Monday, May 24, 2010

In Defense of Super Mario Sunshine

In preparation for the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 I've been getting my plumber on by replaying the first three chapters of the Super Mario 3D quadrilogy (or as we called it back in the yonder days of '09, the Super Mario 3D trilogy). I had briefly considered doing retrospective reviews of all three games, but hey, I once also briefly considered My Name is Earl to be a good television show. We all briefly consider stupid things. Truth is that when it comes down to it there's nothing to say about Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy ― both are more-or-less universally accepted classics that routinely rank high on best games of all time lists and it's common knowledge that each game is one of the highlights of its respective console and all of post-1995 Nintendo gaming. Mario 64 rules and Mario Galaxy rules; those are my reviews.

It's the middle child of the Mario 3D family that I find interesting, 2002's strangely-named and more importantly strangely-conceived and designed Super Mario Sunshine. It's plainly the black sheep of the family with its homogenous tropical settings, Shine Sprites, mandatory blue coins, juice-vomiting Yoshis, and most importantly its water jetpack-centric controls and challenges, and as such it's frequently left out of nostalgic retrospectives on both the 3D Mario games and Mario series as a whole. Segments of Nintendo fandom enjoy it but without nearly the same fervor as the company's iconic classics and discussion of it on forums invokes equal parts praise and scorn. Plenty of people even argue it's just a bad game, period.

Me, well, I actually dig it. There's a slightly batshit experimental nature to it (much as other Nintendo-produced GameCube games like Pikmin and The Wind Waker) and for all its flaws it has gameplay and design elements that none of the other 3D Mario games or any other 3D platformer ever made have matched. I'm not here to argue with the consensus opinion that it's the weakest of the three games in the 3D Mario subseries I've played; I think that opinion is correct, even obvious. Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy are both A+ masterpieces. Sunshine is more like an A-, or a B+ if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. But I still got a huge kick out of going back to and replaying it and it has a couple of my single favorite environments out of basically any game I've ever played; moments of whiteknuckle tension, serene beauty, and pure madcap cleverness abound.

So this is my defense of Super Mario Sunshine. It may be inherently absurd to write a "defense" of the 3rd best-selling game on any given console, but hey, high sales don't always correlate to acclaim. After all, The Phantom Menace is the 12th highest-grossing movie of all time (a lot higher than that if you don't count Harry Potter movies) and if you wrote something on the internet called "In Defense of The Phantom Menace" you would be swiftly lynched and your family assassinated. But unlike Star Wars, Mario climbed back on the cool train, so I should be safe. Let's do this in two parts: first, the game's downsides, and then its awesomeness.

Super Mario Sunshine downsides:

The blue coin hunt. We'll rip the band-aid off quick and get the shittiest aspect of Mario Sunshine out of the way first thing: the incredibly poorly-conceived and poorly-implemented hunt for hundreds of blue coins scattered arbitrarily as pigeon shit through the game's hub and seven worlds. And these ain't no Mario 64-style blue coins that are simply normal coins but worth more, oh no, these babies are traded in to net you the Shine Sprites needed to progress through the game. You can get to and defeat the final boss and see the ending without pursuing them, yes, but if have any completionist urges then you're in for a Lars von Trier-esque nightmarish journey into obsession as you desperately scour every square inch of every single world for just one last coin. And if you think that the game has any intention of indicating how many coins you're missing from each world, let alone where any coins might be, then guess again, asshole.

It goes without saying that Mario Sunshine is the only one of the three games I've never gotten all 120 trinkets in (Shines here, Stars in the others), and I can say with near-certainty that I never will. I'm simply not hunting down all those coins, even with a guide. But the real offensive thing about the blue coins isn't how difficult they are to find, but the fact that the 24 Shines acquired by finding them all is 24 potential obstacle courses, bosses, platforming challenges, and puzzles stripped away from the main game, if not whole worlds worth of potential. Which takes us straight into our next point.

