8.6

Super Mario Sunshine review
Shining Bright

Summary:

What do you do when you create a 3D platform game that essentially redefines the genre? Nintendo managed something amazing when they created Super Mario 64. This wasn't just a successful transition from 2D for the plumber, it was an experience that shaped the perception of what a 3D platform adventure should be like. The problem then was how to follow it up. Sunshine not only develops the concepts pioneered in SM64 but adds its own twists to the gameplay.

From the moment you turn the game on the impressive graphical display hits you hard. Sunshine is beautiful. Light years ahead of its predecessor in that regard, Sunshine takes on the task of creating a fictional tropical island and accomplishes the task perfectly. The visuals are incredibly smooth and bright, offering a form of 3D cartoon-styled that is easily associated with the Mario series, but detailed enough to present all sorts of unique touches. This is perhaps the first 3D mario platformer where the ingame graphics are actually quite close to the concept art.

It's not just the technical brilliance that makes this so wonderful though. As per typical of Nintendo there are so many special things that one can find simply by looking around. The file select menu is perhaps the biggest indication of this, as instead of simply moving a cursor you actually move Mario himself and jump to hit the option blocks. Away from that it only takes a simple walk around the island to see more. Birds are fluttering around the rooftops, sprinklers cause shallow puddles to form on the ground and the more dangerous sludge actually shakes and pulsates.

In fact, the only real complaint someone could feasibly lodge against the imagery is the lack of variation, at least compared to other titles on the console. The game is set entirely on a tropical island, so almost every area is designed with this in mind. There are some varied areas like a hotel and a theme park, but too many areas feel too similar to each other. Granted it's not as if we need to insert an ice world into every platform title but more variety here would certainly help. Retro stages provide quite a different view, as platforms and objects are suspended above bottomless chasms with some rather funky backgrounds, but again these stages end up looking too alike in many cases.

All this is complimented by a fantastic soundtrack as well. For long term fans of the series the music style is something you will be fairly used to. Each tune is rather cheerful and upbeat, boasting a sense of activity that works well to enhance the onscreen action. There is also a hint of a tropical theme to most of the music too, fitting in quite well with the setting. Jump into one of the retro stages and you're greeted with a cool remix of a classic Mario tune, which is a welcome nostalgic sound to hear for us gamers that grew up with the 2D sprites.

The characters themselves are filled with the sounds of life. Mario and Yoshi themselves yell and cry out all sorts of noises, from the classic mamma mia to the more standard grunts and yahoos. Even better is that the common townsfolk of the island are also quite keen to make themselves heard, as they will yell in angry voices and excitedly chat. Of course, most of the vocals are not in any understandable language but hearing the depth to it is great.

The story is not such a great aspect, but then this is nothing new to the world of Mario platforming. To their credit Nintendo did try to do something other than 'Bowser kidnaps Peach lol' but it's still lacking in substance. The basic gist is that Mario, Peach and Toadsworth are heading to Isle Delfino for a holiday, but when they get there the island has been vandalised in a big way. Due to the local residents having the eyesight of badgers and failing to tell the different between the real deal and a dark watery fake, Mario is accused of the crime and sentenced to clean up the whole island. Yeah, not much sense involved, but oh well.

But where the game's story may fall short there is definitely a sense of a thriving community here. In the plaza you have various vendors trying to sell fruit to the visitors (although oddly not complaining when you just walk off with them), people are walking around the town and some are enjoying the warm sunlight. Chatting with the different people is quite charming and you get a real sense of island life here. This isn't just limited to the plaza though, as each of the main areas has various island dwellers wandering around. In the hills is a small village were people are concerned with the activity near the windmill, while a hotel owner pleads with you to help him before his guests are driven out of his establishment. Granted this isn't on the level of your typical RPG but for a platform title it is surprisingly deep.

The overall goal of the game is quite similar to its predecessor. Mario has to travel around different areas collecting special items (shine sprites in this case). As shines are collected more areas slowly open up to offer even more shines to collect. Once cool trait about this is how the plaza starts off mostly in shadow and slowly brightens up as you collect the sprites, so there's a visible change to your efforts.

