Solaris Japan

Friday, 12 February 2016

Snes Review - Super Mario All Stars (Game 099)

When many have to name the greatest 2D Platformer of all time the name 'Mario' is used more often than any others. But, did Nintendo really create "the perfect cartridge" by bundling their greatest hits together?

Developed by Nintendo EAD
Published by Nintendo
Released in 1993

"From now on, we will no longer be scoring games out of ten" Eurogamer wrote in February 2015. "Over the years, we've come to believe that the influence of [scores] on the games industry is not a healthy one, ascribed more or less arbitrarily, by a wide range of reviewers expressing a wide range of opinions." Joystiq website was in agreement and stopped scoring games around the same time (before later closing its virtual doors). "Things don't get much more definitive than a review score. The very purpose of a score is to define something entirely nebulous and subjective – fun – as narrowly as possible" they wrote, justifying their decision. Considering how quickly we consume internet content, if we were honest most of us would confess to using review aggregating websites like Metacritic to justify a purchasing decision. Why spend ten minutes reading a carefully worded review when it can all be distilled to one or two numbers? As Joystiq said, review scores "give you a reason to scroll past the review without actually reading it".

Before the invention of the internet we had to use these archaic printed things called magazines to find out if games were any good. Of course, you would have to buy the magazine to find out their opinion on the latest releases. That is if bought anything other than Total! magazine, who once put a review score in big writing right on the front cover.

"99% - ‘Mario All Stars’ is the best game ever" reads the front of issue 21. There wasn't much room for doubt about their opinion and if you're inclined to make a purchasing decision based on a percentage score there wasn't much need to open the magazine.


Every new console generation allows publishers new opportunities to resell their old popular titles.
We live in a time of HD collections, digital re-masters and mobile re-releases. However, twenty years ago Nintendo rather surprised critics with 'Super Mario All Stars'. Bundling the universally adored 'Super Mario Bros.', 'The Lost Levels', 'Super Mario Bros. 2' and 'Super Mario Bros. 3' on one Snes cartridge led to many calling the collection one of the best deals in video game history. The praise was not limited to Total!'s near perfect score, it was unanimous. "All-Stars is a masterpiece from beginning to end," wrote Electronic Gaming Monthly. "It's too good to be true," added SNES Force. Of course these were games that most Snes owners already owned, but the addition of "enhanced" graphics, "reworked audio" and the chance to play new levels for 'Super Mario Bros' seemed to be more than enough to convince everyone that 'Super Mario All Stars' was a must-own Nintendo game.

It's seems ridiculous to think that someone reading a blog about old games wouldn't know what happens in a 2D Mario game. You no doubt know these games, either from their original NES versions or from the Nintendo Virtual Console. Typically they are launch titles when ever Nintendo's online store arrives on a new console, paraded with much fanfare and an ever increasing price. They are worthy of celebration though. As IGN once pointed out, "collectively the 'Super Mario Bros.' games represent not only the birth of a critical genre but the industry as a whole. It is tough to imagine where video games would be without 'Super Mario Bros' and its sequels". It was something Super Play magazine also said at the time. 'Super Mario All Stars' "is obviously of immense historical importance. These are the games that Nintendo's original success was built on. Even if in the cold light of the present day, they were to turn out to be really not all that good after all, the cart would still be worth having and playing for its very significance alone. But of course they are not weak. Not by any stretch of imagination. They are in fact very good indeed". Nearly thirty years since their original release on the NES, the quality of these games remains undiminished; they are classics in every sense of the word.

