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.

Replaying: Super Mario 64

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is great (it was released on my birthday, ya know). I mean, it has it’s problems (a series of this caliber deserves grander presentation than a simple startup screen and brief descriptions of the games included), and the absence of Galaxy 2 really is inexcusable (had it been included, this would be the best video game compilation ever). But it’s still a compilation of two amazing classics and also Super Mario Sunshine, so I’m not about to complain too much.

Though Galaxy is easily the best game of the bunch, I decided to do things chronologically and started with Super Mario 64 first. Super Mario 64 is, from a historical and influential standpoint, one of the greatest videogames of all time (with Tetris and the original Super Mario Bros. perhaps being the only games to top it in those categories). Super Mario 64 is also one of the defining games of my life. Though I think there were better games before and better games since (Super Mario World is a far better game, for example), there are few games that are as ingrained in my mind as Super Mario 64. I played and replayed it so often as a kid, that even when it’s been years in between playthroughs, I can still recall where, when and how to collect (almost) every star and red coin. I know the stages inside and out, and can track down most everything in the game without giving it a second thought. Super Mario 64 is burned into my psyche.

Playing this classic again on the Switch reminds me what an integral part of gaming Super Mario 64 was (and still is). Yes, it’s definitely rough around the edges – with its camera being cumbersome and Mario sometimes feeling a little slippery to control – but creatively, it was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing, it still amazes.

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or poetic that gaming’s biggest icon of the 2D era was also the one that, in its first go around, got 3D gaming so right (okay, it’s poetic). Yes, some of its technical aspects have aged, and Super Mario 64 isn’t pretty to look at (though the HD sheen of the Switch version makes it look better than ever), but when you consider how 3D video games at the time were so unwieldy and broken that the concept was considered a fad doomed to die a sudden death, Mario’s transition into 3D was as flawless as anyone could have hoped for, perhaps more so.

Playing Super Mario 64 again today, it’s still a lot of fun, which is more than you can say for…pretty much every other early 3D game. Yes, its blemishes are more apparent to modern eyes (that damn camera), but it still feels like a delightful virtual playground whereas its contemporaries feel like taxing eyesores.

I do have to admit, it is a bit of a bummer that Nintendo opted to only optimize the game’s presentation and give it an HD makeover, as opposed to remaking it entirely. I mean, I get that new games are the priority, but surely Super Mario 64 is one of the games in Nintendo’s history that warrants a from the ground-up remake. I mean, Crash Bandicoot had it done, and as much as I love Crash Bandicoot, he’s certainly no Mario.

Whatever. As always, it’s the game that ultimately counts, not the look. And as stated, Super Mario 64 is still a great game, and its inventiveness for the medium as a whole can’t be understated. Super Mario 64 wasn’t simply “Super Mario World but in 3D” (an unpopular complaint I have against Ocarina of Time is that, structurally, it’s essentially A Link to the Past with a 3D makeover, with all the added hiccups that come with the N64). It reworked how platformers are structured. Sure, you still had linear goals, but you could go about them in different ways, and sometimes achieve a goal other than the intended one. And one thing Super Mario 64 did that I still don’t think many 3D games have done (even the 3D Mario titles, until Odyssey came around) is how it gave Mario moves and abilities that were made solely for the sake of taking advantage of 3D space, and how the game incorporates certain goals (stars) simply by utilizing these moves.

There are stars that simply require the player to master Mario’s wall jump in order to reach them, areas that can only be reached with Mario’s trickier to perform movements, and hell, Mario’s little breakdancing move seems to only exist because it could now that Mario was in a 3D environment. The player can almost sense that Miyamoto and company must have had an absolute blast making the game, and just had fun discovering what they could make Mario do with his added dimension.

“It’s strangely seldom mentioned how, in Super Mario 64, you’re actually controlling two characters. Mario himself, and the Lakitu holding the camera.”

This infectious sense of joy doesn’t just apply to the technical aspects of the game, however, but the creative ones as well. As much flak as I’ve been giving the game’s camera, how fun of an idea was it to make the in-universe reason for the camera being that Mario’s adventure is being recorded by a local news station (which, naturally, uses a Lakitu flying on a cloud as the cameraman, explaining away the controls for the camerawork)? Or what about the clock-themed world behaving differently based on where the clock hands are when you enter the stage? And to this day, a gaming moment from my early years that I can still recall clear as day was chasing after a rabbit in the lower levels of Peach’s Castle, and running into a wall that began rippling upon Mario’s contact with it, revealing yet another of the game’s levels just waiting to be explored. Up until that point in the game, the stages were all accessed via jumping into painting. So for just a basic wall to deceptively be the portal to one of the stages might still be the most beautifully mischievous detail in video games.

Suffice to say, I’m having a lot of fun revisiting Super Mario 64. Of course, there’s a lot of frustration as well, trying to wrangle around the camera, controlling the flying power-up, and Mario’s sometimes sporadic actions. Frustrations I don’t get when playing either of the Galaxy games or Odyssey (which, with all due respect to Super Mario 64, are all superior games), or even 3D World for that matter (which might also be a better game from a technical standpoint). But hey, Super Mario 64 was the first of its kind, for it to still be as fun and creative as it is today is probably more than anyone could have asked for.

