Review: Super Mario Sunshine

September 3, 2002 7:00 PM PST

    While playing Super Mario Sunshine, I must have thought of nearly a hundred clever ways I could begin this review. Now that I’ve beat the final boss with a total of 64 shines, I opt to use none of those clever ways.
    I will, however, tell you that I thought the final boss was awesome. I’ve heard complaints that he’s too easy; he’s not too easy. He’s actually quite hard. The length of the battle makes it look easy. Yes, you could beat him in sixty seconds if you know what you’re doing. And that’s a big “could.” I found it a refreshing change from the easy eighty-minute epic battles of many other platform games: Super Mario Sunshine’s final battle is hard and fast.

    Now, on with the review:
    I want to tell you, first and foremost, that I like Super Mario Sunshine. I like it a lot, in fact. I’d even go so far as to say I love it. If you have purchased a Nintendo Gamecube at any point in the last year, chances are you cannot -- or should not -- live another day without buying this game. There are new and original individual elements of Super Mario Sunshine -- water-jetpack-hovering, wall-jumping, graffiti-cleaning, -- that could fuel entire other franchises. The game evokes Super Mario World as well and as often as it evokes Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and Crash Bandicoot. It has the bosses people complained were missing from Super Mario 64. It lets you ride Yoshi. It is, if nothing else, a sum of all the joyful moments of all the 3D platformers made since 1996.
    And a sum of all the camera problems.
    Now, I’m no Mario hater. I’m the guy who wrote this, if you remember. Nor am I typically one to nitpick. Nor am I a gaming amateur. So believe me when I say that Super Mario Sunshine can be difficult, and that the camera can be to blame for that difficulty on many occasions.
    Everyone I know who’s worth knowing is playing this game right now. We all started together. In the beginning, everyone was telling me, “The camera sucks! I can’t get it to do what I want it to!” I laughed at them, and said, “The camera only sucks as much as you suck.”
    In addition to being a slightly clever turn of phrase, this is also 100% true: the camera does suck as much as you suck. It also rocks as much as you rock. See, you control the camera, using the C-stick. Pressing up on the stick zooms the camera in; pressing down pulls the camera back. Pressing left and right rotates the camera. Simple enough, right?
    Well, wait until you get to the fifth Shine of Pinna Park.
    Shines are what you collect in this game -- like the Stars in Super Mario 64, only shaped like little suns. Unlike the Stars in Super Mario 64, which you can get in any order you like, you can only obtain one Shine per run through each of Super Mario Sunshine’s levels. Some have criticized this idea; I kind of like it. I liked it in the beginning, and I like it even more now: since you can only obtain one Shine per run, the game is helpful enough to mark the proper path with arrowed signs -- when the game becomes frustratingly difficult in later stages, the last thing you need is to get lost.
    I almost gave up the game on the fifth Shine of Pinna Park. Pinna Park is an amusement park level with such fun rides as a rollercoaster from which you have a shooting match with a boss, a beach on which you have to fight three bosses, a pirate ship on which you have to collect red coins (get eight for a Shine), and a Ferris wheel that is hijacked at one point by electric spiny Koopas that cannot, in any way whatsoever, be killed, damaged, or avoided.
    Your task, if you choose not to throw your Wavebird controller into the television screen, is to get behind the Ferris wheel and scale a wall of chain-link fences equipped with rotating doors (think World Four palace in Super Mario World), avoiding the electric Koopas, one touch of which will cause you to fall down to the shallow water below, losing one life point. As you fall, the faulty camera treats you to a twitching, juggling view of the other side of the Ferris wheel.
    Oh, wait -- didn’t I say the Koopas can’t be avoided?
    So how do you get to the top?
    Simple: you don’t.
    . . . Okay, so you can actually kill the Koopas. How, you ask? Reach deep down into your long-term memory: you received a Super Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas of 1991. Maybe it was snowing. You played Super Mario World all night. (Well, maybe you stopped for a little Gradius III every now and then . . .) When you got to the fortress with the fences, you had no trouble. You were young, then, and you trusted your instincts. Maybe you don’t do that anymore, and maybe that’s why the Koopas on the fence in Pinna Park of Super Mario Sunshine, a whole eleven years later, are kicking your sorry ass. You are quick to proclaim: “These things just won’t die!”
    The solution is not apparent. Only two things are: 1.) this game is asking perhaps a little bit too much of the player, and 2.) the camera should go to hell and burn for as many eternities as lives slowly lost due to repeated falling in the ruins level.
    Sadly and strangely enough, this fence-climb-from-hell is only the beginning of the game’s vicious upswing in difficulty.
    I kept muttering to myself, as the game got harder -- as I had to ride a giant bird made of sand, dying repeatedly as it barrel-rolled angrily: anyone who calls Nintendo a “kiddy company” must think highly of the attention spans of children.

