Review by Mariner
Take one step, then two steps back
It took six years to come up with a sequel to Mario 64. Six years. You'd think that would be enough time to make sure they'd get it right. After all, this is the latest in Nintendo's largest and arguably most important franchise, so it certainly deserves special devotion. How, then, can we explain what happened here? How did Nintendo possibly come up with a game that is so, well, forgettable? I mean, I'm not really a fan of Mario 64. I think the concept was excellent, but the execution a bit flat. And yet despite my lower expectations, Sunshine still let me down. How?
At the very least, my main complaint from Mario 64 was partially corrected. Sunshine controls much better than the original, with fewer complicated actions or slipping around. The biggest improvement comes in the form of the wall jump. Rather than the pain of having to time your jump and angle it just right in Mario 64, all you have to do now is press A while on a wall. Also, most of the different types of jumps have disappeared, again simplifying things. The end result? A far less frustrating experience. No longer was I wasting my time arguing with the controller, I was actually focusing on my objectives. I was able to get everywhere I needed to without a dozen tries, an unforgivable flaw of the original.
That's not to say they were perfect, of course. Mario still slips and slides everywhere for no good reason. You'll still find yourself accidentally doing backflips when you don't want to and jumping normally when you meant to do something else. And the camera, although better than 64's, is still a pain in the neck to work with. You still don't have complete control, and there were several times when the camera refused to move where I wanted it to. Like the back of the ferris wheel, an excruciatingly painful quest (that, thankfully, it's possible to skip, but I wish I realized that before I spent an hour pulling my hair out over this). You have to perform a series of jumps off gates while avoiding enemies and spraying platforms to get them in the right place. But because it's near the edge of the map and it's encased on three sides by walls, the camera won't pull out enough to properly see where you're going. Meaning you'll have to deal with awkward camera angles. Meaning you'll be missing your jumps and falling all the way to the bottom to start over. Again and again. Inexcusable, Nintendo.
There were other aspects that people had issues with, but I don't mind. For instance, I've seen a lot of complaints about the tropical island theme, claiming it didn't lead to enough variety. Whatever. The levels themselves are varied, even if the atmosphere is the same. You have towns, buildings, waterfront, theme parks, lots of architecture, and open spaces. I don't care if it all looks similar, because each level plays differently. The problem is that there are so few of them (only seven?!?), not that they're all the same. And the much maligned water pack is great. Not the main mode; I couldn't care less about spraying stuff. But the hover mode took a lot of the frustration out of jumping, allowing you to have an extra degree of control. Not only did it eliminate numerous tricky jumps or give you a safety net against annoying mistakes, but it also led to new types of platforming.
On the flip side, I didn't think the so-called underground levels are as great as everyone else seems to think, although they're still not bad. Yes, they're short and to the point. This lets you focus on your objective without getting bogged down. And this generally involves a lot of hopping from platform to platform, almost like the good old days. But alas, they are NOT like the NES games, but rather closer to short versions of the Bowser levels in Mario 64. Which means they still have all the frustrations of poor camera work and slippery controls. This leads to a lot of frustrating deaths, as you fall victim to seemingly simple tasks due to not being able to see correctly or Mario not jumping where he was supposed to. Thankfully some of this frustration is alleviated by numerous 1-ups, but still... This isn't intricate platform design, with perfect running and jumping amid tons of blocks. I guess I can live with it, but these so called "classic" levels still aren't what they should be.
The game's most glaring flaws, however, come from the big picture. 51 Shines. That's all you need to beat the game (well, technically only 50, but it's highly unlikely a first time player would know that). Yes, there's 120 shines, just like in the original, but there's no reason to go after the rest of them. Oh sure, you can say there's no reason to try to get the other 50 stars you don't need in Mario 64, but there's just one little difference. In Mario 64, those stars could be anything you wanted. Here, you are required to grab seven specific shines in each level. Hate trying to stay alive on the sandbird? Think the hotel level is stupid and boring? Tough luck pal. You can't pick and choose what you want to play here. Even worse, you can't even pick what order you want to do the shines in. Oh sure, you can still pick which level yu want to go in, but once there you have a set order that you need to complete the shines in. First kill the mantra, then climb the hotel, then enter the pool, etc. Don't want to go in that order? Too bad.
