Day 1: Only three hours in, and author Ravi Hiranand finds himself totally surprised by the gameplay and the story.
I have a confession to make: I'm an insane Mario fan. The series is easily my favorite of all time. I pick Mario in every game where he's available. Hell, I even dressed up as Mario for Halloween...once. (It was a long, long time ago, I assure you.)
So if these impressions get a little, um...over-passionate, then I've given you fair warning. Even if you don't share the almost-scary love I have for the fat little plumber you have to admit that when a fully-fledged Mario game rolls around, it's a big deal.
And that's where we are right now. I have it right here in front of me and am currently playing all the way through. And so continues over a week of coverage from me and Gamers.com on arguably the biggest title of the year. We'll have new impressions, screens, and answers for any questions you might have. So check back every day for updates!
I'm only three hours in and I'm already surprised by the number of different things to do. It's been said a thousand times before, but it's true: Mario Sunshine is Mario 64 on steroids. In a nutshell, the game takes the basic play style and controls and enhances it with new moves, bigger levels, much more life and activity and some seriously cool special effects.
From my perspective, the biggest surprise is that the game adds a solid plot. Even at this early stage of the game, the story line is infinitely more complex than all other Mario games combined (though of course it's still not even a tenth of an Metal Gear Solid). Cut-scenes every once in a while tell the story of Mario, Peach and an older, white-mustachioed Toad flying to "Dolphic Island" for some much-needed rest.
While watching a promo video on the flight the Princess notices a weird, Mario-esque shadow lurking in the background. Upon arrival, she sees that things are not at all well on the vacation island. Weird, sticky, slimy goop is everywhere and is causing the "Shines" (think stars) to scatter throughout the island, plunging the capital city into darkness.
Unfortunately, Mario (who, incidentally, is called the President of Mushroom Kingdom - it's about time!) matches the description of the villain and is ordered to serve out a sentence of community service spent cleaning the entire island. Meanwhile, a mysterious, watery, red-eyed clone of Mario seems to be popping up in the background everywhere.
I can't tell whether the cut-scenes are CG or real-time, because it looks too good to be real-time, yet there are too may flaws for it to be CG. Thankfully, Nintendo keeps the passive watching to a minimum and achieves nice pacing by splitting the cut-scenes up and inserting bits of gameplay - like fighting a boss in the middle of the opening cinema.
The first thing I noticed in the Japanese version is that the voices are in English during the cut-scenes, but all the text is in Japanese. Making this worse is the fact that the characters don't speak during the gameplay itself - only in the cut-scenes - so while you'll be able to follow the plot, you won't know exactly what any of the in-game characters are saying.
Thus far, it hasn't really been a problem -- despite all the people scattered around you don't really need to talk to anyone. But it's worth noting. And I have to say that this version is way more import-friendly than Luigi's Mansion, solely because Mario games tend to be all about figuring things out through exploration and not conversation. Mario Sunshine seems to be following this trend so far. Also, thankfully, the basic water-pack tutorial is in English.
Story Spoiler Alert
Contrary to most Mario games, there's more story in Super Mario Sunshine than you can imagine. And it's a bit, well...surprising. Skip this sidebar if you can't bear the thought of a spoiler...
The evil watery clone that framed the real Mario is in fact Baby Bowser. But the REALLY weird thing is that Baby Bowser keeps calling Peach "Mama Peach", which brings rather confused looks to the faces of Mario and Peach. Bowser's obviously tricked his son (or at least I hope so; I don't even want to think about this couple) into doing the dirty work.
In the not-so-surprising department, after teasing us by escaping capture for all of two hours, Peach does get kidnapped by Baby Bowser. Typical. There's also another mystery surrounding the maker of Mario's water-pack, Professor E. Gadd (yes, the same guy who made Luigi's vacuum). Seems not only did he make Mario's water-pack, he made Baby Bowser's wish-granting polluting paintbrush of death, too. Hmmm...
The water-pack was subject to much speculation in the run-up to the game's release, so let me first confirm a few things. Firstly, there are only four nozzles: the regular spray, hover, rocket jump, and propulsion, which pushes Mario across the ground at super-fast speeds. I haven't unlocked the others but I've seen the item boxes where they come from, and it appears as if the spray nozzle is a permanent attachment while the secondary function can be one of the other three.
How does it control? Like a charm, with A jumping, B diving or grabbing (no more punch), Y bringing the camera to first person view and X switching nozzles. The L button centers the camera behind Mario and butt-stomps when in the air, while R controls the spray, and Z brings up a status screen. The C stick controls the camera, and moving it around is much easier than in Mario 64, which is a good thing, because you'll have to use it in certain areas of the game. But more on that later.
One cool function is that when the spray nozzle is selected, pressing Rwill allow Mario to spray while walking, but pushing it down and "click" makes Mario stop, and allows you to use the control stick to move the spray instead of Mario.
The objective of the game remains the same as in Super Mario 64: go into levels, collect Shines and leave. It's set up the same way too. You pick a particular star to try to find, but now when you start the level the camera does a quick fly-through to show you the star's location. It's a good idea that helps direct your actions and is also a great hint for anyone who can't read Japanese!