    Mario games have never been about frustration, as far as I can tell. One of Shigeru Miyamoto’s rules is that a game should be fun. In a Nintendo Power interview back in 1991, he said something that forever changed the way I look at videogames: a videogame is like a playground you keep going back to visit. Wouldn’t it be nice, to have a whole drawer full of playgrounds you can go back and visit again and again?
    That’s a paraphrase. Still, you get the idea.
    Sometimes, in levels like Pinna Park, with its towering Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, I can’t help feeling that Super Mario Sunshine was made by a bunch of guys who read all of Miyamoto’s interviews, not by Miyamoto himself. All of the pieces of the playground are present; it’s their placement that needs work.
    Maybe one of these game designers thought it would be more exciting if the seat of the teeter-totter was situated at the end of the tube slide: the person coming down the slide can, like, fall right onto the teeter-totter, or, uh, something!
    This is the same game designer who thought it was clever to put a blue coin in the middle of a sea of sludge.
    See: for every ten blue coins you collect, you can purchase a Shine in the Delfino Plaza area. For every second you spend in the sludge-water, you lose a life point.
    Do the math.
    Mario games are not about mandatory hits.
    There is a reason why I can beat the first two worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3 with my eyes closed: because Miyamoto made it that way.
    If you remember the Piranha Plant trap levels in World Seven of Super Mario Bros. 3, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Remember the one where you have to cross a sea of “Munchers”? If you hit the first “?” block, it releases a Starman. Pick up the Starman, and you’re invincible. Now, you have to run to the right and hit the next block before your current Starman runs out. If you manage to do this, you’ll receive another Starman.
    That particular level of Super Mario Bros. 3 is one you can feel in your thumbs when you’re not playing the game. There is a certain groove, like an avid golfer’s grip on his club, that you can recreate in your mind when you’re not playing Super Mario Bros. 3. Only a handful of games have these grooves. No game, however, has grooves as strong as those in Super Mario Bros. 3.
    This kind of groove is absent in Super Mario Sunshine.
    That’s not to say Super Mario Sunshine is without grooves. It has a few grooves. I’m feeling some of those grooves even now: I’m on the roof of a building in Bianco Hills, trying to jump up onto the wooden fixture beneath a windmill. Every time I jump, Mario’s head collides with the wood; I can feel Mario scraping around the wooden ledge as he jumps. I hit the jetpack: Mario slides through the air . . . in the opposite direction. The giant flying Piranha Plant overhead vomits sludge all over me, and I fall, and Mario shouts. The artery in my upper-right temple bulges.
    I’m on the swinging pirate ship in Pinna Park. It swings up, and around. I jump on the ship’s mast, and run forward. I can feel the C-stick on my thumb as I swing the camera around. I can feel a scraping behind my right eye as the camera gets stuck on the first pirate ship. I hear Mario shout four times as he tries to jump, as his feet scrape on the tilting mast. When the camera at long last swings under the pirate ship in the foreground, Mario is blinking and stumbling forward: he falls through the pirate ship. My molars almost crack against one another.
    These are, as you may guess, not good grooves.

