Ohsnap, I forgot to mention I also played Super Mario Bros 2 on NES during the first entry of this series! I guess part of why is that I don’t have many strong memories of that game. It’s a great game, don’t get me wrong, my nostalgic memories just didn’t latch onto it in quite the same way as the first game. It was full of delightful secrets to uncover, but so was the first game. It had awesomely tight controls, but so did the first game. It had multiple playable characters who all controlled differently, so that was really great and unique for the time! It was a joy to revisit that game a decade later on the GBA, even going as far as to finish it. And yeah, it’s technically a reskinned Doki Doki Panic, but this game still defines a sizable part of Mario’s history. Shy Guys and Birdo and other such aspects of this game are iconic to modern Mario and you know it, if this game didn’t exist then something would be different about Mario today.
So yeah, that’s the real extent of my experiences with Mario on the NES. We caught up now? No more snafus? Great, bring out the intro!
For a long time, my gaming experience was limited to the NES and Game Boy. My parents were never really knowledgeable about video games, and I didn’t mind; the games I had were enough to keep me occupied seemingly forever. But I undoubtedly hungered for more. Little did I expect that fate would have in store for me one fateful birthday…
A PlayStation 2.
Of course, I played that thing a ton. Mostly Nickelodeon games at first, because I was that kind of kid. After I got my taste of then-current gaming, I began to hunger for still more. So go figure that eventually, I’d nag my folks into getting me a GameCube as well. And from there, I played more Nickelodeon games. THQ’s work on all of them was pretty okay at the time, but I was moving on from those games in relatively little time compared to others. I was enjoying them, but I wasn’t quite loving them. There was something I was missing. Something I had forgotten about.
That was when I saw a used copy of Super Mario Sunshine for sale at the Blockbuster we frequented.
I was stunned. I probably had seen ads of Mario’s new escapades here and there, but I had little idea what he was actually up to on Nintendo’s newest console. It had been so long since I last went on a lengthy adventure with him. So long since I jumped around without a care. That day, I resolved to amend that. My sister was wary, probably just because it was a used game, and she repeatedly informed me that I couldn’t return the game unless it was somehow broken. That it would be my own fault if I didn’t like the game and I’d have to live with that purchase, and I couldn’t make up some dumb excuse like “Mario’s shoes are tied together”.
The fact that it’s one of my favorite platformers of all time should tell you that Mario’s shoes definitely weren’t tied together.
I was impressed by Sunshine before I even left the intro cutscene. THQ’s licensed works had already acclimated me to early 2000s 3D games, but Nintendo brought a shine to this game that I never expected to see. The colors and lights were so vibrant and lively. The shapes and models were so rounded and polished. The music was gorgeous and vivid. The voice acting (!!!) was emotive and silly. It felt more impressive than any 3D cartoon I was watching at the time, and I didn’t even buy the game for that!
So how about we talk about what I did buy the game for? Let’s talk gameplay.
I already raved over the controls of Sunshine in a previous blog, but I’ll reiterate those thoughts here. Mario’s moveset in Sunshine, thanks to FLUDD, is possibly his best arsenal ever (Contested only by… well, I’ll get there eventually). His movement and momentum has just the right amount of weight for platforming across Delfino - light enough for lots of kinetic motion, heavy enough for precise platforming. FLUDD’s various nozzles can be used for both kinetic ranged combat and over-the-top acrobatics. This moveset works great for both expansive, open worlds and tighter, constricted courses. It’s a lot of fun just to toy around with! But not every gamer wants to just toy around with moves; many of us want goals. Without a simple goal post to climb onto or a bridge switch to boop, what else is there for Mario to pursue in 3D?
Similar to Super Mario 64, this game was built around a central hub and levels with episodic missions to explore. I was just a little familiar with SM64 and had even played some of it, but I didn’t actually own a Nintendo 64, so I didn’t get that in depth with it. My point being, I was a little familiar with Sunshine’s structure, but it wasn’t until now I’d get my chance to explore such a game to my heart’s full content. And explore did I do, because Sunshine rewards that exploration generously! Little nooks and crannies everywhere contain many rewards, from coins to secret Shine Sprites to Blue Coins. There’s always something rewarding to satisfy your curiosity if you go off the beaten path.
Well… that’s how it feels at first, anyway.
