Review by Snow Dragon
"The game all the good guys want"
Rarely does Nintendo let their ambition regress into folly when they release another title starring their ubiquitous plumber Mario. Mario has more staying power and brand recognition than any other character in the business today, and he will indubitably regale us with bombastic adventures and flights of fancy if the flow of time and the universe tarry. More interesting still is his ability, possessed by no other console mascot, to revolutionize the standards of gaming and raise the bar in terms of how we see, play, and react towards games while in reality doing nothing technologically innovative. Nintendo's new first-party epic, Super Mario Sunshine, is crystal-clear evidence of such. Mario has taken a well-deserved rest from platforming gigs for the past six years - more than half a decade. We are so fond of him, though, that it may just as well be a six-week leave of absence. Mario's time off has clearly not been spent in vain.
Ironically, just as he returns to us in reality, he's taking a vacation in the world of games. There are no cakes awaiting Mario at Peach's castle this time. What awaits him is a tropical resort island blanketed - nay, asphyxiated -in a polluting sludge brought about by a perpetrator bearing an odd resemblance to Our Hero. Upon his arrival on the island, Mario sees the problem at hand and investigates for clues. He meets FLUDD, an automated talking water cannon who is very keen on the surrounding environs and is even so kind as to tell Mario how to make the most efficient use of his myriad features. For every ally, there is an evil mastermind at work, and SMS here puts out a rather paltry offering:
Shadow Mario, an aqua-based clone of the protagonist with red eyes and an intimidating spear. In spite of Shadow Mario's rampant vandalism, Mario is deemed the guilty party and put to work in community service, cleaning off every surface in sight. Hardly any way to spend a vacation, but alas, all great adventures must start somewhere, even if that somewhere is a night in the slammer. Sunshine's gameplay centralizes itself primarily around FLUDD, a tool used not only to clean up the gunk littering Isle Delfino but to transport Mario in various creative ways. With the flick of a button, FLUDD turns from a spring cleaning kit to a rocket that can let Mario hover a given distance over the ground or blast him into the air in one quick spurt. Nearly all enemies fall prey to some of that high-quality H2O, but all the old standby moves like a simple jump and the Ground Pound are there too. Even the fence-climbing and revolving gate doors from Super Mario World are back! Mario's incredible physical feats, however, are only one facet of this grandiose tropical vision. The game progresses very non-linearly, allowing you to go almost anywhere from the outset and opening new areas after the accumulation of only five or ten Shine Sprites (which are to this game as the Power Stars were to Mario 64). Diversions such as the hunt for Blue Coins and the FLUDD-less levels, which hail back to the retro glory days when control skills were a must, supplement what can become the tedium of rooting out new Shines, and in rare cases supplant it. Oddly, however, there is on the whole so much to do in this game that once you're bored with one particular activity, there is some other task waiting in line to be carried out that will make you forget the other in a hurry. With ingenious new bosses to do battle with, techniques hitherto unimagined in a platformer, and good old-fashioned item scavenger hunts, it is interesting to dwell on the thought processes and meetings that made this expansive quest come seamlessly together.
Probably the aspect of this game that stuns me the most is the graphics. There's water, water, everywhere, and so much for the eye to drink. Using a surface such as water is a great method for showing off the Gamecube's texturing abilities, along with objects far smaller but no less important in scope, such as the baskets of fruit in the main plaza and the cheerily plump denizens of the island. Mario himself sports a new look, being fuller of figure and rolling up his sleeves to soak up the temperate climate. Peach has cut off her short sleeves entirely, a sign that even Nintendo now agrees with the Public Gaming Domain that she desperately needs a tan. The worlds aren't much bigger than they were in Mario 64, but they seem to contain so much more. Enemies are bigger and verge on intimidating, such as in Gelato Beach where you must face some irritating walking piranha plants on top of a triad of solar panels that you must point toward a single, currently malfunctioning power source. Their appearance, when coupled with the pandemonium that strikes your heart when they stumble toward you, is a truly intestine-wringing thing. Although their increased size is not analogous with higher difficulty, this is of no matter. Your eyes will dart from one small detail to another, purely fascinated and wanting to know and see more. Piranha plants and sludge may make up the bulk of what infests the island at the beginning of the game, but it's all done beautifully, with that panache and range of bright colors that only Nintendo possesses.