I'll go into more details about the individual levels and their design tomorrow, but here's where I've been so far. The first level was Bianco Hills, which you may recognize from screens and movies - it's the one with the windmills. After a Shine or two there, upon returning to the main town a quick cut-scene showed me that a hut had been besieged by the goop. I cleaned that up and defeated the enemy, which opened up another level: Ricco Harbor. This level features the return of those chain-link fences from Super Mario World. After another few Shines, another monument - the Lighthouse - came under attack. I saved it, which opened up another new level, Mamma Beach. I also played Pinna Park, which is set in an amusement park.
Incidentally, it appears as if the whole game takes place on Dolphic Island, or "Isle Dolphino", as the intro voice says. There's a little graphic during the intro that seems to indicate the number of stages, and a quick count showed about 12 different locations. If you're interested in how many shines there are, there should be quite a few; the status menu has enough space for ten shines per level. That's something to go on, at least.
Same Old Mario
I have to say I'm incredibly relieved that Mario Sunshine retains that certain something all Mario games possess that make the simple act of moving Mario around highly entertaining and rewarding almost on its own.
But this time the environment plays a big part in it too. The first time you take control of Mario, it's a small boss fight at the airport, but then you hit the "hub" - the city demonstrated when Sunshine was first unveiled at Spaceworld 2001 - which is just amazingly interactive. The first thing I did was run off to the beach, where I noticed an open window. I sprayed water into the window and was rewarded with a coin. Cool!
Spraying Peach or any of the natives with water doesn't earn you a coin but instead gives you a ticking off and a good laugh as they freak out trying to shake themselves dry. I found a remote island off the main city, swam there, and saw a native sitting over a wood fire. Feeling naughty, I put it out with my water-pack. Extra life, thank you very much.
What I'm really enjoying about Sunshine so far is the variety. So far I've collected 11 Shines and getting them has been as diverse as anything seen in the entirety of Mario 64. The first one was mundane because it only involved trekking through a level to clean up the sludge and defeat an enemy. Then I had to chase the watery Mario clone around. Then there was a boss fight with a piranha. Then I went into a hole only to emerge in a bizarre room with a long string of moving, floating platforms in front of me (naturally a Shine sat at the end). Then I went into another hole to a similar room, only the evil clone took my water-pack so I had to run and jump without the safety net afforded by the hover function. And the last Shine I got came from blasting a robot with water missiles while doing loop-de-loops on a rollercoaster.
Incidentally, the Red Coins are back as an objective. You can also collect blue coins (ten get you a Shine) both within a level and across the Hub. Interestingly, the amount you have isn't tied to a particular level like with the gold or red coins; you can grab three from one level, six from another and one from the Hub for your 10. And as for gold coins, 50 get you an extra life. Remember when it used to be 100?
Wondrous special effects exist everywhere in the game world. The water is fantastic, whether it's the lagoon/sea/river water or even the puddles you spread by spraying your water-pack. Jump out of the water and into the sand and you kick up a bit of dirt. The shimmering oily goop reflects you. Stage entrances show a hazy version of the stage and stepping up to them transports Mario almost Star Trek-style, with his body turning into a series of dots that fly into the entrance only to reform inside.
And then there are the little touches Mario freaks like myself will notice. Mario and Peach sport slightly new vacation looks, with Mario donning short sleeves, and Peach wearing her hair in a fashionable ponytail. There's the quick glimpse of Mario 64 in the opening cut-scene, Dr. E. Gadd, the kid playing the Mario theme song...
There's so much more, like the underground sewer system that expedites travel around the different levels. And I haven't even mentioned the music, which is generally catchy but also includes remixes of older Mario themes and even classic sound effects. And I still haven't found Yoshi...amazingly, all of these experiences were had in my first three hours of play!
I'm sure I've forgotten tons and tons of information, and I haven't even begun to properly sort out the the graphics, bosses, or levels. You'll have to check back tomorrow for more information on those.
For now, however, it's late, I'm tired, and I have to end somewhere for today. Remember to start sending in your questions to us, and we'll publish the best ones (with answers, naturally) as soon as we can! Also talk it up on the Super Mario Sunshine Message Board.
All Is Not Perfect, However
I have to admit that I'm not 100% happy with Super Mario Sunshine, though. My biggest gripe happens to be with one of the controls they changed: the swimming controls. Before, you pushed one button to stroke and used the stick to orient Mario left or right, up or down. Now, the A-button strokes on the surface or makes you go up, and B makes Mario stroke downwards. It's fairly awkward to get right and seems counter-intuitive, especially when the previous system worked fine.
My other gripe is with the camera. It's not hideous, and when you move it around it responds perfectly, but the fact is you do have to move it around. It doesn't exactly pick the worst angles, but it definitely doesn't find the best angle, so you'll find yourself using the C-stick a lot.
But it's Mario. The gripes pale in comparison to how incredibly FUN the game is. It's packed with stuff to see and more importantly do. And there's sooo much to talk about.