• Super Mario Sunshine Review - Nintendo Gamecube GC

    It was back in June 1996 that a friend of mine on seeing the intro sequence for Mario 64, turned and asked with a sense of almost child-like wonder "Is the whole game like this?"

    He meant in 3-D of course. At that time, nobody had dared to tackle the issue of bringing NCL's mascot into a three dimensional space. Six years on, and the landscape of interactive entertainment has changed almost beyond recognition.

    We are surrounded by 3-D releases including many by the aforementioned developer. It is easy to forget the impact this title had on the gaming consciousness. Mario 64 was a landmark. A paradigm. A moment in time that represents a point of no return. Few want to go back to the way things were before. But once you've passed that point, where next? I'd hazard a guess this will have troubled the minds over in Kyoto during the development of Super Mario Sunshine.

    As the game begins, Mario, Peach and the rest of the gang arrive on a tropical island, ready for a relaxing vacation. However, before the hapless plumber can tuck into the delicious seafood on offer, the party find that the island has been vandalized with piles of black and brown pollution, and the island authorities are blaming Mario for the crime. It's up to Mario to clean up the mess and return the island to its former glory while performing specific tasks for the game's many non-playable characters. If Mario succeeds, sunny days will return to the island once more. The title is fairly import-friendly, although one will miss out on the clever jokes and witty references unless they have a fairly broad understanding of Japanese. Principal cut-scenes are in spoken English for those worried about language hurdles.

    The screenshots posted in magazines and on various sites pretty much fail to do justice to the graphics. Seeing static images will not prepare you for the experience of witnessing it in motion. The various locations on the island range from exquisitely detailed towns to panoramic beaches. When Mario runs, sand is kicked from his shoes, gulls wheel endlessly in a deep blue sky and plants sway in the tidal currents on a secluded coral reef. The swell of the ocean is immaculately realized and objects fade in and out of focus depending on distance. Stand on the beach, gaze out to sea, and one suddenly notices the distant horizon shimmering in the heat. Look upwards, the vapour trail of a passing plane is slowly etching its way across the sky. In short, Super Mario Sunshine is a devastatingly beautiful game. There are also some superb incidental details, the brief clips of previous Mario outings in the opening 'F.L.O.O.D' sequence springs most readily to mind. There is also a remarkable degree of freshness in regards to the usual formulaic approach to level design. Gone, for instance, are the typical fire levels. From sweeping coastal vistas to a haunted hotel, the various locales provide a remarkably convincing backdrop for Mario's antics.

    Super Mario Sunshine sees the Kyoto developers opening new doors of realism. Washing oil from non-playable characters and the surrounding scenery is just one of the many memorable moments. The visual presentation gives a sense of youthful vibrancy in keeping with the general feel of the proceedings. The draw distance is astounding and the model animation beyond reproach. The colours are vivid and literally leap out of the screen. Obviously a labour of love for the artists and animators, the attention to detail lavished on this title is clearly evident. The amount of man hours devoted to developing it just does not bear thinking about.

    This game is all consuming. Super Mario Sunshine will steal away hours, maybe days of your life without you even caring. As for those times when you're not actually playing it - you are, in the confines of your mind. I cannot remember the last time a game did this in such a convincing fashion. Super Mario Sunshine doesn't define a genre in the way Mario 64 did. What it does do, however, is single-handedly redefine an existing one. Improving on what many still see as the benchmark for platform gaming is no mean feat. One may argue that the technology now exists to do so, but technology is useless in the wrong hands.

    Mario has always been about exploration and adventure, and Super Mario Sunshine is clearly no exception. Mario's back-pack serves a variety of different purposes. Cleaning up the environment being just one. The difficulty is well paced and there are a number of hidden bonuses for those prepared to invest time in it. When you initially choose a particular 'shine', the camera moves smoothly through the level giving the player an indication of the possible hazards ahead. It's a nice idea and well implemented.

    There are occasional problems with the camera angles in Super Mario Sunshine even for Nintendo, who were perhaps the first developers to utilise their now patented 'Lakitu-Cam' technology. One gets the feeling that a number of different ideas were examined regarding this. There is also the distinct impression that in terms of 3-D design, this particular genre has possibly reached its theoretical limit. Flaws in the way the camera behaves may well be more indicative of a need to find something revolutionary in 3-D design. What Nintendo will be able to achieve next time will surely be the cause for much debate. Sometimes the camera may choose a less than ideal angle. This is not so surprising given the complexity of some of the scenery in comparison to the more basic flat modelling in Mario 64. The game places the responsibility of the camera in the hands of the player. A few hours in and Nintendo begin to weave their magic. The camera becomes less a chore and the gamecube controller melts away. In Super Mario Sunshine, the problem of objects obscuring Mario is dealt with by the player being always able to see Mario's shadow. Again, a simple idea that works well for the majority of the time. However, in hindsight, designing transparent objects may well have been preferable.

    One particular criticism that can be levelled at this title are the unusual controls that perform the swimming action. They feel cumbersome in comparison to the more natural and simplistic set-up in Mario 64. There are also a few minor niggles regarding item collection and perhaps the title is a little more linear than one might have expected. However, it seems that for every small problem with the game, there is a potential gem just around the corner. This pretty much sums up the experience of playing Super Mario Sunshine. Nothing has been overlooked in the pursuit of perfection. In short, the game feels solid and complete. End of story. Navigating Mario through meticulously designed levels (preferably via a wavebird controller), accompanied by soothing calypso melodies or plucky acoustic guitar is nothing short of gaming nirvana.

    The key to Mario's success is not in the game play, graphics or story (although all these elements are exceptional in Super Mario Sunshine), it is simply this: Mario instils a sense of longing for when the world was new to all of us. Our childhood bright and full of wonder. When we play in Mario's digital playground, we dream about our own.

    Is it the pinnacle of this particular genre? Quite possibly. Is it fun to play? Yes, without doubt. Like other classics before it, Super Mario Sunshine offers a means of escape, if just for a short while. One can only speak from experience in that video games have sometimes helped me through times in my adult life that would have otherwise proved intolerable.

    Anything that has that kind of power is something of genuine worth.

    A review by Jason Newton