The greatest Mario game you’ve ever hated

1.jpgHis red cap expresses more than words are able. The fact that “his” name is not necessary information, and that a mere description of his headwear floods the mind with fond memories – punctuated, of course, by a gleeful “Woo hoo!” – is proof enough.

Mario defines gaming.

Nary a single one of his adventures has been ill-received by critics over the years. His entertaining romps through the Mushroom Kingdom are celebrated events for gaming faithful, and production values and quality of the highest order are expected of each entry in the series.

But in 2002, Nintendo updated the classic Mario gameplay formula with a new look resulting in one of the most controversial games and clear opinion splitters in the company’s storied history.

Super Mario Sunshine received immediate praise from the gaming media, but what made critiques of the game so interesting was the uncommon level of admiration bestowed upon it. In their April 2002 issue, Play Magazine claimed it was not only one of the greatest games ever made, but that it “perhaps tops the list.” GamePro hailed it as a “masterpiece of superior game design,” and Game Informer suggested “it is the best Mario to date.”

Similar statements echoed throughout the media’s collective response to Super Mario Sunshine. According to Metacritic, an Internet authority on compiling reviews from every corner of the gaming media, the game earned an aggregate rating of 9.2 out of 10, based on 61 individual scores.

2.jpgTo say the game was a critical success would be to point out Mario’s affinity for blondes; the statement is obvious beyond the need for repetition.

But history has consistently shown that critically acclaimed games – Eternal Darkness and Beyond Good and Evil serve as recent examples – don’t always receive similar adoration from consumers, and Super Mario Sunshine confirmed that the split between critics and players is more like a harrowing chasm.

Only an illogical few would argue that jumping on turtles and throwing fireballs at irritating octopi isn’t hard work. If anyone has earned a vacation for services rendered, it is Mario. After 20 years of Goomba stomping, Nintendo finally rewarded their icon with a long overdue beach vacation. But within the core of the gaming community, a crime of unspeakable magnitude was slowly unraveling while Mario was soaking up rays.

People hated him for it.

The fiercest complainers overlooked several key aspects of Super Mario Sunshine, but their frustration was an understandable, and perhaps reasonable, byproduct of the substantial gambles Nintendo took when designing the game.

Perhaps a prophetic look into the company’s desire to innovate, the plot and setting of Super Mario Sunshine provided the most daring twists the series had ever taken. Familiar places and faces, once thought to be sacred elements of any Mario game, were gone. Instead, our hero was placed in an entirely new environment with a cast of mostly unrecognizable characters.

The Mushroom Kingdom, famous for its hovering bricks, smiling clouds and towering spotted mushrooms, was nowhere to be found. In its place was Isle Delfino, an island resort that was, in many ways, the antithesis of Mario’s old stomping grounds. Towering waterfalls with caverns inhabited by shell-backed Nokis replaced Bob-omb infested battlefields. Instead of a regal castle, a bustling beach-side marketplace served as the central hub of the game, and this time, Mario would visit amusement parks and ocean-view hotels instead of haunted Boo houses and Koopa fortresses.

3.jpgThe changes prevalent in Super Mario Sunshine ran deeper than simply cosmetics and environment. Though Isle Delfino itself may have been enough of a change to keep the game fresh, Nintendo also replaced the usual host of Mario enemies with a nameless cast of amorphous baddies, spherical ducks and yellow spiders chief among them. These changes, including the controversial addition of the FLUDD water pack, gave the game a unique freshness. But for many players, the changes amounted to nothing but an equation for mediocrity, and the result was a game that was more a sad self-parody than a progression of the series.

The primary criticism of the game has always been the same. Regardless of the specific complaint that spawns it, it manages to effectively encompass each of the individual qualms that gamers have experienced with Super Mario Sunshine:

“It just doesn’t feel like a Mario game.”

It may be an easy task to merely glance at the game and echo the same complaints that have hindered Super Mario Sunshine for years. But after only a few hours of controlling Mario through the tropical paradise, it is perhaps even easier to recognize what lies at the core of the game. While much had changed in Super Mario Sunshine, the most important aspects remained unaltered. The game was built on the same foundation as Mario classics like Super Mario World and the groundbreaking Super Mario 64, and those classic principles remained the same.

Mario may have been on vacation, but even on Isle Delfino, it was business as usual. His new journey offered the same masterful platforming and enemy stomping that had always been staples of the series. Few levels in the history of the franchise offered the elaborate platform climbing of Noki Bay and Pianta Village, both of which took Mario to staggering new heights (literally) and, given the wealth of jumping abilities and new hovering combinations at the control of the player, deeper gameplay was afforded than ever before.

And the controls – oh, the wonderful controls. Mario games have always been known for their immaculately tight controls, and Super Mario Sunshine raised the bar to an unprecedented level. Jumping around Isle Delfino was an incredibly satisfying experience simply due to the ease with which Mario could be controlled, and with the FLUDD waterpack, Mario was able to reach platforms with newfound ease and grace.

Of course, not all of the encounters in Super Mario Sunshine were new ones. Mario ran into classic enemies – Wiggler, Blooper, Piranha Plants and Bowser, among others – and had classic objectives, such as collecting red coins and finding a Yoshi to ride. The Tanooki makes a subtle cameo, and perhaps the most engrossing portions of the game are the hidden stages in which a FLUDD-less Mario must platform through obstacles – undeniably old-school – while a remix of the original Mario theme plays in the background. And as if the nostagia-meter needed any greater a surge, the action takes place in front of scrolling rotations of pixel-rendered Mario animations.

4.jpgTo say Super Mario Sunshine “doesn’t feel like a Mario game” is to pay only superficial attention to the game as a whole. In reality, the game toes an admirable balance between innovation and nostalgia almost perfectly throughout the entire experience.

From a development standpoint, Super Mario Sunshine remains an audio and visual achievement of the highest order. The settings were gorgeous; a visual achievement at the time, it was a incredibly vibrant experience in progressive scan that still outclasses most Wii games. Composer Koji Kondo crafted a soundtrack that set a masterful beach-side tone, but presented it in an undeniably Mario-esque fashion, allowing for a seamless marriage of appropriate sound and crisp presentation.

Certainly, the game was not without a few nagging flaws; an annoying camera would occasionally become a chore to adjust and the “epic” final showdown with Bowser reflected some questionable design choices. But to contend that Super Mario Sunshine was a poor game, or “un-Mario” in some generic fashion, is to unfairly write off one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences of the last generation.

And, considering that the game can now be found in stores for $20 or less, Super Mario Sunshine stands as one of the best options available for gaming on Wii. In fact, aside from a certain space hunter and sword-wielding time traveler, it bests every Wii game to date, waggly-waggle and all.

Hype for Super Mario Galaxy increases daily, and with good reason. The upcoming Wii blockbuster is receiving praise from virtually everyone who has played it. But in the midst of anticipation for the next chapter in the Mario saga, it would be wrong to overlook the last. Previews suggesting that the series needs a reboot after the “error” of Super Mario Sunshine are doing a profound disservice to gaming as a whole. Rather, developers should take note on what Nintendo achieved with Super Mario Sunshine; it represents everything this industry should embrace, and is a beacon for a message that so often is being lost in the translation of high-powered technology, gimmicky motion controls, and obsessions with dismemberment:

Games are supposed to be fun. — Derek D. Buck