Relatively few levels and unique challenges. Compared to Mario 64's fifteen levels and Mario Galaxy's forty, it's tough not to be disappointed by Mario Sunshine's seven. Seven expansive, excellently-designed levels, yes, but still only seven. One of the amazing things about Mario Galaxy is that every single one of its 120 Stars represents a unique and creatively-designed challenge, whereas if you strip out the blue coins, the Shines you get for collecting 100 yellow coins in each world, and all the repeat trips to collect a second Shine on each obstacle course, you're looking at just barely over 70 unique challenges in Sunshine.

Although I can't find any official info on the topic, I strongly suspect that just as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's relatively few dungeons is famously because development was cut short, Mario Sunshine was initially intended to have a longer development cycle but was rushed out the door at the end to get those sexy Christmas '02 sales. I would have happily seen the game delayed to 2003 to have the volcanic Corona Mountain and the lost ocean civilization at the bottom of Noki Bay expanded into full, ten-Shine courses instead of the tiny mini-levels they are, because as is Mario Sunshine just feels inescapably sparse compared to its older and younger brothers.

The implementation of Yoshi. The fact that Yoshi's in the game ― yay! Nearly everything else about his implementation, from aesthetics to gameplay ― boo! First off, I simply must know what mad genius at Nintendo decided that what Yoshi fans really wanted was for Yoshi to be available to ride in a 3D Mario game, but only in the colors of the prettiest pink, the brightest orange, and the most feminine purple. I mean... what? That would be like if in the Avatar sequel James Cameron decided that what the fans really wanted was for the Na'vi to have black and white stripes ala zebras. Yoshi's green, you idiots!

Beyond that, all that Yoshi really does is make Mario floatier and more difficult to control. He inexplicably dies by turning into paint (?) upon touching water despite being perfectly apt at swimming in Super Mario World and he vomits fruit juice all over everything, complete with gross gurgling noise, when you hold the R button, which turns enemies into platforms. Basically, nothing that makes Yoshi awesome is in this game; we're stuck with some neutered, gruesomely bulimic impostor. I pray Mario Galaxy 2 does a better job with the dino than Sunshine did.

The final level. If you're a fan of the 3D Mario games you may remember a pair of levels called Bowser in the Sky and The Fate of the Universe, the final stages in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, respectively. Both are awesome, lengthy, intimidating stages that do a great job testing all the skills you've picked up through the course of your journey and serve as worthy gauntlets before the final boss. In Super Mario Sunshine's final level before the last boss, Corona Mountain, you easily hop across a view platforms then take a boat across the lava to Bowser. It takes like a minute and contains no enemies or substantial platforming (especially not compared to the rest of the game). More than anything else in Mario Sunshine Corona Mountain screams that the developers were forced to rush the game out the door before the fruition of their vision.

A lack of Bowser. Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy both have three big boss fights with Bowser. In Mario Sunshine you don't meet Bowser for the first time until immediately before your first and only battle with him; instead, you spend the entire game dealing with Bowser Jr. and his alter ego Shadow Mario. Even in the lone battle you have you can't actually touch or get close to Bowser (in contrast to the other games where you get right up in his ass). You sort of fight him as he lounges in a giant hot tub in the sky by dodging hot water he splashes and fire he breathes at you and pounding weak spots on the hot tub so that it breaks and spills him out. Seriously. It's real weak, and the battle with a giant Bowser Jr.-controlled Mecha Bowser in the middle of the game feels much more appropriately climactic, again indicating that the final act of Mario Sunshine had a truncated development cycle.

Nothing special for getting all 120 Shine Sprites. Super Mario 64 is guilty of this too (getting to talk to but not ride Yoshi does not count as special), so I don't begrudge Sunshine too much. But thankfully in Galaxy the developers finally figured out that you deserve a treat for your hard work and let you play as Luigi upon acquiring every Star.

Mentally retarded Princess Peach. There's no way around this: Princess Peach in this game is written and voice-acted with the clear intent of the character being mentally retarded. She constantly looks around in wide-eyed confusion and slowly slurs all her words like she's recovering from a brain aneurism. It's a little creepy and makes it quite confusing what Mario sees in her. Whatever happened to Peach's badass Super Mario RPG personality?

