Super Mario Sunshine
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Super Mario Sunshine. I was of course, quite excited due to the immense amount of hype, and I rushed to see the first screenshots when they were released on the net same as everyone else. But the truth is I wasn’t the biggest fan in the world of Super Mario 64. That isn’t a polite way of saying I didn’t think it was very good, but I don’t get the same rush of wonder playing it that everyone else does, and I never did. I think it was exceptionally groundbreaking and a lot of fun for its time, and so deserves a high score. While Mario Sunshine isn’t really groundbreaking, I enjoyed it a lot more than I ever did Mario 64 and I’m confident in naming it the best Gamecube platformer I’ve played yet.
The story deviates from the norm of Mario games, in that it doesn’t start with the princess getting kidnapped (although, the game doesn’t wait long before having this happen). Instead the island that Mario, Peach and attendants have just landed on for their vacation, Isle Delfino, has been terrorised by a mystery thug. A mystery thug that looks just like Mario and has been covering the island in paint. The residents of the isle charge Mario with the various offences and sentence him to cleaning the entire mess up.
And this is the first reason why I think Sunshine is better than 64: the water pack. Derided by many as an unnecessary dilution of Mario’s pure platforming formula, I see it as a saving grace. Not for the game, but rather for me. You see, being a mostly traditional platformer, there are lots of narrow ledges and moving platforms to traverse. And, seeing as the level design often goes for the ‘reaching into the sky’ effect, falling mostly results in a lengthy trek back to the top. In this case using the water-pack’s hover function will always give you a second chance and eliminates much of the tedious repeat journeys that make me turn off games and never come back to them all too frequently.
But aside from this it is just a lot of fun to use, almost everything in the level has an effect when sprayed with the water jet, and sometimes it is a key one. Experimenting with the water jet can uncover things such as massive, looming staircases or coin-hoarding ghosts. You can spend a while just wandering around the hub levels spraying people and cleaning up the graffiti, and it doesn’t seem like a chore at all. All of Mario’s old moves also return except, regrettably, for the time saving long jump, so old Mario fans can find pleasure in bouncing around walls and somersaulting into rooftops just as they used to. And newcomers to the series can learn as they go and be enraptured with discovering how organic controlling Mario is.
One of the game’s highlights is this organic feeling, and it’s one that only Nintendo have yet served up in a platformer. Even Banjo Kazooie, which I like better than this, doesn’t manage it. The wide range of moves don’t require a complicated combo of button presses to pull off. It’s something that seems much more in tune with learning to control Mario yourself. The strength with which you pull the analogue stick or press a button and the direction you face or speed you’re going when you do it will affect the type and effect of the move you do. It makes you feel like you have much more direct control than any other platform games.
And because there are such a huge variety of moves to perform, the strength of which is almost always controllable, the challenges are much less like pre-determined chores. The game’s hub and eight levels are large, but not imposingly so, and navigating them can be navigated in a number of ways. Luckily the tasks themselves throw up one unexpected surprise after another, so you are given numerous different ways to try out your skills.
Spoiling these surprises would dampen the excitement of playing the actual game, so I’ll try and keep examples to a minimum. Each level has about ten shines (the equivalent of Mario 64’s power stars) for you to collect, which is done by performing tasks of platforming dexterity. At least one shine a level will be based around collecting eight red coins scattered around the level and another for collecting 100 coins in a level. Other tasks that pop up in every level include the ‘void’ challenges, which have you walk into an area, only to be stripped of your water-pack by the mystery thug. You must get to the end of these void sections which are simplistic and retro, but often infuriating, platforming challenges that see you crossing spinning, floating and sliding platforms, to claim a shine and your water-pack back. One task, which gets slightly tedious every level, is chasing shadow Mario (as the mystery thug is dubbed) around the level in a circle and spraying him until he admits defeat. It’s a task that seems very messy and lazy, especially considering the wild imagination shown through the rest of the game’s challenges.
And how satisfying those other challenges are to play. From your discovery of Yoshi to your first time shell surfing across the seas, there is a fine balance of real freedom and deviously designed precision. And if a task simply wants you to get somewhere, it will throw up some incredibly imaginative dangers on the way. Everything that has been key to success in various other platformers is finely honed here. Timing plays a big part when leaping from one violently swinging pirate ship to the next. Pinpoint accuracy and quick reactions are necessary when lugging bombs at floating balloons while you racket around the tracks of a roller coaster. That is if you can overcome the convincing sense of inertia. There are much more mini-games in here than there were in Mario 64. Sunshine doesn’t rely on them like many platformers do, but it does help to make everything seem more varied and fresh. But the real platforming is where the satisfaction is. Ricco Harbour, only the second level in the game, has such brilliant, frenzied design, full of sky high, needle-thin scaffolding that must be leapt, crept and hovered across that it is genuinely sweat-worthy to spy that final coin needed for the grand 100 right at the top.
