Super Mario Sunshine: The Mario That Should Have Been More

I was originally just going to write one of my “Replaying” articles in relation to Super Mario Sunshine, which I am currently replaying via Super Mario 3D All-Stars (which came out on my birthday, something I may have mentioned once or twice). But as I’ve been playing it, I feel I have more to say than about Sunshine than what my “Replaying” features usually entail. The more I thought about it, the more I think something closer to my recent write-up on Howl’s Moving Castle is more apropos. So here we are.

Look, first thing’s first, Super Mario Sunshine is not a bad game. In fact, if this is the weakest 3D Mario offering, than Mario has done well for himself, because Sunshine is still a very fun game in a lot of ways. But with the possible exception of Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, Sunshine is undoubtedly the weakest 3D Mario game by a mile, and possibly the weakest “main entry” in the whole series (unless we’re counting the Super Mario Land and New Super Mario Bros. titles as part of the main series of Mario games).  And it could have, and should have, been so much more.

Now, in more recent years, Super Mario Sunshine is talked about in a more positive light than in years past. Though it’s surely no coincidence that Sunshine’s newfound reverence should occur around the same time those who were young tykes during the game’s 2002 release are now old enough to reflect on Sunshine with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles.

I have seen a number of YouTubers and people on social media try to defend Sunshine to the death, but again, it’s probably no coincidence that all of its defenders are of a certain age. Yes, I myself have nostalgia for Super Mario Sunshine, and I repeat that it isn’t a bad game. But playing Sunshine today, it would be incredibly difficult to put forth a credible argument that it’s one of the better Mario games once the nostalgia glasses come off.

Travel back to the 2000s, and some of the backlash against Sunshine may have been excessive (the gaming community has a bad habit of only working in absolutes), but it wasn’t entirely unfounded. Super Mario Sunshine is a good game, but not good enough for a series that’s usually associated with greatness.

Think about it this way: Up until Sunshine’s release in 2002, every “proper” entry in the Mario series was considered an all-time great in the medium (unless, again, you counted the Super Mario Land titles, though Nintendo themselves has only seemed to retroactively include them in the canon in more recent years). Super Mario Bros. was the biggest game of all time when it was released in 1985, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World were released in the early 90s, and are still considered some of the best games ever made even today. The same goes for Yoshi’s Island, albeit to a humbler degree. And of course, Super Mario 64 revolutionized gaming from that point onward. Even Super Mario Bros. 2, which is now often labeled the “black sheep” of the series, only really earned the monicker in hindsight, after its status as a reworked Doki Doki Panic became more common knowledge. But Super Mario Bros. 2 was still better than most other NES games, and it’s still fun today, and not a whole lot of NES titles can boast that.

Point being, the Super Mario series had (rightfully) earned a reputation unlike any other in video games (Zelda comes the closest, but back then Zelda games were much less common, though I still think Mario would ultimately win out when taking things into consideration in modern times). Yes, Mario still has a peerless pedigree in video games, but at that point, the series was undefeated. Its record unblemished.

Super Mario Sunshine became the series’ blemish.

Sure, Super Mario Sunshine received some strong review scores upon release, but that may have been a case of the hype getting to the reviewers (this was the successor to the legendary Super Mario 64, after all). It didn’t take too long for fans and critics alike to realize Sunshine didn’t quite have the same magic as its predecessors (something similar would happen with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword over nine years later, and lord knows it’s happened with most western AAA releases over the years).

At the time, most of Sunshine’s detractors pointed at the F.L.U.D.D., Mario’s new waterpack, as the gimmicky reason why the game wasn’t up to the series’ standards. Though I think that’s unfair, as F.L.U.D.D. was actually a fun idea, one that still feels unique not just for the series, but platformers in general. It even added to some of the acrobatic moves carried over from Super Mario 64. Seriously, a platformer centered around water is still a pretty great idea.

Others lamented the lack of variety in the environments, with the entire game being centered around a single, tropical island theme. Sunshine’s contemporary defenders argue that this gives the game’s setting, Isle Delfino, a stronger sense of place than the environments of other Mario games, often pointing out how you can see one level in the distance while playing in another. I find myself somewhere in the middle of this. I like the little details such as how Isle Delfino is presented as one connected world, but considering the variety of different places Mario visited even back on the NES, it does make things feel pretty stagnant in Super Mario Sunshine by comparison.

What really brings Sunshine a peg below other Mario entries is simply that it lacks the polish the series is known for. Mario games tend to be timeless, with the forward thinking creativity in their design making them outlive the hardware generations they’re released in. It really should be no surprise why Mario was such a big hit in the 1980s. Again, compare the series’ 8-bit outings with virtually any other NES title. The Mario games are still fun. The others…kind of show their age. Some may wish the Mario series had more focus on stories and stronger world-building, and while such additions certainly would be admirable, if we’re looking at things from a pure video game standpoint, the Mario series is practically untouchable.

At least, it usually is. Sunshine does admittedly try its hand (relatively) harder in regards to story than the other non-RPG Mario games – something its modern defenders love about it – but such elements really can’t make up for Sunshine’s shortcomings as a video game.

“The bonus stages have more traditional Mario platforming. It’s no surprise these sections are often considered the game’s highlight.”

The GameCube was the first time a Nintendo console would be released without a Mario game beside it (Luigi’s Mansion made it to the GameCube’s launch, and may feature Mario characters, but calling it a “Mario game” wouldn’t feel accurate, and not just because the lesser Mario brother had the starring role). It may be because of this that Sunshine can feel like it was rushed out of the gate, with Nintendo hoping to release it as soon as possible to help lift up the GameCube. But more development time would have done Super Mario Sunshine a lot of good.

