design to shine, underground or overground, while the power-ups alter your reach into the world in fascinating yet balanced ways. The game may be venerable, but it's far from outdated. Its genius is in its assured simplicity.
Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't really Super Mario Bros. 2 at all. Rather, it's a re-skinned version of a quirky Nintendo platform game, Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, released in the West under the Mario name because the real sequel was considered too hard for non-Japanese. Despite also being designed by Miyamoto, the result is a Mario game that feels like a cheese-induced dream, its world and inhabitants familiar and yet somehow out of place.
Mario's ground-pound attack is missing, replaced by a system that requires you to pull vegetables from the ground and throw them at his enemies. But while it never quite feels like a true entry to the Mario series, it's nevertheless a strong game on its own terms – and it played a key role in the development of the Mushroom Kingdom by exporting some characters of its own invention back into the series in subsequent titles.
The Lost Levels is the true sequel to Super Mario Bros. In truth, no matter how much the decision not to release it in the West stung, it was probably the right one, though the fault lies with Nintendo. The Lost Levels is brutally unfair, a dark, mean expression of Mario's usual breezy even-handedness.
Poisonous mushrooms, invisible blocks that must be felt out in order to pass some areas, and cruel level layouts stuffed with enemies all bite and sting. Still, the component parts of the experience are strong enough that most will persevere to the end, and for those who missed the game the first time around, The Lost Levels will fill an important gap in your gaming knowledge.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is undeniably the strongest of the set, a beautiful, ambitious, non-linear platform game. Christian Donlan offered an expert critique of it in his thoughtful and personal love letter last month.
Despite only being 951kb in size, the four games nestled together in Super Mario All-Stars represent good value for money. The combined price of downloading each title separately from the Virtual Console (in their original NES versions, mind) is only marginally lower than the £24.99 asking price for this box.
Should Nintendo be criticised for failing to update the code for 2010? Some might say the effort would have outweighed the benefit. These games are supremely playable in their 16-bit form, and while 60hz, non-bordered support would have been welcome, their appeal is undiminished by time and technology's progress.
But perhaps the greatest value of this pack is the packaging itself. Owning a physical copy of Super Mario All-Stars on Wii allows these games to sit proudly on your shelf, a statement to everyone who enters your home and sees it. Here is a game that, in some tiny way, made me the person I am today. Celebrate that with me.
Is a ROM cheaper? Absolutely. Does it offer the same amount of value? Not even close.
8 / 10