This review originally appeared in E114, September 2002.
So, six years. Six years in which to twist and skip around Bob-omb Battlefield, to climb Tall Tall Mountain, to wonder if a game has ever done sensory Christmas better than Cool Cool Mountain. Six years to marvel at the ingenuity of Tiny-Huge Island and Wet-Dry world. Six years in which to dive for coins in Jolly Roger Bay. Six years in which to fly.
It is difficult to underestimate the importance of Super Mario Sunshine. Not just because it’s such a key release for the GameCube – brand values, character recognition, guaranteed sales and so on – but because it’s the follow-up to one of the greatest games of all time. Of all time. Six years and everything drowns in hyperbole, but Super Mario 64 can claim greatness quietly, and few will argue. “The world of videogaming has just changed forever,” Edge said, breathlessly. “Ten.”
Perfection? Not quite, but so far above everything else, and not just dimensionally. Mario 64’s unparalleled critical reception was never purely about a shift into 3D, but about level design genius and a peerless system of control. There was always somewhere to go, always something to do; levels thrilled and baffled in equal measure; there were tiny, polished touches that you might not discover for days, months, years. So lucid and solid, too. No obvious invisible walls.
Sunshine begins on an island, and the island is surrounded by invisible walls. There are more around the island’s central hub, the town and in each of the seven worlds that lead off it. That is disconcerting, unnerving in the follow-up to a game that used coherence as one of its central tenets.
But most players will blink, forget and thrill from the start, from the instant they discover that the game’s control system is identical to its predecessor. It feels exactly the same; it is (superficially) structurally identical; it looks like SM64 coded for ’02. The plot requires you to clean graffiti and locate ‘shines’, the Sunshine equivalent of stars. Each of the seven thematic worlds contains eight stories, and exists in eight fractionally different iterations. While this means that Sunshine is smaller in terms of territory, because the worlds conceal more objectives it will take players as long, if not longer, to thoroughly complete. But it is more repetitive, and one of the delights of Mario 64 was exploring new zones for the first time. That delight is halved here.
Stop. So much negativity. Perhaps it needs stating now, before the review goes further and the brightness you’ve expected clouds over with doubt, that Super Mario Sunshine is a great piece of work, up there with some of the best Nintendo games. Expectations could not be higher and, at times, Sunshine falls considerably short of them. But again: expectations could not be higher. For it to meet them would be a monumental achievement, and that it falls short comes down to flaws that sit so awkwardly with the rest of the sublime, blissful experience.
Small flaws, sometimes. For example: you defeat a boss, and his death throes knock you through the floor into the skybox. Or the level tasks loop just that fraction more than you’d like. Or the clipping isn’t quite there, and you fall through the floor of a pirate ship, waddle through solid scenery. Or the game crashes, dead, stop. Only once, mind, in so much play time. Once is one time too many, but… small flaws. Almost forgivable. Utterly unexpected from Nintendo.
Or bigger issues. The camera is now entirely on the C-stick, and requires much input from the player. It’s a case of progress getting in the way of progress, if you will; the dual analogue nature of the GameCube controller permits this method of control, which means most of the time the camera plays dumb. Although there is no Lakitu, its behaviour is that of a solid object, but there are still points where the viewpoint contrives to disappear behind walls and retrieving it can be a clumsy business. A neat shadowing effect means you’re always aware of where Mario is, even when he’s obscured, but that’s missing the point somewhat – when all you can see is a wall, you’re not worried about where Mario is. You’re concerned about the edge of the cliff he’s about to fall off.
The game’s central innovation, Mario’s water-filled backpack, alleviates that fear of falling somewhat, as directing the water pressure at the floor allows the player a short period of hovering grace. That you’re only seriously aware of that ability when you lose it is testament to how well integrated into the mechanic it is, and gaining proficiency with it and the horizontal spraying is a joy. In both cases, squirting is assigned to the pressure-sensitive left trigger; pushing the trigger all the way back locks Mario into position, and the movement on the analogue stick becomes directional control of the water jet. That’s perfect, brilliant design. It’s what everyone expected.
Aside from hovering, the most basic use of the jet is cleaning graffiti and washing away filthy enemies. It has a strong obsessive compulsive appeal, and discovering the other uses for the jet stream provides some of Sunshine’s best moments. The replacement for SM64’s cap power-ups are also based on the backpack, different nozzles on your water pack which, like the caps, open up previously inaccessible areas of worlds. The thrusting ability has another, perhaps unintentional effect on the level design, too, in that it forces the zones to be wider, more open, and more vertical. There is much climbing, jumping, and – inevitably – falling in Sunshine, and sometimes the game is as frustrating as that implies. The fault is nearly always yours, though; the beautiful, inertial control of SM64 remains intact, and everything, right up to the sickening moment you fall, is a joy.
But perhaps it’s not quite joyous enough. We’ve had six years to fly, and to have those natural, soaring aerobatics replaced with something so mechanical feels unfair. Brutally, as fun as the thrusting is, it doesn’t feel magical. Combine that with the bastardisation of the swimming system, which no longer offers full floating freedom but requires you to press one button to move forward and down, and another for forward and up, there’s a perceptible loss of freedom.
And of intelligence, too, since the search for shines shows no real touches of cunning to match those in SM64; no changing water levels or sly twists of perspective. The emphasis is placed on straightforward platforming skill instead, on sequential tests of control and agility. The abstract switch palace levels from SM64 are reproduced here in a hardcore form; your nemesis steals your waterpack on ten separate occasions, and asks you to perform a series of increasingly ludicrous jumps across spinning, flipping, and dissolving platforms. There is a fine line between entertainment and irritation, and, just occasionally, Sunshine falls on the wrong side of it. On most of those it eases the pain with easily accessible extra lives, just like its predecessors.
Regardless of the similar concessions, the game is harder than Mario 64, and more linear, too – shines can only be retrieved in a set order within each world, and the limited number of worlds means there are less places to visit when your progress on one story grinds to a halt. But there are primitive object-oriented tasks dotted around the hub, and blue coins strewn all over the island, and, despite the invisible walls and glimpses of imperfection, always pleasure in wandering, just exploring and revelling in the control. Exactly like Mario 64, then, and all fans ever wanted was a sequel. They’ve finally got an expansion pack. They’ve waited a while.
Six years, in fact. It’s startling, really. Developers have had six years to build on SM64, and they have failed to do anything but create shadows. Everyone was waiting for Nintendo’s guiding light, and it arrives, and it’s far above its imitators, but it’s some way below its inspiration. Super Mario Sunshine doesn’t score SM64’s ten; not because it’s a sequel, and not because it fails to emulate the dimensional shift, but because, shine for star and star for shine, it’s not as good. It’s not going to change videogaming; it’s the second best platform game of all time. Of all time. Celebrate that.