Sunday, October 14, 2018

Super Mario Sunshine

And now, a story: there was, once upon a very brief time, I would've placed Super Mario Sunshine in My Top Five Video Games of All Time; No. 2, in fact, only behind Super Smash Bros. Melee. Call it the fervent hype of one little boy -- stumbling across a pre-release demo in New York City's Toys "R" Us remains one of my all-time favorite gaming memories -- but my bliss in Mario's tropical acrobatics couldn't be denied: be it bopping upon hapless NPCs and aimlessly hopping around the beaches and villages of Isle Delfino, hours upon hours were spent within torrid festiveness. Paradise was here, and it arrived in the anticipated thrill of a new Mario game.

Not many months later, however, a curious thing happened: the game slipped to No. 5, then No. 9, and then slipped off my Top Ten without a trace. It kept falling, falling, falling out of sight until its place within a Top 50 would be unfathomable. To say I grew a budding, resentful disappointment would be inaccurate, but the honeymoon period was certainly over, and the game's faults were too much to ignore.

Today, that remains the case, and I further confess it gives me no pleasure to rag on Sunshine. At its core lies an intense physicality, one its successors would abandon until fifteen years later with Super Mario Odyssey. Said physics render it wondrous to control even with its oddball mechanic of sporting Mario with a water jet pack (F.L.U.D.D.), as our portly plumber slips, slides and back-flips every which way within a tropical jungle gym, hovering and rocketing wherever he wishes thanks to F.L.U.D.D. Even with the goofy concept -- and boy, does it get goofy, but we'll get into that later -- it's rarely ever not exhilarating and huge, and that's the one area where I can, without reservation, claim it a proper successor to Super Mario 64.

And yet, despite this and how much the GameCube feeds into my nostalgia, it's undeniable there was an uncharacteristic sloppiness in Nintendo rushing their games out to market in the console's earlier years, and I can think of no poorer victim than Sunshine. My own qualms with 3D World -- an otherwise fantastic title that hinges a little too closely to 2D Mario values -- are hardly comparable to what I consider, without question, the weakest 3D Mario (and I say that as someone who still prefers Sunshine based on physics alone). Aside from uneven production values in cut-scenes, this is not something one would pick up right away: for much of its main campaign, the game emulates Mario 64's star system in its Shine Sprites well enough, and the faults largely crack through as the game progresses (moreso towards the end). Given what's good about it is really good, it would be remiss not to discuss these traits and pretend Sunshine is a product failure; nay, they are vital in establishing its identity as an unsteady one, wherein one moment you indulge in top-class Nintendo craftsmanship and the next engaging in a third-party knock-off.

While Sunshine is labelled as one of the few "open" 3D Mario games, it's not necessarily as non-linear as Mario 64 before it -- with each episode adhering to their respective events, one cannot stumble upon other designated Shine Sprites; in other words, you must adhere strictly to the mission provided. To its credit, this allows for more variety: whereas Mario 64's experimental slate largely centered around singular events, there's a lot more activity going on in Sunshine, with NPCs running about, new enemies popping up, and exclusive puzzles leading and bonus levels. For all its liveliness, we're never lost -- careful level design and preview overheads see to that-- but there's so much going on we feel compelled to engage upon everything, be it tightropes leading up to the village windmill or a climbable chain-link construction hanging over the harbor.

Regardless, the game isn't afraid to shake things up -- while this does lead to some real stinkers in bonus levels, a number of winners exist from high-speed Blooper surfing to the "secret" Special Stages. Best described as the prototypes for Super Mario 3D Land, these dimensional pockets rely on pure platforming rather than water jet-pack hijinks, with disappearing blocks and rotating gears and structures susceptible to wall-jumping. They are as stimulating as they are trying, a vigorous complement -- a reward, perhaps -- to the brainpower often used to unlock them. Not that they aren't occasionally subject to Sunshine's more offbeat concepts, but that that's so rare means they fully subscribe to the best of Mario level design philosophies -- in other words, it's almost never the game's fault we mistime a jump, but our own.

That, and well, the game's physics are just a delight to control: as mentioned earlier, Sunshine would be the most active Mario would ever be in 3D for quite some time. Even putting aside the game's quirks, just moving is a joy in itself; why, just look at how we discover Mario's sliding maneuver as a preferred method of movement, hopping about every which way to our destination or just for the fun of it. When supplied by F.L.U.D.D., Mario's water jet pack, the thrill of movement grows exponentially -- its default use for aiming feels natural, but it's in its various movement options where it truly shines: Hover has the player delicately gauging one's jumping distance, Rocket spirals us into dizzying heights, and Turbo has us dashing at mach speed on both ground and water. In other words, they're summer tools to mess around with, and I've lost count of the times I've waterski'd in Delfino Plaza or -- in strange bouts of catharsis -- cleaned up every last bit of sludge desecrating the island.

