Review by Richo Rosai

"Updating the Presentation but Remembering the Roots, Nintendo Succeeds Grandly in Making Mario Fans Proud."

Are We Disappointed Yet?

A release like that of Super Mario Sunshine brings with it some pretty high expectations. The last time Nintendo gave us a Mario game (and a rushed one at that), it was so spectacular that most would wonder if it could be surpassed. At the same time, even those filled with doubt must also be filled with anticipation and longing for another display of that spectacular genius. The rule of thumb seems to be that one shouldn’t approach any big-name game with high hopes because he won’t be able to enjoy it as well as he would if he went in with a more open mind. Being partial to this school of thought, I did my best to approach Super Mario Sunshine cautiously – prepared for fun, but ready to accept the fact that those life-changing games were a thing of the past, and that those moments of supreme gaming bliss were only achievable by a naïve child. My technical knowledge and cynical attitude were too well developed for me to be able to enjoy Super Mario Sunshine the way I did Super Mario World, I said to myself. It didn’t work. I boiled a pot of coffee, danced a little jig, and even kissed the shrink-wrap as soon as I had the game in my house, unable to control my excitement as I prepared to experience the first Mario game in six years. Somehow I knew I was setting myself up for a disappointment, but it was no use. I inserted the disc, and my heart jerked as the title screen came up. The disappointment, however, never came. I even actively searched for it. I teased it, daring it to come out of its hiding place. But, even after six solid days of compulsive play, Super Mario Sunshine had not only met my expectations, it had surpassed them all and left me in a daze.

The Unavoidable Overstatement

“Where have you been for the last week?” “What would you say is the greatest achievement of man?” “Honey, why don’t we talk like we used to?” “Now what’s your reason for dropping Biology again?” This is a random assortment of the questions that have been posed to me recently. Interestingly, I can answer them all with the same three words: “Super Mario Sunshine”.

After Nintendo of America delayed shipment of their preorder package by two excruciating weeks (what oxymoronic irony!) of the game, their “Sunshine Pak”, I finally got my hands on the tiny blue disc that was to become the source of so much joy and stored fat for me. Once I did, it was all over. Super Mario Sunshine addicted me. It thrilled and amazed me. It challenged and tantalized me. It single-handedly restored my faith in the post-Playstation video game industry, and, indeed, the human race. I’m sure it also ended world hunger and achieved a total, eternal nuclear disarmament somehow. The point is that although all this probably looks like poorly thought-out, over-enthusiastic ranting, and it probably will to me as well in three weeks or so, one can’t help but to attempt such praise for Nintendo’s latest Mario after witnessing it for himself.

Super Mario Sunshine is fun. It’s marvelously fun. It’s impeccably fun. It’s hopelessly fun. Its fun defies all adverbs. Although I doubt my ability as a mortal man, I’ll do my best to describe that fun.

The setup of Super Mario Sunshine is almost exactly the same as that of Super Mario 64. You enter into individual stages from a main hub, and each stage has a number of tasks for you to complete. Each time you complete a task, you earn an item called a “shine sprite”, along with access to the next task. As you progress in your shine sprite gathering, the storyline unfolds with small events to break up the pace, and new stages become available. The meat and potatoes of Super Mario Sunshine’s gameplay is the content of these events. Varied, from as simple as coin-collecting to as fantastical as cleaning plaque off of a giant eel’s teeth, they never become boring. Just like in Super Mario 64, you will be enthralled until you collect the very last shine.

Presumably after the events of Super Mario 64, Mario and Peach are on a trip (on Peach’s pink private plane, complete with a GPS map and seatbelt signs) to Isle Delfino, a tropical paradise filled with strange, low-poly blob people and palm trees ‘till Tuesday. As they arrive, it becomes apparent that it isn’t going to be that easy. After all, what kind of Mario game would it be if we just sat around sunbathing? A liquid vandal who looks suspiciously like Mario is on the loose, painting huge M’s all over the place with some kind of toxic goop, and ruining the beautiful island’s environment. It seems Mario has been framed, and the only way to clear his name is to clean up the island. Luckily, just a few minutes into the game he comes across a strap-on water pump called FLUDD (“Flash Liquidizing Ultra Dousing Device”… uhuh). This new addition to Mario’s arsenal is the biggest piece of the gameplay puzzle, and is what makes this game more than just a Super Mario 64 upgrade. The first and most apparent use of FLUDD is washing away the pollution, but it soon becomes obvious that there is more to the little pump than janitorial applications. FLUDD can also be used to stun enemies and hover short distances. With eventual upgrades, it can also be used as a rocket or like a jet ski.

