Review by kristina kim

"Mario rides tall in the saddle once again, but can his new game pony up?"

In a way, perhaps the setting for Super Mario Sunshine is an allegory for the experience of playing it; Mario is sidetracked while on vacation, and must once again right wrongs when needed. Taking a rest between his major adventures, the entire game has a side-story feel to it; the game even lacks any sense of accomplishment and urgency whatsoever. Super Mario Sunshine isn’t perfect, although it’s a far cry from being the successor to Mario’s previous adventures.

Mario is not about story, characters, or intense human drama. In an age when games are trying to become more and more like movies, it’s good to sit down with a game that totally fails at trying to tell even a hint of a story, yet (theoretically) excels so well in the gameplay department. The only problem with this is that you can’t skip cutscenes.

The 3D platform game is a much maligned beast. While the 2D platformer had an almost universal appeal, 3D platformers have become a niche genre; interesting, since they sell so well, yet so few people really can enjoy them let alone play them to completion. It took nearly a decade before 2D platform games were perfected; it may take twice that to perfect 3D platform games. Tiresome scavenger hunts for stars, jiggies, coins, knuts, bananas, whatever they may be, it’s all the same; not only that, but camera issues galore. Maybe the platform genre should have stayed in the 2nd dimension.

The graphics in Super Mario Sunshine do not impress. Although everything is clean and crisp, there’s not a whole lot of detail – and there’s even less personality. The entire game takes place upon a singular tropical island, divided into several subsections. The variety of past Mario games that traveled to exotic and distant locales is gone, replaced with a uniform and unremitting setting, which can becomes monotonous as it doesn’t afford the same gameplay variety. The majority of the game revolves around water; as such there’s plenty of it everywhere, and it’s the most beautifully animated aspect of the game, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Wave physics that rival Waverace, as well as impressive distortion and refraction effects abound, but there are games in recent memory that have impressed on the same level and then some. Where then, does all the effort of the graphics engine go? Why, it goes into maintaining a single, continuous world before you. The draw distance is only limited by line-of-sight; there’s no more fog or well-placed walls to circumvent your viewing pleasure. While it’s impressive to be able to view an entire level from a single, high, vantage point, it’s not as functional as it appears. Naturally, small details are easily lost once they reach a certain distance. There’s a heat-distortion effect that’s meant to simulate distance, and while it’s a neat effect, it annoying not to be able to see faraway objects with clarity. It’s worth noting that playing the game without progressive scan will often make polygons that are faraway glitch and flicker – combine this with the intentional heat distortion, and the extreme draw distance becomes little more than a novelty. In a game this large, maybe Mario should have packed some binoculars for his vacation.

Music has always been a part of the soul of Mario games as much as the charming characters and level design. Sunshine doesn’t necessarily break that tradition, but just like the graphics, while the music is good, it’s not necessarily indicative of a Mario game. Indeed, there’s an excellent and varied tropical score played throughout the game that finds the right note between being ambience and embarking with full force. There’s also a brief cameo by a rendition of a classic Mario Bros.tune, one that is sure to please any long-time gamer.

Don’t expect Super Mario Sunshine to create a new genre or reinvent it the way Mario 64 did – it merely continues the formula. However, there are a few issues with Sunshine that keep it from – pardon the pun - shining. Serious camera issues plague the game – so much so that certain sections of the game are nigh-unplayable due to them. The camera just isn’t as intelligent as it should be – in areas where it should follow the player, it stays still – in areas where it should be locked, it zooms and pans, often behind walls. Strange that the camera would become more dependent upon the player given the more action-oriented nature of the game. No game has a perfect camera system, but there are a lot of them that have ideal ones – and requiring the player to adjust the camera constantly is not exactly ideal, nor is it feasible. The poor camera clashes heavily with even poorer level design – the tight and intricate nature of some levels simply do not allow convenient camera angles. It’s a rarity to die by the bad camera angles, but it’s commonplace to become frustrated by them.

Just as in 99% of all 3D platform games, the point of the game is to collect a set amount of special items. This time, it’s Shines and Blue Coins. The main Shines are earned by completing set objectives in each level; collecting 100 coins in each level also earns another Shine. Blue Coins are scattered around every level, and every 10 coins discovered earns another Shine. There are several different worlds that are all accessed from a singular hub world, which itself contains a number of challenges. While it sounds very similar to Mario 64, and it is, it’s a heavily unbalanced system. A vast number of shines can be had in under a minute, which can cut the game startlingly short. The more difficult shines take longer to achieve simply because the path to the shine is fraught with technical issues. Going after shines is rather tedious because each time you succeed, fail, or die, you’re thrown back to the main hub world. Considering the amount of effort required to even approach some Shines, it quickly becomes tiresome to have to backtrack again and again just because one spot in a level is giving you a hard time. The rigid mission-based nature of the game pigeonholes the player into completing a singular task – only one shine can be earned at any given time. Each mission requires something different, so the set up from mission to mission can vary greatly. The Blue Coin challenge is actually the toughest part of the game. Simply put, there are too many of them. 240 too many to be exact. With over 30 hidden coins in every level, it becomes a royal pain to have to track every single one of them down. It’s possible to finish the game by simply completing the Shine missions in every level, ignoring the secrets and even all of the blue coins, but the point of Mario games was never to reach the end, it was to enjoy the journey.

