There's been an awful lot of moaning about how the new handhelds are going to become simply dumping grounds for ports from their chunkier, TV-toting brothers. "The PSP is just going to play a load of old PS2 games," some whine, whilst others wail that "the DS is being filled up with shoddy N64 ports". And yes, original games are wonderful things - but when the ported games are as good as Super Mario 64 DS, we're not going to complain. Simply put, in both its original form and this new DS incarnation, Mario 64 is a gaming delight. The breakthrough 3D platformer and still the best, it's a beautifully crafted piece of games design, the kind of game that reminds you why you started playing the things in the first place.
It's hard to describe the particular aspects that make Mario 64 so lovely - it seems to have been designed from the ground up with excellence in mind, the facets of which are gradually revealed as you play through, a bit like a brass rubbing. However, for those who haven't experienced the game before, much of what makes it great can be attributed to the structure and level design. The game plays out from the castle, where in the standard Mario plot guff, Princess Peach has been kidnapped by the evil Bowser. The castle forms an important central hub, though, as all the levels are accessed from it by jumping through paintings. The aim in Mario 64 is to collect Stars, and this lends the game a non-linear feel - and for once you're free to tackle the game in whatever way you feel. As you accrue Stars, the levels are slowly drip fed to you in twos and threes, and each level offers eight goals - missions if you like - which each hold a star for you upon completion. The choice of goals you attempt is almost entirely up to you, as is the order you do them in. There's none of the standard stuck on level 7 platform frustrations; if you don't like a goal, sod it and move on to another one. The vast majority of them are varied, interesting, and require more thought than just running to an end-point - whilst the level design is simply sublime. The fire or ice level in a 3D platformer may seem a clichéd concept these days, but Mario 64's original interpretations of them are excellent, whilst the level set inside a clock mechanism is inspired. Better still is the way that the levels and goals work in tandem - each little world slowly unraveling to reveal secrets and goals in a way that feels organic, and compels you on to explore, find and complete every last thing. The goal based nature makes it very well suited to handheld gaming, as you can attempt to get a star in that otherwise dull five minute bus journey - if you wish, you can break down the game play into blocks which will slot into any part of your daily routine. The game doesn't ever feel formless, though - there are boss battles and targets to reach which give it a sense of structure - but rather than funneling you through a production line of levels, Mario 64 lets you create your own epic, coherent adventure.
Your control over Mario is a vital element, and whilst Super Mario 64 DS offers the standard D-Pad, the best way to play the game in practice is with the thumb strap and touch screen, which provides true analogue control in emulation of a console thumb stick. Whilst it lacks the exact, razor-sharp accuracy and definite direction of the N64 controller - which was practically tailor-made for Mario 64 - thumb strap control is easy to pick up, and soon puts the delightfully agile Mario firmly under your control. The way you can vary his running speed with deft movements of your thumb, jump off walls and perform stunning maneuvers belies the simple three action buttons which provide such dazzling acrobatic potential. Mario 64 gives you a simple toolkit of moves, and lets you revel in the joy as you discover how to apply them.
For its DS outing, there have been some notable additions made to the game. The most striking is the option to play as three other characters - Wario, Luigi and Yoshi - each with their strengths, weaknesses and unique abilities. It's necessary to use these characters in order to attain some of the stars, but you're not constantly switching between them; for the majority of goals you can pick a favorite character and stick to them. For veterans, there have been some new stars and challenges added, but neither of these additions detract from the essential magic and simplicity which made the game such a hit in the first place. A less imposing, but very welcome addition is the selection of stylus-based mini-games which can be unlocked by catching rabbits in the main game world. Some of these display almost WarioWare-like levels of genius, in particular the Catapult game, where you pull back your slingshot by dragging down the stylus and aiming - which quickly becomes frantic, Missile Command style fun. There's also a rudimentary Star Attack wireless multiplayer mode, which is nothing special, but all of these additions serve to make Super Mario 64 DS seem not like a cynical port, but rather a worthy new outing of an old and respected classic. Graphically it certainly looks good on the handheld, with the N64's soft-focus look exchanged for an equally impressive crisp, sharp style, with some added graphical flourishes - the only disappointment comes from the occasional low-resolution texture in an otherwise brilliantly depicted and highly varied game world, in which the DS's Virtual Surround sound helps to immerse you further.
It's difficult to put a score on Super Mario 64 DS. Many of us already experienced it almost nine years ago, but even today it's an absolutely essential gaming experience. If you haven't played Mario 64 you're missing out, as it's a very special game indeed - and the DS version is an excellent way to play it.