Monday, January 28, 2013

Headcase: Mario Sunshine

Ed goes tropical in this edition of Headcase, so grab a high level SPF, because you know the red headed stepchild of the Mario franchise gets sunburned just as easily as it gets beaten.

“Super Mario Sunshine is brutally underrated.” Luchalma told me once, and as I roughly jammed the rubber ball back into his mouth I couldn’t help but to reflect on my time with the game. Trouble was, my Gamecube saw exactly as much use as a conveniently handled drunk-bludgeon as it did as a games console, so I would need to play through it in totality again before I could form a solid judgment. Getting the console hooked up again wasn’t too challenging, the only hard part was finding all four controllers because I refuse to boot up the machine without going through the awesome Japanese boot-up sound package.

 So Kawaii.

          Super Mario Sunshine opens with Mario and his gang of fungi headed feudalism enthusiasts taking a vacation to the tropical Isle Delfino. The first thing that stood out to me was the inclusion of an actual plot building opening cinematic. I mean, this is Mario we’re talking about here – his last big adventure kicked off with him getting snail mail about baked goods. It doesn’t take much of an excuse to get this chubby asshole to murder every turtle he can find, but Sunshine dares to get your hopes up by actually trying to give you a nice little story. There are a few interesting design choices with the plot here. Mario, who’s longest line ever was “Thank you so much-a for to playing ma game-a” is viciously reprimanded for his uber-stereotypical accent and is reduced to silent protagonist mode. Well, kinda silent – this motherfucker is still going to belt out an eerily overenthusiastic “yeeahooo” every time he gets some airtime, but when he’s actually supposed to talk in the opening, all his does is mouth a bunch of silent syllables. The result is that Mario just looks like not even he can buy the absurd premise his entire life is built on.
“Yes, tiny mushroom sage, I need… too… you know what? Fuck you. You know I’m just gonna go jump on everything. Why am I even talking about this to you!? Every time I see you I wonder how your fucking head would taste chopped and sautéed.”

     Odd silence aside, I’ve really got to hand it to these writers for being so progressive and edgy when it comes to character progression, because clearly something horrible has happened to Princess Peach’s brain. She was writing and narrating her own cake letters back in 64, but when you see how she drools out basic observation or repeats sentences in Sunshine, it’s pretty clear she’s either had a massive stroke or a botched lobotomy. This really puts a dark slant on the Mushroom Kingdom. Peach is such a symbol for the country, an invaluable figurehead that can’t be anything less than an invincible mother figure for her people, that when she has terrible irreversible brain damage they just staple a parasol to her hands and nod and smile while she hazily states the fucking obvious. 
This is pretty much her permanent facial expression for the entire game.

     Either way, the group arrives at its vacation destination to find that it’s been riddled with graffito by an evil shadow man with a super-paintbrush. This guy is Mario shaped, and Mario is immediately convicted of being a paint-based terrorist in corrupt kangaroo court. The game proper starts when Mario is forced to clean the island using F.L.U.D.D. (hereby referred to as Fludd, because I don’t enjoy typing acronyms) a sentient, talking water hose backpack. From there it really doesn’t take long for shit to kick off. An early twist reveals that shadow Mario is a disguised Bowser Jr, who’s only kidnapping Peach because he believes she’s his mother, and he’s using the paintbrush (which is created by the same scientists that made fludd) to waylay Mario while he makes his escape. Think about that shit. HOW FUCKING AWESOME IS THIS?! What is this plot doing in a Mario game? Count these bitchin' elements with me. We’ve got a tired, disillusioned Mario trying to pick the pick the pieces of his life back up while protecting a brain-dead figurehead from a reptile with an Oedipus complex who wants to steal the line of succession to the Mushroom Kingdom by claiming blood ties to the Princess so he can use its mushroom based military to crush and subsequently crawl out of the shadow of the father he’s always hated. Top that with sentient machines created by the same man with opposite purposes that put them on a cruel, inescapable path to a duel to the death and realize that all of that stuff comes to light only after a fucking roller coaster vs. giant mech missile fight. That is so god damned awesome, it’s like George R.R. Martin and Michael bay had violently passionate butt-sex in a truck stop bathroom while Shigeru Miyamoto watched, took notes, and cried. 
"Gotta be honest guys, winter isn't the only thing coming around here."

      The problem is that they set all of this stuff up and do precisely jack shit with it. This is why the plot to Mario Sunshine is so tragically bittersweet. You know what? Let me go ahead and spoil the end of this 10 year old game. Don’t click away; you know this shit is so far down on your backlog that you’ll be running Spice World before you get around to it. Mario finally confronts Bowser Jr, and Bowser, while they’re just chillin’ laid back in a giant celestial hot-tub (seriously). He proceeds to beat the fuck out of them both and that’s pretty much it. Everybody falls back to earth, and I guess stuff is cool? Mario is never really vindicated from being framed, and they do absolutely nothing with Fludd and the brush being siblings, instead deciding to kill Fludd off for literally less than a minute. Bowser and his kid get the dumbest resolution when Bowser clumsily tried to admit that Peach isn’t his real mom. Jr says that he already knew, and sure this game was rated E, but I’m still pretty surprised that Bowser Jr. just totally didn’t lay into his father for thinking his kid was a complete idiot. 