FLUDD is a big part of the gameplay and a big help with it, but the basic Mario moves remain the same, creating the foundation upon which your FLUDD skills will flourish. Triple jumps, wall jumps, and all of Mario’s old 3D moves return, this time accompanied by a tornado jump which is accommodated by the much more versatile Gamecube stick.

As the Japlish featured (and half-hidden) in the game’s logo indicates, you do have to master all of Mario’s moves this time around. The casual (or poorly skilled) gamer will have a tough time avoiding, for example, triple wall jumps just because he doesn’t care if he finds each and every shine sprite. To give us a fresh breath of nostalgia, the designers decided to take FLUDD away at certain points in the game, forcing us to use only the old Mario moves to hop and bop our way to a shine sprite. These areas usually take the form of long platform-jumping sequences filled with moving, spinning, and disintegrating surfaces. It was after viewing these that I felt for the first time that the art of the 3D game had been legitimized and perfected, finally catching up with the old school of gaming.

Super Mario Sunshine’s camera represents one of the most significant aspects of the evolution that has occurred in the past six years. Rather than being “killed” by the camera or otherwise having to blame it for your failure, in this game you are given direct responsibility over the camera. Sure, there’s a camera program, and yeah, it does as well as most of the rest, but now you can rotate it smoothly in any direction, allowing you to, for example, turn a chase-cam sequence into a side-scrolling one. This doesn’t sound that dissimilar from Super Mario 64, but the execution of it is leagues beyond the old style. Half of the game is absolutely stomach churning, and now it’s up to you to decide what point of view from which to make those precarious jumps. It’s not perfect (yet), but it’s the best point of view system I’ve ever seen, and the bad instances are like tiny grains of salt on a golden beach of the good.

Lastly, let me mention the one large thing that Super Mario 64 has over this game. In Super Mario 64, the auxiliary challenges (anything needed for a “100%” ending, but not for a normal completion of the game) were always fun, and always progressive. A few of the hidden items in Super Mario Sunshine just seem too… arbitrary. I refer mainly to the blue coins. There aren’t always clues as to their whereabouts, and oftentimes the sheer obscurity of the locations is frustrating. In some cases you simply have to walk around shooting everything. I was even tempted a few times to consult a guide, whereas such a temptation never presented itself in Super Mario 64; everything flowed nicely and was genuinely fun. In the end, personal tastes may vary in just how cheap a way to lengthen playtime this type of “Easter egg hunt” is, but I feel that it was much more nicely done in Super Mario 64. This is the single blemish marring this game. The hardcore shouldn’t mind sticking it out for enormous relpay, while the normal tasks themselves are fun enough to warrant multiple times through. So although my beef with the blue coins lowers my opinion of this game to below that of Super Mario 64, it is forgivable, and hardly detracts from the experience as a whole.

So just give me a few more weeks to let the orgasmic trance of bliss induced by this game sink in before you chide my description of Super Mario Sunshine as the best thing since bread. I don’t think I can be blamed for my overexcitement. Oh, who am I kidding! Super Mario Sunshine is much better than bread! And pizza! It even comes close to those Snickers ice cream bars…

GAMEPLAY: 10
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If God and an ATI Card Had a Baby…

Unapologetic in its trademark cuteness and technically astounding, the graphics in this game are just plain spectacular. With the occasional exception of a local, all of the characters look like the NURB models we’ve been salivating over since the Nintendo 64 promo art. You literally have to struggle to see even a single polygon, and the mostly geometrically flat (though still realistic and wonderful) environments ensure that these highly detailed characters can move about without any loss of a perfect frame rate, with an exception or two in the most intense scenes. I challenge anyone who claims that the XBox boasts a significant graphical superiority over the Gamecube to play this game. Technical specifications aside, Nintendo has produced what may be the most effective and beautiful graphics ever in a video game.

