Somewhere along the line, I became a Nintendo fanboy.
I wasn't always this passionate. In fact, I've never owned a NES or SNES. But my N64 proved to me that Nintendo knows how to make great games, and even if they don't make a "Nintendo" game personally, they utilitize the abilities of development houses that also know how to make great games. As an over-reaching, heavy handed, blanket statement, Nintendo's family of games are superior to just about every other brand out there. This has been something I learned, not something I blindly repeat. Like I said, I never cared much about Nintendo's games until I began to play them. Mario Party, Pokemon Crystal, Starfox 64, Mario Tennis, Pokemon Snap, Ocarina of Time... the list goes on and on.
Super Mario Sunshine continues that tradition. It's a beautiful example of GameCube power, an amazing example of level design, and a charming example of style and presentation. That's not to say that there's chinks in the armor, but even with a clutzy camera system and a typically weak Mario plot, SMS is a high standard for video games in general.
So how do you categorize it? It's not totally a platform game, because there's many levels of scavenger hunts and gimmicky boss fights. It's a lot like how I would imagine Grand Theft Auto: Mushroom Kingdom, because you progress through the game by actively selecting missions brought to you in a living, changeable city (Isle Delfino) by various local townsfolk (new additions to the Mario universe: dopey fat Piantas and tiny shelled Nokis.) You even begin the game after Mario spends a night in jail, just like GTA3.
Mario begins the game proper when he picks up FLUDD, a silly-voiced water jet backpack. Thankfully, FLUDD doesn't chat all that much. Once it teaches you the basic controls, you can return to thinking of FLUDD as purely a tool. FLUDD expands Mario's age-old moves of leaping and spinning and hip dropping... now you can spray water in all directions and use the water stream to hover in mid-air, among others. The reason you have FLUDD is because some punk has painted graffiti all over the various town locations, and many enemies can spray mud everywhere... your job (on the Isle Delfino work release program) is to clean everything up. The punk in question has almost disguised himself as Mario, so part of your job is to clear your good name as well.
Don't assume that *all* you do is mop up mud. That's just one portion of the game's level variety... although it seems to be all the Mario Marketing people want to talk about.
Delfino Plaza is the hub location; from there you can visit 8 other areas. Each area has eight separate missions. Beat each mission and you score a Shine. Collect enough Shines and you can go after the final boss (Bowser, duh) and win the game. The missions are surprisingly diverse, and you'll find that the cities themselves change slightly from mission to mission... Pianta Village will go from day to night and back again, Pinna Park will gradually open access to all the amusement park rides, etc. Each city presents each challenge in a different level-based way, of course, but you can expect the following mission types: chase after Shadow Mario, collect 8 hidden red coins, defeat gimmicky bosses, race Il Piantissimo to a finish line, and "Secret" levels that send you to a bottomless pure-platformer level.
Those are the basic missions. You'll also have to cool off some super-heated Chain Chomps, race Bloobers across tricky water paths, clean a Hotel/Casino free of Boos, pop balloons from the seat of a roller coaster, and even some timed challenges. Just about every area is tropical themed, but I don't miss the cliched level assortment at all (forest, ice, underwater, haunted, volcano, castle, space, etc.) This is a vacation from the more temperate Mushroom Kingdom after all. I suspect that if SMS had all the usual locales, that people would whine about the predictability of Mario's world.
I had a huge problem with the Secret levels. Most Mario fans have been playing platformers since the NES. I have not; I've never played Mario 64. Most of my 3D platforming experience comes from Crash Bandicoot, and all he ever did was jump straight ahead. So the terrifyingly difficult Secret levels had me sweating and swearing. You'd have to see them to believe them, but they can get extremely nasty. Imagine you're forty stories above nothing, and you're expected to run across disintegrating sand blocks to jump to a series of platforms that rotate in three dimensions... they were all horribly painful for me. I understand that you can re-play the Secret levels to score extra Shines, but you won't find me doing that.