The Mario series has had more “perfect games” under its belt than any one series (I might even argue it’s had more than most other prominent series put together). Super Mario 64 is not one of the perfect Mario games. But it still, to this day, is a one of a kind gaming experience. A video game wonderland that, while it may feel aged in a number of respects, still comes across as a timeless classic.

Happy 35th Anniversary Super Mario Bros!

Today, September 13 2020, marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the original Super Mario Bros. in Japan.

Nintendo certainly hasn’t been shy in regards to the occasion, as they recently had an entire Nintendo Direct making announcements to celebrate Mario’s big 35th anniversary. Among these announcements was the reveal of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a compilation of Mario’s first three 3D platformers: Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy (why Super Mario Galaxy 2 isn’t included in the compilation is a baffling decision on Nintendo’s part. Unless it gets its own Switch release down the road).

“Nintendo right now be like…”

And wouldn’t you know it, 3D All-Stars releases in just five days (which also happens to be my birthday… yes, I will keep bringing that up).

It’s nice to see Nintendo show such respect to their premier series’ anniversary. But I wonder if they’ll also acknowledge that Mario, the character, as well as Donkey Kong, will be celebrating their 40th anniversary next year. I mean, I get that Super Mario Bros. was the game that started the Super Mario series, which is what we all think of when we think of Mario, and also lead to the creation of Nintendo’s other franchises. But 40 still seems like a noteworthy anniversary to celebrate, so hopefully Nintendo will remember that come 2021 and won’t be too “anniversary’d out” by that time.

Anyway, I tip my cap (which is adorned by my first initial) to you, Mario. Happy 35th anniversary to the most influential video game of all time.

So Much Mario Goodness!

Nintendo had a brand-spankin’ new Direct today, focused on the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. There were so many announcements, that I can’t even remember them all. So I’ll just leave said Nintendo Direct here.

 

The big news here is the confirmation of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, and a battle royal version of the original Super Mario Bros. There’s also that augmented reality Mario Kart thing. That looks interesting.

I think it’s safe to say this Mario-focused Direct left me feeling like this…

Anyway, I am beyond excited for Super Mario 3D All-Stars! I mean, two of the greatest video games of all time – and also Super Mario Sunshine – all in HD and whatnot? Sounds great! Though I am greatly saddened (and baffled) by the omission of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is arguably the best video game ever made. They didn’t even show Galaxy 2 in the Mario retrospective video at the end of the Direct! What’s up with that, Nintendo?!

Oh, and perhaps best of all (for me, anyway), Super Mario 3D All-Stars releases on my birthday, September 18th! Oh, Nintendo, you do care!

Super Mario 3D World being re-released on Switch was also expected, but nice to have confirmed. What wasn’t expected is it comes included with some kind of new game called “Bowser’s Fury” (getting the Mario & Luigi 3DS remake treatment with that “+” in the title). Unfortunately, from what very little they showed, it looks like you still play as Mario and friends in Bowser’s Fury, which is fine, and only unfortunate for me personally who is baffled that Bowser has yet to get his own game after 35 years. Notably, the Switch version of 3D World will have online multiplayer, and Nintendo promises to reveal additional new elements between now and its February 2021 release (I’m guessing some kind of new stages).

Also, I like the idea of that battle royal-ed version of Super Mario Bros. Reminds me of Tetris 99, but with Super Mario Bros. So that’s both of the two most influential video games in history getting the battle royal treatment. Nice.

Suffice to say, I’m really excited for all this Mario news. Now hopefully we’ll get a re-release of the first two Paper Marios (AKA the good ones) and some kind of Super Mario RPG remake and/or sequel. And Geno in Super Smash Bros. Let me dream.

But c’mon, where is Galaxy 2? #JusticeForSuperMarioGalaxy2

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Turns 10!

“Behold, my (new) Super Mario Galaxy 2 poster! I’m building up quite the video game poster wall.”

May 23rd of 2020 marks the ten year anniversary of the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii in the US (which is where it was released first, so I guess I could have just said Galaxy 2 is ten years old, without having to specify which region it was released…).

That’s right, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a decade old now.

Wow, the anniversaries of both Super Mario RPG and Galaxy 2 are separated by a mere ten days? May is a hell of a month for our man Mario. We should rename the month “May-rio” in honor of this. We should totally do that.

Anyway, this is a big anniversary in gaming, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 puts up a major case to being the best video game of all time! Yes, it’s that good. The first Super Mario Galaxy already felt like a perfect game, but Galaxy 2 was somehow even better than perfect. It’s advanced perfect!

How good is Super Mario Galaxy 2? Well, back in 2015, on the game’s fifth anniversary, I gave it a 10/10 review! The first 10/10 I ever dished out to anything on this site! You can read my review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 here (and boy, do I feel old now).

Happy anniversary, Super Mario Galaxy 2!