For a Nintendo product, Sunshine has an overwhelming feeling of being rushed. There are so many moments in the game that make you consider the possibility that the developers had more ideas that they wished to implement – but simply ran out of time. Oddly, there’s also an abundance of glitches, which are far too common to be a mere oversight; it’s not a rare occurrence to fall between a crack in the wall or to become forever trapped between polygons. Many of the objectives laid out in the game are startlingly similar; though there’s an occasional novel concept many of the goals have a tired, overused feel near the end of the game. Most of the time, you end up just spraying things with water, with little else involved. The only real amount of substance to the game is the Blue Coin scavenger hunt which feels as if the developers rushed to add content in the least imaginative way possible.

Sunshine is indiscriminately more action-oriented than it’s predecessor, Mario 64. It’s faster, with more intricate and tighter levels; it requires good reflexes and even better timing. The level design isn’t afraid to go frighteningly vertical – a new challenge, especially for a game that does not allow flight. Indeed, the exploration aspect of the game only becomes apparent in the search for Blue Coins – at which point it becomes a tedious scavenger hunt for terrifically hidden treasure. Mario still has many of his trademark moves from Mario 64, including the side-somersault and the triple jump, with some new abilities gained from a waterpack called FLUDD. Most of the moves surrounding using FLUDD feel a little awkward though, and at times it can become quite clumsy. It’s too vague of a device for a game that demands such accuracy of the player. In time, adjustments can be made, and using FLUDD becomes second nature. Sunshine requires more of the player than any previous Mario game to date – it’s clear where the developers meant for players to execute certain moves. Just as in previous Mario games, however, “cheating” is possible – Mario’s abilities often allow him to circumvent the game’s constraints and bypass restrictions. For such a rigid, mission-based game, it shows that not everything in the game is limited by the game’s construction, and that a little ingenuity can go a long way. Yoshi also makes an appearance in his most playable state since the Super Nintendo days, but the design around his character make you question whether or not he was merely an afterthought. Certain design qualms keep him from really achieving star status – such as his instantaneous death upon contact with deep water, something to ponder in a game built around large bodies of water. Yoshi is really only absolutely necessary for a few brief yet frustrating points in the game, but that’s missing the point of Yoshi entirely; in Super Mario World, outside of hidden areas, Yoshi was always intended to be a purely optional facet of the game; it could be completed without any of his assistance. Instead, using Yoshi for the rest of the game added an entirely new dimension to the gameplay. In Sunshine, Yoshi is more difficult to control and the lack of Mario’s agility and dexterity, especially in an unforgiving game such as this, make using him more of a chore than a pleasure.

There is a diamond in the rough, however. Occasionally, the game will challenge the player with strict platform gaming – finding a path between point A and point B, and executing it, all with a bottomless pit beneath you. The austere graphics as well as a totally hummable remix of the original Mario Brothers theme suddenly throws everything else about the game aside and suddenly remembers what it is to be a Mario game. Not surprisingly, these areas have the least technical issues and are actually the easiest to navigate. It’s all about timing, patterns, and learning from your mistakes. There’s going to be quite a bit of dying involved, but it won’t be because of a bad camera angle or some stupid glitch. Luckily, there are a few 1-ups generously peppered throughout each stage, which make attempting and re-attempting them less tedious than it could have been. These short and sweet areas are ingeniously well crafted and incredibly well-balanced – there’s always a little block you can rest at after making a series of death-defying leaps. Reaching the goal is more satisfaction than relief, and it’s actually a blessing that these levels are very short. The only problem with them is that they make you realize just how insipid and contrived the rest of the game is.

Sunshine deserves at least a look from any self-respecting Gamecube owner. It’s bright, colorful atmosphere is something of a rarity these days, and it’s nice to see Mario back in action. However, it’s easy to blow through the entire game in a single rental period – even making allowances for some of the game’s most frustrating areas. Super Mario Sunshine does have it’s moments, which are sure to bring a smile to the face of the most jaded gamer, but they are indeed a rarity and not worth tolerating an entire game’s worth of utter frustration and boredom. All is not lost, however; as in the case of most Nintendo games, there will always be a next time.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 07/02/03, Updated 07/02/03

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