Many of the series’ themes return, and some items (like the “bloopers”), have come back out of a retirement extending to the days of the NES. The spotted mushrooms that have been with us since the beginning and the colorful lettering style started in Super Mario World return in a reunion of elements, giving a sense of continuity to go along with everything fresh. Nintendo banked on our nostalgic needs, and though I won’t give away in what form, the original, 8-bit Mario graphic even makes an appearance or two here. The blue skies and oceans seem endless, and you can even see pre-rendered (though barely noticeably so) backdrops representing the other stages in the background, giving you a grand sense of orientation. The rows of houses, spinning amusement park rides and stories and stories of platforms are all visible from any distance without almost no pop-up or fog. The distant areas even blur inversely to how close the camera is to them, creating the first and only “heat effect” I’ve ever seen in a game. Prepare to be stunned.

The water effect in this game is peerless. Squirt a little water while spinning and witness the droplets scatter and hit vertical and horizontal surfaces in all directions, then slowly drip down and dry up, though not before forming a gleaming, reflective surface. Yes, that’s no typo. The water actually reflects what’s above it for the split second it’s on the ground. Somebody at Nintendo really paid attention to detail – even unnecessary detail like this! There is also an ineffable program for static bodies of water like lakes. The ripples, splashes and reflections look real enough to make you thirsty. There is a slight glitch here that can cause the reflection in the water to flicker on and off (the camera decides whether or not you are “looking” at the water in order to shut the resource-expensive effect off when you’re not, and sometimes it shuts it off when you are in fact looking at it from an obscure angle), but to point this out is nitpicking, and especially so since most will not find this tiny little blemish. Finally in the liquid roster is the goop, which has a beautiful reflecting surface and morphing abilities to make it rival anything that the movie “Terminator 2” has to offer.

Super Mario Sunshine’s looks play another important roll in the game. Apart from being breathtakingly gorgeous, they have a smooth, hypnotic realism of form that, in spite of the juxtaposition of the obvious surrealism that pervades most of the scenes, can literally make even the hardest gamer feel a bit woozy. Mario 64 didn’t do it to me. Doom didn’t. Nor did Halo, even with my head-mounted “goggle TV”. But Super Mario Sunshine made my stomach turn in many of the sky scenes. Although it can be a turn-off to the more sensitive, in moderation and to those of us who can handle it (I assume this includes the vast majority), this element gives a sense of immersion that can only be described as terrifyingly euphoric.

Although, when it’s all done, there are several instances that allow one to realize that the game is not completely graphically perfect, it comes as close to this lofty goal as any game I’ve ever come across.

GRAPHICS: 10
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Teach Me

“The problem with 2D is the lack of a third dimension. The problem with 3D is… everything else.” I here quote my disgusted self at the beginning of the Playstation era. We’ve come a long way since then, but there are still a few of the same fundamental gripes with 3D gaming that are valid today. However, Super Mario Sunshine comes the closest yet to matching the transparency of 2D controls.

The controls are all explained in-game in the standard Nintendo style, but you can master them on your own. They are instantly intuitive beyond reproach. The fact is that you can’t blame anything on the controller this time (although you might curse your slippery, sweaty hands in some of the more intense areas). The controller is the genie that responds to your every command flawlessly, giving you exactly what you deserve. You have to learn to think and move in three dimensions in this game more than ever before.

Slightly tapping the control stick causes Mario to “shake”. Yes, even before tiptoeing, the analog is precise enough to detect a slight tap and have Mario jerk in place. Wow. Restricting Mario’s movement with a slight tilt is required to keep him from falling down from high construction beams, and you can sigh in relief and dash to your heart’s content on the ground. Jumping, the most basic element of everything Mario, is as important as ever and wonderfully fun, as Super Mario 64 veterans will recall. One jump is nothing special, though a second jump immediately following will send you quite a bit higher. (Sound familiar?) A third sequential jump, if accompanied by progressive movement, causes Mario to do a super-high flip that is even higher than the highest jump in Super Mario 64. In addition to this, probably to sooth the aching thumbs that result from trying to do a triple jump in a limited space, we now have the tornado jump, which can instantly propel you as high as the triple jump could, but with no need for a runway. You simply rotate the stick one time, and jump while pushing the stick in the direction the rotation ended in to get a high and far jump for “free.” Mastering this is crucial to completely finishing the game, and comes in handy when you need to jump far but aren’t quite sure if a normal jump will do it.