Super Mario Sunshine awesomeness:

The setting and mood. Ironically, one of the things that people complained most vocally about back in '02 ― Mario Sunshine's homogeneous tropical settings, all beaches and ocean and seaside villages ― winds up being one of the things that makes it stand out fascinatingly today. The game has a much stronger sense of place and feels more cohesive, vibrant, and real ("real" by Mario standards, I mean) than either of the other games. In Mario 64 we were told that all the paintings in Peach's castle were turned into magical alternate realities by Bowser so it didn't really bother us that they felt disconnected from the main hub. Mario Galaxy (and I assume Mario Galaxy 2 as well) happily plunges headlong into pure abstraction by simply explaining that we're traveling the universe so it's no matter that the planets we explore bear no resemblance to one another.

But in Super Mario Sunshine we visit Isle Delfino, a tropical paradise under siege from Bowser's vile son and a place where each level fills in and enriches the setting a little more. The island's biggest city, the bustling Delfino Plaza, acts as our central hub. From there we take pipes to visit other villages, namely the suburbs of Bianco Hills which neighbor a large reservoir and are fairly leisurely outside of their giant Piranha Plant problem, and the much more intense ancestral home of the Pianta people, Pianta Village, housed up among the tower-sized palm trees at the highest point of the island near a forest of giant mushrooms hanging over a perilous and infinite ravine. We go to various leisure resorts, from the world-famous hotel at Sirena Beach now infested by ghosts, to the relaxing Gelato Beach, to the Pinna Park amusement resort which Bowser Jr. attacks in a giant mech.

Throw in Delfino Airstrip, the bustling shipping port of Ricco Harbor, and the eerily beautiful Noki Bay on the far side of the island with its impossibly gargantuan waterfall and vacant underwater ruins deep on the ocean floor (now home only to a battleship-sized eel), and what you have is a place that feels utterly tangible. It's actually completely believable as functioning society, complete with a tourism and seafood-based economy, and in all of Mario gaming the city of Rogueport in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is the only setting that comes even close in richness and atmosphere.

From each level you can see other levels in the distance, shimmering through the tropic sun, and this only makes the game feel that much more cohesive. Most notably, at the highest point of Pinna Park you can see every other level in the entire game except for Noki Bay, which is on the exact opposite side of the island. The geography of the island is completely solid. I imagine it's not too many years before we reach the point of remaking games from the beginning of the last decade, and if Nintendo ever does a remake of Mario Sunshine my primary wish is for them to strip the invisible walls out and give you the option to freely swim from level to level or run over the hills of Isle Delfino to get anywhere you wish. They would hardly even need to fill in any missing gaps to do so; it's all here.

Most of the level design. I say "most of" because, as specified above, I'm not pleased by the blue coin hunt or Corona Mountain, but beyond those flaws I think that Mario Sunshine has some of the greatest 3D platforming of all time. Whether you're dodging the hostile squids and making your way up the massive scaffolding of Ricco Harbor, chasing a giant Piranha Plant through Bianco Hills, hopping across towering mushrooms, riding a roller coaster while battling a mech with a rocket launcher, getting run down by Wigglers on Gelato Beach, rescuing the mayor from a burning Pianta Village, solving the mysteries of a haunted hotel, bouncing perilously hundreds of feet in the air from power line to power line, or surfing on a high-speed blooper, Mario Sunshine always seems to have a new, exciting trick up its sleeve and something to keep the game fresh and aggressively paced at every corner. The levels are big but not obnoxiously so ala Donkey Kong 64; exactly the right size for there to be lots to explore but to keep every square inch packed with action, excitement, and danger. I can't complain about any of 'em.

In particular, Noki Bay. I single this level out because it's actually my favorite level in any of the 3D Mario games and probably one of my top five environments in any game I've ever played, even sweeping aside the entirety of Shadow of the Colossus in terms of pure, serene beauty.