I already mentioned the game’s lack of variety in setting, but the real bummer is how these limitations are seen in the game’s ideas. Once again, one of the things about Mario games that gets the most praise is their willingness to introduce new ideas at every turn, and retiring these ideas before any of them can overstay their welcome. These ideas may not always be winners (even Super Mario 64 stumbled in some areas, and it wasn’t until Galaxy that the series reclaimed the full power of its bombastic imagination it had during its 2D heyday). But the effort that goes into these ideas to tinker and toy with the gameplay of Mario’s world are always appreciated.

“This section in the game’s fourth stage combines Super Mario World’s cage-climbing with the F.L.U.D.D. mechanics. It’s actually really fun and creative. The game could have used more of this.”

That’s why it’s so disappointing when Super Mario Sunshine can’t seem to stop throwing Red Coin missions at the player. Yes, Super Mario 64 featured  fetch quests for eight red coins as well, but these missions were limited to one per level, and a few bonus stages. But Sunshine revels in them. Each level has about two red coin missions in Super Mario Sunshine, but actually feature more than advertised, considering many of the game’s ‘secret Shine Sprites’ are earned by re-entering bonus areas within the stages, and collecting the red coins that are found within them upon a second visit.

You might think “that isn’t that bad.” And perhaps on its own it wouldn’t be. But when you consider every stage also houses an obligatory “chase Shadow Mario” mission in order to progress the story, things start to feel repetitious really fast. Super Mario 64 may have had one red coin mission per level, but Sunshine’s stages feel like they’re comprised of a series of the same missions for the most part.

The best moments of the game are the Shine Sprites that are built around obstacles within the level, such as the aforementioned bonus areas (where Mario is temporarily robbed of F.L.U.D.D.) and some fun obstacle courses in the main stages themselves. But they’re in the minority, with Sunshine all too often falling back on the same few tricks.

This is all the more glaring by the fact that Sunshine features considerably less levels than Super Mario 64 had. 64 had fifteen proper stages (plus bonus levels and three Bowser stages), while Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels. Some might bring up the “quality over quantity” argument, but that’s just the thing. 64 filled its larger library of levels with more ideas, while Sunshine has fewer stages that repeat a small handful of ideas over and over. So 64 has Sunshine beat in both quality and quantity, and it was released six years prior…on weaker hardware… during the pioneering days of 3D gaming.

Sadly, this feels like a side effect of Nintendo trying to get Sunshine on the market as soon as possible. Who knows how many more levels could have been added, and what could have been added to the existing levels, had Sunshine been given more time in development.

Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Sunshine, clearly hoping to replicate Super Mario 64, features one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites to collect, just as Super Mario 64 housed one-hundred and twenty Power Stars. If the red coins and Shadow Mario missions weren’t padding enough, than the blue coins really feel like they’re just filling out a quota.

Super Mario Sunshine has two-hundred and forty blue coins to find across the game. Unlike Super Mario 64, where blue coins were simply worth five regular coins (an easier means to claim a level’s “100 coins” star), the blue coins of Sunshine are their own separate collectible. Now, this could have made for a great side quest, with players unlocking new features and secrets whenever they reach a certain milestone of collected blue coins. Instead, the blue coins are simply traded to acquire… more Shine Sprites.

It’s ten blue coins for one Shine Sprite which, if you do the math, means a good chunk of twenty-four of the game’s one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites are simply acquired by trading in blue coins in the game’s hub world. This is where it really feels like the development team had to cut corners. The search for the blue coins could have made for an intriguing side quest, if it provided some unique rewards (say, for example, if the rewards included things like F.L.U.D.D. being able to store more water, Mario getting extra health, you unlock new colors of Yoshis, things like that). But by making the blue coins simply a means to collect all the Shine Sprites, it just comes across as padding. Both the main quest for Shine Sprites, and what could have been a promising secondary endeavor with the blue coins, feel unfulfilled by smooshing them together.

I wish I could say that’s the end of it. Sadly, Sunshine has some more cut corners in the gameplay itself. As I said, Mario games usually hold up really well because they’re much more polished than their contemporaries, but that simply isn’t true of Sunshine. Some fans like to claim that Super Mario Sunshine is the hardest 3D Mario game. It’s not, but if it were, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Case in point, there’s a Shine Sprite in the game’s second stage, Rico Harbor, that sees Mario surfing on a Blooper to collect eight red coins (of course). Once you’re on the Blooper, you can’t get off the Blooper. Once you collect the eight red coins, you freeze while you watch the Shine Sprite animation, only to revert back to full speed in a split second, which really throws you off. And to collect the Shine Sprite, you have to land on it dead center while riding the Blooper, but if you bump into any walls on the Blooper, you die!

Here’s a montage of videos I took on my Switch to show you why, when you put these things together, it makes for an aggravating time.

To this I have to say… did no one at Nintendo think this one through? Or test it? This is the kind of sloppy design you would find in poorly-aged NES games. To think that a Mario title would be guilty of something so clunky seems unheard of. But here we are.