Super Mario RPG Turns 24!

“Behold, my Super Mario RPG poster! Fittingly next to the poster of my other favorite SNES game, DKC2, and one of my other favorite Mario games, Galaxy 2. I need to squeeze Super Mario World and Odyssey in there somehow…”

Today, May 13th of 2020, marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG’s release in the US (it was released in Japan two months prior, in March of 1996, and wouldn’t be released in Europe until its 2008 release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, which at the time was a record for longest delay between region releases for a single title).

As far as I’m concerned, Super Mario RPG is one of Nintendo’s finest achievements, and has steadily remained an all-time favorite of mine for these twenty-four years. If you ask me, it’s still the best damn RPG ever.

Sadly, despite being one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, it’s one of the very few that never received a direct sequel (it did inspire the wonderful Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series, but none of them quite recaptured the same magic as the originator). And it’s basically the only Mario game to not have its characters or world elements carry over to subsequent games (save for a cameo or two). But that hasn’t stopped fans (myself most assuredly included) from hoping and begging Nintendo and Square to bring back this beloved game either through a sequel or simply resurrecting its characters for new titles.

Seriously Nintendo, just put Geno in Super Smash Bros. already. We’ve only been asking for it for twenty years! I don’t mean an insulting, slap-to-the-face Mii costume. The actual character as a playable fighter. You can’t stop adding those Fire Emblem swordsmen that no one asked for. Why not add another character people have actually wanted and asked for for years?

 

Anyway, happy anniversary to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars! A Legend indeed.

I reviewed Super Mario RPG as my special 300th video game review. You can read my 10/10 review here.

Super Mario Maker 2’s Final Major Update Looks Amazing!

First of all, sorry I’ve been a bit slow as of late. I’ll try to pick up the pace with updates.

But wow, Nintendo dropped a bombshell today. Super Mario Maker 2 will be getting its final “major” update, and boy howdy, does it look amazing. It’s adding so much, I may have to re-review the game when all is said and done. The best part? It will be released in just two days!

In the words of Levar Burton on Reading Rainbow: “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Here is Nintendo’s trailer for the oodles of new content for Super Mario Maker 2.

Mmm-mmm! Now that’s what I call an update. More new features and power-ups, added bosses in the form of Koopalings, Mario Bros. 2 elements, new enemies, and best of all, the ability to create your own world and – essentially – your own Mario game!

Suffice to say, my reaction to watching the trailer was something like this…

 

I think it’s safe to say that Nintendo probably wanted to spread these updates out, but due to the global situation, decided to go all in with one spectacular update. And boy howdy, they delivered.

There’s been a lot of rumors going around that Nintendo has big plans for Super Mario Bros’s 35th anniversary this year. And this massive update seems to be an indicator that there might be something to those rumors. Now let’s hope that the rumor of a new, traditional Paper Mario game is true. Not to mention that compilation of 3D Mario remasters. Wasn’t there also word of an enhanced port of Super Mario 3D World as well?

Boy, I’m getting ahead of myself… One thing at a time. Fingers crossed for that future Mario goodness. But for now, let’s bask in the glory of the fact that we can make our own Mario worlds!

Mario & Wario Review

Before Satoshi Tajiri created a little game called Pokemon, he worked on various other Nintendo games, including Mario spinoffs. Perhaps the strangest game Satoshi Tajiri worked on – and one of the strangest Mario games at that – is Mario & Wario, a puzzle title that was released on the Super Famicom in 1993, but never saw an international release.

Adding to the game’s obscurity is the fact that it is controlled with the SNES mouse, a peripheral so seldom used that many still believe Mario Paint was the only title to utilize it. Despite the game’s title, the player doesn’t control Mario directly in Mario & Wario. You see, the game revolves around the utterly bonkers premise of Wario blinding Mario by – and I kid you not – throwing a bucket on his head (from an airplane, no less). The player then controls a fairy named Wanda, moving her around like the cursor of a computer, and clicking on certain areas to create blocks and platforms for Mario to walk across, or to click on Mario himself to change his direction, with the goal of each stage being to avoid danger and reach Luigi within a time limit, with Luigi then removing the bucket from Mario’s head.

Basically, it’s like the Mario version of Lemmings, but even more bizarre given the setup. Of course, the object on Mario’s head isn’t always a bucket (the item changes depending on which world is currently being played), and in fact it isn’t always Mario that Wanda has to guide to safety (the player can also select Princess Peach and Yoshi, with the former moving slower than Mario and being easy for beginners, while the latter moves the fastest and is essentially hard mode). So the title of ‘Mario & Wario’ isn’t quite accurate.

The game provides eight worlds from the start, which can be selected in any order, Mega Man style, though it probably is still best if first-time players stick to doing them in order, as each subsequent world provides its own twists to the formula, and World 1 is essentially the tutorial (which is a bit disappointing. I feel a tutorial should be its own separate thing). World 9 is unlocked supposedly after completion of all eight others (though in my second playthrough, I played the later worlds first and World 9 became available early. I don’t know if that’s supposed to happen or my earlier playthrough unlocked that option). After World 9, the player will move on to the tenth and final World, which will throw everything at the player.