On the far side of Isle Delfino, tall cliffs form a perfect aquatic alcove where three spires topped with giant seashells penetrate from the somewhere on the ocean floor up into the clouds, interconnected by wires. An enormous waterfall plummets majestically from high up in the cliffs down into the bay. The cliff faces are etched with mystery too; covered in ancient markings, hidden tunnels, secret ruins, and pulley systems and footholds to help you make your way up. Explore enough and you'll find an antagonistic giant Blooper at the very top of the cliffs, above even the mouth of the waterfall. Keep exploring further and you'll find the tomb of Noki king behind the waterfall. Allow the waterfall to push you down to the ocean floor and you can visit the Greek-style ruins of a long-abandoned underwater city, now guarded by a monstrous eel.

The beauty, atmosphere, and pure visual creativity of this environment is borderline-obnoxious. Even the music's pretty serene. It'll make you depressed that nothing so gorgeous actually exists in real-world nature, and it's almost as much fun to just bullshit around in as it is to pursue the Shine Sprites. I hugely look forward to replaying it every time I'm getting my Sunshine on.

The hub world. Super Mario 64 stumbled onto an interesting formula by making Princess Peach's castle the central hub via which all worlds were connected (a formula which the other great N64 3D platformer, Banjo-Kazooie, would copy verbatim a couple years later). It had a jaunty theme tune, was an interesting look into a location we'd yet to really explore in a Mario game, and there were even a few monsters and secrets here and there. By Mario Galaxy, this concept was still at work but had run itself a bit dry; Rosalina's Comet Observatory was frankly a bit of a pain to get around trying to remember which level was where, maybe the weakest aspect of the entire game. Nintendo seems to have had the same thought, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 has eliminated the hub formula and gone back to a series of levels laid out along a map screen ala Mario Bros. 3 and Mario World, a decision I approve of.

Super Mario Sunshine however hit the hub world sweet spot with the bustling seaside hamlet that is Delfino Plaza. It's not dangerous (you can die if you drown yourself or repeatedly jump from a really high location, but that's it), but it has such a fun and lively atmosphere to it, with canals and gondolas and statues and fountains and beaches and islands and shops and fruit stands. With the boats going in and out from Ricco Harbor and the airstrip and Piantas running about their days buying and selling and even a police station and a court of law it does a remarkable job feeling like a complete community, and it's actually about as fun as the game's "official" levels to go about Delfino Plaza playing the mini-games and searching for the secret bonus stages and hidden Shine Sprites. Best hub ever.

The floating obstacle course levels. Scattered about the worlds of Super Mario Sunshine you'll find ten or so so-called "secret" (I use the world secret in quotes since most of them are mandatory to beat the game) obstacle course challenges. These courses take place in bizarre, abstract voids splashed with bright colors and an a capella version of the Super Mario theme song humming along and they might be my absolute favorite part of the game as they represent the leanest, purest 3D platforming challenges in the history of video games (and continue to eight years later, unless something in Mario Galaxy 2 tops them).

They take away your jet pack in these levels so there's no gimmickry to them, no tricks, no puzzles, just sheer tension as you dance and flip your way over the spinning blocks and tiny platforms, always a hairsbreadth from oblivion. (Here's a good example. The guy playing it has his jetpack because he's already beaten it and you're allowed to bring the jetpack in after beating the level, but he never uses it.)

Funny thing is that thousands of internet whiners hated these levels because they couldn't beat them, and I'll admit, some of them took me damn near dozens of tries, but personally I thought that aspect was awesome. That leads us right into our next topic.

Challenge! Games today seem easy. It's not difficult to understand why; as presentation becomes more cinematic and budgets skyrocket, developers increasingly want everyone who plays a game to see it through to the end to see all the hard word they've put into it, as surely as a film director wants people to see it through to the end of his or her movie. But I confess that I sometimes miss the whiteknuckle tension, the sweat on my brow and the lingering dread of death lurking at the slightest missed jump or miscalculated twitch of the control stick, which is where Mario Sunshine frequently delivers, particularly in the aforementioned obstacle courses. Best part is that thanks to the flawless play control it never feels cheap if you die. You're in perfect control, whatever happens is your fault, good or bad.