It’s not an isolated incident, either. Yet another mission in Rico Harbor (which is otherwise an aesthetically pleasing level), “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure” is a chore. In Sunshine, Yoshis will hatch from their eggs by bringing them their desired fruit. In Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure, the Yoshi egg in question will always want a durian. In order to get a durian, you have to get on some rooftops to reach the switches on top of two giant fruit dispensers. Pound on the switches and a fruit comes out. But it’s a random fruit, with the durian only showing up some of the time. So you have to jump between the fruit dispensers pounding the upright switch over and over, hoping that a durian shows up. If one does show up, there’s a good chance it will fall down the nearby ledge. And of course the durian is the one fruit Mario can’t simply pick up (he probably doesn’t want his gloves to smell of durian stank), so if it falls it’s almost impossible to get it back where it needs to be to get it to Yoshi, meaning you have to get back on top of the fruit dispensers and start over.

Once you manage to kick/squirt the durian over to Yoshi, you have to ride the dinosaur through something of an obstacle course. Sounds promising, but again, it feels untested. Yoshi has to spit juice at jumping fish to create platforms (as one does), then ride said platforms to more stagnant ones that are part of the level. But if you shoot the fish at the wrong time, the platform won’t be in the right spot. You either can’t reach that platform or won’t be able to reach the place it carries you to, and the fish don’t respawn until the platform moves its full distance. Not to mention Yoshi only lasts for a limited time in this game. And if you fall off the platforms, you’ll land in water which dissolves Yoshi meaning you have to start the entire process over again!

Suffice to say, Sunshine feels like its difficulty can stem from all the wrong places.

That’s before we even get into the game’s inconsistent animations (notice how Shadow Mario makes a flipping sound even when he doesn’t perform his flipping animation), or the arduous task of keeping track of your blue coins (you can go to a screen that tells you how many you’ve collected in a level, but it doesn’t tell you how many are in a level or which ones you’ve already claimed).

“On the other hand, Sunshine is the only Mario game that has a boss that’s a Stephen King reference. That’s pretty cool.”

Again, I have to stress that Super Mario Sunshine is a good game. But it’s a good game in a series of great ones. It provides fun gameplay and some memorable moments, but whether because of a rushed schedule or lack of creative passion, Sunshine just doesn’t have the Mario magic.

Imagine what could have been, had Sunshine been given more time to be polished. Perhaps it would be talked about in the same regard as 64 and Galaxy are today, instead of being “that one Mario game” that only fans of the right age conveniently seem to herald.

Super Mario Sunshine would be the first time a “proper” Mario game would fail to deliver a defining title in its era. A fun and enjoyable experience, to be sure. But to all those revisionists who insist Super Mario Sunshine is one of Mario’s greatest adventures… No, it really isn’t.

Luigi’s Mansion Review

Nintendo was in an interesting place in 2001. Though the Nintendo 64 helped revolutionize gaming (namely due to Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), its sales numbers paled in comparison to the Sony Playstation. And with the Playstation 2 releasing in 2000, it’s safe to say that the GameCube was in a hurry to get out the door as soon as possible. As such, this meant that the GameCube’s signature Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, would miss the console’s launch, marking the first time Mario wasn’t present to cut the ribbon on the dawning of a new Nintendo console.

To fill that void, however, Nintendo had a separate game set within the Mario universe to make the GameCube’s launch. But it ended up being quite different from any other game set in the world of the Mushroom Kingdom. The game in question was Luigi’s Mansion, a kind of spoof on the survival-horror genre that marked the first official game in which Luigi received the starring role (wiseacres are quick to point out the existence of Mario is Missing from years earlier, but that title was an edutainment game that wasn’t developed by Nintendo, so it doesn’t count). Although Luigi’s Mansion never boasted the depth of Mario’s adventures, Luigi’s first proper solo outing nonetheless provided enough unique ideas and personality that it retains a charm of its own.

The initial concept for what would later become Luigi’s Mansion at first starred the more famous Mario brother, with the idea being to place Mario in a singular indoor setting. Originally conceived as a Japanese-style castle, the setting eventually became an American-style haunted house. With the change in setting, Nintendo decided to promote Luigi to be the star of the game for one very simple reason: Mario was known for being brave and adventurous, but now was the time to showcase Luigi’s personality, whose constance presence in his brother’s shadow made him easy fodder for a ‘reluctant hero’ character.

Though audiences saw glimpses of distinct personalities between the Mario Bros. through their television series and books, there was never any official, concrete characterizations between Mario and Luigi by Nintendo themselves in the formative years for the video game series. If Mario was the brave hero who would leap into action at the first chance, then it just made sense that Luigi would be the series’ ‘Cowardly Lion,’ as he shares a similar heroic spirit as his brother, but it’s buried far, far deeper. So it was a natural fit to have Luigi be the one to traverse a haunted mansion, facing his many fears as he tries to rescue Mario.

Luigi’s Mansion might be the first Nintendo game to be centered around one of their character’s personalities, and it remains one of their most successful attempts (the less said of Metroid: Other M, the better). Nintendo’s critics often deride the developer for a supposed “lack of character,” but that’s a gross misconception. While it’s true Nintendo rarely prioritizes actual storytelling and their characters tend to not have complex backstories (probably for the better. I again refer you to Other M), many of their characters are bursting with personality in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Popeye the Sailor Man. Luigi’s Mansion is a fine example of this. Between Luigi’s constantly chattering teeth (which kind of makes him look like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit), shaky knees, and nervous humming of the game’s catchy theme tune, Luigi’s Mansion showcases its lead character’s personality – while simple and exaggerated – to be thoroughly entertaining.

It simply wouldn’t have been as good if it were Mario braving the haunted halls of its mansion. The game and its lead character both benefit one another in such a way that you wish more of the story-focused games of today would attempt to replicate that connection, as to avoid the common pitfall of gameplay conflicting with narratives and character motivation.