Some of Mario's abilities that are used for this goal are going to be familiar. Mario can perform a multitude of jumps, including the timing sensitive triple jump used to reach high platforms and a sweet diving attack that can be used to attack enemies as well as boost him forward a little. Oddly he seems to have lost the ability to actually punch or kick, but this is only going to affect you if you're used to SM64.

What separates Sunshine from the N64 game is FLUDD. This peculiar bright yellow device gets strapped to Mario's back early on and is the focus of the entire game. The primary function of FLUDD, and the function that is always installed on it, is a standard water gun. Lightly holding R allows Mario to spray water ahead of him while still moving, while holding R will lock Mario in place and allow for free aiming with the analogue stick to spray water. Aiming like this is a little awkward though, so fortunately you can press Y at any time to enter look mode, which also allows you to spray water for more precise aiming. You can even perform some special watering techniques, like a spinning splash.

Throughout the game there will be many things Mario can spray with this. The basic plot involves Mario cleaning up the island, so there is a lot of sludge and paint around the place. It's unclear how simple water can remove this gunk so easily, but that's what it does. There will also be suspicious markings and signs that can be sprayed too. But that's not all. Try splashing enemies to smash them into walls, ringing bells from a distance, watering flowers or filling objects with liquid. The game practically encourages hitting everything with water, as so many things will react in some way. It presents a level of interaction that doesn't seem possible otherwise and even manages to come across as a puzzle aspect at times, as you have to figure out how best to use the water to your advantage.

FLUDD also comes equipped with a secondary function, which can have one of three features. The hover nozzle is the default nozzle that Mario starts with. Using this allows Mario to hover in the air for a brief moment, although it also works as a means of spraying whatever happens to be below you at the time. Activate the special boxes in each area by finding the solid ones and you can switch to alternate nozzles. The rocket nozzle will propel Mario high into the air after a charge, while the turbo nozzle will allow Mario to move at high speeds and smashing through objects. This secondary nozzle slot doesn't work quite so well though. Rocket and turbo really aren't used all that much. There may be the odd task they are needed for but otherwise they just collect dust. On the other hand, the hover nozzle is perhaps too useful, as it effectively makes jumping in the game a breeze. Why worry about timing and spacing when you can just hover from ledge to ledge?

FLUDD cannot just be used whenever though, as you have a water tank to worry about. Filling the tank is as simple as jumping into water and holding R, but it still means you can't go using it recklessly unless you enjoy repeated trips to the nearest water source. In addition to bodies of water you may also find water bottles at times to fill the tank up, which is handy in areas with little water.

The game itself is generally split across seven main levels and numerous mini-levels, plus one hub level that connects them all. The main levels are split into multiple 'episodes' that signify which shine sprite you're currently going for. The episode selected when you enter a level can determine various things. For example, red coins only appear in episodes where collecting them is the objective, or a door may be open or closed depending on the episode. Despite this though the levels remain very open to exploration. There's only a handful of episodes I can think of that lock of significant portions of a level to suit the goal, but every other one allows you to just wander off and explore each area.

The episode goals vary greatly in this as well. Some of the goals fall along the more traditional route, like defeating a boss monster, collecting the red coins or simply reaching a specific point in the level. In addition there are some of the more unusual goals presented to you. One task has you rolling a fruit down a hillside to an oversized blender while avoiding the enemies that would smash it to pieces. Another has you spraying a panel puzzle to get all the panels facing a specific direction. These fresh concepts are most welcome, although even the more traditional goals are fun to do due to the execution. Boss fights are far from normal due to FLUDD, grabbing coins involves manipulating your water supply and reaching a specific location is rarely as simple as going straight there.

Some episodes require assistance from a certain friend. Yes people, Yoshi has returned. In some episodes and in the plaza (after completing a certain event) is a Yoshi egg. This egg will display a certain fruit in its thought bubble, and bringing this fruit will hatch Yoshi, allowing Mario to ride him. FLUDD can't be used while riding Yoshi but there are a few tricks here. Yoshi can jump higher than Mario and can spray juice at everything. The juice can also turn enemies into moving platforms, with the movement type determined by Yoshi's colour, which in turn is determined by the type of fruit Yoshi last swallowed.

