Bad design

I remember really enjoying Super Mario Sunshine when I first played it on GameCube. The high marks that it got at the time seemed entirely justified. Sure, it had its moments of frustration, but I always thought it was a terrific game, and undeserving of the backlash it seemed to get from the internet after its release.

I’ve been playing it again recently, and all of a sudden I see what everyone was criticising. While I think the camera is mostly fine, it struggles with any interior sections, with little room for the player to manouevre it, and often forcing jumps that are all too easy to misjudge as it’s impossible to move the viewpoint to an appropriate one to make the leap.

There’s a terrible secret level set inside a pachinko machine (I do remember struggling with it first time around, but I don’t recall it being quite so hateful), but worst of all has to be the section leading up to the final boss battle, which commits so many cardinal design sins it’s untrue.

For starters, it’s repetitive – forcing you to make a series of jumps across platforms either spiked or smouldering. There’s little challenge to this section, and it feels little more than a space-filler. The next bit is even worse, placing you aboard a flimsy wooden boat which you must attempt to steer through a sea of lava with the water pack on your back. The idea is to spray to propel the boat, but so capricious is the boat’s movement that making it to the other side seems to require as much luck as skill. You’ll get there eventually, but more by accident than design. The boat seems to turn entirely at random, and the slightest contact with any obstacle equals an instant loss of life. The fact that the collision detection can see you strike a rock  when you pass closely by it only exacerbates the issue.

Amazingly, it gets worse. You then have to use a rocket nozzle attachment to power Mario upwards to clouds floating above. It’s impossible to move the camera into a position where you can see the clouds properly, so you’re essentially jumping blind. Make it to the next part, and you have to jump again, only this time the clouds above are moving. Miss, and there’s a strong chance you’ll plummet to the ground, losing energy in the process and having to start the process all over again.

What’s particularly staggering is that this is a Nintendo game. Nintendo games – particularly Mario ones – aren’t supposed to have bad design. That Sunshine manages to make so many mistakes in just one single level is almost unforgiveable. Little wonder it’s considered the black sheep of the series.

You’d think someone might, at some point during the game’s development, have commented on how poor that section was. It’s hard to imagine that it was never flagged up. Did Nintendo simply run out of time to change it?

It’s a pity we’ll likely never know, just as we’ll never know why so many examples of bad design make it through the rigorous testing processes implemented by the vast majority of developers. Like why some developers go to the effort of finding an interesting setting, and then funnel us through factories and warehouses for the game’s duration. I imagine a simple lack of time and/or money are the most common reason – in Sunshine’s case, the former is the most likely cause – but it’s a shame when an otherwise great game can be spoiled by a design fault that could so easily have been rectified.

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4 comments

  1. I had managed to completely block this section from my fond memories of the game; after looking at a Youtube video of it however I am amazed that it ever got into the finished game. It has to be said, however, that the Bowser in the hottub end boss clearly illustrates that the design team had just taken delivery of an order of ‘special’ cigarettes at this point and were in no fit state to analyse the preceding level.

  2. It’s the infamous ‘bubble’ of game development, isn’t it? They just can’t see the wood for the trees.

  3. “I imagine a simple lack of time and/or money are the most common reason”

    This is exactly the reason. The rest of the industry has to start developing a level before half the game and assets for it is even made and by the time a really good idea in theory doesn’t seem to translate to fun in practice the tight schedule won’t let you just (ahem)’place’ it in the bin.

    Nintendo shouldn’t have had trouble with either. They have a different process to the rest of us where they get loads of time to try out new ideas before even starting the game, loads of resources to throw at it and they usually won’t release anything they aren’t happy with. Remember that SMS wasn’t out as a launch title as planned. What a really odd blip this Mario was.

  4. My principal complaint with that concluding portion of the game isn’t even predicated on the punishing design: it’s the fact that the path is so utterly bereft of atmosphere and verve.

    The music is understated and devoid of drive or eagerness; it never accomplishes–or makes an effort to accomplish–the darkness and sense of portentousness that Mario 64’s roads to Bowser instilled through the use of music. The aesthetics are drab and unadventurous, too; never is there the same sense of visual alarm that you get from the worlds suspended in the sky (Mario 64) or abstract space paths (Galaxy).

    Admittedly, I don’t really get the same spark from Galaxy’s concluding section as I did with Mario 64, but from an aesthetic perspective, I do feel it pitched more successfully and attentively than Sunshine’s.


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