Review by EOrizzonte
"The evolution of a revolution"
It's been six years, and one entire console generation. Six years, and yet the legend lives on, like Final Fantasy VII. Lots of games have gone by - some of them of excellent quality, - and still the majority of people will refuse to admit that the legendary titles that revolutionized console gaming have been bettered. In short: it came out in 1996 as a launch title for an ill-fated (yet unmistakably good) console, but Super Mario 64 is still considered the best 3D platform game of all time. It's no wonder, then, that expectations for its long-awaited sequel were so impossibly high, and so difficult to meet, even for a game designer who's used to create absolute masterpieces. And it's so hard to come out with something new these days, and fans were dying for a Mario game for their beloved, yet undoubtedly underused, Gamecubes. So, Nintendo somehow had to hurry to release the new videogame messiah before even the hardcore turned their back on them to handle down their cash for Sony's black monolith. As a result, Super Mario Sunshine fails to deliver a totally fresh experience as its predecessor did. Still, it can be effectively considered its evolution, so it's a game worth enjoying nonetheless.
To start with, Sunshine's set is fairly unusual for a Mario adventure. Mario takes on a vacation with Princess Peach to the beautiful Delfino Island, but it soon turns out that a Mario lookalike is creating havoc on the island. Having been mistaken as the mysterious individual, Mario has to take on the hard work of cleaning the island. To do this, he'll be using one of Prof E.Gadd's latest creations - the FLUDD, a water sprayer that allows Mario to spray and hover and, with the proper upgrades, even to skyrocket and zoom on the water's surface.
Water is everywhere in the game, since it's so essential to complete missions (and of course, since you're on an island - duh). Similarly to Super Mario 64, you have to collect sun-shaped gold jewels, called ''Shines''. As is usual in the now consolidated 3D platform game formula, Shines can only be gotten after completing the required tasks, which vary from the ingenious to the ludicrous, even within the same level. Some Shines require up to twenty minutes to get, but it's not unusual to get your hands on the prize after less than a minute into the level. Which underlines what is probably the biggest drawback of the game: it's less various than its predecessor. Levels are smaller in size and less complex in structure, and the reduced scope accounts for repetitive tasks and the irritating necessity to exit the level every time you find a Shine or lose a life. This happens because the layout of the level has to be rearranged to fit each mission's requirements. Although this allows to add variety to fairly reduced gaming areas, it's horribly annoying when compared to the freedom found in Banjo-Kazooie.
Grating against the size of the levels is the fact that programmers wanted to amaze you with breathtaking visuals, and therefore with a rarely paralleled draw distance. When in a level, you can see the nearest levels' structures in the distance, which is nice when compared to the worlds seen in Super Mario 64 - where you were either on an island suspended in the void, or in an area enclosed in walls or hills. Still, when you stumble upon one of the many invisible walls in Sunshine, you are likely to regret the coherence of 32- and 64-bit platform games, where your limits were always obvious.
And so, to compensate the less extended ground, action has been developed vertically. Mario will have to jump and hover his way past endless gaps, usually barely larger than the distance you could clear with a regular jump. Also, the wall-jump technique has been given an enormous importance, and you'll have to use it a lot just to reach new, easily available areas - and not, as it happened in the N64 game, to get to out-of-reach secrets not available in any other way. Sunshine is much more about platforming action than its more exploration-oriented prequel. While this cuts out the most boring aspects of SM64 (such as underground labyrinths, and the like), it increases the difficulty level, and ultimately, it can lead to tremendous frustration. Don't get it wrong: it is immensely fun to see Mario jumping from platform to platform, falling down dozens of feet just to hover at the last time to get on that faraway platform, or to bounce from ground level to rooftops in a matter of seconds. Thanks to a less jerky control system, it's immensely rewarding and is cause to hysterical exaltation when you finally lay your hands on the much-wanted Shine. The problem is, as usual, the camera: you try to balance yourself on a steel structure suspended high above the sea, chasing your nemesis at the maximum possible speed, without having to navigate a 90-degree corner and fall all the way down because the camera didn't follow your movements throughout.
