Posted March 29th 2008 by Jordan Mammo.
Super Mario Galaxy is to Super Mario 64 what Super Mario Bros. 3 is to the original Super Mario Bros. Or, at least, that seems to be a very common comparison I've seen floating around since gamers started exploring the universe with the Italian plumber. Yet by so enthusiastically grabbing hold of this assessment (and it's a good one, don't get me wrong), we're missing out on crediting a title that may have influenced Galaxy's design, albeit indirectly, just as much.
Surprisingly, that title may be Super Mario Sunshine.
Though received well critically, Mario Sunshine was released to a much harsher reception by Nintendo fans. There wasn't enough level variety, was one complaint. Not enough platforming. Why can't it all be like the challenge levels? It's not a revolution! For all that was said, and for all that is said about Galaxy today, it's hard to believe that Sunshine almost kicked the design philosophy of the NES Mario games to the curb and continued to usher in an era of more open-ended platforming gameplay.
Almost. Not quite.
Ever since their inception, Super Mario games have been about movement and surroundings. Armed with the idea that great videogames are like playgrounds one can go back to again and again, Shigeru Miyamoto linked together different sets and levels to create his playing fields and gave players spot-on controls to maneuver through them. In the time between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario's movement was refined and tightened moreso while his surroundings burst at the seams with variety and surprise. Mario 3, however, was still traveling on the same trajectory that the original had inspired. With the jump from NES to SNES, Nintendo used Super Mario World to showcase more of the ideas that they would come to emphasize in later years: platforming with an emphasis on exploration rather than obstacle courses.
And it kept rolling from there. Whereas the 2D titles were more about using tight controls to make moving through the levels as exciting as possible, Mario 64 and Sunshine became more about the actual movement of Mario through the world. The third dimension gave birth to wider and more vertical areas, and these areas needed more things to do in them. So we got more coins and we got things to chase, like rabbits, or things to roll, like giant watermelons.
And with more things to do, well, you can't just run around anymore.
Now you got to explore more. You got to jump around platforms to get an object. Instead of running to your next destination, Nintendo gave you your destinations, and you had to uncover their secrets.
Nothing encapsulated this mindset more than Mario Sunshine's Delfino Isle. Mario 64 gave you a castle that connected you to a plethora of fantasy lands filled with rainbows and clocks via magical paintings. They're abstracts. Delfino Isle is grounded in a way that Mario 64's areas never could have been, because it's set up as a real place, and Mario is simply exploring different parts of it. You can see the parts of the island and how they all connect. From Bianco Hills you can see Delfino Plaza a little off in the distance. Finally, a fully-formed world, a gigantic playground for Mario to explore.
And yet, I imagine this posed a big problem for Nintendo. In Mario 64, when you entered a level, you selected which star you wanted to collect. However, if you stumbled upon another, different star on your adventure, you could grab it easily. This worked well since it continued the shift towards exploration initiated by Mario World, rewarded it with something valuable (the new star), and still fit into Mario's familiar level-structure. You flew off to these painted levels and explored them. You "got to the end" by collecting the star, and you went back into the level again for another round. Sunshine would have presented an interesting challenge to this idea.
If Mario can finally run around this huge, fully-realized playground and collect stars without such a strict order... do we still have a Mario game?
Is there enough structure?
What if there are no "levels?" What if there's just, you know, a place? And in this place Mario can do things, like defeat evil manta rays, which allows him to enter the hotel, and then go into the hotel without having to warp back and forth all the time? After all, the "hub world" of Delfino Plaza is part of the island anyway, and many times you can see it from the area you're in. It's not totally out of place, like a castle would be right next to a magical rainbow ride in the sky, and it's just a short trek away. Why does Mario have to warp back after getting a star anyway? Why can't he just go into the hotel?
With Mario Sunshine, it seems like Nintendo tried to create a cohesive, exploration-based platformer and couldn't figure out how to finish the job. Or they didn't know if they should finish the job. Delfino Isle's attractions are all there for you to see, and yet, if you try to travel to the different parts on foot, you will never make it to them. Because you have to warp, or because there is an invisible wall standing in your way. And once you warp there, you can only go after the star you've selected at the menu screen.
It doesn't really make any sense. Delfino Isle has an amusement park. I can see it right there in front of me. Mario can swim; hell, he can swim very fast with his water pack. Why the hell can't I go there?!
The closer and closer that videogames get to representing coherent worlds or places, the sillier it seems to have those videogames' characters warping around or jumping through paintings to enter "levels" that are just a short hike away from where they're warping in the first place.
In Sunshine, however, videogame staples such as invisible walls ultimately gave Nintendo the answer it thought it needed, and the project was given a structure that was more familiar to those who played Mario and other videogames. Was it the right choice? I don't know. This imaginary Mario Sunshine would have been a far different experience than the one we got, but I do think Nintendo's experience with Sunshine helped them develop their mindset with Mario Galaxy.
By setting the game in space, Nintendo gave itself the chance to create any kind of level they desired without worrying about how to connect them. If you're on a tropical island, you don't usually expect to see snow or deserts. In space, well, they let their imagination soar. Toy-box planets and airships along with islands and snow. Nintendo could have used space to create all these beautifully imaginative planets and connect them all together in a giant universe for Mario to explore at his will. Perhaps they could have even set the galaxy up by stringing together all the planets into one giant obstacle course. But it seems like they've decided they need a hub-world, and that obstacle courses and a one level/one star approach is generally more appropriate for Mario, while nodding to the past by allowing you to wander off the beaten path at times and discover a secret star.
Maybe Galaxy's approach is for the best. With the exception of the hub world again, it was, many times, just what I wanted. It was also immensely entertaining for the most part, if not moreso than Sunshine. Still, sometimes I can't help but wonder about that other Mario game in my head. Sunshine could have been a much more attention-grabbing experience, and yet it ended up being smaller. I don't know if it would have been a better game if it followed through on everything it could have, but it would have made more sense at least. And I think it would have been a more interesting experience. We may never find out now since Galaxy forcefully took control of the franchise's direction after its release. I don't think it's going to give it up anytime soon.
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