Super Mario Sunshine

Format: GameCube
Published by: EAD/Nintendo
Based on: Nintendo's less childish cash cow

Genre: 3D Platformer
Media: DVD-ROM
Date: 27 September 2002

Super Mario Sunshine. The mere name should be sufficient to negate any need for a review - as the latest update to one of gaming's greatest series, only the most dour fiend would expect it to be anything less than spectacular. And with the immense outpouring of amazement and happiness scattered about the web by advance importers of the game like leaves in a windstorm, this review is doubly redundant. Just as Mario 64 made everyone who hated the N64 soften their steely expression of contempt for the system and say, "But... yeah. Mario," so Mario Sunshine will inevitably be used by generations to come as justification for shelling out for a GameCube.

So there should be little question that this is a great game. Still, just in case there is some doubter out there whose opinion is wholly reliant upon my tiny voice amidst the din of the Internet, you can rest easy. Mario Sunshine is phenomenal. Not flawless, but every bit worthy of its heritage.

First, let's get past the ugly bits. Mario Sunshine is not a perfect game by any means. Most significantly, Nintendo still hasn't figured out how to fix the flawed camera from the Mario's first 3D adventure. It's nice to have the GC's camera stick instead of those little mouse dropping-sized yellow buttons on the N64 controller, but all the manual control in the world don't mean doodly if the camera behaves badly when left to its own devices. And behave badly it does - frequently the camera will chose to shift about by as much as 180 degrees, playing hell with any care you may have taken to align your perspective on a difficult jump. This shortcoming is particularly obvious in tight areas; when in a small space, Mario will often disappear from view entirely. When blocked by the foreground, Mario is visible as a silhouette, and all interactive objects are depicted with question marks - a clever idea. But it doesn't always solve the problem of maneuvering in close quarters (an especially important consideration when using the jetpack, whose limited activation period requires quick action). To compound the irritation, the camera limitations are gratingly inconsistent. When using the camera stick, it's impossible to move the camera view when a wall blocks the way; yet when the L-Trigger is used to orient the camera with Mario's perspective, the view will frequently jump into a wall and provide a vignetted (but perfectly functional) window on events. Really, would it have been so difficult to allow the camera stick the same freedom?

Another problem comes in the form of the difficulty - challenge is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's dished out unevenly here, and often to the point of frustration. Playing Mario Sunshine in Japanese has, if nothing else, been quite educational for me. I used to think "himitsu" was the Japanese word for "secret." But now I realize that in fact it means "pure distilled emotional abuse." Each of the game's worlds has a special secret (or "himitsu," if you wish) stage which consists of nothing but pure, terrifying platform challenges - spinning blocks, springboards, immense rolling logs - all suspended above a yawning void of death eager to swallow poor Mario into its gaping maw. These sub-levels don't even try to disguise their purpose with cosmetic themes; they're 3D action platforming at its most pure. And how challenging indeed they can be. Those who feel games are getting soft in their old age will feel all warm inside after plummeting to digital doom innumerable times, and can take great comfort in knowing that, after completing that first nail-biting obstacle course in Bianco Hills, the worst has yet to come. However, those with a lower tolerance for torture will probably take less of a shine to these sections and consider them frustrating brick walls to progress.

And therein lies one of Mario Sunshine's most frustrating shortcomings. While Mario 64 offered more than a dozen worlds with 6 goals apiece, Sunshine's world is a much more limited 7 worlds (plus the hub) - each with 10 stars. This would be bad enough if its simply resulted in more backtracking through familiar territory. But to make matters worse, it's not possible to skip ahead and acquire later Shines as you could do with Mario 64's Stars. Each time you enter a stage, the Shine you choose to pursue is the only one available (barring the Shine which corresponds to collecting 100 coins). While this has the net benefit of allowing the stages to be remixed somewhat for each new challenge, it also means that if you get stuck trying to earn a given Shine, you're unable to progress further in that stage until you overcome your impediment. Mario 64's less-focused level design was far more effective, as it provided more options and freedom in the face of the game's trickiest objectives.

On the other hand, it's not as though Nintendo is shortchanging us. SMS may have only half as many levels as SM64, but those levels are twice as large as the stages in the game's predecessor - most are so massive they're effectively divided into two sections. Running through Bianco Hills is rather like exploring a fusion of SM64's Bob-omb Battlefield and Thomp Stage at the same time. Mario 64 had a great deal of overlap in terms of level themes to begin with, so Mario Sunshine effectively merges levels from its predecessor into some of the most amazing, enormous, vibrant, living worlds ever to appear in this sort of game. And while repeatedly exploring the same areas can be somewhat dull from time to time, most stages provide such a variety of level goals - everything from stomping angry plants to riding jet-powered squid to battling a giant mech while riding a roller coaster - that there's little opportunity to be bored.

Early adopters of Mario Sunshine have expressed frustration and annoyance that, say, Super Mario World had 96 levels and SMS only has eight! But such a complaint stems from general ignorance and a failure to comprehend basic differences among types of games; the 96 levels of a game like SMW were short jaunts which generally involved running in a straight line from left to right. But game designs grow ever more complex, and arbitrary concepts such as "levels" and "worlds" shift with them - Yoshi's Island had only half the stages of its predecessor, but they were twice as large and far more intricate. Mario 64 combined the content, challenges and obstacles of several SMW stages into single levels, creating a more interesting game world to explore. Rightly so; 3D levels designed along the lines of SMW stages would be staggeringly dull. SMS takes this a step further, and considering the way in which the levels almost fit together it sometimes seems that the only reason Isle Delphino is even divided into levels is because the development team couldn't come up with a better way to separate the game's goals. If the next Mario game were to consist of nothing but a single, massive, fully explorable world divided by progressive obstacles ala Zelda or Metroid, I certainly wouldn't complain.

