i’ve been playing: alan wake, super mario sunshine (and dolphin)

The draw of the familiar can be a funny thing; I don’t often replay games, but sometimes, after enough time has passed, all it can take is a brief mention somewhere to bring back a wave of fond memories, and the desire to relive them. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing exactly that, replaying two games that, beyond my nostalgia for them, couldn’t be more dissimilar: Alan Wake and Super Mario Sunshine.

With Alan Wake, all it took to get me playing again was a series of bargain sales of the PC version. My first time through was on the 360, with a borrowed copy, but it was always a game I wanted to revisit, both to play through the two DLC episodes, and to play it after having read Rob Zacny’s fascinating analysis of the game’s events.

I totally get people that don’t like it; the gameplay, while neat in parts, gets a bit repetitive, and the story walks a fine line between cleverness and being entirely up its own ass (a games writer writing a game about a writer who writes about writing a book?). That story really works for me, though — it starts with a bang, and the episodic pacing keeps the story moving brilliantly, with little goals and revelations that gradually reveal the key details about the game’s setting and events.

Super Mario Sunshine was always a strange Mario  game, but that made it no less fun

Super Mario Sunshine was always a strange Mario game, but that made it no less fun

In comparison, the story in Super Mario Sunshiney couldn’t be more tedious, but once you get past the dreadful unskippable cut-scenes in its first few hours, it’s a joy to play. The tropical-themed Sunshine wasn’t what people expected after the groundbreaking Super Mario 64, and after being followed on the Wii by the incredibly inventive Super Mario Galaxy, I’d just about forgotten the great fun I had with it until reading Eurogamer’s recent Sunshine retrospective.

That article made me realise what it was that made Sunshine so different — that it takes place in a world that’s not designed precisely around Mario’s capabilities. Instead, it challenges the player to use their skills and Mario’s water-powered hover-pack to explore a more organic world. That’s never more apparent than in Delfino Plaza, the game’s hub world, which you can easily spend hours exploring in search of those elusive Shines.

Swimming with Dolphins

Oddly enough, I’ve been playing through Sunshine on PC, too, using Dolphin, an open-source, cross-platform GameCube and Wii emulator that improves upon the real hardware by rendering games at high resolutions. While rendering GameCube and Wii games at 1080p with anti-aliasing isn’t enough to make them comparable to more modern consoles, it really does help, especially with the clean, stylised graphics featured in most of Nintendo’s first-party titles.

At 1080p, and with the widescreen hack in effect, The Wind Waker could almost pass for a current-generation game

At 1080p, and with the widescreen hack in effect, The Wind Waker could almost pass for a current-generation game

Sunshine at 1080p really does look quite nice, but it’s nothing compared to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker — I don’t think Nintendo will have to change much with its HD remake of the game for Wii U, since with a couple of million extra pixels it already looks remarkably close to a current-generation game. The thing that ages it most is the lack of a widescreen mode, but Dolphin actually has a hack that adds widescreen support to many games, Wind Waker included.

The catch with Dolphin is that it requires a reasonably powerful PC. It doesn’t need the latest video card — my 8800GT is perfectly fine — but it does need a decent CPU, and it’s there that my Athlon II X2, overclocked to 3.58Ghz, is barely enough for many games. Wii games seem to suffer the most, perhaps unsurprisingly; Zelda: Skyward Sword is just a bit too slow to be playable on my PC, and from all reports, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel don’t run smoothly on anything less than the fastest PCs available.

With a real Wii Remote connected via Bluetooth, even MotionPlus-heavy games like Zelda: Skyward Sword are playable in Dolphin

With a real Wii Remote connected via Bluetooth, even MotionPlus-heavy games like Zelda: Skyward Sword are playable in Dolphin

For Sunshine, I’ve been using a 360 controller along with a $10 Xbox wireless receiver from DealExtreme, and the xboxdrv user-space Xbox controller driver; with its analog triggers and the very GameCube-esque controller layout in general, it’s a great fit. For Wii games, Dolphin can emulate a Wiimote of sorts, but it’s much easier to use a real Wiimote via Bluetooth.

super mario galaxy 2

If you’re like me, the experience of playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 can be summed up by the words you’ll find yourself involuntarily muttering again and again:

“Haha, what? No way! That’s awesome!”

Following up Super Mario Galaxy was always going to be a hard task; it turned 20 years of platforming tradition on its head — sometimes literally — with its mind-bending, gravity-defying spherical worlds. Rather than trying to reinvent the genre once again, Nintendo has simply taken the shell of the original game and stuffed it to bursting point with an incredible wealth of crazy, inventive, and unique ideas.

It’s hard to understate just how imaginative this game is. Just about every time you enter one of the game’s dozens of levels, it throws some new gameplay mechanic or concept at you, and as soon as you’ve mastered that, you’re thrown off to the next level and the next crazy idea. Incredibly, with just a couple of exceptions — Spring Mario, which makes a (thankfully brief) return from the original, and some motion-controlled gliding levels — all of those ideas are not just brilliant, but brilliantly executed as well.

The result is, simply put, one of the finest, most enjoyable games I’ve ever played. If you’ve ever been a fan of platformers, you need to play this game.

new mario, new music

There’s an overwhelming number of new games coming out right now, but despite the pressures to buy Modern Warfare 2 or Borderlands, I caved in to my inner Nintendo fanboy and picked up New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Well, I’ll admit, Toys ‘R’ Us selling it for $70 helped. Either way, it’s time to talk Mario!

NSMBW, much like NSMB on the DS, is a straight-up 2D Mario game, with all the usual trimmings and a smattering of new stuff thrown in. After getting it home I quickly played through the first world-and-a-half, and while it was fun, it was tough, and actually frustrating in a way I hadn’t seen in a Mario game before. A lot of that frustration came from the D-pad on the Wiimote, which seemingly isn’t ideal for pushing diagonally.

Fortunately, NSMBW adds one significant spin to the Mario formula that elevates it far above its minor problems — four player co-op gameplay. Like MediaMolecule’s LittleBigPlanet, Mario’s latest lets four of you run across the map simultaneously, but the character interactions you can perform in the Mario universe multiply the hilarity and confusion of LittleBigPlanet ten-fold. It also avoids some of LittleBigPlanet’s issues by giving players a variety of options for getting through the tricky bits.

This game should come with a warning, though — do not play it with casual acquaintances, or people who might get on your nerves. With the thousands of ways you can end up killing, or just generally griefing, each other mid-game, you might never speak to them again.

In other news, I’ve been working on a new track; in fact, I think it’s nearly finished. Everything’s recorded, but the drums need more work to add a bit more variety. Once it’s finished I’ll be sure to post it!