Even with Luigi’s personality leading the charge, gameplay is still at the forefront of Nintendo’s designs. And although it shows its age in certain areas, for the most part, Luigi’s Mansion remains a uniquely fun and charming game even today.

As mentioned, the game is all about Luigi trying to save Mario, who has gone missing in the new mansion Luigi supposedly won in a contest he never even entered (red flag there, Luigi). The mansion is, of course, littered with ghosts. Luckily for Luigi, Professor E. Gadd – a lifetime researcher of ghosts – has been studying the mansion, and gives Luigi his ghost-catching vacuum, the Poltergust 3000.

Yes, the gameplay is more reminiscent of the 1984 Ghostbusters film than it is any of its Mario series predecessors (Luigi can’t even jump in the game). Equipped with only the Poltergust and a flashlight, Luigi traverses the mansion fighting ghosts. The flashlight will stun ghosts, exposing their heart, which allows Luigi to suck them up into the Poltergust.

One of the most fun things about Luigi’s Mansion is the act of catching ghosts itself. The player of course moves Luigi with the standard joystick. But Luigi aims the Poltergust and flashlight with the GameCube controller’s ‘C-stick.’ If a ghost caught in the Poltergust’s whirlwind changes direction, the player will have to accommodate and pull the direction opposite to that which the ghost is heading, occasionally cutting some slack so Luigi can avoid a potential hazard in his way as the ghost pulls him along the ground. Essentially, it’s like an elaborate fishing game used as a combat mechanic.

It’s simple fun with the standard enemies, but the real treat comes in the form of the “Portrait Ghosts;” unique mini-boss-like specters whom the mansion’s many chambers are built around. Each Portrait Ghost has different tells and weaknesses, and can provide real tests of endurance for the player.

The Portrait Ghosts are memorable not just for how each one provides their own little puzzle for the player to solve, but also in their personalities and design. Most of the Portrait Ghosts are more humanoid than what we usually see in the Mario universe (keep in mind this was sixteen years before Odyssey brought realistic-looking humans into the fold), and although it would be difficult to call the game truly scary, the Portrait Ghosts’ appearances do make the game feel appropriately spooky and (relatively) darker than the usual Mario title. The mansion itself could be considered a character in its own right, given its strong sense of place.

It may not match the combination of cartoony characters with a dark and dreary atmosphere of Donkey Kong Country 2, but Luigi’s Mansion is probably the only other game I can think of that warrants a comparison in that regard. Luigi’s Mansion’s eventual 3DS sequel, though arguably an improvement in certain respects, lacks the original’s sense of atmosphere and character.

Luigi’s Mansion could be described as a “Diet Metroidvania,” with Luigi gaining access to more chambers of the mansion as he continues to capture Portrait Ghosts. Though perhaps one of the game’s drawbacks is that it could have taken an extra page from the Metroidvania sub-genre and had Luigi (or the Poltergust, as it were) gain new abilities to access more of the mansion, instead of it merely being a case of defeating sub-bosses for keys. The Poltergust does gain the ability to emit fire, water and ice, but they unfortunately never get utilized in any substantial way.

Another fun aspect of Luigi’s Mansion is finding the many treasures hidden throughout the titular abode. While Mario is always grabbing coins, here, Luigi is on a quest for coins, pearls, dollar bills, gemstones and diamonds. Though gaining these riches does little more than effect your score at the end of the game, it still proves to be a fun diversion to see how much treasure you can collect.

The biggest complaint most people seem to have with Luigi’s Mansion is its short length. If you know what you’re doing, the game can be completed in about the time it takes to watch a movie. Luigi’s Mansion could have done with just a couple more hours of gameplay, as some of its ideas don’t meet their full potential with the little time they’re allowed to have. On the plus side, I suppose the game’s brief time makes it one of the few titles in the medium that can be seen as a holiday tradition with annual playthroughs (Halloween in this instance, obviously).

Luigi’s Mansion was one of the earlier Nintendo titles to feature a New Game Plus mode after completing the campaign. Unfortunately in both its Japanese and US release, the differences between the main game and New Game Plus are little more than some stronger enemies and a weaker Luigi. The PAL version of the game (released well after the other versions) rectified this somewhat by making the post-game version of the mansion mirrored and changing the locations of certain treasures, but even that only goes so far. So unless you missed out on some treasures, or just really want to beat your high score, there’s not a whole lot of reason to play through the “Hidden Mansion” mode.

The short running time of the campaign is unfortunate, but it’s not the game’s biggest issue. Though the GameCube has aged better than the Nintendo 64 on the whole, it’s earlier titles still suffer a bit from the same kind of technical hiccups that plagued its 64-bit predecessor. And Luigi’s Mansion is no exception.

Some of the controls feel a little clunky, particularly in regards to handling the flashlight in conjunction with everything else. The flashlight is turned on by default, and pressing the B button turns it off. You turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust with the C-stick, and you suck up ghosts with a press of the R button. And while the flashlight stuns the ghosts, you have to stun them at the opportune time, or else they’ll disappear. It can feel a bit awkward to turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust while holding the B button to keep the light off and then release it to turn the light on when the time is right, especially in rooms with multiple ghosts.

