Given that we're lucky enough to have been playing the game independently and all approached the game from a variety of perspectives and prior knowledge, we've decided to turn the question of Mario's worth over to the other members of our reviewing panel to see what they made of Nintendo's flagship DS release.
Eurogamer: How did you find the control system? Which option did you go for and why, and where did it succeed or fail for you?
Rob Fahey: I ended up using the third option, which mirrors basic controls across both side of the console and sees you controlling Mario with the touch-screen. I didn't expect this to work, to be honest. I've tried playing games designed for joystick or mouse control on a touchpad before, and I can imagine more entertaining things to do involving pornography, sandpaper and vinegar. Which isn't a good thing. However, after my first few stars... Gosh darn it if I wasn't already more accustomed to this system than I ever was to the analogue stick. It works stunningly well once you get the hang of it - intuitive, simple, and downright fun. Remember the early 3D games where it was fun just moving the characters around? This feels the same way all over again. Consider me sold on the concept.
Tom Bramwell: I'm still not completely sold on any of the control systems, but then Mario 64 DS is the sort of game that you'd crawl through Reggie Fils-Aime's bubblegum spit-bucket to continue playing. The main problem, for me, is that I remember just how utterly precise the old analogue control used to be. The touch-screen approach admirably attempts to replicate the functionality of an analogue stick by drawing a small circle around your stylus tip for as long as it remains in contact with the screen, and registering analogue-style input as you probe within a radius of the centre point. However if you're too close to the top or side of the screen you can run out of space very quickly, and it's suddenly a lot harder to do things like flip from front to back to perform a tall backflip. Plus, the fact that you're effectively holding a tiny pen to a flat surface means that it's only ever as controllable as your wrist is steady, and coupled with the movable positioning of the "analogue circle" I've tumbled off-course all too often in frankly innocuous scenarios on account of the game's losing that implicit mental grip on exactly where your thumb is in relation to the stick's axis point. I have a feeling that a lot of this sort of precise DS gaming is going to be rendered near impossible during car journeys. That said, you can get past that problem. And it beats trying to play the game that virtually sold analogue sticks to the world using a digital thumb-pad. If it sounds to you like my selection was based on a "lesser of evils" set of criteria, though, you'd be right, even if I could also perversely argue that it's an engaging new challenge to learn it, and that it does at least benefit you in that the analogue circle is capable of registering finer degrees of control than ever before.
Apart from precision touch-screen issues, my only other control concern in the main game is difficulty in centring the camera, but then I have lots of reviewer-training in how to cope with third-person games that do that to me.
It would also be churlish for me to close discussion on the control system on a sour note when the very first thing I did before opening up this Word document was spend three quarters of an hour using the stylus to refresh my memory of Mario's frankly ingenious mini-games, most if not all of which make smashing use of it. It may not always be perfect for moving between platforms, but the stylus has given us games that enable to draw platforms at any angle under the very feet of our heroes, and the way it's been applied outside of the framework of the main game is not only admirable, but gives you extra incentive to endure any hardships it may bestow upon you over the course of the single-player adventure.
Eurogamer: How do you feel about the DS basically being a haven for N64 ports? Isn't this shovelware trend a little cynical, and do you feel the DS has a control system to do these classics justice?
Rob Fahey: On the basis of both Mario and Metroid Prime working pretty nicely, I think the DS has proven to me that it can do analogue controls. On the other hand... I was happy to revisit Mario 64 because it's years since I've played it, and because they've added loads of new stuff to the game. I think N64 ports would get very old after a while, though, and I'm glad that Nintendo's release schedule doesn't have very many on it. On the other hand, if they give us DS versions of Ocarina of Time and Sin & Punishment, I will personally buy a glass of sake for every commissioning executive in Kyoto. (I reckon my wallet is safe given that the chances of seeing Sin & Punishment on the console are sadly about as likely as seeing Robert Kilroy-Silk presenting a new TV show on Al-Jazeera.)
Tom Bramwell: Given my realisation recently that Ridge Racer DS is a similarly "expanded port" Ridge Racer 64 and not the new game I wanted, I'm slightly more upset about it than I was a few weeks ago, but I'm still cautious not to completely condone or condemn the practice because, on the evidence of Mario 64 DS, Nintendo is aware of people's views on this and intends to do more than merely repackage past titles on a new platform as it did on the Game Boy Advance. And I want to give them room to experiment with this before coming out on one side of the debate. What I am concerned about is not so much whether the control system has the power to do them justice - we've insufficient evidence to say, even if at the moment it's leaning towards "nearly but not quite" - but rather that the two games we've played most so far (Metroid Prime: Hunters and Mario) are both reinventing the wheel in a context we're already familiar with. That Nintendo is having to offer multiple fairly diverse control schemes in its early DS games probably answers the second part of the question better than anything else.
Eurogamer: Do you think Mario 64 was wise choice for a first release? Should Nintendo have come up with something entirely new that was designed from the ground up for the system?
Rob Fahey: If only to avoid the whining about ports, yes. That said, it's still nice to have a really great title out for a system launch. All too often that doesn't happen.
Tom Bramwell: I'm happy that they've finally given us some proof that they are listening to critical and public feedback and realise they need to be doing more than simply copying and pasting onto new handheld systems, and I'm satisfied that their attempts to do so with Mario 64 DS - the classic adventure, the new challenges, the mini-games and everything else (although perhaps not the wireless multiplayer mode where a star appears on the map and the idea is to be first to collect it) - merit the score we've given it today. But I'd always take the option of a new game designed from the ground up, particularly for a system like this, given a choice between the two.
Eurogamer: Does it add much to the game having all these new characters, or is this something of a gimmick?
