Sunday 1 August 2010

Super Mario Sunshine

"We don't like Super Mario Sunshine", say those Nintendo fans with standards that far exceed those of a regular human being, "it's not Mario enough".

Released in the Summer of 2002, Super Mario Sunshine is a GameCube classic. If you own a GameCube and haven't played this game, there's something wrong with you, but its fair to say it stirs up a bit of tension in Mario communities for one reason or another. But have times changed?

Sunshine was released in an odd period for the GameCube, a console that, on the surface, didn't seem to do anything that the PlayStation 2 or Xbox didn't do. It was a strange purple colour, used smaller discs (and so was written off by a lot of people for the same reason the DVD-less Dreamcast was) and though gave birth to some of the best Nintendo games ever made, seemed to drop the innovation Nintendo was known for. Half of Sunshine's purpose seems to have been to reclaim that territory, sticking a watering can on Mario's back and getting him to give things a wash.

I've always loved Super Mario Sunshine, but it's only in recent years that I've noticed... it's a bit of an oddball. Nintendo have since released two newer 3D platformers for the Wii - Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2, and despite being set across the universe, these titles somehow manage to feel more at home within the series than Sunshine does.

Because the thing that's very apparent about Super Mario Sunshine, especially when you look at the prototype movies and interviews, is that it's not really a Mario game. Like the 3D equivalent to Super Mario Bros. 2 (the western version). Nintendo EAD were experimenting with a watering can system but couldn't come up with a decent figurehead to utilise it. Supposedly they went with a "human" character, but quickly swapped it for something they knew would sell - Mario, possibly to cater for those fans that felt cheated with Luigi's Mansion.

But it would be really interesting to see how far they got without Mario at the helm. When you consider that none of the in-game enemies (apart from Bowser) come from the Mushroom Kingdom (and those that do, such as Bob-Ombs and Bullet Bills, got a one-off makeover), and that all the landscapes are purposely made to look somewhat realistic, it does tend to suggest they might have got quite far. The initial Space World trailer looks even less like a Mario game, even boasting human NPCs.

Of course there's odder things in Super Mario Sunshine look out of place too. The manhole covers for example - they've got some really bizarre sun/moon textures that look as if they've been taken from an entirely different game, and Delfino Plaza is littered with odd looking African mask flags. Later games quite happily put the Piantas, FLUDD nozzles and beach scenery into their levels, but you never see the weird stuff again.

But clearly at some point Mario physics were brought in and a great game was made. When Galaxy first came out in 2007 people drew comparisons to Sunshine, but I can tell you this - they're worlds apart (literally). It's a good example as to how the Wii trumps the GameCube in terms of graphics - yes the two Mario models look similar, but Sunshine only manages to output half the framerate. The textures are noticeably less detailed and the lack of nice lighting effects make Sunshine look a lot older. It makes sense, because there's a five year gap between the two.

I also feel a lot of Sunshine was done on the cheap. The later levels such as Pianta Village and Corona Mountain for example - they're not quite as well done as the earlier levels. There's a lot of missions that are essentially the same (CHASE SHADOW MARIO, RACE IL PIANTISSIMO) and Yoshi is never really put to good use. Hell, the D.E.B.S. announcement spends half the game announcing that Yoshi exists - did Nintendo EAD forget to turn that feature off?

But for the things that don't feel tacked on as a last minute idea, they're usually executed very well. Some people hate FLUDD, though that's not a hatred I share. I just find it a bit of a shame that there were only four nozzles in the final game - supposedly a lot more were planned and I suspect given the chance Nintendo would have found a use for them. It's a far better alternative than having an over-reliance on the "flick spin" move we saw in Galaxy, anyway.

But FLUDD is surprisingly difficult to get used to after a long period with the Wii. Aiming FLUDD is tricky as it's done via stopping and using the left analogue stick. Had this been mapped to the Wii remote I suspect cleaning Isle Delfino would have been a breeze. Though you never know... perhaps the Wii remote was in a prototype stage as early as 2001 and that was the original plan.

Platforming in Sunshine is, dare I say it, a bit more fun than in Galaxy. Though Galaxy wins a point for keeping Super Mario 64's long jump/backflip move, Sunshine's "change direction quickly and jump" move actually works in that game, as opposed to Galaxy where it's dumbed down for unknown reasons. Sunshine's worlds are vast, open, and slightly less linear. Since you don't need to go around collecting red coins in Galaxy, things tend to be a very straight path. You also need to take a bit more care in Galaxy thanks to the numerous pits and changes in gravity.

