Review by The Vic Viper
Vastly inferior to Mario 64 and Galaxy, and even standing on its own merits, its a very mediocre game.
Super Mario Sunshine had a lot of potential, but failed to deliver in almost every single area. It doesn't even feel like a Mario game in many ways due to the heavy focus on FLUDD, a water-gun that you use for pretty much everything from fighting to maneuvering through the levels. Basically, it is a talking water cannon with different attachments. The main nozzle squirts a jet of water directly ahead, which can be used to hit enemies and wash paint off the walls and ground. You also have three other nozzles, which are used to get you through the levels rather than fighting/cleaning (usually). One lets you hover for a short distance, another lets you propel yourself upward a hundred feet, and the other pushes you forward at a high rate of speed.
The FLUDD is very annoying to use because it is so difficult to aim properly. If you press the R trigger halfway down, you'll be able to fire and move at the same time. Pushing it all the way down gives you a stronger jet and the ability to "aim" with the c-stick, however you can no longer move. If you press the X button, you go into a sort-of first person perspective, which does make aiming a bit easier, however you can no longer move, jump, or see around you, meaning you get hit more often if you try and use it in battle.
The camera is also constantly moving to a spot where Mario is blocked from view by something like a building or a high tree. This happens all the time; even during boss fights, and you can't always move the camera into a better position manually. As a result you often have to make blind jumps, hoping that you've made it close enough to the edge to reach the next platform but having gone so far that you run off the current platform. That, combined with the fact that missing a jump often means falling back to the very bottom of the stage, makes for a game that is more frustrating than challenging.
Even if you ignore the flaws with the camera and aiming, there's still the fact that it just doesn't seem like a Mario game. Even in Super Mario Bros. 3, where Mario had countless suits, it still felt like it was part of the same series as the original since there was still a heavy focus on platforming. There was also a lot of variety, which Sunshine lacks. You're using FLUDD from the first enemy to the last boss, and you never change. There are no real power-ups and very few situations where you fight with items such as bombs or turtle shells. You can't even punch enemies like you could in Super Mario 64.
The game falls flat in terms of level design as well, since they're all basically the same thing. The game takes place on a tropical island, and all of the areas are tropical themed, so even though the different stages take place in different parts of the island, there really isn't that much difference in them. You have a beach, a harbor, a village (near a large body of water), a few more beaches, another town, and so forth.
Some areas do have quite a bit of platforming to them, especially the harbor area. You have to climb over ships, equipment, towers, and beams to get from the beginning to the goal. However, the fun of the platforming segments is killed by two things: the horrible camera and the repetitiveness. The camera is almost in the wrong place, which makes lining up your jumps difficult at best. The camera normally hangs above and behind you, only moving when you are close to a wall or move it manually. However, it tends to hang just a little to the side as well, and since it isn't directly behind you, pressing forward doesn't move you directly forward, but at a slight angle. This is a huge problem when you have to cross a very long, but narrow beam or bridge. You're constantly having to slow down or stop to readjust the camera, which gets annoying very quickly.
Sunshine tries to have a better story than the previous titles, which generally consisted of "Peach has been kidnapped. Go rescue her." However, the story is still shallow and, well, stupid. Basically, Mario, Peach, and her escort of Toads arrive on the Isle Delfino for a vacation, only to find that the island is a mess. A vandal, who looks suspiciously like Mario, has been painting graffiti and otherwise messing up the entire island. As soon as they land, the party is attacked by a Piranha Plant made out of paint. Fortunately Mario finds the oh-so-continently placed FLUDD nearby and kills it. At which point he is blamed for the mess and gets arrested (because apparently nobody noticed that he just arrived, is noticeably not made of paint like the vandal, and was getting rid of the monsters). At which point he is released and ordered to clean up the island. And that's that for a while. Eventually it turns out that the vandal is *gasp* Bowser. Well, specifically it's Bowser Jr., the Koopa King's son who was told that Peach is his mother and Mario is the evil villain who kidnapped her. Then he kidnaps her and it turns back into the generic rescue-the-princess plot. The plots in the previous games were even more basic, but that was okay because they didn't make the story part of the game. Basically the plot was given to you in the instruction manual or intro scene, and that was that. As Super Mario games are action-oriented, rather than plot driven, the story elements of Sunshine disrupt the gameplay elements without adding more to game. When you get right down to it, the plot of the game is Mario cleaning up spilled paint, with a damsel-in-distress subplot. Granted, the paint attacks you which is interesting in some ways, but it still makes for a very dumb story.
