Graphics: Admittedly, there was only so much possible within the graphical confines of a game like Dr. Mario. 3D graphics are pretty much out of the picture, and there’s not a lot of room for variety when dealing with red, yellow and blue pills. For what it’s worth, the gameplay features very crisp visuals that are easy on the eyes, which is a good thing as many fanatics of this series will still be seeing those MegaVitamins fall when they close their eyes to sleep. There are a variety of backgrounds available to spice up the action, and they are interesting diversions for those exceedingly brief moments when you can tear your eyes away from your playing field. The real stumbling block, however, are the terrible cutscenes. I’m willing to accept that this is a budget title, and that no one’s realistically going to watch these vignettes more than once. This doesn’t, however, provide any reason for why they should be so deliberately unattractive. Despite this poor showing, the overall presentation is workable, and more importantly, crisp enough to be easy on the eyes.
Interface: Dr. Mario 64 redefines the concept of the Spartan interface, as there are only two options available: the choice between stereo and mono sound, and whether or not your score is displayed on the screen while you play. The usual independent volume control for sound effects and musical score are absent entirely, though, you can listen to a library of musical tracks and sound effects should you have far too much time on your hands. The visual interface is fairly clean but could use a tweak setting, as non-flatscreen TVs tend to lose the outer edges of the leftmost and rightmost bottles during the four-player game, putting those players at a disadvantage. The only real saving grace is an easy to use on-cartridge save system that tracks your stats automatically and may be wiped clean from within the title.
Gameplay: While the various modes are all essentially riffs on a single theme, they are varied enough to put a fresh face on a very old franchise. Flash and Time Attack put an interesting spin on the basic goals, while Marathon should fill the true fanatics with absolute glee. Surprisingly, the story mode is easily the most disappointing: there are only very superficial differences between the brothers’ stories. Further, the more exotic modes could have been integrated into the storyline but only the four-player screen appears late in the eight-stage tale. Those criticisms aside, there are countless hours of gameplay in this package, which is easily the most complete iteration on this theme to date.
Multiplayer: With plenty of two player modes and a fun four-player split screen, you can happily gather your cronies around Dr. Mario 64 for a fun evening’s entertainment. One of the best features is a statistical tracking system that lets up to eight individuals enter their names and have their performance tracked from game to game. Even with all four players frantically dropping pharmaceuticals, there’s no visible performance hit, leaving none of the players any excuse for their poor showing. While it’s not going to replace any of the N64 staples like Mario Kart 64 or the Mario Party games, Dr. Mario 64 is certainly a worthy addition to their number.
Sound FX: Anyone who’s played any of the portly plumber’s titles will immediately recognize these sound effects, as they’re ripped straight from the “Mario Master Effects Library.” Even the classic “Oh no,” “Woo, Hoo” and more are delivered straight from Mario’s mouth, while his brother’s “Here we go,” is vintage mushroom-fuel from Mario Kart 64. The various animals that appear as guest stars and story-progressing villains draw from one of three sound sets; and make happy noises when they pull off a combo, or sad noises when they receive trash. There’s not much more to the effects than this and the overall result is, frankly, boring and repetitive. Sadly, the simple addition of more variety in the characters and sound effects would have gone a long way to curb this tedium.
Musical Score: With tracks that range from the cool Chills to the faster-tempoed Fever, there’s still not enough variety here to keep things fresh. If you set up a two-player game, for instance, there’s no way to have the program randomly cycle through the tracks. This means that you either have to exit Dr. Mario 64 after each match, or put up with the same music until you can no longer do so. Similarly, a particularly troublesome opponent in the story mode will require you to listen to their specific stage’s music until you defeat them — which can take quite some time. Compounding this problem is the shortness of each piece, which makes the repetition all the more frustrating. Don’t be surprised if you start fumbling for the mute button before too long.
Intelligence & Difficulty: The most impressive aspect of Dr. Mario 64 is the enemy AI, which quite appropriately scales itself to your chosen difficulty level. The easy mode is hesitant and makes regular errors, while normal will provide a solid challenge for most players. Veterans will appreciate the hard difficulty level, which regularly lands combos and lines them up with incredible speed and precision. Given the competition-intensive nature of this title’s modes, it’s great to see a skilled AI that can proffer as much or as little challenge as you desire.
Overall: The Dr. Mario franchise has never been renowned for its groundbreaking graphics or audio, and Dr. Mario 64 is not an exception to this rule. Fortunately, much of this ground is made up by solid gameplay and a wickedly decisive AI that won’t give you an inch at its harder levels. This is particularly important in the N64 version of the franchise because most of the modes are competitive; and you can even round out a four-player game with a computer player without noticing a major skill deficiency. Essentially, you’re getting more of the same with this package, but it’s easily the most complete and entertaining version of this franchise yet.