"You'll be wishing you could see more of a stage (each episode has unique challenges and alterations to the geography), but no such luck. Instead, you're stuck continually rechallenging some lame test, like popping 20 balloons on a roller coaster ride, or fighting the high-maintenance camera while completing one of the retro stages mentioned earlier."
Perhaps you remember Mario. He's the guy that has been with Nintendo from the start. Nearly every system from the company has launched with a title featuring the rotund plumber, with the most noteable exception being the GameCube. Gamers complained when Luigi's Mansion hit the shelves before Mario uttered so much as a peep. With Super Mario Sunshine finally in stores, though, complaints have stopped. The reason? Aside from a few problems, Super Mario Sunshine is almost everything fans could have hoped for. Sometimes exceeding expectations, sometimes failing to meet them, but always excelling, this title is more than the sum of its parts, a truly thrilling experience no Nintendo fan will want to miss.
The minute you pop the game into your system, you'll notice a difference. Rather than presenting you with a simple title screen and demo, the developers chose to give you a glimpse of some FMV. You see a plane gliding slowly across the sky, then the view switches to inside, where Mario, a stately mushroom retainer, and the princess are watching a promotional video about the island resort they are visiting. Soon, as the story unfolds, gamers find Mario framed for a graffiti crime of epic proportions. The island is being drained of energy from the shines, who mostly fled after a villainous figure that looks much like Mario began covering the landscape with nasty ooze. Mario has no choice but to clear his name by cleaning things up and collecting shines. Along the way, he'll learn more about this villain, the fiend's motivations, and the unique island in general. The story is far from epic. There are no more than a few plot twists, none of them spectacular. Yet in the same token, it's the best story Nintendo has yet tied in with the aging franchise, so there's little reason to complain. If you were satisfied with the plots before, you'll like what you see here.
Part of the beauty of the plot is that it sets up the game perfectly. Without forcing you to experience a long introduction scene, the game presents everything efficiently and in a somewhat entertaining fashion. Then you're free to start on the quest to clean up the island. And to answer the question some of you might be ready to ask, no. This is not a gimmick. There are two things that make Super Mario Sunshine a departure from anything that has come before it: the efforts to clean up graffiti, and the setting in which Mario is doing it.
To clean up the graffiti, Mario must use what is essentially are two high-pressure hoses attached to a tank. These hoses can get most anything off the landscape, and they also function as engines of a sort. Mario can use them to hover over the ground, to cross large gaps, and so forth. There's hardly a section of the island he can't reach through careful use of the machine. Typically, you might start a stage, switch to the jetpack, run toward a ledge, hop, glide over it using the water, land, switch to your hose, and take out an approaching foe. Simple button presses mean this is never so difficult as anything you saw in Luigi's Mansion. However, none of this makes the game a cakewalk. More on that in a minute. But first, it seems a good idea to say that the number of uses for this tank means you should never consider it an afterthought. This wasn't a gimmick thrown in at the last moment, nor is it carelessly executed. Each world is beautifully designed so that you'll have to get the most out of that pack to see everything. Distances are perfect, there are any number of ways to scale the ever-present heights, and really there's not a single time where you end up thinking the game would be better without the pack. If you don't like it, don't use it, but you'll soon find it's there for a reason.
Another thing I'd be loathe to call a gimmick is the island setting. No, this isn't the Mushroom Kingdom. Those of you nostaligic for another trip past Peach's castle are in for a disappointment. However, there are obvious similarities between the island and the Mushroom Kingdom. There are pipes that warp you to various areas, there are the giant mushroom platforms, and even the wire grating. Piranha plants abound, too. This is the same fractured universe you love, but for one obvious exception: it's all tropical.
Where Super Mario 64 had a huge variety of areas Mario could explore, Super Mario Sunshine abandons them. This is not to say you won't see some variety. There are deep canyons, beautiful windmills, swamps, hotels, sunny beaches, stormy oceans, and flaming infernos. What you won't see are snowy passes or rolling green hills. Instead, it's almost entirely beaches and valleys, coves and mountains. The lack of variety somehow manages to be refreshing. At least none of the stages are depressing, though you will probably miss the variety offered by this game's immediate predecessor at least once.