The game's difficulty is all over the place, going from sleep-inducing easy to insanity-inducing difficulty in the span of a single stage. It doesn't get progressively more difficult, but jumps back and forth throughout the game. There are a few sections that are truly excellently designed and have the perfect amount of difficulty as a result of design, but most of the time the difficulty comes from the horrid camera and/or awkward controls. As a result the game is simply aggravating in many areas, causing you to feel like playing a different game than trying again until you succeed. The easy parts are just boring, as you can finish your task without even trying, and it often feels more like a demo to show you how to play than an actual mission. Unfortunately, these are scattered through out the game, rather than just at the beginning, and include the final boss fight (which is one of the easiest fights in a Super Mario Bros. game).
If you've played Super Mario 64 you'll be familiar with the stage system, as it's basically the same thing. You start off in a main area (in this case Delfino Plaza), and all of the actual stages connect to the main area. From the starting point, you go over to the gateway that you want, which takes you to a specific region. When you die, you get thrown back into the main area, which means watching the introductory animation for the Plaza, then watching the introductory animation for the specific stage, then redoing the entire mission from the beginning. Again, this is more annoying than anything else, but as a result, you will be spending a good deal of time being frustrated at the game's design rather than having trouble completing a fair level.
Sunshine recycles 64's system of collecting an item to progress through the game. In 64 you had to collect stars to unlock new sections of the castle, and in Sunshine you have to collect Shines (suns) to open up new sections of the island. There are 120 Shines throughout the game, and some of them are very difficult to find. Most are obtained by beating a stage and receiving a Shine as your prize for completing a specific objective (usually get to a certain point in the stage, beat a boss, or something alone those lines). Other are obtained by collecting a hundred or more coins in a level, beating a mini-game, or simply finding the Shine laying around. The hidden Shines can be quite fun to figure out how to get, as they can be easily seen but you have to figure out how to get to them. A few are so obscure that you'll only find them by chance or consulting a guide.
There are a limited number of stages, and each stage will have about six "missions", where you have to complete a specific objective in order to obtain a Shine. These missions range from fighting a boss to navigating through the level to find the Shine to collecting ten red coins. The difficulty, quality, and fun vary tremendously between each mission, so while there are quite a few duds, there are also numerous levels that are decent. Unfortunately, this system gets very repetitive as you are basically going through the same area several times in a row. Mission types are also repeated, as each area has a coin collecting mission, at least one boss mission, and one long platforming mission. Bosses are also reused multiple times in the same area, and usually aren't that different in terms of how you defeat it.
There are quite a few "special" areas of the game that take place in some weird sub-universe and are easily the best parts of the game. First, you do these without the "help" of FLUDD, so it is much more like a traditional Mario game. Second, they are very difficult, but generally not in an unfair way (the camera is usually decent in these sections as well). Third, no FLUDD during these parts of the game. A nice little touch is that if you die in one of these sub-stages, you don't get thrown all the way back to the start area of the game, just the start of the sub-stage. Oh, and you don't have to use FLUDD either. If you've ever played Super Mario 64, you'll notice the similarities between these areas and the Bowser areas in 64.
In addition to finding the Shines, there are also 240 Blue Coins scattered throughout the game, which are generally harder to get than the Shines. Some you find, while others you get from cleaning paint off a wall, others by helping villagers, or by defeating a certain enemy. You don't need that many Shines to beat the game, however the more you have when you finish, the more scenes the ending will have. To see the full ending, you need all 120 Shines (which requires having all 240 coins). The ending isn't particularly exciting, so if you're going to collect everything, do it for the sake of being a completionist, not in hopes of seeing a spectacular conclusion to the game.
Whether or not it is worth the time and effort to collect all of the Shines is purely a matter of personal opinion. If you enjoy, or at least don't mind, collect-a-thons and can bear the annoyances of the game, then it can be pretty fun. It isn't a particularly long game, so it isn't a huge time commitment. On the other hand, since it is only a moderately long game if you complete everything, it is a very short game if you are only going to do the minimum needed to get to the final boss fight, and as such probably isn't worth playing in the first place.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Super Mario Sunshine (US, 08/25/02)
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