Review by Tom Clark

"Shine on, you rough diamond"

If anyone deserves a holiday it's Mario. All the times he's saved Peach from Bowser. All the times he's kicked Donkey Kong in the hairy arse. All the professional sports he's taken to. The public appearances at the industry shows. The karting. The magazine shoots. The painstaking attempts to repress all those terrible memories of Super Mario Ball. All this, and still with his day job as a plumber – it's no wonder he needs a break! And in true celebrity style, Mario isn't content with a Mr. Whippy and a deckchair at Blackpool like the rest of us, no, he wants the luxury of an exclusive island resort in the sun: the cool crisp waters, the white beach sands, the tropical heat, the sinister doppelganger, the toxic slime and the mortal peril. Wish you were here?

Super Mario Sunshine begins with Mario, Peach and Toadsworth jetting off to Isle Delfino for their Summer break. All is looking good for the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom – Peach hasn't been kidnapped for a few weeks, Bowser is nowhere to be seen and somehow they seem to have managed to ditch that lanky halfwit Luigi. Marvellous. As soon as they arrive at the airport, though, it appears that something is wrong. A sinister goop is covering the airport, graffiti is everywhere and the sun has stopped shining on the town. And what's worse, the locals are blaming Mario! There are several eye-witness accounts of a dark and sinister figure merrily painting all over the town's landmarks, and this person is a dead ringer for Maz. Luckily, the moustachioed one has help in clearing his name (and clearing up the town) in the unlikely form of the FLUDD – a strange talking rucksack that can shoot water in any direction. With his new companion, Mario sets out to rid the island of the toxic waste, clean up the graffiti, and find out just who is behind the strange, shadowy Mario lookalike causing all the trouble….

This may sound like Mario has come over all environmentally aware, but don't worry, even though the plot is largely based around the cleaning up of the goo and graffiti this game never falls into the trap of feeling preachy (unlike, say, Global Gladiators on the Mega Drive, a game ironically sponsored by those pollution-loving burger farmers at McDonalds) The first thing to strike you about the plot in Sunshine is just how deep it is in comparison to past Mario platformers. While it's still no Paper Mario, it has its fair share of plot twists (when one character refers to Peach as his ‘Mamma' it's hard to know whether to laugh or just let your jaw drop in shock and disgust) and text-heavy moments of dialogue, all conveyed through some absolutely gorgeous cut-scenes. The second thing that's likely to grab your attention, though, is just how un-Mario it all is. With the opening cut-scene taking place on a private jet, and with the first mini-level being set at an airport, it all feels alien to the Mushroom Kingdom world. That's not necessarily a bad thing – after all, in the past the closest a Mario platformer has gotten to a plot twist is the infamous revelation that Peach is in another castle – but it is slightly off putting at first, especially since the gameplay also takes some significant leaps away from the Mario norm.

In terms of structure Sunshine is clearly the sequel to Super Mario 64 - in order to return the sunlight to the island Mario must collect one-hundred-and-twenty Shine Sprites (that look like tarted-up stars) from the different levels on Delfino. The main town on the island - Delfino Plaza – acts as a hub level in the same way as Peach's castle acted in 64, with all the worlds being accessed via different parts of the town. However, the Plaza is a far more interesting hub – there's a great deal going on in town – boats sail in and out of the port, there are literally dozens of locals going about their business, and the whole place just feels generally alive. And given that a significant amount of the action actually takes place in the Plaza (from chasing the fake Mario around, to gathering fruit for the locals, to finding quite a few hidden Shines), going back to the Plaza in between levels feels more like a continuation of the game, rather than a pause, which really helps the flow and pace of the game.

The bulk of the action, though, naturally takes place in the different levels on the island – there are eight missions in each stage, and each of these is rewarded with another lovely Shine. The levels are all quite well designed – from a sunkissed village in the hills to a busy sea port complete with moving machinery and a near-manic level of scaffolding to scale, to a coastal amusement park (complete with rides of course), and on to a lava-soaked finale that sees you scaling platforms to a vertigo-inducing height. None of the levels could ever be accused of being dull, with plenty of hidden areas to discover, tightropes to walk, metal grilles to climb, and of course platforms to negotiate. It's the mark of a well designed platformer when you find yourself staring at some high-up structure or distant hill and think to yourself that there's no way in hell that you can make it all the way there, only to spend ages trying anyway, and Sunshine certainly achieves this. Even as early as the first environment – the hillside village – you'll be bouncing off of walls onto tightropes, and from there onto the rooftops and across windmills to reach your targets, before returning to the ground and sliding belly-first through a gentle stream to slip under a revolving watermill. It's classic stuff. Sadly though, there are only eight levels to visit (including the final level, which has just the one mission – beat the final boss), which is a shame, as 64 offered up almost twice as many, though it must be said that each stage here is larger and busier than in Sunshine's illustrious predecessor.