Along with the standard enemies and the Portrait Ghosts, the Mario series’ classic ‘Boo’ enemies show up as the primary baddies. While seeing these secondary foes get a promotion in the same vein as Luigi is nice, there are some issues with the Boos’ presence in Luigi’s Mansion. The game features fifty Boos hidden throughout the mansion. But unlike the other ghosts in the game, Boos ignore the aforementioned “fishing” aspects of the catching process, with Luigi simply focusing the vortex of the Poltergust on Boos to drain their hit points.

That may not sound too bad, and at first it isn’t when the Boos have less hit points. But once you you realize Boos can travel from room to room, and they start getting more hit points, thus giving them more opportunities to do so, it gets a bit tedious chasing a Boo from one room to another, and downright frustrating when they exit a room to go into the hallway and back again repeatedly. It’s also a bit disappointing that, despite the game claiming there are 50 Boos in the mansion to be captured, there are technically only 35, since 15 of them are automatically captured as part of a single boss fight.

Another note Luigi’s Mansion should have taken from Metroidvanias is the implementation of fast-traveling. The game can only be saved by talking to Toads (who are perhaps a bit too far spread out from one another), or after catching a Boo. While the Toads save your game, they don’t act as checkpoints. Every time you reload your game, or defeat a boss, or die, you start back at the foyer of the mansion. Although you can return to the foyer by scanning mirrors, there’s no means to fast-travel anywhere else in the mansion. As you might imagine, backtracking to different sections of the mansion can quickly feel arduous.

Though these aspect do show that the game has aged a bit, the core gameplay, along with its undeniable sense of character, have helped Luigi’s Mansion remain a fun and delightful experience nearly two decades later. It is perhaps the perfect launch game the GameCube could have hoped for (if maybe not the one it sorely needed), as Luigi’s Mansion echoes the console itself in many ways. The GameCube may not have been the success story Nintendo was hoping for in the Playstation dominated market of the time, nor is it one of Nintendo’s more iconic or innovative consoles. But it has a unique appeal of its own, a small-scale charm that’s aberrant  among Nintendo systems.

Just the same, Luigi’s Mansion – though far, far away from being one of the best games set in the Super Mario universe – remains a unique and appealing offshoot of Nintendo’s flagship franchise. We may not have realized it in 2001, but in hindsight, Luigi’s Mansion seems to have encompassed the GameCube’s place in Nintendo’s history right out of the gate.

 

7

Sonic the Fighters Review

*Review based on Sonic the Fighters’ release as part of Sonic Gems Collection for the Nintendo GameCube*

Because of the wild popularity of the series in its early years, Sonic the Hedgehog still gets frequent comparisons to Super Mario. But it’s an unfair comparison, really. While Mario has had an unrivaled longevity, still releasing “best games ever” thirty years on, Sonic went the path of The Simpsons. That is to say, it sticks around because of its early quality and appeal, but it’s overstayed its welcome, and has been bad far longer than it was ever good.

But Sonic’s issues didn’t happen all at once, and even in the franchise’s heyday in the 90s, the series made some notable missteps. Among the biggest of these missteps was Sonic the Fighters, which was not only the first Sonic fighting game, but also the first 3D title starring the blue hedgehog.

Released in arcades in 1996, the concept of Sonic the Fighters wasn’t doomed from the start. The series has plenty of colorful, distinct characters that could be translated into the fighter genre. But Sonic the Fighters fails the concept at every turn. Elsewhere, Mario spent his ’96 revolutionizing 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 and starring in one of the best Role-Playing games of all time in Super Mario RPG. Suffice to say, even back then, it was easy to see where the war between Mario and Sonic was going.

The biggest issue with Sonic the Fighters is how insanely rudimentary it is. This is as bare bones as a 3D fighting game gets. Moves consist of basic punches and kicks, which can be combined with directional inputs and pressed repeatedly for simplistic combos. But these aren’t the refined combos of Street Fighter, not even close. There is no depth to the combat of Sonic the Fighters, and the game ends up feeling like little more than chaotic button-mashing. There is no thinking to the gameplay whatsoever.

The one novelty the game tries to bring to the genre is that, in place of standard blocking, characters have barriers. Barriers can’t withstand too many hits, and if all of your barriers break, you are defenseless, and need to get a few hits on your opponent in order to build your barriers back up. It’s a decent idea in theory, but because the execution of the game is so utterly mindless, you can basically just mash the punching button ad nauseam to wear out your opponent’s barriers and continue doing the same until you get a knockout. This is a fighter as thoughtless as it is basic.

“You might know everything I’m going to do, but that’s not going to help you, since I know everything you’re going to do! Strange, isn’t it?!”

Sonic the Fighters even lacks depth in its gameplay modes, with only the standard single player arcade mode and two-player versus being available. The arcade mode sees players go through the eight characters on the playable roster, before facing off against Metal Sonic and Dr. Eggman (the former being ridiculously cheap and can take you out in three hits, while the latter is hilariously easy). Aside from the unfair Metal Sonic, the enemy AI is as mindless as the game itself. And you should really only subject a friend to the two-player versus mode if you both have a great sense of humor about these things.

The character selection includes the obvious choices of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy, but also throws in more obscure Sonic characters in Espio the Chameleon from Knuckles Chaotix, and Knack the Weasel (here called ‘Fang the Sniper’) from Sonic Triple Trouble. Meanwhile, two new characters were introduced in Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite (who is in fact a bird. No, I don’t understand the name, either). Humorously, the two characters introduced here who were never seen again feel more in line with the look and feel of the Sonic franchise than the countless goofy animals who were introduced to the series later on and stuck around to this day.

“I have to applaud the fun animations. But not much else.”