As stated, each world provides new challenges, like timed blocks (which will turn into solid platforms for only a limited time), ice which makes Mario & company slip and slide, slime that slows them down, and enemies that may throw projectiles at the Mushroom Kingdom heroes. The way in which each world changes up the gameplay and continuously adds new elements keeps the game fresh and is true to the spirit of the Mario franchise. Though there are some stages that get a tad cumbersome, like when they’ll place multiple vertical-moving enemies/obstacles close together, leaving the player to repeatedly click on Mario in between said objects to continuously change his direction since you can’t make him stop outright. Things like that feel more like a test of patience than puzzle-solving.

Each world consists of ten stages, and a final showdown with Wario. Unfortunately, these ‘showdowns’ are probably the biggest disappointments in the game. They aren’t actual boss fights, because Wario can’t damage you or anything. He just flies back and forth across the screen in his airplane, and the player simply has to keep clicking on him for Wanda to damage his plane and earn coins. And they’re all like this, there’s no variety in them. With all the varied elements that get thrown into the stages, it would have been nice if the developers had implemented an array of legitimate boss fights at the end of each world.

If you’re wondering what the coins are for, they actually play the same role as in most Mario games, with every 100 coins granting an additional life. Coins can also be found in Coin Blocks, which Wanda needs to click on this time around, since Mario’s obscured vision apparently also prevents him from jumping. The player can gain also gain more lives by guiding Mario (or Peach, or Yoshi) into collecting the four stars scattered across each stage, or by picking up the rare one-up mushroom. You can also add more time on the clock by collecting an equally infrequent super mushroom (this has to be the only instance in the history of the franchise in which stars are a far more common collectible than mushrooms).

This is unfortunately another letdown with the game. In the eight standard worlds, the player can restart from the same stage in the same world even after a game over, leaving you to wonder what importance the extra lives actually have. Well, it’s important to hold onto those extra lives until the endgame, because if you get a game over at any point in world 9 or 10, you have to start back from the beginning of world 9. 

Unfortunately, this can become pretty darn tedious. Mega Man does something similar, with the player needing to start over from the beginning of Dr. Wily’s castle should they get a game over after the eight standard stages have been completed. But there it’s more understandable because it’s an action game. It’s like, okay, you beat me this time, but now I’m going to pick myself up and dust myself off for the rematch. But here in a puzzle game, it’s kind of annoying. As if you were taking a quiz, got every answer correct except the last one, and then needed to go back and redo the questions you already got right just for another chance at the one you got wrong. I can’t help but feel that maybe this game didn’t need a lives system, and it would have been best had collecting the stars unlocked secret levels or something.

Still, even with the game’s simplicity and its drawbacks, it’s still a lot of fun. The puzzle designs are clever, the graphics are crips and colorful, the music is fun, the gameplay is always changing things up, and the sheer absurdity of the concept itself is charming. Despite all of the game’s text being in English, Mario & Wario was never officially released outside of Japan. But if you have a Super Famicom, Mario & Wario isn’t too pricey or hard to find, and probably worth a look. It may not be one of Mario’s finest adventures, but he’s certainly never had another one quite like it.

 

6

Super Mario Maker 2 Review

Nintendo’s Wii U console gets a lot of flack. Some of its criticisms are just (it was a commercial failure for the big N, a fact that was magnified by its status as a bridge between two golden ages for Nintendo), but the Wii U played an important role in Nintendo’s big picture. An argument could be made that the Switch – and the success that has come with it – is a combination of the refinement of the ideas the Wii U got right (surely the Wii U Gamepad opened the door for the Switch’s handheld capabilities), and the results of learning from the Wii U’s mistakes.

The Wii U’s lack of third-party support was among its biggest missteps, but one of the system’s highlights was that it featured some of Nintendo’s best first-party output. It really isn’t a shock that much of the Wii U’s legacy in first-party titles has been given a second chance at life on the Nintendo Switch, whether through enhanced ports (such as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze), or sequels that build on the ideas of the Wii U originals (such as Splatoon 2). The latest entry in the latter category is Super Mario Maker 2, the sequel to one of the Wii U’s few undeniable success stories.

In 2015, Super Mario Maker gave players of all experiences and skill levels the opportunity to try their hand at game design. Though it had a few unfortunate limitations, and certainly wasn’t the first game-creation game, Super Mario Maker was a new highlight for the genre. By making the level creation process as accessible and deep as the gameplay the Super Mario series is known for (and featuring said gameplay to boot), Super Mario Maker was fun and addictive in a way that no other game-making title had been before.

Super Mario Maker 2 takes that same accessibility and depth of the original, while making a few appreciated adjustments and bringing in some meaningful new additions. As such, Super Mario Maker 2 is not only an improvement over its predecessor, but a treasure trove of Super Mario levels that’s ever-expanding. One that should both entice players to test their own creativity in level design, and jump at the chance to see the creativity of other players from around the world.