Camera issues are particularly relevant when it comes to the ''old-style'' levels of Super Mario Sunshine. In these levels, the evil Mario will steal your FLUDD, leaving you in a stage that represents what should have been the natural evolution of the platform-game genre were it not for the item-collecting nature of Super Mario 64. Flat, barely textured polygon platforms move incessantly above a bottomless abyss, and you have to navigate them without the invaluable aid of the hovering maneuvre. Underlined by an astoundingly captivating - and smile-inducing - remix version of the original Super Mario Bros. theme, these brief stages are ultimately the most intense in the whole game, testing your jumping skills to the limit. They would be perfect if the unruly camera didn't come in to spoil the otherwise flawless action, making you lose tons of lives. Anyway, there's still no game that is free from camera problems, and in time, you can cope with it.
There is still one thing that puts Sunshine's level design below the quality of SM64, and that's the fact that you can no more find Shines you weren't hinted at at the beginning of a level (with the exception of secret, non-signaled Shines). You have a mission, and you must complete it. Only then you will be able to advance to the next one. This rigid order of things is evidently necessary to add coherence to the layout of the levels, but it sacrifices the immense freedom of the N64 title, and actually nullifies its easy-going attitude. You are free to roam around, but there's not much to see, and always something to do. There are no vast plains to run through, jumping like a madman, and no open skies to fly to. Only walls and platforms, and annoying people waiting for you to do something.
So yes, Sunshine has its flaws. It would have been hard to improve much upon a formula that was almost perfect the first time through, and it's clear that Mario's latest adventure, despite its importance for the destiny of the Gamecube, wasn't Nintendo's top priority - Miyamoto himself said it out loud, so it would be silly to look for a gaming revolution that was never planned in the first place. NCL wanted to give a sequel to their 64-bit seminal title while working on something new, and in this they have succeeded. Indeed, Super Mario Sunshine is an excellent game. There's plenty of things to do and to see, and although some missions lack anything special and are hardly memorable, others will deliver tremendous fun. The sheer size of the game is bewildering, and there's plenty of secrets to remember you that few game designers can do things as well as Miyamoto. His touch is visible everywhere you look, from the intro to the tiniest detail - which, of course, probably isn't there by accident, but to hint you towards new rewards. Also, Yoshi makes a return as a playable character, and even if his help is rarely needed, the simple fact that he's there makes the whole thing even more familiar and enjoyable. All in all, there's a total of 120 Shines to collect, 24 of which have to be gotten by trading in the 240 blue coins scattered everywhere on Delfino Island - by far the longest quest in the game, none excluded. Add to this secret, non-mission Shines; brightly, colourful, typical Nintendo-style graphics; and a musical score that, albeit repetitive, will easily get to your mind, never to come out again, and it's clear that Sunshine is the undisputed king of the platform games available for the current generation of consoles, even if its total size is half that of its legendary predecessor.
A note of honor must also be awarded to Nintendo for one of the greatest PAL conversions ever on an NCL machine. The 60Hz option is available, but it's futile to care when at 50Hz, the game runs in full-screen, and it also seems slightly FASTER than the original format (you listening, Square? You taking note, Capcom?). With a flawless translation in all the main European languages, and an extremely fast conversion time (19th July in Japan, 4th October in Europe), you just have to notice that Nintendo wants to win this war, or at least to come in a better second place than before.
So, Super Mario Sunshine is not Super Mario 64. But is it really fair to compare the two titles? The N64 game was the first for a new console, and it was precisely aimed at revolutionizing not only platform games, but videogames as a whole. It was raw, yet polished; primitive, yet complete; flawed, yet perfect. Sunshine isn't really worse - it's a different approach totally, focusing on bringing back Mario to his origins rather than on bringing the genre to yet new levels of quality. In itself, and in this time and context, it's currently No.1 in platforming action; in videogaming history, it's a great game, but lacks the neverending originality of the prequel. It's repetitive, and less inspired, and sometimes, even boring. But its quality cannot be underestimated, as well as the care that was evidently profused in its making. It's an essential purchase for just any Gamecube owner, and a glimpse of what Nintendo is preparing to deliver in the immediate future. In short, it's Mario - again, and forever.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 10/17/02, Updated 10/17/02
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