If there’s any plus side to Sonic the Fighters, it’s in the visuals. Obviously, the game isn’t pretty by today’s standards, but the ‘early 3D fighter’ look here is complimented by the cartoony characters of the Sonic universe, giving Sonic the Fighters a visual charm that similar 3D fighters of the time like Virtual Fighter simply don’t have. This is hit home by the fun visual gags of characters getting squished and stretched like Looney Tunes characters when struck.

That’s about all the positives I can give Sonic the Fighters though. The game itself is just too thoughtless in both the bare minimum nature of its ideas, and their sloppy and chaotic execution. I wish I were exaggerating when I say Sonic the Fighters is so bad, it makes Street Fighter the Movie (the Game) look like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate by comparison.

Sonic the Fighters was an early example of Sonic lacking in the adaptability and timeless appeal of Mario. But there is a silver lining in this dark cloud. Sonic would eventually find himself in a stellar fighting game… once he joined Mario and company in the Super Smash Bros. series.

 

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Wario World Review

On paper, Wario World sounds like some kind of dream come true: a beat-em-up starring Wario created by Treasure, the developer behind such outrageous action games as Gunstar Heroes and Dynamite Heady? Sign me up! Unfortunately, in execution, the 2003 GameCube title falls well below expectations. And what should have been an easy winner for Treasure and Nintendo instead feels like a tedious time-waster, and a missed opportunity.

Of all Nintendo’s iconic characters, Wario seems to be the most fitting to star in a beat-em-up. The burly anti-Mario is a greedy, selfish brute. It just makes sense for him to be the one to pummel enemies to a pulp over pretty much any other Nintendo character. And Wario World gets off to a decent start in that regard.

“Bang! Zoom! Right in the kisser!”

Wario can punch enemies, perform his signature charge attack from the Wario Land games, and perform a ground pound (as platforming heroes wont to do). But this time around, Wario can also pick up KO’ed foes and proceed to throw them, swing them around, or pile drive them like a pro wrestler.

Similarly, the enemies at first seem to show some promise: You have tiny foes who are taken out with a single punch. Slightly bigger foes get knocked out after a few hits, thus allowing you to perform the aforementioned throwing, swinging and pile driving. And some large and flying enemies show up and require a little more clever uses of Wario’s abilities.

At first glance, you might think Wario World is heading in the right direction. But then it quickly becomes apparent that you’re just doing the same thing over and over again. There’s not enough variety (or polish) in the combat to make Wario World feel like a memorable beat-em-up. And much like Wario’s moveset, the enemies also rapidly reveal their limitations, with each of the game’s stages simply putting different skins on the same few enemy types.

The only thing preventing the game from reaching absolute monotony is if you’re gunning for 100% completion. Each level houses eight bonus stages, with red rubies waiting at the goal of each. The bonus rounds range from single room puzzles to platforming challenges that bring to mind the bonus stages of Super Mario Sunshine. You only need some of the rubies to complete a stage (three in World 1, four in 2, five in 3, and six in 4), but for completionists, there are more to get your hands on.

Other collectibles include eight fragments of a gold Wario statue on every level, with completion of a stage’s statue increasing Wario’s health by half a heart. There are also eight unique treasures to be found on every level, which appear on a certain colored pad on the ground if you’ve found and pressed the button of the same color. Finally, there are five captive ‘Spritelings’ to be rescued on every level. The more Spritelings you rescue, the better the game’s ending will be for Wario.

It may sound like Treasure added a good amount of content to the stages via these collectibles, but unfortunately, there are more than a few elements that make you not really care about what Treasure crammed into their levels.

“I don’t know what they were thinking with some of these bosses…”

Along with the repetitious combat and bland enemies, the camera controls are exceedingly clunky (which makes the Sunshine-esque bonus stages way more difficult than they’d otherwise be), and the level design leaves a whole lot to be desired. Without good gameplay and level design, the collectibles come across more like an arduous chore than an engaging side quest.

If on the off-chance you actually manage to get into Wario World, you won’t be into it very long. The game features four worlds plus a final boss, with each world housing only two stages and a boss fight of their own. The whole game can be completed in a couple of hours, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if what the game did boast were memorable. Sadly, it isn’t. This makes Wario World feeling completely absent of depth and creativity, leaving the game feeling shallow and pointless.

It’s hard to recommend Wario World to anyone but the most diehard of GameCube nostalgics. While the concept shows some promise (especially when paired with its developer), Wario World fails to fulfill that promise. Though it looked decent in its day, Wario’s sense of control felt more like something from the early years of the Nintendo 64, as opposed to the GameCube title it actually was.

Somehow, what should have been a wonderful joint venture between Nintendo and Treasure ended up being a disappointment to both parties involved, let alone the player.

 

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Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles

With my recent overhaul of Wizard Dojo (with a new overall look and new scoring system), I figured I’d ring in this new era of Wizard Dojo-ing with a revised version of the very first ‘top list’ I ever posted here at the Dojo; Top Video Game Launch Titles!

The first time around, I listed five games, plus some runners-up. This time around, I’m upping things to a top 10!

Video game consoles are defined by their best games. Sometimes, a console doesn’t have to wait very long to receive its first masterpiece, with a number of consoles getting one of their definitive games right out the gate. Although it used to be more commonplace for a console to receive a launch title that would go down as one of its best games, the idea of a killer launch title is becoming a rarer occurrence in gaming.

Still, launch games have more than left their mark on the industry. Here are, in my opinion, the 10 most significant video games to have launched their console.

