In September of 2020, Nintendo celebrated the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Mario franchise with the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection, which brought the series’ most landmark titles to the Switch in one, convenient package. For many of us, it offered a great opportunity to play these Mario games back to back, and compare one generation to the other.
In so doing, it also offered an opportunity for game designers and critics to analyze the respective designs of these games. This, in fact, is what I did; I chased my perfect run of Super Mario 64 with Mario Sunshine… and I noticed something. While I arguably had more fun with the basic gameplay of Sunshine, I did not collect all 120 shines. On the other hand, I did collect all 120 stars in Mario 64, almost without thinking about it. The more I considered getting all the shines in Sunshine, the more I became repulsed by the idea.
Normally, it’s important to avoid the “I” in acts of critical analysis (even if the idea is founded on a much-debunked notion that journalists can be “impartial” and objective). But here, that base emotional reaction was the sign something was up. Especially if you’re aware of your own biases and interests. I tend to be a completist, and love exploring new areas and finding secrets. This should have tilted me towards getting a perfect run in Sunshine. So, what was it about Sunshine that scared a player like myself, who prefers eating every crumb of a game, away from collecting all 120 shines. Especially given that the core gameplay of Sunshine is just more fun?
By and large, it has to do with how each game’s objectives and collectibles are framed: where Mario 64 keeps things simple, Sunshine wound up getting complex to the point of detriment… and conflicted with the game’s core design.
Mario 64: KISS
There’s an old saying in design circles: “Keep it simple, stupid.” Super Mario 64 is an example of this mentality, applied to game design. At its core, Mario 64 was far simpler than other comparable platformers of its day. Your abilities were jumping and a barely-used punch, plus a few hats you could snag in certain levels. This paled in comparison to the multiple characters of Donkey Kong 64 or the myriad abilities of Banjo-Kazooie. Most of the bosses, too, were simple. To beat them, you just had to get around behind them, however that was done. What made Mario stand out was its big world and the quality of these options.
This simplicity applied to the level design and their related collectibles, as well. The game has 120 stars, in total. There are 15 levels with 7 stars per level, plus another 15 stars hidden in the castle. You can get almost any star present in a level any time you enter it, and each of the main stars has a little hint to guide you along.
This is the height of simplicity. What’s more, it synchronizes with the game’s core design. Mario 64 is about play and exploration. None of the puzzles are terribly mind-bending. More often, the challenge of getting a star is in figuring out how to execute whatever it is you need to do to get a hold of it. Sure, there are a few more challenging puzzles that spice up the mix, but for the most part, it’s a problem of execution.
This makes sense: Mario 64 is an action-platformer. It’s not an RPG or a puzzle game. The core gameplay is about precision, quick reflexes, and the stubbornness to keep trying when you fail (keep this last quality in mind, as we’ll be coming back to it in Sunshine). Making sure that the stars—the game’s core objective—are reachable more by excelling at those qualities than by delving into other traits that may not be present in your intended audience ensures that there’s no disconnect between those who enjoy the core gameplay, and those who will be able to get the stars. In other words: you’re rewarding the players for engaging in the most fun part of the game.
Mario Sunshine: Bells and Whistles and a Squirt Gun
Mario Sunshine, arguably, took a lot more risks than Mario 64. The water mechanics were technically advanced for their time (especially given the hardware of the GameCube) and offered a lot more gameplay options for players… which, in a world so open as that of Sunshine’s, drastically increased the chances of players finding ways to break the game. The movement was much smoother than 64’s, the world much more idiosyncratic and charming, and the music sticks with you.
Also, Yoshi came back and you could rocket around the level like a coked-out jet ski, so… yeah.
If we were just measuring how fun it is to play with the respective mechanics of each game, Sunshine would be the clear winner. It takes the precision platforming, stubbornness, and quick-reflexes excitement of Mario 64 and ramps them up. Were that the only factor involved, it would have been better received than 64.
But the problem wasn’t with the core gameplay: it’s with the game’s level design and objectives.
First off, one of the biggest differences between Sunshine and 64’s objective system is that you can’t get any shine you want when you enter a level in Sunshine. No: the level subtly changes depending upon which “mission” you select on entry. While this offers exciting variance for those playing through the main story, this lack of flexibility causes problems for those who want to get the game’s extras.
The reason? You can only access some of the extras in certain missions within certain levels… and you have nearly no way of knowing which missions contain them. This is exacerbated by the presence of “blue coins:” another collectible, of which there’s about 30 in each level. Blue coins can be traded for shines, meaning that to “complete” the game, you have to get all of them. And some of them in each level can only be accessed in certain missions. Again, you have no way of knowing which missions you’ll need to do.
The result of this is that, for players interested in doing a perfect run of Sunshine, they’ll need to scour every iteration of every level, without knowing if they’re in the right one and missing something, or if they’ve just picked the wrong mission.
Which brings us to the level design: while Sunshine’s focus on water was unique and fun, the slow pace at which you travel in water quickly made searching for things or traveling long distances tedious. You’d be tempted to look away and hold the forward button on the controller while you wait. This got annoying when you missed a jump in the wrong spot. At least Mario 64 killed you so you could start over more quickly.
Synchronizing Gameplay and Objectives
As mentioned before, Mario 64’s greatest strength was that the people who excelled at the core gameplay were the same stubborn action junkies who were likely to collect all the stars, simply because completing that objective required the same skillset.
Mario Sunshine’s biggest weakness is that it separates the skills needed to get the objectives with the skills needed to enjoy the basic gameplay. To get everything in Mario Sunshine, you need to be the sort of attention-to-detail-focused individual with the intellectual tenacity to scour every corner without getting frustrated. Note that this isn’t the same as the stubbornness mentioned in regards to Mario 64. The stubbornness required by 64’s core platforming gameplay is about coming back from failure. By contrast, the tenacity required to get everything in Mario Sunshine is more administrative and repetitive. It’s about having it in you to do the same task over and over again, and hope that you found something different, this time. It lacks the adrenaline and stakes present in Mario 64.
Taking the physical, action-oriented platforming freedom of Mario Sunshine and putting the goals behind opaque mysteries feels a bit like taking a star track-and-field athlete and putting him in the role of a detective. The skills and, most importantly, interests, don’t line up.
As a result, Sunshine doesn’t reward players for excelling at the core gameplay once they’ve finished the main story. Instead, it bogs them down in repetition. Contrast this with Mario 64. While there is a puzzle element to Mario 64, none of the puzzles are complicated, and the hardest part is almost always execution, allowing you to practice the most fun part of the game without ever having to interrupt it to sleuth.
Where Mario 64 offers you choices in its extras, Sunshine saddles you with chores.
Making Cohesive Games
None of this is to say Sunshine is a bad game. In fact, if you took the extras out of each of them, I’d strongly prefer it to Mario 64. But, once you get into the extras, there is an apparent lack of cohesion that should serve as a warning to game designers:
It isn’t enough to have a fun world, story, music, or even stellar core gameplay. That gameplay needs to require the same skillset and attract the same personality types that are required to fulfill the game’s objectives. The objectives and the gameplay need to line up. Otherwise your players may love your game… right up until they actually have to do what you’re asking them to.