On the surface, this feels like a rewarding system. You need more Shines to finish the game, and every collectible and secret you stumble across helps you find more Shines. You can 100% the game if you want, or you can just focus on your favorite objectives. Simple! Right? That is, until you discover that the final boss only appears after clearing very specific objectives, when the 7th episode of each main level is beaten. This takes away a lot from Super Mario 64’s charming freedom. In essence, it makes every collectible that isn’t related to those main episode shines useless unless you’re aiming for 100% completion.
That’s still fine, as long as 100% completion is fun! The problem is that 100% completion in Super Mario Sunshine isn’t all that fun.
I could ramble on about hidden levels with frustrating difficulty spikes such as the pachinko machine or the poison river, but those are one-and-done annoyances and they can be theoretically made trivial with enough luck or cheese tactics. What pervades the whole game are the Blue Coins. Again, in theory, they’re a fun idea for a mechanic. Do a little exploring, and you’ll find one of these shiny blue babies. They’re easy enough to find on their own that just one doesn’t do anything, but if you collect 10, you can trade them in for a Shine Sprite. And there’s a total of 240 of these in the game, for an even 24 Shines to get. Neato! But these aren’t main episode Shines, meaning once again, they won’t amount to anything of value unless you find and cash in every single one of them throughout the entire game. If you do, may the Star Spirits have mercy on your soul. Some Blue Coins are hidden behind triggers with little indication such as a few blue pots in a room stuffed with pots. Some Blue Coins only appear in certain episodes despite taking place in the exact same locations with extremely similar circumstances surrounding them. Some Blue Coins have obscure moon logic behind their spawns such as literally spraying the moon with water. And the game gives you no way to track which Blue Coins you’ve already collected, or clues on where to find the rest of them, or etcetera. I bought a strategy guide for this game with instructions and pictures for each coin and I still couldn’t bother hunting all of those cobalt circles. That’s how obnoxious it is to look for them all. And spoiler alert in the contents of the tiny crossed out text, what’s your prize for collecting all of these?
A postcard. Just a postcard with the entire game’s cast. Standing in their default idle animations.
I mean… hey, I love good art. I love huge cast curtain calls. But I enjoyed the random postcards in the credit sequence much more than I did seeing that reward.
There is nothing even slightly worthwhile for all of that effort. Even so, I found myself enjoying doing some of that side content, so it begs the question… why?
The biggest reasons why are the aforementioned controls and gameplay. When a game is fun to play around with, I don’t need an extrinsic incentive like completionism or a checklist to do optional content in games. For example, the huge slide inside that little warp pipe on the rocky towers to the east of Delfino Plaza? Not a main level Shine. Not necessary. Yet I always replayed it because it was such a silly joy to slide down, or jump down, to just play with! For all of the black marks of Sunshine’s level design, there’s also a lot of green checks if you look in the right places!
Another reason I enjoyed romping around Sunshine so much is because the overworlds were just that freaking gorgeous. Their colors pop out no matter how much or how little light shines on them. Their geometry is exotic and fascinating to explore and jump around, but feel believably constructed as vacation locales (at least to an elementary schooler). Their themes are memorable and catchy. And thanks to the absence of a timer or similarly all-encompassing threat in many (but not all) of a level’s episodes until you engage the level objective, players often have free reign to explore them as quickly or as slowly as they wish. They’re like massive playgrounds!
If that’s not your cup of tea? The small world levels have a lot to offer. They mix things up a ton by exchanging sweeping expanses for condensed platforming challenges. Despite being stuffed to the brim with copypasta’d objects, their vibrant colors and textures keep them fun to look at and revisit. More importantly, having FLUDD taken from you on your first time through each of them presents an imposing challenge; instead of relying on your hover nozzle crutch, now you have to make do with Mario’s default moveset. Thankfully, Mario’s default moveset is still packed with a lot of fun feeling jumps and tricks, meaning that these levels are less of an annoyance and more of an opportunity to get acclimated to a part of your toolset you may have had less incentive to toy with before then! And you're probably still playing the above song link that plays during these levels because it's just that good! These levels are challenging and varied yet familiar and simple, a solid recipe for more platforming fun.
Except that Chuckster one, that was a really finicky gimmick.
Super Mario Sunshine was my big gateway into AAA gaming in the GC era. Despite the occasional bad idea, it was a creative game built with a special type of polish I haven’t seen in many other games from that generation before it. I have no idea what platformer on the GameCube can be compared to it.
