Review by Jhiru
Come on, people!
First off, I have to say that the number of tens, nines, and even eights this game got is truly incredible. This game gives a horrible first impression and never really gets better.
I'd like to preface my own biases so people know where I'm coming from: this review is written in 2005 and I never considered Mario games to be my favorite. I could love them, yes, but platformer games have always been something to master and move on for me. I also bought this game for $20 dollars on a whim, so I really had no vested interest in liking nor hating this game, so I feel that I had a pretty good mindset for critiquing this game.
1) Game Environment....
Let's start with the game environment, as it's easily quantifiable and a central tenet of platformer games has always been player vs. environment. The levels suck. They are uninspired and uncreative. There is no real theme for each level, at least not in as tight a "pocket" as Mario games typically demand. For instance, there is no fire world, ice world, sky world, etc. The slight themes they did get going were very weak, for example with the standard "rolling greens" of the first world that is now standard of post-Mario Land 3 not needing to actually be a meadow theme. This is exemplefied most clearly by the fact that a later world (Pianta Village) ends up being similarly generic exactly because it's theme was some loose and non-immersive contrived lush green grass area.
This is all the more sad because Pianta Village actually had a good potential for thematic basis that could have been very easily exploited, namely in the giant palm trees on the edges of the level. These trees could have drastically improved upon the level dynamic if they were placed over the main level area or actually did more than simply contain completely optional peripheral items (the blue coins, a dumb idea itself; I can't help but wonder if their inclusion was to lamely siphon off some of the star challenges they'd otherwise have had to design). Similar problems plague every level except maybe the amusement park; the weak themes attempted don't actually change the dynamic of the area, how you should change your playing style, the way you interact with anything, etc.
One pleasing exception to this, though, was the amusement park level, though it would have been nice if more than a few of the rides were interactive and had some motivation for exploring.
1.5) ....and Use of Space
A sub-topic to the environment of the game is the way the game uses its cyberspace, how it unlocks it, how it uses it as a reward, and how it suggests movement and exploration. This to me is the single most fundamental problem with this game.
You are typically placed in at least 90% of the space available in each world right from the start of each new space. You don't really ever unlock new space within a level so much as the different episodes just haphazardly plop some new boss or something in a different part of the area. In Mario 64, levels commonly evolved through each subsequent episode, with different secions of the region being activated or unlocked, or slight variations in the real-time ongoings of the environment. One perhaps could say that the tangential arenas within worlds where your water pack is taken fill this void, but to me this is a cut-and-run from serious problems in the actual substance of the regions. Because of all this, levels quickly become uninspired, with their true lack of creativity being all you're left with. There is nothing to fulfill your wishes for a distraction from the lack of originality in the obstacles you are made to run (and which can usually be bypassed altogether with the hover nozzle!).
There are also few compelling allusions to what's to come, meaning you'll be sitting firmly back and away from the edge of your seat in absolutely anticipation. You see all that the level is, all it ever will be, and all of this right from the start. The only exception I can think of is once again in Pianta Village where there is an entire underbelly to the area whose presence is alluded to with caged pits to fall in (though this is muted by your instant ability to access this; it's only slightly more obvious that you shouldn't go down here yet). In Mario 64 and Super Mario World, you would commonly pass by areas very prominantly displayed, but whose access was obscured and therefore begged exploration. In Mario Sunshine, you see everything you can access pretty much right from the beginning. By the time you're on your fourth episode of a region, you're ready to play a different game.
This game's difficulty dynamic is the clearest window into how poorly "balanced" this game is. The challenge of a videogame can I think best be described as "imposed detours away from your otherwise prescient goals". Using this definition, Mario Sunshine puts too many long and austere detours that aren't very fun or compelling anyways, and puts very slight detours for the really fun and interesting parts (such as the surfing thing in the harbor and the roller coaster ride). The end result is to draw out the most uninspired and contrived challenges and let the really fun and novel challenges slip away as soon as they come. This makes time go slow, but in the same way school moves slowly.
A great example is the episode of each world where you chase the liquid Mario (one of the villians of the game). These challenges are usually around the last to do in each level, yet they are among the easiest and quickest. Alternately, the drawn out challenges are completely boring, with you having to probably first figure out the secret to access some new thing, then traverse a drastically harder gauntlet, and THEN fight a boss.
Another blatent flaw that is comparatively minor but among the most instantly aggravating problems for me is the management of lives. The tangential areas described above--where discombobulated blocks and platforms are suspended in space yet you have no water pack--often come after tedious and boring obstacles in the regular world, yet are themselves long and tedious (though these are actually pretty fun if taken on their own merit, in part because they take away your ability to hover over obstacles; you actually have to face the challenges). Almost nowhere else in the game does the prospect of a game ever compell you to be careful, so it's more than disheartening to see the only time a gameover can actually screw you come after not one but basically TWO challenges: the lengthy, boring challenge to get to the tangential area, and the lengthy, fun yet too little-too-late challenges to actually get the star. It would have been far more balanced if they could have figured out a way to take away some of this pressure to not lose lives and somehow put it into something more general and constantly at issue, which brings me to the enemies of the game...