It's the Rocket Nozzle that really highlights Sunshine's success in acrobatics -- for all the innovations and acclaim found in polished successors like Galaxy and 3D World, rare is the moment where they awe via scope; at the very least, there's nothing like rocketing up to Delfino Plaza's towering Shine Gate and leaping off into the harbor below, or ascending, jumping, and swinging about on the tightropes overlooking Gelato Beach, all for the sake of thrills. Isle Delfino is a paradise channeling Mario 64's gleeful penchant for hopping about just for the sake of hopping about, right down to the genesis of my favorite 3D Mario novelty: stomping repeatedly on beleaguered NPCs.

We could, perhaps, call it out for only adhering to an island theme, but while I sympathize with this complaint, I don't particularly agree, as Sunshine is careful to carve out different niches within this motif, be they harbors, amusement parks, archaeological sites, beaches, and yes, even a haunted hotel. The tropics are an enticing draw in themselves, so it's fun to see how Sunshine keeps mining out festive concepts from it. Let us also note Sunshine was not a particular stunner even in its heyday, but I make an exception for one thing: the water. I'm certain there are other contenders from its era, yet I cannot recall any other water at the time that looked this impressive. As seen above, screenshots cannot do it justice -- any outdated pixelation and whatnot are practically unnoticeable thanks to how damn smooth the wave textures operate, and so I highly recommend reading this breakdown for how it works.

Koji Kondo and Shinobu Tanaka get tropical for this summer outing -- not quite new outing for the former, as I've always felt the Super Mario Bros. 3 theme had a tropical edge to it, but Sunshine's over theming means we witness his further flexing in that area. While this isn't one of my particular favorite Mario soundtracks -- a vacation motif invites relaxing atmospheric tracks courtesy of both composers, and while that's hardly bad, they don't stick to memory very much -- I can still cite some great stuff. Like Mario 64 before it, Koji Kondo utilizes the accordion-heavy Delfino Plaza as a recurring theme, albeit more subtly: listen carefully to how the stellar Bianco Hills takes its own spin while largely adhering to its own original melody, perfectly capturing the hustle and bustle of a sleepy mountain town.

It's safe to say Sunshine's score is at its best when channeling such festive liveliness, an energy echoed within everyone's favorite song: the Special Course theme. An infectious acapella take on the original Super Mario Bros. theme, it presents a devilish paradox, with such upbeat music propped up against furious level design. Perhaps its innate ability as an earworm motivates our drive to try again and again; at the very least, I know my bouts of anger were gradually replaced with resigned sighs and bouts of manic laughter. That's the magic of Koji Kondo for you.

At Sunshine's core, the heart of 3D Mario beats; however, what supports that core is a messy construction that fails to hold together, be it embarrassing drops in production values (what on earth is with the empty backdrops for the courtroom scene?) or blatantly clumsy gameplay concepts. With the former being thankfully rare, it's the latter that frequently rear their ugly heads, and there is no more obvious culprit than The Blue Coins -- with 240 of these Shine-granting coins lying around Isle Delfino, they're a headache for completionists, as they're often hidden with little to no context. In withholding 24 exclusive shines, they're transparent attempts to pad out the game, and without a guide and/or checklist, you'll be driven mad attempting to locate these things. While thankfully they're hardly required to complete the main game -- a defense I'll grant to Sunshine's defenders and may even use myself -- that they exist at all is a disservice to the player.

Meanwhile, none of the worlds are stinkers in themselves, but they do feature otherwise terrible sections -- the Pachinko special level is commonly-cited, but Sunshine's climax in Corona Mountain is easily the worst level in Super Mario's 33-year history. That it starts out with an adequate pattern in dodging spikes and hovering over fire pits is but a rotten ruse, for a lava-resistant raft awaits to guide you to hell. F.L.U.D.D. is utilized to guide it via water spray, yet it's being unable to follow any sensible direction often results in instant-death crashes, and we're left attempting a task bordering the impossible. Forget the complete absence of creativity and abrupt directional shift, it's a brazen attempt at artificial difficulty, inviting unbearable frustration that would make even the worse of Wii's motion control mishaps blush.

Even presentation-wise does Sunshine stumble -- let it be reminded GameCube-Era Nintendo in the GameCube era wasn't exactly known for adhering to the times, retrospectively rendering Sunshine's status as the only Super Mario featuring prominent voice acting all the more stunning. It's a blessing, then, that text dialogue and brief voice clips still exist, as they clearly did not care very much: much of it induces the most painful cringe, be it high-pitched nonsense (Princess Peach, whose elongated low-energy reads accurately convey a wide-eyed stoner) or adhering to blatant "character" voices possessing no natural inflection (Bowser, whose mercifully short range of dialogue depict neither comedic menace nor). Alas, this is not the last time Nintendo of America's localization team would prove inept at voice direction, but I suspect this is why the likes of Galaxy and 3D Land/World stray away from such overt voices.

