Getting the Gang Together

Super Mario All-Stars

When it comes to NintendoSince 1983 (with the release of the Famicom gaming system in Japan), Nintendo has proven to be a gaming company dedicated to finding what gamers want, even when the gamers don't know it themselves. From dual-screen systems, to motion controls, to convertible home console/portable consoles, Nintendo regularly proves that the weirdest innovation is exactly what the gaming community needs. no character ensemble in their stable is more prized than the Super Mario SeriesHe's the world's most famous plumber and the biggest face in Nintendo's stable, a character so ubiquitous you already knew we were talking about Mario even before we said his name.. Really, Mario is the face of Nintendo, and through every generation starting all the way back with the NES (where Mario showed up in just about every game in some form, from the golfer in Golf to the referee in Punch-Out!, alongside all the mainline games), Mario was there. He built up a giant collection of games to rival any other mascot on any other system, and then some.

When Nintendo moved on from the NES to the SNES, they went from being the definition of "video gaming" to suddenly being in a fight for their life with Sega against that company's Genesis. The Genesis boasted "blast processing", a made up term that essential meant, "our system runs faster than the SNES," or, more accurately, "Sega does what Nintendon't" (which, with the benefit of hindsight, meant "exit the hardware business after a couple of failed console generations"). Sega's mascot had speed where Mario felt downright plodding. How could Nintendo compete?

Their solution, after two Sonic the Hedgehog releases on the Genesis, was to leverage the power of Mario's back catalog with Super Mario All-Stars. This cart combined all four NES era Super Mario titles -- Super Mario Bros., The Lost Levels, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Super Mario Bros. 3 (and with the inclusion of the bonus Mario Bros. in SMB3, nearly five games -- into one collection with upgraded, 16-bit graphics and SNES-quality sound.

For fans of the original trilogy on the NES, this was a fantastic collection. First of all it combined all three great games into one port, reducing the need to keep your NES hooked up. You could set aside that delicate console (with all the heavy breathing needed to make it work) and its carts and just break out this one game. Plus, for the U.S. fans, we had a game we never got to play before in The Lost Levels (Japan's Super Mario Bros. 2). That game, fabled up until that point, made the collection a must buy for any true Western Mario fan as this was our first (legal) chance to play the game.

It wasn't just that this cart had all these games in it; there was also how improved they all were. Each one, as noted, had improved graphics and sound. Reportedly these games were built based on the Super Mario World engine, tweaked for each game to better match the original NES experience. This allowed the Nintendo engineers to build a silky smooth Mario experience on the SNES that delivered everything the players of the original games were looking for. Hell, the titles could stand on par with Super Mario World (to the point that the SNES original was eventually packed into a combo cart, Super Mario All-Stars + Super Mario World, and everything felt of-a-piece).

That's not to say the games were NES perfect in their play. For fans of the original games you could find very minor differences beyond the graphics and sound. For instance, in the original edition of Super Mario Bros., a well placed Mario jump could clear the Piranha Plants that came up out of pipes, but on the SNES those same jumps would cause Mario to take damage. These little flaws were only an issue for pro players, like speed-runners; most other players likely wouldn't have noticed the different, or maybe just wouldn't have cared.

As a bonus, all the games include battery backup saving as well. For games like the original title and especially Lost Levels this was an absolute necessity as those games helped to define "Nintendo Hard". But even for a game like Super Mario Bros. 3, which was a lengthy adventure in its own right, having that ability to save made the game manageable in a single sitting, as opposed to the casual two-to-three hours needed for an NES play-through of the complete title.

It's no small feat that Nintendo pulled off here. While I wouldn't go so far to say that Super Mario All-Stars was the killer app that helped give Nintendo an edge over Sega, it certainly sent their opponent scrambling a little. How could Sonic compete against Mario's entire back catalog of famous titles? Sonic didn't have that many games. To counteract it, Sega have to release a third Sonic title, and then eventually bunt an extra hit with the Sonic and Knuckles adapter which added bonus features to the previous three games while giving a fourth adventure to play as well.

Sales figures, of course, from this era are hard to get, but it's fair to say that both companies found success playing off each other like this. Both Super Mario All-Stars and Sonic and Knuckles are prized items for any gamer's collection. At the same time, though, it's hard to argue with the convenience of the All-Stars package. Four big games in a single cart, without the need to switch titles or perform any "lock on" insertion to get all the bonus features is just so darn nice. Yes Sonic and Knuckles, with its bonus mods for the previous titles, was neat, but you had to buy each of those to get the full experience. It was just one part of a whole instead of everything all at once.

After this, Nintendo continued to innovate and iterate on the Mario experience, putting out a game many consider to be absolutely sublime on its own: Yoshi's Island: Super Mario World 2. In comparison to that, Sonic felt lost in the woods. Sonic 3D Blast is an odd title, and while the later 3D games in the Adventure series had their fans, they felt rather removed from the joys of the classic platforming titles. Or, put another way, they were trying to chase Mario as he released adventures that continued to evolve the platforming genre.

If there's any sad part to this whole All-Stars saga it's that Nintendo never thought to do this kind of complete package again. How cool would it have been to have a Donkey Kong All-Stars that collected all three arcade titles plus Donkey Kong '94? Just this last year Big N did finally put out a Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection, a galling package which contained barely upgrade versions of Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy (but, for no sane reason, not Galaxy 2). All the care and effort the company put into the first All-Stars was missing here.

As for Sonic, eventually the blue hedgehog see Sega exit the hardware business, only to then start putting his games on everyone else's consoles including, of all sources, Nintendo. Perhaps that's why 3D All-Stars isn't as good as it could be -- maybe Mario needs Sonic to really push him and Sonic just hasn't been the same since the height of the 16-bit wars.