Cool boss fights. This tends to be expected from big console Nintendo franchise games be they Mario, Zelda, or Metroid, and outside of the final battle with Bowser which I already bitched about, Mario Sunshine delivers. Repeat battles with an oversized Piranha Plant named Petey and no less than less than three battles with a giant Blooper are kind of cool, but the three battles where the game really shines (pun?) are as follows:

1. A fight with a giant ghost manta ray that you shoot with water to divide, again and again and again and again, until you're battling hundreds of tiny little shithead ghost manta rays out for your blood who are finally little enough to spray and kill.

2. A fight with a towering Mecha Bowser while you're riding in a roller coaster firing missiles at his face and blowing his rockets out the air.

3. A terrifyingly giant eel emerges from a hole in the deepest ocean floor of Noki Bay's underwater ruins and tries to suck you right into his school bus-sized jaw. It's pretty freaky by the standards of any game, let alone Mario, made worse by the fact that to calm him down you have to clean his teeth for him while he's still trying to kill you ― which mandates journeying by your own free will right into his mouth.

Great use of height. I'd venture to say that there's no 3D platformer where you go higher up more regularly than Super Mario Sunshine. Whether you're climbing the scaffolding to reach the highest point above Ricco Harbor, making your way up the cliff face to the mouth of the waterfall in Noki Bay, or traveling up the conveniently platform-sized fungus lining the side of the skyscraper tree at the center of Pianta Village, you're frequently reaching for the clouds in this game. A big part of the game's fun is what excellent use it makes of up-and-down space, for the most part even better than the next game in the franchise did. Galaxy made amazing, innovative use of gravity, yes, and that's part of why it's ultimately the better game, but you still aren't going quite as high quite as regularly as Sunshine.

FLUDD, the play control, and the physics engine. On its face, the idea of giving Mario a jetpack may seem absurd ― I mean, he's the jumpman! ― but it turned out to be genius, largely because of how buttery smooth it controls. Using FLUDD's hover nozzle will very rapidly become second nature as you play, and the quality of the jumping and hovering control is so superlative that you'll soon find you can bend the game world to your will like The Matrix or some shit.

A wall too high to jump over? No problem whatsoever; just do a sideways midair somersault against the wall, wall kick off, then turn on your hover nozzle and glide back over the wall you just kicked yourself off of. Easy as pie. Go back and play Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie or even the Jak and Daxter games on PlayStation 2 and feel the difference in how effortlessly and powerfully you can control your main character. It's just not even remotely close. I'd go so far as to say the only platformer with a comparable physics engine is Mario Galaxy, but even then I'm not sure that's it's actually better, just equal. The 3D Mario team has mastered the art of having your game avatar move both very quickly and very precisely (much as I'm not sure that any 2D platformers ever really matched Mario Bros. 3 and Mario World's play control).

Throw in the additional FLUDD nozzles picked up through the course of your journey that allow you to dash forward at rocket speed (including doing like Jesus and running over the surface of the water) and shoot yourself fifty feet straight up into the sky and what you have is a brilliantly cool little toy to base a platformer around. I understand why it had to go in future games but I admit I kinda miss the damn thing.

I'd say that about wraps it up as goes Super Mario Sunshine. I hope I didn't come across as overly nitpicky in the first part; after all, I bitch because I love and I really do love this game, enough that I'd call it a personal favorite despite its many flaws. If nothing else, getting out all their wacky jetpack and tropical ideas in this game cleaned Nintendo's creativity pipes enough for Super Mario Galaxy, and even if you're one of those weird people who thinks Mario Sunshine is a piece of shit, I think we can all agree that that more than justifies its existence.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An excellent retrospective of a wonderful game. I actually prefer it over Mario Galaxy, though it is also a fantastic piece of platform delight. The one thing I disagree with is the final fight with bowser: it is one of the best I have experienced. I loved butt stomping the star ends and having to hop across the crumbling pieces back to the (relative) safety of the hot tub edge. Still I enjoyed your article immensely, it was fun nostalgic trip.