Mario 64 gave us time to adjust to the plumber in a new 3D world and the thrill of running in circles as well as back and forth. Now that Nintendo feels we've acclimated ourselves to this sort of thing in the six years that Mario's been out of the limelight, they've made sure to make to take the best of what they know and expound on it further. Sneaking up on foes and crawling don't factor in as heavily - this is a game of action, dagnabbit! There's a bit of a learning curve for working FLUDD with style and grace, but once you learn all of what the cannon has to say about the way it works, you'll be flinging el agua around like a pro in no time flat. If you remember the control scheme of the N64 game, some moves like the backwards somersault will return from your subconscious in no time. These old moves are easier to pull off thanks to the increased responsiveness of the Gamecube controller. Wall kicks are a piece of cake, and it's no problem to triple-jump to a ledge out of reach of a single hop. Everything from diving off a cliff to riding everyone's favorite reptilian taxi Yoshi around Isle Delfino is totally spic-and-span. The only fault here is that the camera, rotated with the C-stick, is still not as all-encompassing as some hoped it would be. It's still hard to get the focus that you want, making it only slightly less than the chore that it was in Mario 64. Seventeen years after his initial NES release, Mario is still surprising us with how agile he is for such a chubby guy.
Unlike in most other Mario games, where you still find yourself whistling or humming three or four memorable tunes occasionally, only one song in Mario Sunshine is worthy of repeated airtime on the playlist of your brain - the remix found in the levels where Shadow Mario steals your water pack and you must cross a series of all manner to platforms to retrieve a Shine and your cannon. Using synthesized a cappella makes for a tune that's playing through my mind right now. For the most part, the sounds and music are laid-back, either staying quiet and functioning for only their given purpose or attempting to pander to lovers of the golden days in some way. By no means is it disappointing - it's just that in Mario adventures, what goes into your ears is as much a part of the experience as what comes out of your thumbs. Like the Sounds of Nature tapes you buy at Target, the music is something to listen to so that you can get to sleep faster. I hate to say that the composition is a little bland, but frankly, it is pretty weak - for example, that accordion sort of thing in the main hub area. Don't play this game hoping to have something to bob your head to.
Super Mario Sunshine is all about the thrill ride. There is so much to do and so many twists and turns. At Pinna Park, an enormous metal Bowser shows up and is terrorizing the general populace .... but what does the king of the Koopas want? What's up with this Shadow Mario guy? Will Peach ever learn to get herself out of a jam, fight her own battles, and tan evenly? On the surface, SMS is just another everyday platformer that just happens to star the most recognizable face in video games on the planet. There is something more intricate to it, however, a certain je ne sais quoi that urges you to find out what's in store for you at the end of the line. Days, weeks, and months will be devoted to this search. This game is the perfect candidate to take story depth in the SMB saga to another level. Interesting concepts are plastered all over this game, leading you to think that Nintendo was doing more than slapping together a Mario game to feed the hungry masses. How can anyone expect a game to be fun if the outfits involved weren't having fun along the journey as well?
For all that this game provides, however, it's puzzling that it doesn't represent any steps forward in the series. Aside from the expected graphical enhancements, nothing cool has been done to take Mario into another world. The water cannon is only a gimmick, turning the game into the Mario 64 Part II that everybody was hoping for and putting it in a tropical setting. Instead of giving us whole new venues to explore, we have the same grasslands, the same beaches, nothing to tickle our fancies. Mario has been in a whole slew of other environments before with all sorts of moves. In fact, come to think of it, there are probably less techniques that Mario can pull off overall (excluding with the aid of FLUDD) than in the previous installment! This shouldn't stop you from enjoying the game, though. It has droves of things to love, and despite the subtle setbacks, you'll be too immersed in the quest to notice them really. Mario looks, plays, and smells just as great as ever, and .... has he lost weight?
Super Mario Sunshine is just one of many games in the crop of first-party works of genius that's coming at us. Starfox is already here, Metroid is rounding the corner, and Zelda is further tantalizing those who have already drowned themselves in drool with their own excitement. Get this game now - I promise your sensory organs (and Gamecube) will thank you.
Sunshine on My Shoulders Makes Me Happy
-- The graphics (textures especially) are most definitely a sight to behold
-- Controlling the fat man in blue is a snap
-- Throwbacks such as Yoshi and the Mario theme remix are welcome
-- Not just a straight-up story this time; there are twists coming out the wazoo
-- Camera still isn't 100% perfect
-- Sound and music are too relaxed
-- There aren't really any technical steps forward in the series
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 10/26/02, Updated 10/26/02
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