Yoshi isn't invincible though. The juice gauge is constantly draining, and faster when spraying, and when it runs out Yoshi disappears. Also, for dinosaurs living on a tropical island they seem to have a strange aversion to water, which will also cause them to vanish. When Yoshi vanishes he returns to his egg, so it just takes another fruit to get him back again.

Yoshi adds a new dimension to the gameplay, but it's a real shame that the feature is so drastically underused. I really liked riding Yoshi around so I would have preferred to see him play a more consistent role in the game rather than appearing for specific episodes.

There's a lot of water around, so it's nice to see that the swimming has been improved. The controls feel a lot smoother than before, as Mario will respond well to the input and moves well underwater. Even better is that he now has a separate air gauge that is no longer shared with the health gauge.

It's great to see that the hub level, the plaza, is more than just a hub this time. Remember Princess Peach's Castle in Super Mario 64? Yeah, it looked nice but it was also pretty empty in terms of content. The plaza is far different, to the point that it is practically it's own level. Even getting the shine sprites here involves meeting goals like opening mini-levels, completing games and grabbing items.

The camera in the game tends to work fairly well. Controlled via the C stick it can be zoomed and rotated to varying degrees. There is a rare time where it'll get stuck somewhere or won't quite move where you need it but this is fairly rare and so it is a good improvement on what was already a good setup.

One issue with all this is how platforming has taken a back-seat. Outside of the retro stages the game just doesn't offer the level of difficulty needed for jumping about. What gaps exist are mostly fairly simply to judge and bounce across, and for those jumps that are a bit difficult the hover nozzle basically removes any reason to worry. Sure, players could choose not to use the hover ability, but it doesn't help to have the temptation there. Even missing a jump is rarely punished that greatly, as it normally results is just making your way back up to where you were.

So, what are these retro stages? Found within the different levels these present the hardest challenges the game has to offer. The first visit to a retro stage will result in FLUDD being stolen from you, forcing you to rely solely on your own jumping skills to make it to the shine at the end. Oh boy, are these stages difficult. Each one is filled with scattered platforms and moving objects. One such object is a cube that rotates as it takes you to the next part of the stage, requiring you to run around as each side moves to the upward-facing position. The consequences for falling are also severe, as nothing but an empty expanse awaits you below, snatching a life from your counter. Subsequent visits allow the use of FLUDD but also present a difficult red coin challenge, where you have to grab the coins in a limited amount of time. Even abusing the hover nozzle can leave you with barely a second or two at the end.

For Mario purists, these retro stages represent what a true Mario game should be like, and to be fair if the rest of the game put a little more focus into the challenge found here then Sunshine could have been even better. These are the stages that will test your reactions far more than anything else in here.

There are quite a cast of enemies that differ from the norm. Sure, some of these can be beaten by landing in their heads in the normal fashion, but there is more to it than that. What to try spraying that flower thingy until it splats against the wall? It's possible. Boo ghosts can now be rendered solid by spraying that a lot. Even bosses have been worked to take advantage of this, as one boss needs you to fill his mouth when he opens it and another continually spreads electrified gunk as you spray it. The enemy presence is a bit limited is some of the game's areas though, like Noki Bay seems to rely more on discovering the way to go rather than fighting off baddies.

The length of the game is a distinct downer though. In terms of main worlds there are roughly half of those found in Super Mario 64. Granted I might consider the worlds of Sunshine to be margainally more interesting, but that's not enough compensation for losing that much content. In an attempt to lengthen the game there is the blue coin hunt, where blue coins are scattered through the different areas and can be traded for shines once Ricco Harbour is opened, but to be honest it feels like a cheap trick and is not all that fun, especially since when you're missing a few blue coins there is little to help you track down where they may be.

Is Sunshine better than SM64? No, because the lack of platforming challenge and the reduced level selection drags the game back. On its own merits it is a great game though. The adventure elements are done wonderfully, some episodes will require a lot of thought to get through and some areas will prove fairly challenging. Sunshine is a fun game that is an ideal addition to any Nintendo fan's collection.

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