With all this running and jumping, do you really have enough concentration to control a separate water pump? It might have been a problem, but Nintendo has assured that it blends in perfectly thanks to the analog front (‘L’ and ‘R’) buttons. Pushing ‘R’ will cause Mario to shoot water in the direction you are facing. You can run around while holding the ‘R’ button to water large areas efficiently. Pushing ‘R’ all the way down (until it clicks) will allow you to stop and aim your water stream when a target comes along which requires more precise aiming. You can even use ‘L’ to strafe (Nintendo chose the word “sidle”) while shooting, adding one more element of depth to the water system.

While you’re doing all this, you can divert your right thumb to the yellow camera stick to move the camera in any direction or to any distance at any time. This ensures that a crummy camera program won’t leave your view obstructed by a building or something, although it is quite a challenge to change the camera in the heat of a battle. You can also use the ‘L’ button outside of the FLUDD context to arrange the camera behind Mario.

This game basically controls like Super Mario 64, with the needed augmentation for the FLUDD and a few extra treats blending in perfectly. 3D gaming doesn’t get much more fluid than this, folks.

CONTROL: 10
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I Am Mario, Hear Me Shine

The audio here is perhaps the only thing that doesn’t break new ground (but when was the last time sound broke new ground?), though it is great and does fit in well with the overall game.

The same old Mario voice we all came to love (or not so much) is back again (if you’ve never read the history on Charles Martinet’s being hired by Nintendo, I recommend it by the way). Indeed, much of the sounds are taken directly from Super Smash Bros., which are directly taken from Mario Kart 64, which in turn were directly taken from (wait for it…) Super Mario 64. This isn’t a bad thing, but I hope the actor had something in his contract about royalties for subsequent games. But in all seriousness, there are quite a few new voices, including a pooped-out Mario when your health gets too low, and (for the first time) lengthy dialogue by Peach and the other main players (I won’t spoil it like other, more inconsiderate reviewers have), which you have to accept as it is. (It is also worth noting that Mario does not speak, other than his short one-liners, keeping with Nintendo’s tradition of keeping the protagonist quiet, presumably to allow the player to identify more with the character under his control (or maybe Charles Martinet can’t act).) Taking the voices too seriously is a bad idea, since it’s only natural that not everyone will love them. But they’re thematically acceptable and above par quality-wise, and they all but disappear when the gameplay starts.

The other sounds are sublime but full of character if you pay attention. The pattering of Mario’s shoes, the sound of him sliding down a wall, the splashing of water, and the grunts of Yoshi are all up to Nintendo’s standards, but ultimately overshadowed by the sheer greatness of everything else going on in the game.

I am very fond of the music in Super Mario Sunshine as well. The tropical village sports a bouncy, Spanish acoustic banjo number (the resident “stick-in-your-head” number this time around), and the caves, jungles, and amusement parks are all full of fitting character as well. But I chose to take the sound a half-mark down from a perfect ten just because the music doesn’t do anything as revolutionary as some of the previous Mario titles have. It’s very good, but it probably could have been just a tad better. One thing that was a particularly dandy treat was the recreation of the original Mario “overworld theme” for the “secret” levels of the game. I’ve been hearing it for days, even in my sleep.

AUDIO: 9.5
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Say Goodbye to ‘REALLIFE.EXE’

Once you begin Super Mario Sunshine, it is likely to have you in its clutches strongly enough and for long enough to cause problems in your real life. I had to drug myself to sleep the day I first got it. It’s just that fun and addictive. Even if you’re good, it should take you at least a full week of compulsive play to find all of the shine sprites, and don’t be surprised if you then feel compelled to do it again. Nintendo has control of my life just like they did when I was eight years old watching “The Wizard”, and they will get my money for every first-party release that follows, as well as my devotion as a citizen of their magnificent digital universes. Do I care? Well, no. My crummy life isn’t as nearly as fun as Super Mario Sunshine, and I can’t think of much that is.

OVERALL SCORE: 10
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RUNDOWN:
GRAPHICS – 10
GAMEPLAY – 10
CONTROLS – 10
SOUND – 9.5
REPLAY VALUE – 9
OVERALL: 10

[ + ]
Everything Mario, now better
Greater challenge than before

[ - ]
Blue coin hunting is relatively uninspired
For the sake of having another minus, I guess I could say that it's so good that I wish it were longer

If you like this, try:
Any first-party Nintendo game


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 09/16/02, Updated 11/15/02


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