But something else worth mentioning - one of the "bonus" levels in Sunshine (i.e. the levels without FLUDD) is nearly identical to that of one of the later Galaxy 2 levels, and Super Mario Galaxy 2's version is a notable step up from its predecessor. Sunshine is a much slippier game and it's not always easy to tell where Mario is going to land. The engine is far more suited to big worlds than it is precise platforming, though maybe that's why it shipped with a bigger life counter.

Another thing worth mentioning is the camera. I often felt Super Mario Galaxy 2's camera was unhelpful. Nintendo took away the camera controls whenever they felt a 2D section was needed, and this went completely against one of Super Mario Sunshine's marketing points - a camera that could be freely controlled at any time with the second analogue stick. It means Sunshine is a much more user-friendly experience in terms of gameplay, and that's even after Super Mario Galaxy threw in all those hints and tips.

One of the major differences between Sunshine and the Wii games though is the way the Shine/Star system works. In Galaxy and its sequel, you just collect stars. And you always know where those stars are. In Sunshine, you collect Shines and blue coins, and though you can have a reasonable guess as to where those Shines are, some are hidden, and nobody tells you how many blue coins are scattered within each level (which is a bit annoying since there's 240 in total!).

Yes I like hidden Shines, and though it makes no sense to tell you where they're hidden, a vague idea such as "there might be one in this level" is a bit more helpful than forcing the player to check every nook and cranny of the game. You also have to do some mental calculations to find out exactly how many Shines you've gained from collecting blue coins. Blue coins lead to twenty-four shines, so when you've done all the main missions you have to work out how many of the remaining shines are hidden and how many are from blue coins. I don't like that.

Nintendo did learn from this mistake in later games. Galaxy 2 for example constantly gives you an idea of how many stars you've found (and where you've found them). But this went to the other extreme, because now the hidden stars were barely hidden at all! A balance would be nice.

As I said, there's little point of Yoshi in Super Mario Sunshine. Yeah I said that about Super Mario Galaxy 2, but at least in that game you don't have to feed it to ride it. Yoshi's only purpose is to... squirt juice... at various objects. He's otherwise harder to control, can't swim and doesn't actually help you access new areas, unlike Galaxy 2. FLUDD does Yoshi's job a lot better, so you tend to think that maybe it might have been better just to give it an extra nozzle. Supposedly most of Yoshi's functions were removed thanks to American audiences not quite liking the idea of the dinosaur vomiting... though I guess in retrospect that was probably a good idea for the series' image.

Yoshi is never his classic green colour (unless you go hacking) and I also don't really understand why there's half a dozen different types of fruit. The fruit only really acts to feed Yoshi and gain a few blue coins, as if it were part of the testing phase thrown in just to make things a tiny bit longer. Though I'm a fan of challenge, I don't really find carrying pieces of fruit to the far corners of Delfino Plaza all that rewarding. Part of me just thinks those Piantas should get up and lose some weight instead, especially after they start chucking you about in later levels.

Some ideas in Super Mario Sunshine are only used once. Like for example, there's a block on top of the lighthouse which you can only destroy by butt stomping it from a really high height. It's not used anywhere else in game.

Sunshine is also held back somewhat by the small disc space of GameCube games. It's got a fairly dull soundtrack. Mario fans, hum me a line from Noki Bay or Pianta Village! That's right, you can't, because the tracks aren't memorable. It's an odd state of affairs in Sunshine though - the first three levels remix the tune from Delfino Plaza, the rest... don't, as if mid-way Koji Kondo thought it was metter to bix things up but wasn't entirely sure how. You also notice that music tracks are being recycled in Sunshine, and I don't know whether to blame the lack of disc space or the fact Mario games have a long history of recycling music.

There are a few other minor issues which Sunshine hasn't quite got the hang of. Like death sending you back to Delfino Plaza so that you too can endure several pointless screens before giving it a second shot. Though I guess you could also argue that Sunshine has no need for a life system - unlike Galaxy there aren't any checkpoints (well okay... one or two) and it saves constantly, so it might have been better off taking a page from Banjo Tooie and dropping it altogether.

Though it's still a great package and seems to have stood the test of time rather well, I'd be very interested to see exactly what went on during development with this one. At the time some many of us were unaware how distant it was from the Mario universe - it's the only major Mario platformer (other than SMB2) not to include Goombas as an enemy for example (and if you want to debate whether Super Mario World has them... the prototype certainly did and that counts too).

Still, it's a must have for any GameCube (or Wii) owner. Depressingly it still seems to outrank a lot of the top Wii games of today, which just goes to show how weak the third party support is for that console.

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