Though it must be said that there are still a few lingering limitations to certain features of the game. So while Super Mario Maker 2 may be unlimited Mario fun on one hand, these limitations do prevent this sequel from reaching its full potential, and can make certain aspects feel more like the content of an expansion pack than a grand follow-up.

Still, even with limitations, Super Mario Maker remains one of Nintendo’s best ideas. The Mario series has an uncanny ability to make concepts more fun just with its presence, and that’s true even of game-creation tools. Take LittleBigPlanet, for example. While that series has also allowed players to create their own levels and express wild levels of creativity, it loses a great deal of its appeal once you try to play said levels. Gravity works against Sackboy, rendering the platforming awkward and clunky. Mario, however, has long-since mastered gravity for the betterment of gameplay. So while Super Mario Maker 2 may still have room to expand its creation tools, the tried-and-true gameplay and physics of the Mario series guarantee that Super Mario Maker 2 still boasts near-infinite replay value.

“3D World finally gives me reason to make levels outside of the Super Mario World style.”

Like its predecessor, Super Mario Maker 2 allows you to create your own Mario stages in the styles of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U. The most obvious addition to Mario Maker 2 is that it includes a new game style with which to build your stages: Super Mario 3D World.

While Super Mario 3D World was played with a 3D perspective, it did feel like the proper continuation of the legacy of Mario’s 2D adventures (certainly more so than the New Super Mario Bros. games ever did). In Mario Maker 2, the 3D World style is presented as a 2D side scroller, like the other present styles, which in a way makes it tantamount to the first new type of Mario side-scroller since the original NSMB game hit the Nintendo DS back in 2006.

As in the first Super Mario Maker, each different game style not only alters the aesthetics of your stage, but also come with the appropriate physics and mechanics of their respective games, with small changes here and there (each style boasts one power-up unique to their original game, Super Mario World and NSMBU feature Yoshis, while the NES styles have Kuribo’s Shoe in his place, etc.). While the four returning styles can be swapped in and out while editing a level to see which style it plays best in, 3D World is listed under its own, separate category. This is due to 3D World having “enough differences” in its features that the other styles can’t replicate. On one hand there are some notable differences in 3D World, so I can kind of understand this. At the same time, it is kind of a bummer that certain features don’t carry over to the 3D World style.

Once again, all your created levels utilize different course ‘themes,’ based on the world themes of Mario games past. The six themes from the first Mario Maker return: Ground, Underground, Water, Ghost House, Airship and Castle. Super Mario Maker 2 adds four new course themes to the proceedings: Desert, Snow, Forest and Sky.

“Why are Super Mario World aesthetics still so beautiful and eye-catching?”

These new themes add variety to the aesthetics of the game (with new compositions by none other than the original Mario maestro, Koji Kondo, for level themes that are new to particular game styles), but an even bigger addition to these course themes brings even greater variety to the experience: Night themes.

All ten of the course themes now feature an alternate ‘Nighttime’ mode, effectively doubling the total course themes. The Nighttime versions bring out new gameplay mechanics and shifts to their respective level themes. Playing a night-themed ground level, for example, will see Super Mushrooms turn into deadly Poison Mushrooms, which will give chase to the player. Nighttime ghost houses will see the majority of the screen covered in black, with a spotlight shining on Mario and select objects and enemies, giving an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere to the ghost stages. Castle stages will mysteriously gain water-like attributes, with Mario and enemies swimming through the air as if they were submerged in a water level. Perhaps most interestingly, the underground stages will flip upside down when exposed to nighttime, flipping Mario’s controls around as well.

The night versions of the course themes are among Super Mario Maker 2’s best new features. Along with the major – often bizarre – tweaks they bring to the gameplay, they also make smaller changes to enemies and objects as well, enticing players to try out everything they can in each night theme to see how they work.

Like in the first Mario Maker, you can actually implement two course themes in a stage, one for the ‘main’ portion of the stage (which houses the start and goal), and a ‘sub’ portion of the stage that Mario can access via warp pipe. You can make a stage that consists of a daytime ground level in one portion, and a nighttime castle in the other, again adding to the game’s staggering variety. As an added bonus, the sub-areas of stages can now be made into ‘vertical’ courses, which opens up all the more possibilities, including vertical scrolling sections (though it is both strange and unfortunate that only sub-areas can receive the vertical treatment).

While most of the 3D World style’s differences from the other represented games are justified, one of the disappointing drawbacks to the new game style is that the nighttime features don’t transfer over to 3D World. Even if 3D World couldn’t share all the features of the returning game styles, you can’t help but feel that the night themes – given the twists they bring to gameplay – should have found a way to be carried over.

As always, players can delve into countless stages made by players around the world at any time. Super Mario Maker 2 features a much more refined search engine than the first game, making it much easier to find the types of stages you’re looking for. It’s still not quite perfect (you can still only search for levels and players by codes, as opposed to names), but it’s an inarguable improvement over its predecessor’s search methods.