But… perhaps I can compare something else to it. Not of the same genre, but something comparable in creativity and polish from the same time period.
Before Sunshine came out was this sortof a tech demo spin off, Luigi’s Mansion. If you think I sound like a huge wuss in this article about Sonic Adventure, trust me, I was creeped out enough by Luigi’s Mansion’s cover to keep me away from it for a long time. But I was really into rentals at the time, plus I knew it was a Mario game of all things, so… eventually, I gave it a spin. What’s could go wrong?
Aside from those “GET OUT” posters giving me a mild heart attack, nothing. ‘Tis a bunch of things going correctly in rapid succession.
Luigi’s Mansion is an experiment. Everything about this game conflicts with what a typical Mario game is, and intentionally so; it really was built mostly to demonstrate what the GameCube can do that other Nintendo consoles can’t, and what better way to do that than to turn the typical Mario premise on its head? Instead of jumping and running around saturated platforms, your feet are slowly treading through a dark, enigmatic mansion. Instead of Mario rescuing the Princess, Luigi is investigating his brother’s mysterious disappearance. Instead of beating enemies with jumps and power-ups, you only have your wits and a supercharged vacuum cleaner to face your foes with.
Just comparing any screenshot of Luigi’s Mansion to that of any Nintendo 64 game shows a world of difference in fidelity. It’d be too easy to compare the wider color palette, or the less blocky shapes, or the absence of pre-rendered environments… so how about we instead compare it to the game I played before? The most striking thing about Luigi’s Mansion’s visuals when compared against Sunshine’s is the lighting. Nearly every room has both a darkened and lit state, accentuating the unnerving spooks of the darkness and the extravagance of the light. While Sunshine also technically had lighting mechanics, seeing the drastic shift in colors every time you clear a room in Luigi’s Mansion does a lot more to demonstrate the capabilities of the GameCube. Furthermore, thanks to the cramped and condensed nature of the mansion, its environments are able to exchange Sunshine’s sprawling expanses for minutely crafted details. This lends to the uniqueness of every nook and cranny of the haunt, and leaves a stronger impression as to exactly how much more the GameCube can render.
But one big question remains; how do you make a Mario game fun without the jumping? Simply put, Luigi’s Mansion doesn’t try to be a traditional Mario game in the slightest. The new flashlight-wielding and vacuum-aiming mechanics are tricky to get a hang on because they’re so unfamiliar (which is why E. Gadd gives you a safe chance to acclimate yourself to them before you get to the meat of the game, thank the Star Spirits), but with enough practice everything just fits together smoothly. The dynamic between approaching aggressive ghosts to stun them and rodeoing with them in your vacuum’s grasp is intimidating and chaotic, yet cathartic and rewarding.
Not only the gameplay, but the entire atmosphere of the game is flipped around to compliment that shift in focus. Instead of high-energy, adrenaline pumping ear worms, the background music in LM is usually slow and awkward. Ghosts can theoretically pop up in front of you at any time, so the music and visuals heighten that suspense with eerie sounds and dark colors. Fake doors and poison mushrooms can hurt you if you so much as press the A button on a seemingly harmless object! Thus, you are constantly on edge when investigating your surroundings, looking for signs of danger. Yet the ghosts who haunt you are cartoonish and Luigi’s expressions are wildly exaggerated. This game is a delightful parody of horror that manages to pull you into a suspenseful atmosphere without neglecting its silly roots.
Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion are as different as day and night. Yet they both exemplify the capabilities of Nintendo’s then-newest console in different ways, to their own strengths. They represent a huge jump forward in graphical fidelity, creative controls, and artistic design. At the time of these games, I was sated by okay to mediocre titles, but I was longing for something more. Thanks to them, I was able to rediscover that wonderful creativity and gameplay which hooked me on this hobby in the first place!
But this wasn’t the end of Nintendo’s experiments with the plumber… actually, it was far from the beginning, too! For we all are familiar with Mario’s countless spinoffs from the Nintendo 64 onward, and of course, I dove into plenty of those on the GameCube. Next time we visit this series, these blogs will be sporting a broader Mario-based subject matter. COUGHCOUGHCOUGH… ough, sorry about that, my forced pun allergies must be acting up.