Rob Fahey: Definitely. They all move somewhat differently and have different abilities, so there's an almost Metroid-like feeling of running around the once-familiar levels and going "ooh, when I unlock Wario I'll be able to do that"... It's a really nice addition to the game. If they'd just shoved in three new player models it would have sucked, but they've actually made the game notably different.
Tom Bramwell: Of course it's a gimmick, but no more so than any other aspect of the game, and it's by no means a bad thing. I agree with Rob, for instance, that their task-specific abilities make a difference, even if I did wish there was a quicker means of switching between them.
Eurogamer: Were you surprised at the quality of the visuals - did they exceed your expectations or were you somewhat put off by the blocky textures? Does it prove that you can do 3D gaming justice on a handheld after all?
Rob Fahey: It both reassured me and confirmed my suspicions. The game looks great, as do a number of other 3D games, and it's nice to finally have a handheld that can do 3D without leaving you with both a migraine, and the disturbing feeling that you've just been witness to an endoscope procedure on Lara Croft's small intestine. However, it does prove one thing to me - 3D doesn't really work with gaming on the move. I found myself falling back on 2D games both on trains and planes, simply because they're better to play in situations where you're being bounced around or in an awkward position. Which leaves me worrying rather a lot about how the PSP will cope with that, actually.
Tom Bramwell: Having seen and played the DS at E3 with Kristan, I can't really remember whether I was surprised or not at the time, and if I was surely it was an indictment of Nintendo's GBA hardware which must be considered monstrously overpriced and behind the times at this point, but I can certainly say that 3D gaming works on a handheld, even if, as Rob says, worrying about perspective issues on bouncy public transport is always going to create some problems. The blocky texturing didn't bother me. Having come into all this expecting N64-quality visuals, getting slightly-better-than versions with the Vaseline filter peeled off was enough for me.
Eurogamer: Will you be playing the game all the way through, or do you think it's something you'll play initially in order to unlock some mini-games and leave it at that? Do you think all the mini-games should have been made available from the start, or do you agree that it provides a wonderful reward system?
Rob Fahey: It's a cool reward system. I didn't even realise there were additional mini-games until I tried to eat a rabbit and it got upset with me and gave me a key to a new one. Which just proves that wanton consumption of local fauna can often lead to unexpected rewards. I think I'll definitely play the game through - I never did finish Mario 64 (gasp!) and my PS2 and TV is too heavy to carry home for Christmas for that much-needed run through Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne...
Tom Bramwell: No no, the way they've done it is fine. There's enough fun initially in the Rec Room, and the idea of consistently unlocking more and more fills me with joy. Will I play it to completion? Who can say? I have an awful lot of other things to worry about these days. I do know though that I'll be taking the DS wherever I go this Christmas to plug the quieter hours, and that Mario 64 DS is the best game I've played on it.
Eurogamer: Which of the mini-games that you've seen so far have impressed you? Which is your favourite of the bunch, and do you think you'll be going all out over the next few months trying to get all of them?
Rob Fahey: The bloody evil one where you have to match character heads to bodies by drawing lines between the vertical bars. I think it's a Mario unlockable. It made me howl with frustration on the train to Waterloo the other day, and the concerned old lady who asked if I was alright didn't quite understand that I'd just left myself a one pixel space in which to prevent Yoshi from having Mario's head hideously attached to his lizard body.
Tom Bramwell: The one Rob mentions is classic, using the slidey Mario heads technique of drawing lines to dictate the heads' path down-screen in an ingenious and lateral-minded way, but if I had to pick an absolute favourite, one that I could turn back to again and again, it would always be the original slidey head version. Far apart from my critical admiration of the way it justifies both screens and the stylus control, I simply can't stop playing it. It condenses the planning and mounting panic of Tetris into the space of a few seconds, and as my skills improve and I inch towards increasingly vast star totals, it will be the game that gives me a heart attack.
Eurogamer: Having now had first-hand experience of the DS, do you have any concerns about the system, and how will the system stand up next to the PSP, given that it will probably be a head-to-head race in Europe, unlike the US and to a lesser extent Japan where it's had a decent head start?
Rob Fahey: I'm really hoping that the quirky nature of the DS hardware is going to force developers to actually think really hard about what they're doing with it. PSP is a lazy console - you just throw an existing genre onto it and it works - but DS won't let game creators do that. Simply dropping Medal of FIFA: Underground in the City onto the console isn't going to work, so people are going to have to be very creative and think about what they're doing. That will scare some people off developing for the system, but hopefully it'll result in some really good games from those who are up to the challenge.
Tom Bramwell: It's a system that hates cynical games development. It's a system that designers were so excited about that around four hagillion of them kept it under their hats for months and months in order to surprise the public at E3. However, based on early efforts, it's also a bit of a muddled system at this point. Nintendo once made an argument for "shorter games, more often"; the DS seems to work best, as in Mario 64 DS, when it gives you "tiny games, very often" in order to break up traditional bit-by-bit objective-based 3D games. Whether fuller length reaction-based stuff will work on its own for long periods is impossible to say. Truth is, nobody's really sure what works best at this point. My biggest concern about the DS is that publishers will be discouraged by the reaction to some of their early efforts, and that both games companies and gamers themselves will lose interest while developers are still trying to find their feet - particularly when there's a more powerful, much shinier alternative that simply wants to give you more of the things you already love. Rob called the PSP a lazy console, but in a lot of cases that's what the people buying it will actually want. Hopefully the rapidly increasing installed base of the DS will persuade the people underwriting the games and the people interested in buying them to stick with it. Whether or not the PSP is all things to all people, the DS is interesting and inspiring enough to deserve a healthy shelf life.