The 100 Mario Challenge mode from the first Super Mario Maker has been replaced with the Endless Mario Challenge. While the first game’s equivalent had Mario complete a set number of levels under specific difficulties (with a maximum of 100 lives to do so, no matter the difficulty setting), the sequel’s new mode will literally keep the player-created levels coming until the player gets a game over. For the ‘easy’ and ‘normal’ settings, you may find yourself picking up enough extra lives that you can keep going with seemingly no end in sight (you are still limited to 100 lives, and can only obtain three extra lives per stage like in the 100 Mario Challenge from the first game, but in the easy and normal settings you’ll find yourself blazing through a number of levels before dying once, so you often get extra lives faster than you lose them). The ‘expert’ and ‘super expert’ difficulties, however, will really put you to the test. The latter setting, in particular, will probably cost a great deal of your lives just to complete the first stage, whatever it may be.

“No matter how many levels I conquered, I could never rank any higher than the 60s on the leaderboards…”

I prefer this new Endless Mario mode to the 100 Mario mode of the first game. Though on the downside, your only rewards for completing many stages are costume pieces for your Mii avatar. You can also find yourself placing on worldwide leaderboards (different boards for each difficulty setting), though the downside to leaderboards in any game is that there are always those crazy players who can put an ungodly amount of time into the game, meaning that more reasonable players can only get so far, with the leaderboards having a much lower ceiling for them.

I only bring this up because the first game had the delightful rewards of character costumes for the Super Mario Bros. game style, which not only disguised Mario as the sprite of various other characters (from fellow Nintendo icons like Link and Pikachu to third-party characters like Mega Man and Sonic to even non-game characters like Shaun the Sheep) but each disguise brought their own sound effects and music cues to the proceedings.

The character costumes are not present in Super Mario Maker 2. The reasoning for this is that Super Mario Maker 2 doesn’t feature Amiibo support in any capacity, and since Amiibo could be used to instantly unlock coinciding character costumes in the first game, the feature has been dropped.

It does admittedly feel like a weak reason. After all, you could unlock all the Amiibo costumes (plus the additional ones) by completing the 100 Mario Challenge repeatedly, so it’s not like the costumes were only available to rabid Amiibo collectors. Even if the Amiibo support were getting dropped, it seems weird that the character costumes had to be removed entirely as well.

Still, I suppose simply playing through an endless supply of Mario levels is reward enough in its own right. Not every stage you come across will be a winner, of course (many stages are only categorized as ‘easy’ because their creators left them empty, and many are considered ‘super expert’ simply because their creators filled them with clutter or troll the player with unfair traps that only said creator would be aware of). But when you come across a stage in which its creator’s creativity shines through, it makes it all worth it.

Another very welcome gameplay addition comes in the form of Clear Conditions which, as their name implies, are objectives you can set for your stages which must be completed in order to finish a stage. You can make goals like collecting every coin (or simply a set number of them) in a stage, defeating all of a specific enemy, or reaching the goal while in one of Mario’s many forms (Fire Mario, Cape Mario, Cat Mario, etc.). You can even set goals such as reaching the end of a stage without taking any damage, or not touching the ground after jumping in the air (this particular goal requires some crafty level design in order to implement it).

The Clear Conditions can really help in making less linear stages, and certainly help with making features like boss sections and bonus stages. But there are a few unfortunate caveats to the Clear Conditions. Players are unable to place checkpoints in stages with Clear Conditions, and while you may be able to specify certain objectives (like defeating X-amount of Dry Bones), you can’t make more broad objectives (like defeating every last foe on the stage). Another questionable design choice is that, no matter the Clear Condition, the end goal will remain inaccessible until that condition is met. That’s fine for levels where the objective can have the player backtrack to meet said requirements (“oops, I missed x-enemy, better go back”), but in stages where you can fail the objective outright (“I landed on the ground after taking to the air”) you have to manually restart the stage, as the goal will be impossible to reach. It may be a nitpick, but it would be nice if levels such as those would simply register as Mario losing a life and starting over once the objective is failed. Similarly, it would be nice to have an option for a stage to end as soon as a boss is defeated, instead of felling said boss simply resulting in the goal becoming available.

“This must be the George Lucas Special Edition…”

Super Mario Maker 2 also introduces a proper story mode into the mix. Through the Odyssey-esque hub in story mode, players select different stages in the form of “jobs” in order to earn coins to repair Princess Peach’s castle. Unlike the Endless Mario Challenge, the stages in story mode are made by Nintendo themselves, making Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode the closest thing we’ve had to a  new Mario side scroller since New Super Mario Bros. U launched alongside the Wii U in 2012. Even after you’ve finished the ‘story’ aspect of story mode, there are still additional jobs to be done, and even a few unlockables (like the brand new “Builder Mario” power-up for the 3D World style, and Super Mario Land’s ‘super ball’ power-up in the Super Mario Bros. style).

As fun as the story mode is, one aspect that left me greatly disappointed in it is that numerous Clear Conditions that appear in story mode are unavailable for your created levels. I took my time to beat the story mode before I delved into making my own stages, and had an abundance of ideas inspired by what I was playing in story mode.