Yet the minute you miss that, you realize what you're getting this time around: a true vacation. The environment clicks. Not one thing really seems out of place, a testament to the solid design considering there are giant mushrooms and enormous sewage pipes. In fact, the only areas that stick out even a bit are what I can only call the 'retro areas'. Filled with textures reminiscent of earlier titles in the franchise, played as a remix of the original theme song from Super Mario Bros. accompanies your every move, these areas are a definite callback to the days when a Mario game meant negotiating dangerous jump after dangerous jump. Discussing those is of course the perfect time to bring up the two elements of this title that are its most noticeable flaws: the camera and the difficulty.
The two are quite firmly connected. Play this game for more than a few minutes and you will find yourself frustrated at least once. It will come in small fits at first. Mario will hop over a ledge, land on the other side, then bounce a half step and fall into a bottomless pit. Or you'll be negotiating a series of tight jumps and the camera will give you a bad view of the action. Quickly, you'll swing it around in time to see Mario plummeting to his death. It would be nice if I could say such moments are infrequent. Alas, they are not.
The camera is something that has received a lot of criticism and also the infrequent snippets of praise. The latter it deserves in the way most of us want another hole in our head. To put it bluntly, the camera work here would be enough to ruin the game, were it not for the fact that it does so many other things well. It's still enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Add the glitchy camera to the challenging jumps and you have a title that will keep you smashing controllers for weeks, even months.
If the game's so frustrating, then, why should you even bother playing it? It's a reasonable question to ask, and the only certain answer is that you'll want to play it because aside from the problems mentioned above, Super Mario Sunshine is a blissful experience. Everything fits so well in the little things that even if there are two gaping holes in the design, it all works. There's little more satisfying than helping Mario use his pack to climb to the top of construction over a bay, tracking down Yoshi in a casino and having him gobble up ghosts, riding a squid over the surface of the waters, facing a showdown with a giant manta, or riding the sandbird as it circles towers rising high into the clouds. The list of thrilling moments could fill a page, and together they are more than enough to combat the glitchy camera.
What they don't do, however, is guarantee that this is a game children will enjoy. For all its success at garnering the reputation of a family-friendly company, Nintendo has done a poor job here of presenting a product children can appreciate. The challenge is more than most impatient children these days will likely care for. No game in the history of the franchise has ever been this difficult, with the possible exception of the original, Japan-only sequel to Super Mario Bros.. And even though the presentation here is (not quite sickeningly) cute, it's not enough to disguise the fact that the typical eight-year-old some would suggest this title is geared at will not be able to experience so much as half of this game's greatness.
Partly responsible for that is the episodic nature of things. There's an area called the 'hub', where players can practice their moves and find the entrances to levels. It's closest to being the equivalent of the castle in Super Mario 64 or Hyrule Field in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Everything is mostly compact, with rooftops linking all the areas, towers rising toward the blue sky and seagulls, and new opportunities waiting for you once you gather enough shines. Yet enter a level and you aren't faced with a broad selection of goals to complete. Instead, you'll be given your next assignment, in a sense. These assignments are called episodes. You needn't complete every episode to see the end of the game, but you'll have to trudge through a great many of them. The problem lies in the fact that each area has 8 general episodes, but you can't access the second one until you've completed the first, and so forth. This means the later episodes--often some of the most thrilling--might remain forever locked beyond your grasp because of this flaw in design. You'll be wishing you could see more of a stage (each episode has unique challenges and alterations to the geography), but no such luck. Instead, you're stuck continually rechallenging some inane test like popping 20 balloons on a roller coaster ride, or fighting the high-maintenance camera while completing one of the retro stages mentioned earlier. It's a shame.
In the end, though, there's no denying that Super Mario Sunshine is a great game. If you like Mario or Nintendo as much as most who own the GameCube, this is a must-buy. Even if you only experience half of what's in this wondrous package, you'll thank yourself. Those of you with a desire to spend more time will certainly find that's possible, too. Years from now, people will be remembering this game and saying how great it is. Likewise, they'll be remembering the camera and difficulty. If those sound like intimidating problems, consider this a rent-first title. Otherwise, buy it immediately. One way or another, it's likely to (and should) grace your home.
Here's hoping we don't have to wait another six years to see a sequel.
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 31, 2002)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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