'Super Mario Bros.' is one of the most influential games ever invented; even games today owe a debt to it. It is 2D platforming at its purist level, a fact obvious by how easily you can describe the gameplay. You move Mario from the left of screen to the right, navigating the terrain until you reach either a flagpole or an end of stage boss. You can break most blocks by jumping under them; you can kill most enemies by jumping on them. The occasional power ups you get will either give you the chance to take an extra hit from a foe or will give you the ability to throw fireballs and kill the harder ones. And the reason Mario is doing all this is to save a princess. Of course there are some variations to the stages (involving swimming and pulleys) but in the main, as long as you're still moving towards the right of the screen you're making progress. It's a game so simple that a four year old can play it; I know this, mine did. It is one of the most accessible games ever conceived. Though later games add much more complexity to what you're doing and how you're doing it, the 'Super Mario Bros.' DNA can still be found if you scrape away enough layers.

The most obvious game to expand on the first 'Super Mario Bros' game is actually 'Mario 3'. For many 'Super Mario Bros 3' is the pick of the games on the 'Super Mario All Stars' cartridge.
"I'd buy this cart just to play 'Super Mario 3' all over again" reviewer James Binns said at the time. "I still reckon its loads better than 'Super Mario World' so to me all the other games on this cart are a bonus". While 'The Lost Levels' is what we would now call "an expansion" to 'Super Mario Bros.’, 'Super Mario Bros 3' really does add and build on the foundations laid in the first game. Originally released at the height of "Mario Mania", this was a time when Nintendo’s mascot was more familiar to children than Mickey Mouse.

The game is nearly twice as large as 'Super Mario Bros', with 56 rather than 32 levels. These stages are also far more imaginative and see the titular plumber riding flying warships, swimming under boats and even shockingly moving from right to left through a level. However while there may be many more levels, they are actually far smaller than you may remember. Most can be finished within a couple of minutes and (as speed runs will testify) the game can actually be finished in a few hours. Naturally this was in no small part due to the original NES game having no ability to save and consequently it had to be possible to finish 'Super Mario 3' in one sitting. Nostalgia colours memories and what once felt like a huge epic journey is actually somewhat shorter.

Perhaps you can breeze through the levels quickly as Mario now has a wider range of abilities than in previous 'Super Mario' games, including flying or sliding down slopes. Now a staple for the series, 'Mario 3' really was the first game to introduce Mario's love of cosplaying. While the first game had just a fire flower, this third iteration sees the introduction of Tanooki Mario, Frog Mario and Hammer Mario. As much fun as these are none can top the leaf bonus though since that gives you the ability to take to the skies and Mario hasn't been ground based in a game since! In addition, ' Super Mario Bros. 3' introduces numerous game play elements that are now so common we forget that once upon a time they were once unusual. Mini games and item house can be played when teh mood strikes and there is also a world map; used to navigate between stages. Again, it hardly seems revolutionary now as a world map has reappeared in practically every 2D 'Mario' game since. However, at the time, the ability to do levels in a non-chronological order was novel and exciting.

However, while 'The Lost Levels' is the game that's cited as being hard, all the games in 'Mario All Stars' are tricky in places. For example, in Super Mario 3' if you squander "P Wings" and cloud level skips, finishing the eighth worlds is really a huge challenge. Difficulty was one thing Matt Bielby did find to criticise in his Super Play review. "I can't emphasise this too much, but these games are hard" he observed "much tougher than such cute innocent exteriors would suggest. There are plenty of bits here - especially in the rock hard ['Lost Levels'] that will have to tearing your hair out in frustration."

The reviewer was also clearly not a fan of 'Super Mario 2', either which he called "the weakest part of the collection". He is not alone as this game is generally considered the black sheep of the 'Super Mario All Stars' family. This is simply because it deviates so much from the original 'Super Mario Bros'. According to Kotaku ""They lied to us" was the immediate, melodramatic reaction" amongst critics when they put the 'Super Mario Bros 2' Cartridge in a NES for the first time. "This is no 'Mario' game" wrote one game critic at the time, "it's not worthy of the name, it's a weird bad successor to the first ['Super Mario Bros'] game".