Notably, I had all kinds of ideas built around the escort mission concept where you rescue Toads and guide them to the end of the level. The condition of clearing a stage while holding a large rock also got my creative juices flowing (unlike other objects Mario can carry, said rock weighed the plumber down, leading the player to get creative as to how to get the rock to the goal while also performing Mario’s platforming acrobatics).

Unfortunately, once I started making my own levels, I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to implement these Clear Conditions, only to find out that they weren’t even an option. It was a bummer, to say the least. Perhaps Nintendo can implement the story mode Clear Conditions into the level editor through an update or DLC down the road. But even if we do get them later (and hopefully we do), it still stings to be teased with these features before having the ability to use them in our own created levels.

While Super Mario Maker 2 introduces numerous additions to single player modes, it also introduces multiplayer into the Mario Maker fold. Two players can work together on a single Switch console in the level editor in what is ultimately a well-meaning but overly chaotic addition. But more notably is that Super Mario Maker 2 includes competitive and co-operative multiplayer modes, where up to four players from around the world can help/hinder each other in player-created levels.

In the multiplayer modes, players take control of Mario, Luigi, Toad and Toadette (why Princess Peach is absent is beyond me). Unlike many Mario games featuring different playable characters, all four heroes play identically in Super Mario Maker 2. That makes sense, seeing as many levels could effectively be ‘broken’ if their creators forgot to consider Luigi’s high jumps and such. The identical play styles of the characters are excusable, but I do kind of hope Nintendo adds a few more character options down the road (again, why isn’t Peach a playable character? And let’s throw Rosalina in there for good measure).

Unfortunately, you may encounter lag issues more often than you’d like during online play, which can really be a detriment in a fast-paced platforming stage. Some people will balk at the very notion of a Nintendo game with smooth online capabilities, but I have to point out that Nintendo has accomplished it in the past with the Mario Kart series (to this day, I have yet to experience any notable lag issues with Mario Kart 8 on either the Wii U or Switch). The fact that Nintendo has accomplished consistently smooth online elsewhere does kind of make it more aggravating when they release an otherwise promising and fun online experience hampered by frequent slowdowns.

Along with big changes such as Super Mario 3D World, the new level and nighttime themes, story mode and multiplayer, Super Mario Maker 2 houses a seemingly countless number of smaller additions. Classic Mario features make their way to the Mario Maker experience for the first time (such as snake blocks, rising and falling water/lava, the Angry Sun, and the long-requested slopes).

There are also new mechanics introduced in Super Mario Maker 2 which haven’t been seen elsewhere in the series before: swinging claws can fling Mario or grab and drop enemies like a crane game. Red and blue on/off switches that coincide with similarly colored blocks make for unique platforming and puzzles. ‘Twisters’- balls of wind (with eyes, of course) – produce mini-tornadoes that can launch Mario and enemies upward. There are so many features both new and returning in Super Mario Maker 2, that the game is like the ultimate toolkit for learning video game level design for players of all ages.

If there’s one feature I wish could be polished up a bit though, it would be boss fights. Bowser and Boom Boom appear in all game styles (though Bowser takes on his ‘Meowser’ form in 3D World), with Bowser Jr. being available in the returning game styles, and Pom Pom also appearing in 3D World. It’s not exactly a wide range of boss options, and while each boss behaves differently in each game style they’re present in, it would be nice if each style had different sets of behaviors you had the option to select from when placing them in your levels.

I’ve noticed many levels that have gotten creative with their takes on boss fights, and while that’s great to see, I do wish Nintendo could give players easier access to creating more unique bosses. Players shouldn’t have to jump through so many hoops just to make a boss that isn’t Boom Boom. Maybe Nintendo could implement the ability to ‘bossify’ enemies? Make any enemy bigger, change their color, select how many hit points they have, things like that.

Again, you can use Clear Conditions to make a boss fight in theory, but even that has limitations. You may be able to add a single Magikoopa to a stage, for example, give him a Super Mushroom to make him supersized, and make his defeat required in order to finish the stage. But you can still take out said giant Magikoopa with a single fireball. So it’s not much of a boss fight, really.

Still, no matter how many limitations may hold back certain areas of Super Mario Maker 2, there is no doubt that – on the whole – Super Mario Maker 2 is the new benchmark for game-creation games. The returning features, along with the armies-worth of new ones, make Super Mario Maker 2 a bottomless toy box that opens the floodgates for endless Mario fun.

There may still be some work to be done to the editing tools if we want to see the perfect Mario creation game, but the fact that Super Mario Maker 2 provides a refinement and expansion of what its predecessor started – allowing players from all over the world to exercise their creativity through its level editor – means the game boasts perhaps an unmatched level of playability.

 

8

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review

Before Mario entered the Mushroom Kingdom, met Princess Peach and found an archnemesis in Bowser, there was Donkey Kong. Before Luigi was introduced to the world, before Mario was even named Mario, there was Donkey Kong. Mario and Donkey Kong were gaming’s first legendary rivalry, the dynamic in which all of Nintendo was built on.