    Now, Super Mario Sunshine has some good grooves, too. As a matter of fact, the good grooves are more plentiful than the bad ones. Unlike Mario 3’s grooves, however, Sunshine’s grooves do not extend as far as entire levels or sequences -- such is the sporadic nature of 3D. Simply put, Sunshine’s grooves are in the moves.
    As I mentioned above, the water-pack, which calls itself “FLUDD” -- I’ll just keep on calling it a “water-pack” -- controls like a dream. There’s something wholly satisfying about jet-packing over a giant, shiny puddle of brown goop, watching your dual streams of water reveal the crayon-green grass in a physically realistic manner.
    There’s something even more satisfying still about charging up your rocket nozzle while you’re floating in the middle of the harbor level; just as the meter almost hits the top line, you jump up out of the water, the rockets blasts off, and you fly high into the sky.
    Neither of these grooves can match the purely satisfying feeling of using the turbo nozzle when running on land: a constant spray of water propels you forward, sending you into perfect arcs when you jump, leaning you at jet-ski angles when you corner.
    There’s a certain beauty in the way Mario slides down a wall. All you have to do is jump toward it, and Mario will plant one hand and one foot, and slide. It’s up to you to decide when to jump, if at all.
    A friend of mine actually criticized this, saying, “Why the hell did they make wall-jumping so easy?”
    I told him, “I don’t care. It’s more fun.”
    Now, I revise my answer: “Because everything else is so hard.”
    Certain elements of the game’s control -- such as the glorious return of Yoshi’s grunting double-jump, and his new homing-tongue -- feel as if touched by Miyamoto himself. Controlling the arc of Mario’s water-spray and charging up the rocket nozzle feel every bit as inspired as throwing eggs in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.
    As we all know, however, a platformer’s moves are only as good as what the developers make you do with them. And, all artery-popping camera fury aside, the developers of Super Mario Sunshine give you some truly genius tasks -- including, early on, pulling the tentacles off a giant squid and shooting bottle rockets at a giant robot from a rollercoaster. Another boss battle sees Mario wearing a space helmet, descending into a submerged city, and using his water-pack to spray plaque from a giant eel’s teeth. The levels range from amusement park to busy harbor, and each one has a refreshing number of friendly NPCs to converse with on the way to your goal. One of the NPCs in the harbor level is even kind enough to let you ride a jet-powered bloober squid over ramps and under boats in a sequence simultaneously reminiscent of Waverace and Super Mario 64’s secret slides. Fun as this is, if you touch a wall once, you die. Oh, well.
    For me, the game’s first great stroke of genius is the second Shine of the beach level. See, in the beach level, three giant mirrors reflect the light of the sun onto a giant glass-encased egg. When you enter the level for the second time, you find that giant round creatures with suction cups for feet have jumped onto the mirrors, throwing them out of alignment. Your task is to get rid of the creatures.
    Doing this involves spraying them from nearby palm trees so they stop moving. When they stop moving, the mirrors, too, stop moving -- long enough for you to jump on board. To get rid of the creatures, you must spray them with all your might, until they teeter on one edge of the mirror. When they stick one foot up into the air, that’s your cue to run to the opposite edge of the mirror, jump up, and do Mario’s patented hip-drop, sending the creature catapulting into the air.
    Sure, we’ve seen things like this before, in other 3D platformers: fighting a boss monster on a tilting platform; pushing an enemy toward/off an edge; ground-pounding.
    Never, however, have we seen all of these things melded together so well, and in such a way that incorporates all its game’s signature moves: you’ll be attacking the monsters by spraying them with water, and using the ground pound to send them flying. All the while, the game’s trademark Sunshine will be beating down on the mirrored platform. Should you choose to look down, you’ll see a deliciously heat-blurred reflection of a breathing and sweating Mario, the birds in the sky, the clouds, the glass tower, and the mountains.

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Release Date
August 27, 2002