Some of the missions that you will be tackling within these levels are similarly inspired – an early highlight being a genuinely tense battle with a robotic Bowser as you ride a high-speed rollercoaster – the Bowser robot shoots bullet bills that follow you along the track, and it can get delightfully tricky to keep track of all the things on screen that could kill you. Other classic moments include scenes where Mario must surf through a tough obstacle course against a tight time limit on the back of a squid, and the full 3D platform debut of Yoshi – everybody's favourite dinosaur (except Denver – he was our friend, and, like, a whole lot more, and you just can't compete with that). Yoshi's transition to 3D is handled effortlessly; nothing is lost from the days when Mario rode the Yoshster around in Super Mario World, and that isn't a bad thing at all. It's moments of inspired genius like this that really make you fall in love with Mario and his adventures all over again. At other times, though, it can feel astonishingly uninspired and familiar.

After a while, the missions can seem incredibly repetitive – initially, chasing the Mario clone around the various levels proves to be an exciting experience, as you need all your skill to keep up with him as he bounces around the scenery like a pro, but when you come to the eighth or ninth chase the excitement has long given way to tedium. But that's not all. No follow up to Mario 64 would be complete without having missions that see you searching the levels for eight hidden red coins. Indeed, the red coins are back with a vengeance, but on occasion you will need to do a red coin hunt twice in a single environment, which just smacks of lazy design. On top of that, the haunted hotel level is far too close to the haunted house in 64 for comfort – right down to a spinning giant roulette table that plays exactly like the spinning carousel in the previous title. It's still an entertaining level, but the feeling of déjà vu is inescapable. All these little niggles add up to give an unfortunate feeling that the game has perhaps been a little rushed, which is a massive pity.

The most controversial aspect of Sunshine, though, is the use of the FLUDD. As well as simply being used to wash away graffiti and grime, the FLUDD is used for… well…. everything. The bad guys are largely killed by spraying them with water, twin jets of water can be aimed at the ground allowing Mario to hover across gaps, and later FLUDD upgrades allow more powerful jets that make Mario jump higher, or a propeller attachment that – in addition to allowing faster movement through water – can be used to force your way through locked doors. Putting aside the fact that this just doesn't feel much like Mario, this is an unsuccessful attempt at something new because it removes much of the challenge from the trickier sections. If you think you are going to miss a jump you can just use the FLUDD to make sure you hover to safety. This is a huge blow, as Mario actually has quite a large repertoire of moves at his disposal – from the classic wall bounce manoeuvre that sees Maz jumping onto the side of the walls before kicking off to gain greater height, to the somersaulting triple-jump that allows access to those just-out-of-reach platforms, to the move that lets Mario slide around on his front, which, frankly, just looks cool. To truly master these moves to the best of their potential takes skill, and using the FLUDD negates the need for this. Why bother stringing together several complex jumps and flips when you can simply hold down the FLUDD button and gently float to your destination? Though it is amusing at first to spray the non-hostile locals with water just to piss them off, the charm soon fade. It doesn't completely ruin the game, but it does make it a duller experience at times – it's little surprise that the levels where Mario is stripped of his FLUDD are far more engaging.

Thankfully these FLUDDless obstacle-course-like levels are quite a regular occurrence, and simply put they're absolutely brilliant. A real throwback to the 2D Mario titles, all sense of free-roaming three-dimensional exploration is binned in favour of short, winding courses packed with all manner of moving, rotating, disappearing and crumbling platforms, incredibly tight ledges to tentatively walk along, and huge gaps that need to be leapt. Each stage is a strictly left-to-right affair (though the action is still viewed with the 3D camera from behind Mario's head, so maybe that should be front-to-back) and each stage is extremely short, but with no cheap FLUDD hovering moves to bail you out, it's a glorious forum in which to show off the pure platforming skill that is swept aside in the rest of the game. It's a shameless battle cry for the old-school, and a complete defiance of the technology that the Gamecube has to offer, and quite honestly it's probably the single best feature of the game. Every pixel in these stages is perfectly placed to offer the gamer the best platforming experience possible. Later forays into the FLUDD-free void are extremely tough, with Mario unable to lay a single foot wrong, and yet far from becoming frustrating they prove to be immensely satisfying experiences.