But it was not to last. Though they were enemies in the early 80s, as Mario joined up with his brother and began having adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, Donkey Kong was phased out. It wasn’t until 1994 that Donkey Kong saw a complete reinvention, turning a new leaf and becoming the hero of his own adventures starting with Donkey Kong Country (of course, this is actually a different Donkey Kong, so I guess the name is like a title that gets passed down or something). However, earlier in that very same year, the Nintendo Gameboy saw a supposed re-release of the original 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game. But after besting the original four levels from the arcade classic, this version of Donkey Kong (unofficially dubbed “Donkey Kong Gameboy” or “Donkey Kong ’94” by fans) unraveled into a brand new adventure, with nearly a hundred new levels all modeled after the single screen platforming of the classic game, with additional puzzle elements added into the mix.

With Donkey Kong Country becoming a big hit, that served as the foundation of the Donkey Kong series from that point onward (something I very much appreciate, being a DKC fan myself). The downside to this was that Mario and DK’s rivalry was once again put on hold. That is until 2004, when Nintendo released Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on the Gameboy Advance, which was created as a kind of spiritual successor to the original Gameboy’s cult classic.

Mario Vs. Donkey adopts much of the same style as the 1994 Gameboy title, with stages that are comprised of two, single-screen segments (some of the later stages are only slightly larger). Each of these screens serves as a platforming puzzle. In the first screen of a level, Mario must find a key and take it to the door to the second screen, in which the goal is to grab a “Mini-Mario Toy” that’s incased in a glass bubble. And for completionists, each stage also houses three presents (one or two on a screen) that will require extra thinking and acrobatics to collect.

The first six stages of every world work this way, with the seventh stage of a world seeing Mario guide the six collected Mini-Mario Toys to their toy box – which will only open if the Mini-Marios collect the T-O-Y letters scattered about – avoiding dangerous obstacles along the way. The eighth and final stage of each world is a boss fight against Donkey Kong. For most of the stages, a single hit from an enemy or obstacle will do Mario in. During the boss stages, however, Mario’s hit points will be determined by the number of Mini-Mario Toys the player managed to guide to the toy box on the previous stage (for an obvious maximum of six hit points).

It’s a really simple setup, but it works thanks to some fun puzzle design and Mario’s acrobatics. Not only does Mario partake in his usual jumping here, but he can also do handstands, backflips and swing on bars like a gymnast. The levels feature puzzles built around mechanics like red/yellow/blue switches that coincide with similarly colored platforms, timed electrical barriers, and other such trinkets and traps that will test the player’s reflexes and skill.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong is a fun game, but it has admittedly aged a bit. The structure of the game eventually becomes repetitious, and you may find yourself wishing the game would deviate from itself after a while (does every world need the same amount of levels here?). Additionally, the aforementioned Mini-Mario stages can become a bit tedious, and even some of the worlds can overstay their welcome when they lean too heavily on a specific gameplay gimmick (the best Mario games are acclaimed for never letting any idea linger longer than they need. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong didn’t get the memo, I suppose).

I just think there needed to be more variety within the stages and puzzles. When you think of how massively the 1994 Gameboy Donkey Kong expanded the original arcade game, it feels a tad underwhelming that the Gameboy Advance successor released a decade later doesn’t really feel like it adds to the formula all that much. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still provides a fun time in the same vein as the arcade original and the Gameboy remake, but you know the GBA could’ve done more with the gameplay.

The aesthetics might also be a mixed bag for some. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong utilizes pre-rendered character sprites (a nod to DKC’s influence to the Donkey Kong series), which admittedly look unique for the system, and Mario’s animations are surprisingly fluid. The music and sound, on the other hand, might quickly wear on you. The music isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable (which seems like a sin for a Mario game, doesn’t it?), and the sound effects are mostly recycled sound clips from previous games (Super Mario 64 for Mario, Donkey Kong 64 for DK, and Super Mario Sunshine for Toads). And while the Mini-Marios’ cry for “Mario” may be cute the first time one of them gets lost, it may start to get on your nerves when you start constantly hearing it as they stop following Mario due to the tiniest obstruction in their path.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong remains a fun game in its own right, but one that you can’t help but feel could have been better. It lacks the variety and challenge that could have made it more engrossing (though again, completionists will have a bit of a challenge trying to claim high scores and unlock the secret ‘Expert’ stages). And sadly, this is the current end-of-the-line for Mario and DK’s age-old rivalry. Sure, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong spawned its own sub-series (some of which included level editors, a feature that was originally planned for this title and really would have benefitted the finish product), but each sequel put more focus on the Mini-Marios and gameplay associated with them, and less on its titular rivalry (one entry even replaced the “Vs.” in the title with “and,” which really hit home the change to the series). So as far as the gameplay produced by the original Donkey Kong goes, it has now been on its longest hiatus (if you can believe it), with the original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still being its most recent offering.

That’s a real shame. Even though Mario Vs. Donkey Kong has unraveled a bit with age, it still shows that the formula originally conceived in 1981 still has something to give.

 

6