Continue reading “Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles”

Super Mario Sunshine Review

Ever since its release on the GameCube in 2002, Super Mario Sunshine has been one of the black sheep of the Super Mario series. Its water pack-themed gameplay and stagnant setting certainly make it stand out from other Mario titles, but it’s those same elements (and a handful of others) that have always prevented Sunshine from being the kind of revered classic that Mario is used to starring in.

It’s all relative, of course. On its own merits, Super Mario Sunshine still provides a great gaming experience, and it probably holds up better than the other 3D platformers of the GameCube/PS2/Xbox era. If it were an entry in another series, Sunshine may have been a defining moment. But in a series that houses more “best games ever” than any other, simply being “great” isn’t great enough. Sunshine was a victim of its own expectations.

Those expectations certainly were high, seeing as Sunshine was the follow-up to Super Mario 64, a title that changed the direction of gaming from then on out. And with a six year build-up to a 64 sequel, suffice to say Sunshine had a lot to live up to. Those shoes were simply too big to fill.

If we take a step back and look at Sunshine on its own merits –  away from all-time greats like Super Mario Bros. 3, World, 64, Yoshi’s Island, and the later Galaxy games – it’s easy to see that there’s a lot to love in Mario’s polarized GameCube outing.

In Super Mario Sunshine, Mario, Princess Peach, and a group of Toads are vacationing to the island resort of Isle Delfino. Of course, there’s never time for Mario to catch a break, and no sooner does Peach’s plane land on the island’s airstrip that they realize something is horribly wrong, with a toxic goop polluting the landing pad. Mario quickly finds a strange, talking water pack called F.L.U.D.D. (Flash Liquidizing Ultra Dowsing Device), and uses it to clean up the airstrip (why anyone else couldn’t use F.L.U.D.D. when it was just lying around is anyone’s guess). As it turns out, the whole island is being covered in this strange goop, with the culprit being a Mario doppleganger attempting to frame Mario for the ordeal.

Sure enough – despite the doppleganger’s obvious blue, gelatinous body – the inhabitants of Isle Delfino (the tree-headed, big-nosed Piantas and the hermit crab-esque Nokis) hold Mario responsible for the crime, and sentence him to clean up the island and clear his good name. It’s definitely a nice change of pace from Peach getting kidnapped (though that happens a little later as well), but the voice acting (yes, voice acting) leaves a lot to be desired.

That’s all besides the point really. Mario games are never about the story, and all this polluted island clean-up business is little more than a reason to introduce the new water-based mechanics.

Being a sequel to Super Mario 64, Sunshine plays very similarly to its revolutionary predecessor. Mario retains his triple jumps, summersaults, wall jumps, butt stomps and dives that he learned in 64, only now he has possession of the F.L.U.D.D. to give him new moves.

The two primary functions of F.L.U.D.D. are the squirt nozzle and the hover nozzle, with players being able to switch between the functions with the press of a button. The squirt nozzle is used to clean up sludge and to shoot other objects when necessary, while the hover nozzle, as its name implies, allows Mario to hover for a short time, which really comes in handy for some of the trickier platforming.

Additionally, two other nozzles are acquired later in the game, and are more or less Sunshine’s equivalent to the usual Mario power-ups, as they temporarily replace the hover nozzle when obtained. The turbo nozzle allows Mario to move super fast, being able to break through certain walls and run on water, while the rocket nozzle gives Mario a higher jump than he’s ever had before or since.

“Drink up.”

Although F.L.U.D.D. may seem a bit on the gimmicky side, it’s a gimmick that ultimately works, as it adds a new twist on 64’s platforming mechanics. Meanwhile the fact that you’ll frequently have to “reload” it by finding a body of water to recharge gives it a little something of a shooter element (I can’t help but feel Splatoon borrowed a little something from F.L.U.D.D.). And the idea of a water-based platformer is still an intriguing concept looking back on it today.

Best of all is that Sunshine’s Mario controls so well. Mario wrote the rulebook on how to make a platforming hero control fluidly, and Sunshine provides some of the most cohesive controls in the entire series. Aside from wall jumping sometimes being a little finicky, I can’t think of much to complain about in the control department.

Sadly, not everything in Sunshine works as well as Mario and F.L.U.D.D. The camera, though an improvement over 64’s, still suffers a bit from the same faults of its predecessor. A number of bonus areas, in which Mario is thrown into more cramped platforming gauntlets, are particularly hindered by the camerawork, as it can be difficult to get the camera in the right angle while simultaneously trying to make sure Mario doesn’t fall to his doom on a tricky, moving platform.

Similarly, you may find that there are more than a few technical issues with the game. Though they may be small and (mostly) inconsequential, pointing out technical issues in a mainline Mario title is normally unheard of. But it seems Sunshine didn’t have as much time to receive the usual “Mario polish,” and you may find Mario getting stuck or an enemy’s animation not showing up more often than you’d like.

Still, while these flaws are notable, they’re hardly game-breaking. With how well Mario controls, along with the overall execution of the level and mission designs, it’s hard to complain too much.

Super Mario Sunshine ultimately has a similar structure to 64, with Mario traversing a central hub world to access the “proper” stages, which house a series of missions, each one capped off with acquiring a Shine Sprite (Sunshine’s equivalent to 64‘s Power Stars). There are, however, a few differences that perhaps played a part in Sunshine’s more divisive reception.

“Sunshine reeeally likes falling back on the red coin missions.”