“Really dad, you’re a two story fire breathing dinosaur and she’s a blonde vegetable… although, the act of conception and subsequent birth is a pretty good explanation of her mental condition.”

      I know I might have missed the point a little, a lot of you people don’t play Mario games for their gritty pitch black tales of deception and forbidden love, you play them to jump around collecting shiny things. In this case, Mario Sunshine’s biggest problem is a little thing called “Not being Mario 64”. You’re doing a lot of the same things you are in Mario’s last game-of-the-console outing. You’re running into different worlds and collecting star-like-objects (called Shines here) by completing different tasks. The problem is that you’re kind of stuck with the island motif. In Mario 64 the portly plumber is whisked away to all manner of bizarre and impossible worlds. In Sunshine you’ll be going from sandy beach to sandy beach at sunset. The island is pretty, the stylized clear water is a treat, but it gets awfully samey real quick. The other problem is Fludd and company. Even coated in 64 bits, Mario had 3 power-ups, and Sunshine loves it’s Nintendo style rule-of-threes. You’ll use your water spewing side-kick to hover around and later, use different nozzles to rocket jump or turbo charge yourself around. You’ll also team up with the ever-annoyingly voiced Yoshi, whose powers include a floaty jump and extreme projectile vomit. Thing is, these are mostly ancillary additions. You’ll hardly need that rocket jump for anything, Yoshi is necessary all of twice, and the turbo boost nozzle doesn’t actually have a discernible  use outside of grabbing a few collectibles. They’re kind of neat looking, but they don't have much impact. Window dressing for neat box shots and promotional material. The magic of Mario 64 came through in its massive explorability. Peaches castle was a multi-layered gargantuan complex, and it’s nooks and crannies became accessible in tiers as you collected stars. In Sunshine, there’s not a lot of Isle Delfino that you haven’t seen from the get go. The only thing collecting shines unlocks is a few quick episodes that introduce a nozzle or a Yoshi egg. 
This was the only picture I could find of Yoshi that didn't feature him blowing pastel chunks all over some understandably surprised pedestrian.

     It might seem like I’m shitting all over Mario Sunshine (just like it shat all over my heart with its fumbled plot) but it’s actually a pretty recommendable game. Mario Sunshine does what Mario hasn’t done since 3, and actually injects a bit of challenge into the gameplay. At least once in every level, you’ll be forced to navigate a floating obstacle course with no assistance from Fludd. The simplicity of the environment in these sections is intentional, because Nintendo uses these sections to show these upstart newjacks that they can still make a fucking platformer. When was the last time your controller got sweaty during a Mario game? Suddenly, extra lives mean something, because these courses aren’t exactly the easiest things to get to in the first place. Modern platforming just doesn’t offer the kind of tension you get from tackling one of these courses on your last life. It also helps that the music for these levels is the classic Mario theme song, updated here with snappy vocal backing. 
I was falling off the stage a lot, so the lyrics usually went something like "Do do-do do- FUCKINGSHITHAMMER."

Even if Sunshine isn’t packed with fantastical impossibility in most of its settings doesn’t mean that Shines aren’t fun to collect. Each level has eight six unique episodes, each one setting out different and varying goals in order to net those shines. With very few exceptions, these episodes are all great, and they frequently implement new mechanics and new enemies. These platforming itself is better all-around in Sunshine, the things you’re jumping around on are smaller and it both slows down your climbing pace and adds a bit of risk and tension to the heights. When you reach the top of whatever you’re climbing in Sunshine, there’s a feeling of accomplishment that doesn’t show up the post NES entries to the series. There’s also the bosses, and holy shit, they’re great. Look, I’m that guy who loaded up Bob-omb battlefield so I could fight King Bob-omb every day, and I’m telling you that Sunshine’s boss fights knock them out of the park. There’s plenty of variety in the fights, and they were smart to make the only reoccurring boss the one that’s the most fun to fight. Nothin’ says lovin’ like ripping off squid arms.
Tell me this game isn't dark after you watch Mario dismember this poor bastard.

Each area is capped off with two always occurring episodes, one good, one pretty shitty. In the first, you’ll be chasing shadow Mario around the level. This is, as eloquently as I can put it, suck. Shadow Mario runs around while you squirt him with water until he falls down. This happens in every environment, and it’s tedious at best. The other episode involves collecting red coins, and is almost always a nice relaxing tour of the stage you’ve played through for the other episodes. It’s a great way to say goodbye to an environment by going on a nice leisurely scavenger hunt. 
When it comes down to it, Mario Sunshine isn’t going to top many people’s lists when it comes to Mario experiences, but just like a gagged Luchalma, it does catch a lot of unnecessary shit. People looking to explore a wild variety of 3-D environments are going to be disappointed by Sunshine’s island-only backdrop. Those of you who came up with Mario stomping on stuff in two dimensions are going to appreciate the renewed dedication to gameplay. Sunshine might be the worst of the main series Marios, but that’s a lot like watching the worst explosive Bay-Martin rough love sesh. Both of them are going to be occasionally painful and sticky, but both of them are definitely worth jumping all over. Also, tell me that last outfit Mario gets doesn’t make him look like Weekend at Bernie’s. 


  1. Gorilla Filling Socks With Kool-AidJanuary 29, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    I really should start playing some of these Mario games. I think the last one I played was "Super Mario Bros"