It's become accepted practice that with the launch of a new Nintendo console, you'll get a Super Mario themed game. For the freshly launched Nintendo DS, that's a rehash of an existing title - in this case a stylus-centered version of the Nintendo 64 launch title Super Mario 64. You might be thinking that controlling a 3D character with as much mobility as Mario with a stylus would be a distinctly odd experience, and you'd be right. If you've played through Mario's best 3D adventure - and a title that some would deem the best 3D platform game of all time - then you'll find the experience of playing Mario 64 DS an unusual experience. If you've never played it before, then what took you so long?
Mario 64's main game mode is largely the same as with its classic forebear. Mario receives a letter from Princess Peach inviting him to her castle for some cake. When he (and in the DS version, Luigi and Wario) arrive, they're quickly kidnapped, leaving the entire fate of the mushroom kingdom in the hands.. well... tongue.. of Yoshi. Yup, everyone's favourite green dinosaur is your initial character in the Mario 64 world, even though many of the levels are still laid out as though you were Mario. It won't take you long to start unlocking all of your play choices - Mario, Luigi and eventually Wario - and it'll strike you quickly how certain characters will breeze through some levels while others will struggle. Predictably, Yoshi benefits from his ability to eat foes, while Luigi can jump high and fast, and Wario's something of a destructive tank. Mario's the middleman character, much as he always has been, although even he benefits from a few new level tweaks and powerups that change a lot of the game's levels. If you're familiar with the source game, you'll find it largely familiar, but there's enough new here to make it a worthwhile conquest.
Mario 64 offers two control schemes. There's a fairly standard D-Pad centric layout, which suffers a touch for the lack of distinct analogue control, even with an option button to speed up your character's running speed. The other option open to you is to use the DS's stylus to control your 3D motion, something that takes quite a lot of getting used to. It's a tough arrangement, and while you can ultimately get to grips with it, you'll struggle with some of the more advanced moves as you try to jump, stomp and run around in equal measure. For what it's worth, I gave up on stylus control moderately quickly.
Mario 64 DS also offers what it calls the "Rec Room", and what any decent gamer would call minigames. These are organised by character, and you start with two per character. All up there are 36 minigames to play. Extra minigames can be collected by catching an infestation of rabbits that now plague the castle. You'd think with all the Goombas, Thwomps and Piranha Plants around, a simple rabbit would be lunch, but somehow these pesky hares have gotten the keys to the rest of the minigames.
The quality of minigames varies wildly - Luigi's games, for example, are all card and casino games, and somewhat dull, whereas the more action-centric Mario and Yoshi games are largely great fun. There are some riffs on classic game themes - the version of missile command is great fun, for example. It's entirely conceivable that those who've long since grown weary of Mario 64 could spend large amounts of time messing around with the Rec room.
Mario 64 DS also supports multiplayer play - off a single cartridge, no less - although this is largely just a star-collecting exercise within some constrained levels. It's fun for a short amount of time, and is at least a good demonstration of the strength of the DS's wireless connections.
N64 titles were legendary for being a bit fuzzy around the edges, and, for the 3D games, having poor camera control. Nintendo's fixed one of these problems - outside of certain emulator add-ons, Mario has never looked this sharp. Sadly, the same camera issues are still present in Super Mario 64 DS, and even the presence of camera spinning icons on the stylus screen can't save it from every predicament.
Mario 64 DS is undoubtedly a great game, and the best launch title for the DS, even though it doesn't stretch the stylus control mechanism all that much outside of the minigames. Within the adventure mode the stylus control is a somewhat weak idea that shifts the learning curve upwards steeply, making a very accessible game a great deal less so. If you stick to digital control - and it's not that precise a game, to be honest - then you'll find Mario 64 DS to be a great title. The minigames are quite addictive, and a better use of stylus control and combining that with an excellent and incredibly deep platform game makes this an excellent choice for portable gaming action.