Nintendo's software lineup has always revolved around a core group of major characters who appear in games that, more often than not, turn into system sellers. You always get the impression that games featuring these characters are going to be given a little extra polish to ensure that everything comes together just right, even if it means that the game has to be delayed for months or years at a time. So, inevitably, games like Super Mario Sunshine are eagerly anticipated. Super Mario Sunshine is the first truly major release on Nintendo's GameCube, and it is the first starring role for Nintendo's most recognizable character on the system. Once you get past the excitement over the fact that the latest Mario game is finally here, you'll find a game that's generally pleasing but heavily reliant on a few new moves that seem more like gimmicks than gameplay innovations.
Super Mario Sunshine opens with Mario and his entourage escaping the daily grind of the Mushroom Kingdom by flying to the paradise of Isle Delfino for a holiday. But Mario's vacation dreams are cut short immediately after landing at the island's airstrip. It seems that the island is covered in graffiti and pollution, and the person responsible happens to look enough like Mario to lead to a sitcom-style case of mistaken identity. Mario's sentence is to clean up the island with the help of FLUDD, a water cannon that you wear on your back. Along the way, princesses will be kidnapped, ooze will be washed away, and large numbers of "shines"--the game's equivalent to Super Mario 64's stars--will be collected.
Super Mario Sunshine has a lot in common with 1996's Super Mario 64, an incredible game that set the standard for every 3D platformer that's been made since. Of course, previous Mario games were also outstanding, so Super Mario Sunshine has some big shoes to fill. It attempts to fill them by not straying far from the previous game's formula. The new game's equivalent of Mario 64's overworld castle is the town square. The hub area is large and nicely detailed and has enough different routes to the game's different level entry points to keep you from having to spend any serious length of time running from one place to another. It also has a rather large collection of secrets to uncover. Aside from the hub area and brief intro and finale sections, the game contains seven levels. Just in like Super Mario 64, each level is broken up into multiple sequential objectives, meaning you'll have to reenter each level multiple times before you're finished with it. Each one of the levels contains eight episodes, and completing an episode always results in obtaining a shine.
There is a total of 120 shines in Super Mario Sunshine, but you can finish the game with less than half that number. The level goals are often pretty straightforward, as you can solve practically any problem you come across by simply shooting it with water. Each episode starts with a brief look around the level that almost always shows you exactly what you need to do within a couple of seconds. Some of them are as simple as getting to a certain spot in the level and fighting a boss for the prize or racing another character to a specific place in the level. Others, such as the goals that let you surf on the back of a small squidlike creature, feel more like minigames.
Also making the transition from Super Mario 64 are the red coin challenges--you'll simply be sent on a scavenger hunt looking for a certain number of these coins. Each level has at least one mandatory red coin collection goal, and some of them must be performed within certain time limits. Each level also has one goal devoted to chasing the evil Mario clone around and hosing him down until he gives up and gives you a shine.
There are also a lot of goals that lead you into caves and other enclosed areas. Entering one of these areas triggers a brief but overused video of the Mario clone stealing your water cannon and whisking it away. You're then sent into one of several different obstacle-course-like levels that feature a bunch of floating and moving blocks textured to look like wood. These courses become more and more difficult as you progress through the game and have the ability to bring back that classic sense of platformer frustration that occurs when you see the goal, know exactly how to reach that goal, but can't seem to piece it all together and actually pilot Mario to it. Occasional technical issues also make for quite a bit of frustration, such as clipping problems that cause you to fall through objects or get you stuck inside walls or fences. While a few level goals truly stand out and will remind you of why you love the Mario series in the first place, many of the game's goals--particularly the red coin challenges--are simply tedious, and completing them feels more like a relief than a reward. The fact that you'll have to backtrack through each level at least seven times to complete the game also isn't much fun, even though the levels do change slightly from objective to objective.
Controlling Mario is a snap. Most of his Super Mario 64 moves have been retained here, including the extremely useful turnaround and triple jumps. Mario's boxing skills don't come into play, however, as all his physical attacks have been replaced by the water cannon. The water pack comes with two standard nozzles. The cannon nozzle lets you spray water a short distance in front of you. Using the R trigger will activate your water cannon, and pushing the trigger in partially will let you spray on the move. Clicking the trigger in all the way plants your feet but gives you the ability to aim the cannon. The other standard nozzle is a dual hover nozzle that lets you lift off into the air. This is handy for making your way across gaps or adding a bit of height to your jumps. The pressure won't last forever, though, so you can't just stay in the air until your tank runs dry.