What can become frustrating in Sunshine, though, is the often hideous camera. Though as you would expect the C-Stick can be used to move the camera at will (albeit irritatingly slowly), the bastard thing has a mind of its own and often happily wanders off on its own little tangent, most likely at the least convenient time. This is never more evident than in the otherwise well-thought out hidden level that is shaped like a pinball table. This level sees you bouncing around trying to collect the eight red coins on the table in order to gain one of the game's many hidden Shines – all the while avoiding dropping down the obligatory hole at the bottom. This is tricky enough as it is (it's one of the few occasions where using the hover mode of the FLUDD becomes a genuine test of skill as you need to drop in exactly the right place to get your coin), but the camera, almost unbelievably, tends to swing with no warning or provocation to a view from behind the back wall of the table, so you can't see what's going on. Mario is still represented in silhouette form, but none of the platforms are visible, so if you're hovering in mid-air you now have absolutely no idea where you're going, and this can lead to plumber death as you slowly coax the camera back into position just in time to see the wee fella plummeting to his grave. At some point somebody on Team Nintendo really should have pointed out that some levels really could benefit from a fixed camera view. The issue of where to stick the camera in 3D games is usually only a bone of contention with lesser developers churning out identikit licensed tat, and it's such a shame to see arguably the most anticipated and important platform release of this generation of consoles fall at the same hurdle.

In terms of presentation, though, this game is everything you would expect from Ninty's flagship franchise. The levels all look gorgeous, with an incredible draw distance (if it's in the level you can see it, no matter how far away it is) helped by a subtle but realistic blurring effect on the further away scenery. Everything looks very bright and sunny, which fits in extremely well with the ‘Summer Holiday' theme of the game, and there are some lovely heat hazes on display. The character sprites are similarly well rendered – right down to the way that the light catches on the clumps of Mario's hair that stick out the most (and just wait until you see Mario don a pair of CHiPs-style aviator shades – extremely cool in an eighties-retro kind of way), and the animation is faultless – everything runs extremely smoothly and fluidly, and with not a flicker of slowdown. But it's the little details that really shine here (no pun intended) – when Mario slides through the sludge some of it sticks to his face and clothing, and there are some dazzling water effects – particularly the way in which the sun can catch the water. And it's nice to see Nintendo giving a subtle wink to fans who remember the Cube's original name by placing a Dolphin statue in the Plaza.

The new music in the game is also quite memorable, with some sunny upbeat tunes that blend in perfectly well wit the surroundings, but the musical highlight comes in the occasional remixing of the classic Mario tunes – in particular the version of the familiar ‘underground' tunes every time Mario drops into the sewers of the Plaza to hunt for coins. The classic Mario sound effects also make a triumphant return, such as Mario's delighted ‘yippee' as he bounces around, or the immortal ‘ch-chiiing' that rings out every time you collect a coin. Some of the newer sound effects aren't so great though – every time you stop to speak to a character they make an odd mumbling sound. In the cases of the big-nosed lumbering locals of Isle Delfino this actually suits the characters, but the low babbling that comes from Toadsworth can only be described as weird.

Some of this may sound rather critical, but the fact is that there is still an awful lot to be enjoyed in Super Mario Sunshine, it's just not up to the high standards usually expected of a Mario title. Perhaps it's wrong to judge the Mario games on a higher scale than other platformers, but previous titles in the series have consistently proven to be the benchmark titles by which all other platform games have been judged – the first Super Mario Bros. pretty much invented the genre as we now know it, Super Mario Bros. 3 perfected the 2D platformer, and similarly Super Mario 64 laid the formula that all other 3D platformers have since tried to emulate. Sunshine has a great deal of good points and some cracking moments, but the disappointing overuse of the FLUDD and the occasional repetitiveness of the tasks given to you mean that it just doesn't reach the lofty heights of greatness that everybody was expecting. At its best it still offers up some of the most enjoyable platforming on the Cube, but at its worst the camera can render it far too frustrating, and it can even, criminally, become quite dull at times. It's still a worthy purchase, and moments like the rollercoaster battle or the climactic, lava-heavy ascent towards the final battle will go down in Mario legend alongside such joyous classic moments like the magic carpet ride in 64, or the first time you don the frog suit or ride in the giant shoe in Mario 3, but the glimpses of genius here are far fewer than in previous entries to the series.

The sun is still shining on Mario, but in this instance it's through a hazy cloud cover of ordinariness.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 03/14/06


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