And that’s only the second level. The game has you taking a huge number of risks and trying out wild things with your water-pack, and they will often work. Mario sunshine is a lot of fun to play due in no small part to the sheer creativity used in the level design. While one level has you steering a giant melon through an absolutely massive beach full of melon-smashing enemies (truly hair-raising), another has you approach a hotel owner every time you enter the level. Each time you speak to him. You will be sent on a new quest to help him out, from ridding his casino of a giant ghost to defeating an island-covering oily manta ray. It is hard to put the game down when it refuses to stop throwing new things at you. But the best part is that it’s platformer design at it’s very giddiest, and the designers know you’ve probably played it all before so they go all out with the busy, constantly moving levels and cleverly introduced twists to the formula such as extra skills for your water-pack.
I also think it is underestimated how much the character adds to the experience. For the first time in a mario platformer there are characters to interact with. Not just ones who dish out tasks and challenge you to races like in Mario 64 either. But simple residents who will marvel at a piece of scenery you are climbing, give you a clue on what to do next or simply fret about the dangerous force engulfing the island in darkness. Everything in Mario sunshine also moves a lot more. This may sound meaningless, and I suppose it’s not immensely important, but the sight of the locals wandering around with their children, ferris wheels spinning idly and water lapping at the beach’s edge makes the whole thing seem worlds ahead of Mario 64. While that game’s world was static and origami-like, this one seems busy and cheerful. Getting all the shines in a level is actually quite disappointing, as you know you have explored all its avenues and discovered all of its quirks and residents.
But is it perfect? No, it isn’t. In most reviews I’ve seen, there have been numerous complaints made about the camera. I find this remarkable, as I’ve never had such little trouble with a platformer camera, this one has offered me more control over what I see and how that I find all other game cameras now to be far too restrictive. Ironically, I find what many other people praise incessantly to be the problem, the control. Now I’ve no problem with most of it, and especially the way it’s implemented, but I just can’t stand the sensitivity of the analogue control. Mario runs much faster than he ever needs, and when much of the game is spent crossing impossibly narrow platforms, this is unbelievably aggravating and is the cause of about a thousand unfair game over screens. It is ridiculous the amount of times I was running in a straight line, only to suddenly veer off a ledge to my death, seemingly due to the pulse in my thumb. The worst thing is that there wasn’t really anything I could do to stop it from happening. And don’t dare suggest to me that I walk, as doing this requires such a minimal movement of the analogue stick that it is only really possible by clasping your entire hand around the rim on the stick and flicking forward very gently. And that isn’t going to get you very far before you curl up in a ball of wrist-cramp pain. Trust me.
And, probably mostly because of this, the game seems unfair more often than it should. Because when you do fall (The water-pack’s hover is useful, but it isn’t always going to work) it usually always does mean an insanely tedious and often difficult climb back up to the top. And when you fall, so inevitably, from the same spot for the millionth time only to climb back up again and have the same thing happen? Well, I just have to turn my Gamecube off and go and do something else, making sure to not think about anything videogame-related, for at least an hour. I love Mario, but sometimes I’m just sickened by him.
Visually, this is lovely. I’ve heard a lot about the rough textures and only 30 frames-per-second frame rate, but if I hadn’t had them pointed out they would have even crossed my mind. The character models often seem poorly animated, but Mario himself is super-shiny and flexible, watching him go is fun enough to make up for the faceless blobs that inhabit the rest of the game. The levels sometimes lack a little variety due to them all being set on a holiday island, but considering the limited theme a lot has been achieved, and the relaxed beach-life visual motifs that run throughout the levels make for a comfortable feeling of consistency. The bustling, colourful worlds, exploding with energy and often stretching far into the horizon are almost dizzying to look at. Many of the textures may be low quality, but the world they help to create is a jolly and exciting one full of wonder. Perhaps the most friendly, but maybe not attractive level is the hub land itself, a small town full of salesmen, desert islands, rusty coloured villa-style buildings and a stunning central river to tie it all together. The level design is just amazing.
How much you like the music will depend on how many Mario games you’ve played. Most of the tunes are fine and often very catchy, so newcomers won’t be disappointed. The real fun part though, is noticing the remixes of old Mario themes, not to mention the re-surfacing of old Mario sound effects. The voice work in the game is mostly irritating, so it’s lucky that, outside of cut scenes, voices are limited to a few amusing syllables each time someone speaks. And of course no review of a Mario game would be complete without a mention of its ‘You’re Dead!’ jingle. This one is suitably tragic and annoying, with a cool extended version for when you reach game over.
This definitely isn’t one to rent. It’s probably about as long as Mario 64, even if it is smaller, and I should imagine the increased complexity of its worlds makes it more fun to revisit too. It took me hours to finish this game, I’m not sure how many but I’ve spent way over ten so far. And I’ve not even got all of the shines yet.
Overall, Super Mario Sunshine is nothing short of brilliant. It has its fair share of highly frustrating niggles, but they are almost totally eclipsed by the real joy and excitement the game can conjure up inside you with such alarming frequency. To my mind it isn’t really that much like Mario 64 at all, but while it does many new things it keeps the very best of the series’ design conventions and is undoubtedly worthy of the Mario name.