The first of these differences is that Sunshine is actually more linear than 64. Contrary to recent popular opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with linear games, but considering that many like to praise 64 and Sunshine for being the “sandbox” Mario games, it may surprise some to revisit Sunshine and find out that’s only true to an extent. While Banjo-Kazooie dropped players into a stage to unearth its collectibles at their leisure, 64 and Sunshine’s mission-based level format gave a set objective that needed to be accomplished at that time. 64 did actually allow players to tamper with that format, as they could at times accomplish the requirements for a stage’s later stars while attempting to get an earlier one, but Sunshine doesn’t share that element, instead having the selected mission dictate the Shine Sprite to be collected almost entirely (the only exceptions being a handful of the game’s hidden Shines, or a level’s obligatory 100-coin Shine Sprite). The delightful hub world of Delfino Plaza is where the game is at its most open, but the stages themselves are more limiting.

Again, that’s not a bad thing per se, but perhaps one reason Galaxy was so warmly received is that it was more honest with its linearity. Galaxy had level structure that was more akin to Super Mario World than 64, so the linearity felt like a cohesive whole. But Sunshine presents its stages as open-world sandboxes but, fun though they may be, they’re not quite that.

One of the other big differences in Sunshine from other Mario titles is that every stage is built around its tropical island theme, which works for better and worse. In terms of better, it makes Isle Delfino feel like an alive location, with the different levels even being visible in the distance of others. In terms of worse, it also means that Sunshine lacks the sense of variety and surprise that the best Mario titles have. Sure, there’s a dose of different locations, like a harbor and a beach and a haunted casino (which is located on another beach…), but there are no castles or giant worlds to speak of. Isle Delfino is definitely a unique location in the series, but it seems to be in some kind of bubble away from the franchise’s usual fairy tale elements.

That’s not to say that Sunshine is devoid of the series’ indelible mark of surrealism, as the aforementioned platforming gauntlets that serve as the bonus stages – where Mario is robbed of F.L.U.D.D. and has to rely on his own abilities – seem to be housed in a bizarre, often pixelated dimension, with random shapes and objects suspended in space in such a way that they feel like a precursor to the Galaxy titles. It may not be a surprise that Sunshine’s detractors often single these segments out as the game’s highlights.

“Maybe Yoshi shouldn’t drink so much Hi-C…”

While Mario’s world may seem (relatively) more grounded and less fantastic in this GameCube adventure, there’s still a terrific sense of joy to be had. Many of the Shine Sprites are a blast to obtain, and even Yoshi joined in on the action (albeit sparingly), being able to use his hovering and enemy-eating abilities of the past, while also being able to spit up juice (eewww!), which works similar to F.L.U.D.D. but with its own properties (like turning certain enemies into platforms). Not to mention that Super Mario Sunshine still looks visually impressive for a fifteen year-old game, and its music is upbeat and fun, and perfectly captures the game’s setting.

There are some other disappointing elements though. Not counting Delfino Plaza or the bonus stages, Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels, which is considerably less than Super Mario 64’s fifteen! Yet, the game has just as many Shine Sprites as 64 had Stars (120), with a decent chunk of twenty-four of them being obtained by trading blue coins to a raccoon in Delfino Plaza (ten blue coins for one Shine).

With twice the number of blue coins as there are Shine Sprites, collecting them all may have made for a fun sidequest, especially seeing how some of them are so esoterically hidden (stand on a certain platform and squirt the moon!), that finding them would actually feel more worthwhile if trading them in unlocked some kind of secrets. By simply making them a means to get every Shine Sprite, it makes it feel as though both the Shines and the blue coins were only partly realized. I would have much rather had the game spent more time crafting another level or two for those additional Shine Sprites, and thinking of something more unique to do with the blue coins, then simply slapping them together in what really feels like an effort to save time.

It should once again be emphasized that , while many of these criticisms are just, others are more relative. Sunshine has both the honor and misfortune of being a part of a series with an abnormal consistency in high quality and creative spark. So while Sunshine may be well executed in most respects, and is still a whole lot of fun to play today, its more restrained and conservative sense of invention makes it lesser than most of its Mario series brethren, and its more rushed elements bring it down a peg further.

For most other series, a game of Sunshine’s quality may  have felt like a trip to paradise. But for Mario, it feels like he’s taking a vacation from being the best at what he does.

 

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Ranking the 3D Mario Games

Super Mario 64

When Mario made the jump to 3D gaming in 1996 with Super Mario 64, in marked a turning point for both the Super Mario series and gaming as a whole. Super Mario 64 opened new doors and paved new ground for the world of video games. With such a heavy influence on gaming, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Mario series itself was particularly effected by its influence.

Mario would abandon his 2D sidescrolling roots for a good ten years before New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS made it a thing again. While New Super Mario Bros. launched its own sub-series that has kept 2D Mario games largely successful, most Mario fans these days consider the 3D entries to be the “core” titles in the franchise, and with good reason. New Super Mario Bros. is fun and all, but it relies too heavily on Mario’s past and relishing in nostalgia. It’s the 3D games that feel like the series’ evolution and future.

Five console games and one handheld title comprise the 3D Mario canon. While we all eagerly await what might be the next great 3D Mario adventure – whether it be a Wii U title or a key release on Nintendo’s upcoming “NX” console – let’s look back at the 3D Mario games that have been released so far.

As part of my celebration of Super Mario Bros’ 30th anniversary, here is my ranking of the 3D Mario games, from least to greatest.

Continue reading “Ranking the 3D Mario Games”