They suck. They suck bullcrap. They are so ungodly horrible and stupid you can't even believe it. The equivalent to goombas are little balls of pollution that just annoy you. The turtles have some unnecessary gimmic where they electrocute or something. Why would they ever do this? Goombas and turtles, there ya go.
And that's only just slightly annoying. The real problem is actually something that applied to Mario 64, too: you are not forced to fight the common enemies very much at all. This is largely due to a poor transition to 3D, but that's no excuse because nobody held a gun to Nintendo and forced them to make it in 3D: Metroid Prime did just this and still unequivocally retained the feeling of pressure and constraint from the common enemies. This means that Mario Sunshine's enemies are only ever annoying, not ever threatening or tests to your gameplay. There's really not much else to say about them, and that's the problem: enemies are a non-issue for the most part.
4) 3D Fetishism:
Because the videogame scene does not have an established academic or theoretical body of research and work attempting to quantify the essence of videogames (such as a comporable to film theory which no one questions as a serious academic pursuit), videogame culture doctine (trade magazines, websites, G4 TV) often resort to what IS quantified: tech fetishism, or the laborious and ultimately pointless pursuit of spec comparisons and polygons per second of giga-electron RAM power (or something). Because of this, popular videogames started to undergo what I call 3D fetishism: the mindless application of 3D environments just because of available processing power. Not that 3D is bad, but in many games it obviously siphoned off a lot of the creativity from other elements of the game, elements that they ironically perfected in 2D scrolling platformers.
The first truly groundbreaking success on this front if you ask me was Duke Nukem 3D followed by the next landmark in Metroid Prime, where the feelings and dynamic of claustrophobia vs. liberation present in their scrolling predecessors were retained. In Mario 64, but especially in Mario Sunshine, the bulk of the design seemed to go into crafting detailed arenas. The difference is that in Mario 64 this only seemed like a future potential for laze and abuse, while in Mario Sunshine those fears came to a head and were vindicated. Afterwards, there is not much left to do, as is evidenced by the lackluster challenge and creativity in obstacles in Sunshine (Mario 64 still ended up creating super fun and enticing challenges). The relationship between player and the environment in the 2D Mario games was so that you had to actively think about which abilities were best suited to bypass a limited range of movement, strictly governed by a single axis. In Mario Sunshine, you can usually just take a slight detour, just a slight mindless curvature in your path, to avoid similar situations. This ties into my complaint about being able to avoid rather than face almost all of the enemies "encountered".
Here's where I can't be so harsh, because like Mario 64 it has fluid control (though in a platformer, it damn sure had better). There are some minor complaints, such as the seemingly more difficult execution of the backflip, and the annoying turning radius while in hover mode, but overall it's okay. I have to say that FLUDD's hover capability should have been left as the special item to get, like the flying cap or the feather/leaf, because being able to float for a good five seconds renders many environmental obstacles obsolete (meaning we can bypass both player vs. enemies AND player vs. environment, so it's player vs. a long boring hike). It should have at least been something just as special to get as the other two nozzles (the rocket and speed boost nozzles).
One glaring problem ties into the poor use of game space. The overly quick-changing dynamic between far and close camera work required makes it hard to judge distances. This is annoying in any game, but for a pure platformer like this, this is a death sentence for the gameplay when it's applied to the gamespace. I often have to give up on deciphering exactly what angle the camera is at (it's usually a horrible mix between isometric and bird's-eye) and resort to looking for the shadows, and even the shadows aren't oriented in a thoughtful position to your place in the air. Also regarding the camera, there is still the problem with a camera backtalk as was present in Mario 64, though slightly less so.
All in all, I don't think I'm being overly harsh at all in my rating of 3. Consider that platformer games have been perfected in different aspects time and again for about two decades now. I wouldn't call Mario Sunshine's unconventionality going out on a limb or anything like you could say for Mario Brothers 2, that is just way too flattering (and conveniently takes away the burden of truly thoughtful insight from those defending this game). It's just plain uncreative, uncompelling, non-immersive, and completely unbalanced. I thought about giving this game maybe a five on the merit that it still has me wanting to perfect it (albiet through a buffer of having a few other new games to turn to when I inevitably get bored and frustrated after getting a few shine sprites). But then I played and thought about all the other platform games I've played, and I don't think it would be fair to those games to give it higher than a 3 or 4. I settled on a 3 because a lot of these problems would have undoubtedly been alleviated if there hadn't been the obvious rush to get this out as a launch game. Problems like kicking you out of the entire shipyard level when you finish the blooper surfing race too slowly, yet getting to start over when you crash and die, is an obvious problem, no grey area to it. This leads me to believe that a lot of these problems may not have existed with more care and attention, and that makes it all the more annoying.
Mario is one of the cash cows for Nintendo, so I don't think I'm being unfair at all. Once again, let me just say that the amount of tens this game recieved is flat out BS. This game isn't even a rental.
Rating: 1.5 - Bad
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