As you proceed through the game, you'll find other nozzles that can take the place of your hover nozzle. The rocket nozzle blasts you high into the sky but won't let you hover, and the propeller nozzle lets you launch yourself along the surface of the ground or water but never really plays a meaningful role unless you're bent on finding every last shine. You'll also eventually get to ride on Mario's dinosaurlike sidekick, Yoshi, but unfortunately he seems like he was thrown in as an afterthought. Yoshi is only useful for his strange ability to spit fruit juice all over the place, which in turn is used for only one required puzzle and a handful of optional ones.
Needless to say, you spend most of your time in Super Mario Sunshine controlling Mario. But you'll also have to spend time controlling the game's camera. Actually, much of the game's difficulty comes from having to keep the camera in check while performing Mario's otherwise simple tasks. The game is slow to auto-correct the camera angle when you change direction, and as a result, you really have to stay on top of the C stick to make sure you can see what you need to see. In addition to circling the perspective around Mario, you can also use the camera control to zoom in or out on the action. This can be helpful if your back is up against a wall, but sometimes even the camera controls can't help you there, and you'll be left looking at the back of a wall texture while a silhouette of Mario gives you a general idea of where he is on the screen.
Unfortunately, you won't see silhouettes of any nearby platforms or other important objects, making this solution completely worthless. The manual talks about the camera automatically opening a porthole of sorts when you're up against walls so you can still see the action, but it rarely does this, instead using the porthole effect in places where you'd never need it. While the camera tends to let you direct the action, it acts up quite a bit in tight spots--you can swing the camera to wherever you like, but the minute you let go of the C stick, it quickly spins back around to its default position, which can be inconvenient. The game's camera problems are particularly noticeable in the episode that takes you behind the amusement park's Ferris wheel and the game's final boss fight.
Unlike the camera, the graphics of Super Mario Sunshine seem much more polished. The entire game has a very stylized look to it that's excellent from an artistic standpoint, and, more often than not, Super Mario Sunshine is also a pretty great-looking game from a technical standpoint. It usually runs at a solid and smooth frame rate, the characters are colorful and well modeled, and the character animation is well done. Many of the game's textures also look pretty good. But when you get close to some of the textures, they start to look really low-res and blocky. The game is colorful, but some sections of game appear almost washed-out--this is probably a deliberate effect used to convey the sunny nature of Isle Delfino, but it really doesn't work terribly well in some spots. The game's water effects are amazing when seen in the ocean surrounding the island and other bodies of water found throughout the game, and the water puddles left by the cannon make for some nice reflection effects.
Other impressive effects abound, like the heat shimmer you'll see when looking at distant objects. The game slows down in a few spots, but with the rather annoying exception of the game's final boss level, which slows down in a fairly crucial spot, the slowdown doesn't get in the way of the action. The game's levels are really large, and the graphics are rendered with an impressive draw distance that really gives you a clear view of all the surrounding action. Unfortunately, the game's full motion video, which is used for the occasional story sequence, is quite bad. The character models and locations in these FMV sequences really don't look much better than their in-game equivalents.
Super Mario Sunshine's FMV also houses some of the lousiest voice-over work to be found on the GameCube. None of the voices fit particularly well. Princess Peach sounds too ditzy, Mario is limited to grunts and other nonverbal communications, and the game's bad guys are completely miscast and downright disappointing. The rest of the game's audio fares a lot better, though. The standard collection of hoots and hollers come from Mario as he scoots and hops through the game, and you'll like the sound of his shoes tapping against various types of surfaces. It would have been nice to hear all the island inhabitants speak their lines, but given the combination of the poor voice work used throughout the rest of the game and the generally poor wording used in most of the game's conversations, it's probably for the best that the characters remain mostly silent. Most of the game's music is good, but none of it really stands out. The updated version of the classic Mario theme that plays during the obstacle course levels seems like a forced tie to Mario's past.
The Mario series has almost always been nothing short of incredible. If you've been playing video games for even a few years and have tried to come up with a list of the best games ever made, chances are you placed at least two or three Mario games high on that list. But Super Mario Sunshine has trouble living up to that legacy. On its own merits, Super Mario Sunshine is a solid game with a really distinctive look and some great moments, but it also has its fair share of shortcomings. While the game isn't overly difficult, too many of the game's goals are the sort that make you think, "Well, at least I'll never have to do that again," immediately after completing them. While some gamers will be able to look past or even embrace the fact that Super Mario Sunshine sticks extremely close to Super Mario 64's formula, others will find that the game suffers from a lack of innovation. The game's technical issues and often-gimmicky design are still tougher to ignore, and they combine to make the game seem surprisingly unpolished and somewhat rushed at times. In the end, though, there's enough in Super Mario Sunshine to warrant a purchase, particularly when you consider that there really aren't any decent platformers to be found on the GameCube and that this really is the only new Mario game out there.