(It's a shame I rag on this, too, because the aforementioned brief clips are fine in themselves; in fact, this is possibly Charles Martinet's finest work as the otherwise-mute Mario, with his guttural scream of "MaaaAAAAAAMA!" upon touching lava paint never not inducing hysterical laughter)

This all brings me to my next point; namely, this is the weirdest Mario game. On a superficial level, it was already bound to earn this title: having Mario clean up toxic sludge plaguing a tropical paradise is already weird in itself, as is what I'm certain is the only canonical Mario title for him to attend court and land in jail. However, let us push aside any contextual issues on the grounds we're not expecting Mario games to blow us away with deep stories, and instead emphasize the latter -- Mario Sunshine is a game so bizarre its weirdness bleeds into the gameplay, presenting unfiltered ideas with reckless abandon. It does not, at any point, care about making sense, highlighting only the bizarre.

Sunshine's implementation of Yoshi is by far and away the best example, as what should be a celebrated transition into 3D is marred by absurd concepts completely lost onto the player. I mean, forget the fact that the iconic, emblematic Green Yoshi isn't present despite being witnessed in the game's promotional screenshots and art, their ludicrous functions completely override any sense of enjoyment, right down to betraying any familiarity with the character. Eating fruit and flutter jump? Check. Barfing fruit juice to erase oozing nacho cheese barriers -- I , wait, what? This isn't even getting into how the poor dinos melt -- yes, melt -- whenever they touch a body of water, briefly morphing into the Green Yoshi before he dissolves into paint. Is it meant to be symbolic of how they're supposedly extinct on Isle Delfino and you're channeling their spirits through fruit? Yeah, uh, nice job reminding the kids that all the Yoshis are dead.

Then there's the final boss fight, which does absolutely nothing to alleviate our Corona Mountain frustration in its riveting concept: Bowser in a hot tub. This is not a joke; this is not an exaggeration -- you are fighting Bowser in an acidic hot tub, and it's your job to force him out. Not that we didn't have bizarre boss fights in the game prior (hello, cleaning a giant eel's teeth!), but most still felt like genuine encounters -- this is a literal joke, inviting little to no tension (particularly relative to other climaxes in 3D Mario).

Not even the aforementioned Special Levels are safe -- by far the most infamous is Pianta Village's Underside Secret, wherein Piantas wander about and chuck Mario towards levitating platforms. Why they are populating a nebulous space is irrelevant -- it's bizarre, yes, but Mario has never needed context for such things, and I'm not about to start asking questions. Nay, it's in the frustration of the level not being intuitive in the least, as here's little to no telegraph regarding their throwing distance (let alone direction!). On top of that, whether or not Nintendo deigned it necessary to include a timed Red Coin challenge represents lack of foresight or an irrational bout of cruelty, I'll let you decide.

There are countless other examples -- Sunshine's enemies are an essay unto themselves, namely the pig balloon that gorges itself on F.L.U.D.D's nozzle -- but even just talking to Isle Delfino's inhabitants is a treasure trove of hysteria. Again, it's not like I should complain about context in Mario (which I did three years ago with 3D World, go figure), but who's saying I'm complaining? Nay, I'm simply hypnotized by the inane NPC antics; take, say, the Nokis and Piantas of Gelato Beach, who upon being terrorized by a Giant Wiggler are paralyzed in fear not in the interest of their own lives, but that the oversized caterpillar may very well trample their Dune Buds.  Then there's how the Piantas randomly greeting Mario by throwing him halfway across town. Or this unfortunate soul stranded on an island maybe ten feet away from the plaza.

Admittedly I enjoy much of the above as guilty pleasures -- barring its boring casino, Sirena Hotel's haunted hijinks is a rare gem of compelling creativity-- but my point lies in Mario Sunshine blurring contextual balance when it doesn't need to, and so we end up with a game that somehow tries too hard, but paradoxically doesn't try hard enough. This is not to say a Mario game cannot have a functioning, effective narrative or world, but there's a rather wide gulf in the heartfelt minimalism of both Galaxy games -- the former even choosing to keep much of it optional -- and everything insipid going on here. As a weirdness lover, there is nothing wrong with weirdness for the sake of comedy (WarioWare) or thematic weirdness (Katamari Damacy); there is, however, a problem with weird on top of weird -- putting a hat upon a hat, if you will -- and it renders Mario Sunshine's general sloppiness all the more inept.  In a more polished product, I may have applauded it, but would even that have saved a concept as dire as "fight Bowser in a tub"?

Super Mario Sunshine is a game I faintly adore, but with something of a broken heart. I accept it as a physical exercise, but the illusion of phys-ed paradise only hints at what could be more. Indeed, it is every bit as bizarre as its woefully unrewarding two ending screens (one hinting at a certain character's motivations -- which assuredly will certainly never bear fruit -- and the other our hard-earned blue coin reward resulting being a group picture), as awkward as NOA quickly axing its notoriously saccharine commercial with a more subdued advert, and as confounding as that fateful Toys "R" Us demo hosted by a guy dressed in graduation get-up. I mean, that last one's absurdity still invites amused chuckles, but I still ask: why?

Screenshots courtesy of The Super Mario Wiki.

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