Sure, it may not seem like that big of a deal at first, but in essence Nintendo killed the best thing about Mario 64. The freedom to go anywhere and do whatever you wanted turned what could have been a boring adventuresque game into an delightful playground, allowing you to have fun with the enjoyable objectives and ignore the rest. Let's face it, not all 120 stars are going to be fun for all people, but you didn't have to deal with the ones you didn't like. Here, no such luck. And you can't even skip one and come back later if you're frustrated with it. If you don't like the first shine, you can't even see what else you could be doing. And in many cases, it also means you won't be able to visit half the level! What about the joy of just running around? Or, for that matter, having 6 different objectives you could go for at once? In Mario 64, did you ever find yourself going for a star, taking a wrong turn, start fooling around, and accidentally find an entirely different star than the one you were aiming for? I did, and it was always an unexpected delight. But here, that's not even possible. To me, this sucks all the fun out of a genre that I tolerate at best. What's the point of playing a game with the potential for a ton of variety if you're not allowed to take advantage of it?
Besides, many of the shines are just downright boring. You have 120 shines. 24 are nothing more than collecting blue coins. In other words, an entire 20% of them aren't really shines at all, but just a simple collectathon. It gets worse. Of the remaining 96 shines, each level has two (yes, two) "collect red coin" episodes. They also have two "secret" shines, which generally consists of repeating the underground secret levels again with some extra challenge like, y'know, collecting red coins. Each level also has one episode which is nothing more than running around splashing Shadow Mario. That's just in case you didn't have enough fun doing it three times in the hub, after all. Speaking of which, have fun killing a polluted piranha four times, or a giant squid three times, or spraying three landmarks clean. Remember the variety of different objectives in Mario 64? Here, it seems like the same 3 or 4 scenarios over and over again. Oh sure, there are some that are genuinely cool, like the fight against the mantra or, well, actually that's the only one I can think of at the moment. It beats spraying a slot machine 50 times just so you can open up the next part of the level, that's for sure.
A word has to be said about the blue coins, too. If there was ever a more transparent ploy to artificially increase the "size" of a game, I'd love to see it. It's not that I mind the idea; having an optional collect-a-thon can encourage a player to explore their surroundings more and become more involved in the game. But here, it's only pseudo-optional, as it's a huge chunk of the 120 shines. It's a huge requirement for a "100%" game, as opposed to, for example, gold skulltulas in Ocarina of Time (which were virtually useless after the first 50). I'd much rather see 24 new scenarios rather than just collecting coins, and even biting the bullet and cutting the number of shines to 96 would have been preferable. In any case, 30 blue coins in each level seems like an awful lot, as some will undoubtedly be boring or easy to get. For example, there are pairs of painted shapes in some levels, where spraying one will cause a blue coin to fall out of the other wall. Neat idea, as you have to figure out where the other one is, then spray, then race there before the coin disappears. But then you have to repeat it to get a second blue coin. Seems kind of redundant, doesn't it? And indeed, with 240 coins, redundancy is a key word. You will get bored with finding them all before you finish; it's inevitable. It's impossible to find 240 different clever way of hiding these things in such a small world, meaning such a quest cannot sustain your interest.
Of course, that's not the only aspect that feels a bit artificial. The much hyped Yoshi is a giant waste of time. His moves are no different than Mario's, he was used only sparingly and for limited time, and he... just wasn't fun. There was simply no point to having Yoshi around, and if it wasn't for a few required areas, I'd have never ridden him. And even then, those few "required areas" did nothing to enhance the game; they'd have played practically the same without our favorite dinosaur. The extra water packs, too, felt pointless. Sure, the rocket pack was slightly useful in a couple places, but where was the running pack ever used outside of one optional shine? How was it integrated into the game? Sadly, it wasn't, and you'd never find yourself using this during the actual game. Which is sad, because the one shine it was used for was fun. Why couldn't we have more sustained running areas with this water pack? That would be like the classic games, just running and jumping without the annoyances of cameras and other trivialities. But hey, we can't have that, can we? We'll just have wasted potential instead.
It seems clear to me that the game was rushed (I guess six years just isn't enough time for some people). The lack of a variety of objectives, or even levels for that matter, indicate a game that feels like it could have been so much more. The tacked on Yoshi and the "we have to bring it up to 120 shines somehow" blue coins makes it even more obvious. And yet it really doesn't matter, because the entire premise of the game is flawed. Where's the open ended freedom of Mario 64? The forced structure does not suit a game that could be a relaxing, enjoyable experience. Which is sad, because the game actually does improve on Mario 64 in several ways. If this game had the originality of its predecessor combined with the mechanics and unique concepts that it did have, Sunshine would have been brilliant. Instead, we get a game that, while still worth trying out, can only be described as a disappointment. Mario deserves better than this.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
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