When I first played 'Super Mario 2' I had no idea that the game was such a rule breaker. This was the first console game I ever played, on a NES demo-station in a department store. I would stand there for hours, hogging the machine marvelling at the technology producing a game that was light years ahead of the Spectrum games I was aware of. I didn't care that there was Shyguys rather than Goombas. It didn't bother me that when I jumped on an enemy's head I rode it rather than killed it. It didn't seem unusual that I was adventuring in an Arabian environment rather than the Mushroom kingdom; after all I’d never played the prequel 'Super Mario Bros' at this point.



Of course now I know that 'Super Mario Bros 2' is really 'Doki Doki Panic' a different Famicom game with character sprites swapped for Mario characters. It was a way for Nintendo to quickly capitalise on the success of 'Super Mario Bros' when the true sequel (now known as 'The Lost Levels') was deemed too hard for the west. Yet despite its origin, many at the time seemed to despise the odd mechanic of throwing vegetables at a new set of enemies. I rather liked it and have a fondness for it today. The levels feel larger and laden with more secrets that the other games in the 'All Stars' collection. Many who claim the game isn't authentically "Mario" conveniently ignore the fact that the game was originally a prototype to see if a "'Mario Bros'-esque game" could work scrolling vertically. Shigeru Miyamoto was at the helm for the conversion of 'Doki Doki Panic' into 'Super Mario Bros. 2' and was quite a fan of the ways his Mario characters behaved in a fresh environment. "Uprooting and lifting things as you played gave the game a new feel. It was released in Japan as Super Mario USA." As GameSpot critic Alex Navarro points out, 'Super Mario Bros. 2' "shows that veering from the beaten path of a franchise's standard game design isn't always a bad idea".

I would have to wonder if modern players would even know that 'Super Mario Bros 2' "isn't really a proper 'Mario' game". It was after all the first time Mario wore his blue dungarees. Characters like Birdo, Shyguy and Bob’omb are now integrated into the Mushroom kingdom even appearing in the spin off sportstitles. Modern 'Mario' games include a health metre, not unlike the one seen in 'Super Mario Bros 2'. Toad is now a regular playable character, something introduced in this game. Keys and door puzzles so common in 'Mario World' originate in this game and it was even the first time that Luigi was tall, slim and able to jump higher than his brother. If 'Super Mario Bros 2' once "wasn't like a Mario game", you would now have to accuse 'Mario Galaxy' and 'Mario Sunshine' of the same crime.

Critics became so obsessed with pointing out how 'Super Mario Bros 2' differed from its prequel that they somehow managed to overlook how much fun the game really is. "I know everybody keeps saying things like 'it's not as good as the other games' but I actually enjoyed it a lot" Jonathan Davis once said in Super Play. "I'll definitely keep playing it until I finish it."


Now-a-days Nintendo are quite rightly accused of taking advantage of fan nostalgia. Every new console sees re-releases of legacy titles and they're increasingly more expensive to download. I have bought 'Super Mario Bros. 3' five times, on five different consoles. With the exception of the 'All Stars' version every one is the same as an earlier interrelation; a deliberate choice by Nintendo to "preserve the memory of the classic". 'Super Mario All Stars' in retrospect was an incredibly generous cartridge from Nintendo. Now they are a company that charge as much as possible for a game, but twenty years ago they sold three and a half games for the price of one. To make things even sweeter they even bought them in line with contemporary games both visually and aurally. Indeed I would suggest that the best way to play these games is on the Snes. Of course they were all re-released again on the Gba but those versions added far too many cheap unnecessary gimmicks, with irritating speech samples that are used far too frequently. The battery back up across the cartridge also is a god send; even if it makes the warp zones feel redundant. Being able to save and continue later, makes all games far more palatable for a modern player. Even better is the ability to select any word once a game is completed; perfect for when you want to have a quick nostalgia filled jaunt through a favourite stage.