As it stands, the game is huge, and beautiful through and through. The graphics are amazing - not for the number of polygons in the characters or the realism of the environs, but for the sheer amount of depth and distance on display. As huge as the game's levels are, there's no fogging, no pop-up and never a moment of stuttering framerates. You can stand atop the summit at the far end a stage and see clear to the opposite side, the world beneath your feet pulsing with life as your gaze sweeps past ferris wheels and water fountains and towering spires. Even more impressively, you can see clear to the next stage, with the view marred only by the slight atmospheric haze and shimmering you'd expect on a tropical island beneath the summer sun. The characters, from Mario to Yoshi to enemies to the dozens of NPCs that inhabit each stage, are well-rendered, and animated as cartoonishly as befits their appearance. The overall visual design is bright and colorful, and there's a vivid wash of color and dimension lacking in Mario 64. When you stop to look carefully you may notice that certain textures blur out up close and that incidental objects aren't always rendered with hundreds of thousands of polygons, but such nitpicking is a sort of like looking at the Mona Lisa and saying, "Hey! Where's her eyebrows?" It's allowing a trifling graphical detail (that you don't even notice when you're actually playing) to hamper your appreciation of the overall magificence on display.

The single most impressive technical aspect of Mario Sunshine, however, is the amazing fluid dynamics engine that is present at every moment of the game. It's not the sort of thing that will appeal to some NEXT Gen disciple, those graphics tarts who judge games solely in terms of the number of polygons on the screen at any given moment. But those less jaded and superficial will find it simply amazing that the game features a water physics system on par with Wave Race: Blue Storm as an incidental feature. The water in Metal Gear Solid 2 is the only thing that begins to compare - but even that barely stacks up to Mario Sunshine, which uses liquids for more than just neat cinematics and confusing swimming sections. At any given moment, Mario can use his FLOOD waterpack system to launch a stream of water (responsive to the force with which the analog trigger is pressed) which sprays and splashes across the environs, puddles upon the ground, drips off objects, annoys NPCs and washes away globs of slime (which also obey their own gooey physics, while spawning all sorts of noxious enemies to anatagonize poor Mario. As if he didn't have it rough enough, what with being framed and stuff). All the while, every area of Isle Delphino features countless fountains, pools, streams, geysers and lakes, each with fully interactive water that makes the ocean shore effects in games like Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts look downright pathetic. And of course, at any moment, FLOOD can be switched to a pneumatic jetpack, which allows Mario to fly about the world of SMS with ease. And style.

The addition of the rocketpack was the single riskiest design decision in Mario Sunshine. After all, Mario 64's greatest strength was how utterly basic and simple a game it was - an adventure designed to ease gamers into the complicated world of 3D with a friendly mascot and a logical, streamlined interface. The addition of a water cannon and jetpack immediately makes Mario Sunshine a more daunting prospect to newcomers. And were it less intuitive, it would have been the game's death knell. But fortunately, FLOOD is the most usable gaming mobility accessory seen since Ladd Spencer first strapped on the Bionic Wire - after just a few levels of action, gamers will find themselves super-jumping with aplomb, spraying enemies as they flip through the air, and immediately switching to jetpack mode to cushion the impact of landing. Even dozens of hours into the quest, it's still a thrill to travel across Delphino Harbor via treetops and jetpack, never once touching the ground. The aerial gameplay features are reminiscent of Tail Concerto, but given the extra patina of excellence you'd expect from Nintendo's top development team.

Mario Sunshine excels in being a Mario game as well. The usual fan service is paid to every game in the series, even some of the rather obscure ones. Minor characters like Toad and Yoshi retain their voices and mannerisms from previous games (Mario Advance, Yoshi's Story, etc.). Familiar goals and enemies and items pop up all over the place. There's even a fair amount of story involved - fully-voiced cutscenes split up the action, and the NPCs in each stage spout enough text to make a person think they were playing a suped-up version of Paper Mario. Which, obviously, isn't a bad thing at all.

Mario Sunshine isn't the jaw-dropping, world-shaking, paradigm-shattering experience that its predecessor was. But that would be physically impossible - Mario 64 was amazing because it thrust platform gaming into the third dimension, and the limits of both technology and human perception make another such revolution inconceivable. Rather, this is the other kind of Mario game, the kind that subtly defies expectations and stretches the boundaries of the genre, that expands the vocabulary of gaming in small but decidedly brilliant ways. As with Super Mario World or Super Mario 3, there's little here that hasn't been done before in some fashion. But it's never been done this well, or with such seeming effortlessness.

Ultimately, it boils down to this: Shigeru Miyamoto is at his best when he abandons genre conventions and gamers' expectations and follows his creative muse (see also Pikmin, Yoshi's Island). Mario Sunshine is another fine example of this principle; it's a far cry from what people expected in a follow-up to Mario 64, and this works to the game's advantage. Mario's one of the last characters I would have given a jetpack to, but after experiencing it I'm sad to think that in his next game he'll probably go back to his usual ground-bound jumping antics. If there's a real downside to the game it's that the Mario series rarely revisits specific game mechanics, and SMS and its rocketpack gizmo and gooey fluid dynamics and Yoshi Juice are so lovely they simply beg to be given more than eight worlds in which to, well, shine.