I also never mastered the entirety of Mario's moves. I found the sprinkler spin almost impossible to pull off (you have to rotate the analog stick in a circle with some pretty precise button timing.) And I just could not do the triple jump with any degree of predictability. (You have to hit the jump button at the exact millisecond that Mario hits the ground after a normal jump... twice.) Those tricky timing moves aside, Mario is a wonder of control. He's quick and he's tight. You can inch him to the edge of anything, perform wall-jumps in 3D space, and hoverjet him over the smallest platform. The biggest issue with Mario's control is Mario's camera.
The cam's default position is nicely behind Mario. But you can move it all around, or zoom out for almost an isometric/overhead view. (Which is pretty nice for those freaking Secret levels, by the way.) Unfortunately, there are times where the camera has literally nowhere to go, so it will end up stuck behind a wall or something. In these cases, the game lamely gives you a silohuette of Mario himself, but you can't see anything else but a wall, so the silohuette is almost useless. What's more distrubing is that many of these isolated situations occur exactly when you need that camera in a different position... like the Pinna Park level where you're scaling a series of narrow floating fences.
SMS also offers a weird porthole effect to illustrate a camera that's being obscured somehow, but I never once understood how exactly the porthole was expected to help me. More often than I can remember, the view would go into porthole in seemingly open areas. Strange.
But again, once you get past the trouble spots, the camera is a beaut, and far more friendly than most reviewers will admit. Zooming all the way out can be a great help. Once you get decent at it, you can use the camera position to "move" Mario around, using the analog stick as a forward accelerator, almost like an FPS.
I've also heard harsh criticism of the game's graphics and audio. Many textures will pixellate in an extreme closeup, but that was the only flaw I noticed. I'd like to point out that every game ever made pixellates in extreme closeups, so I'm not sure why many people are taking SMS to task on this one. Overall, things are clear and - once you collect enough Shines - bright. White bright. So bright that the game gives you an option for Mario to wear sunglasses to tone down the brightness.
But let me tell you something about the graphics. You can see EVERYTHING. There is no draw distance problems or all-covering far away fog. When you're scouting for Red Coins, you can throw it into first person mode and literally scan the entire area for coins. Did I make myself clear? You can spot teeny tiny rotating oval coins from miles away... even noting if they're Red, Blue or Yellow Coins. Get yourself to a high vantage point, and you can locate all 8 hidden Red Coins with some careful peering. In most of the scavenger hunt levels, it isn't spotting the coins that's the problem... it's the getting.
There's also a nifty heat effect that waves out straight lines at a distance. The water - both standing and sprayed - is a dream; probably the best appearance of water in a video game to date. Reflections in puddles. Making things look damp until the water evaporates. Sliding through mud, leaving trails of slime. Plus an almost imperceptible background blur that brings things into focus as Mario runs closer to them. What's interesting about all this is that the sum of the graphics is so... normal looking. So smooth. It's so well orchestrated that you might not even notice all the tricks playing out in front of you. There's no distracting colored lighting effects, nothing like that to stand out and scream "Hey, amazing graphic render over here!" It just works so well together that you're going to blindly accept it all without complaint. Unless you're the type that throws fits over pixellized textures in extreme closeups.
As for the sound, I loved the voices: incidental mumblings of the townspeople, Mario's usual grunts (which hilariously change when he becomes exhausted), Toadsworth's funny "blah blah blah," and Peach's spacy observations. The music is a bright and happy mix of tropical tunes, blended in some cases with classic Mario themes. The Secret levels all have a wonderful a cappella version of the standard Mario level music, and Shadow Mario is always accompanied by a gritty revamp of the underground background music. Yes, this isn't a Surround Sound showcase like some modern titles, but it's no half-assed slouch either. I think Nintendo has a higher standard than most, and when you get *slightly* disappointed by an element of a Nintendo game, you tend to exaggerate the lack.
Another weak spot is the story. Guess what sports fans, Peach is going to get kidnapped. There's nothing Metal Gear Solidesque about the plot of a Mario game. Since you can tackle the cities in a relatively random order, there's not a lot of plot advancement throughout the game. You get an intro story, a smattering of events in the middle, and a big finish. Not much to tell about there.
Spoiler: What exactly happens to FLUDD in the final moments of the Bowser battle? I didn't quite understand the drama there.
If you don't already have a GameCube, this is a damn fine reason to get one. The weaknesses are minimal. The complete package is solid and challenging. Hit Get.