Recently on British show 'The Big Fat Quiz of Everything' one question saw celebrity contestants being tasked to name video games after hearing a section of their soundtracks. The celebrities range in age and all the older participants failed to recognise the 'Angry Birds' theme. More knew the overworked theme from the 'Legend if Zelda' series, but all could name the music of 'Super Mario bros'. Koji Kondo's melodies are timeless and iconic. Repeated in every main series title since, the tracks in 'Super Mario All Stars' sound superb, taking full advantage of the Snes' superior sound chip. However (much like the length of each level) there's not as much music as you think you remember. Each game has a handful of tracks, but when you listen intensely you realise how often it repeats and how frequently you hear the same melody. Of course these melodies are among the best in video game history but when you think that modem Mario games have almost a different tune for each stage there perhaps isn't enough of the good stuff on 'Mario All Stars'



Visually though, 'Super Mario All Stars' is a huge success. Each game on the collection has had a pixel polish, updating the original NES games' aesthetics. Sprites are more detailed, backgrounds now have parallax scrolling and hundreds of colours are onscreen. It's actually rather surprising that many of the familiar locals of later games actually first appeared as background layers in 'Super Mario All Stars'. There isn't any consistency across the games though; Mario has three different character sprites. "The masterful 'Super Mario 3' hasn't been visually revamped as extensively as the previous two games, and so oddly looks inferior to its prequels" critic Matt Bielby even said at the time.
Multiple versions of the same character seem unnecessary, but presumably it was done to ensure collision detection worked on each game, as this is essential to the success of any platformer. It's personal preference of course but I believe every game still looks much nicer than Nintendo’s more recent 'New Super Mario' games. These games may play like 2D platform games, but the cluttered environments are inhabited by characters drawn with polygons. Pixels allow for precision, where as 3D modelled characters are harder to read. Ironically it was a point once noted by Mario designer Shigaru Miyamoto when criticising 'Donkey Kong Country's pre-rendered visuals. 'Super Mario All Stars' is "a cart that looks good, feels exactly right to play and will last a long time" Super Play said at the time and the words remain true today. "When you think that you're getting three of the greatest video games of all time on one cart you really would be mad not to buy it" the magazine added.

When you look back through Total! Magazine's historic issues, they painted themselves into a corner from the very first issue. By giving 'Super Mario Bros 3.' 98% they really had no option but to add on another 1% when 'Mario All Star' was released. Though they never reviewed it, when 'Super Mario World' was added to 'Super Mario All Stars' they would have to have added another percent. This would have meant that cartridge is theoretically the "perfect game". As ridiculous as it seemed at the time, perhaps Total! would have given the most appropriate score to 'Super Mario All Stars + World'. Within the limitations of the system, it is impossible to think there could have been a better cartridge compilation released than one that included the 'Mario Bros trilogy' and 'Mario World'. Yes, people may debate which 2D Mario is better, but be it '3', 'World' or 'Bros' it was on this perfect bumper cartridge. Though they have returned to 2D platformers recently, never have Nintendo managed to recapture the magic of their Snes games. A union of wonderful yet functional visuals, the most iconic game music and a huge array of pixel perfect platform pouncing. 'Super Mario All Stars + World' is probably the greatest video game compilation ever released. You may be at odds with "non-Mario" 'Super Mario Bros 2', you may find 'Lost Levels' too difficult but even these comparative low points are probably better than every non-Nintendo published platform game on the Snes. As Total!
Reviewer Frank O'Connor once said (before bestowing the infamous 99%) "it is impossible to criticise 'Mario All Stars'. Each game on its own would be the bee’s knees but together they constitute the best video game cartridge ever manufactured".

What's the point of a percentage score? Well on this occasion it's perfect.

Where did I get this from?
While I’ve owned the loose cart for ‘Super Mario All Stars’ for some time, I’m a collector who is all about Boxed and Complete. Knowing this, my Dad bought a pristine copy for my birthday and yes it was like I was 12 years old all over again.


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