Besides the fact that Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion were released within a year of each other and might be regarded as two of Nintendo’s greatest games of all time, there’s an undeniable sameness between the two titles that goes far beyond their status within the Nintendo fandom. After all, both games feature a Mario brother with a tricked-out backpack!
Wherever two siblings attempt to occupy the same space—in this case, that space being a small sliver of collective cultural memory—conflict follows. To get to the bottom of what is maybe the greatest sibling rivalry of all time, we’re pitting the Mario brothers against each other another in five key categories to find out which is the better game: Super Mario Sunshine or Luigi’s Mansion? Let’s find out.
There aren’t many games in the Super Mario universe that feature Luigi as the protagonist. There’s Luigi’s Hammer Toss, Dr. Luigi, and Mario Is Missing! to name a few—none of which really compare to the depth and drama of Luigi’s Mansion. That alone could give the franchise’s first installment a point for originality. The game bears similarities to the 1993 Atari title Alone in the Dark—which was one of the first survival horror games ever made—but the horror house that Luigi finds himself in is a relatively novel experience, especially for Nintendo.
Admittedly, Super Mario Sunshine is broader in scope, more colored in, and carries more heft in the storytelling department than Luigi’s Mansion, but it still follows the same save-the-princess formula that we’ve seen many-a-time before. A few Super Mario Sunshine end-level bosses also look eerily similar to ones you might have already seen. The game’s Phantamanta boss, featured in episode one’s “The Manta Storm,” finds a twin in Boolossus, the portrait-ghost guardian of Luigi’s Mansion’s third area. In many-headed-hydra fashion, both bosses spit out smaller copies when attacked:
Super Mario Sunshine may seem like the more inventive title on the surface, but—in the context of the Super Mario universe—it perfectly fits a pre-existing mold. Luigi’s Mansion wins the first round.
Luigi’s Mansion flips the script on the tired damsel-in-distress trope that seems to make Mario giddy. Instead of the wee little plumber flexing his muscles to save a princess who is 47 inches taller than him and looks like she might hold the 100m hurdles world record, we get scaredy-cat Luigi battling ghosts to save the star of the show. That is cool.
That’s about all the praise I can give Luigi’s Mansion, though. The plot is relatively thin. Basically, King Boo is a prolific art handler and traps Mario in a painting. Or something like that. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense. If you don’t read up on the series’ lore or pay close attention to Professor E. Gadd’s delirious ramblings, you’re not left with much.
Even though the general premise of Super Mario Sunshine is one we’ve seen before, the nuts and bolts of the story are shiny and new and make for a much more engaging game. Simply (very simply) put, Mario is framed as a vandal by the mysterious Shadow Mario (Bowser Jr. in disguise) and must reclaim his hero status in a quest to save Princess Peach and bring the shine sprites back to Delfino Isle—all while on vacation. What a shame. Look how excited Mario was to eat some of Isle Delfino’s world-famous seafood.
Luigi’s Mansion does get props for putting Mario’s skittish sidekick in the spotlight, but round two goes to Super Mario Sunshine.
The sun-washed, cobble-stone streets of Delfino Plaza, the blindingly blue waters of Noki Bay, or the gentle pastel skin tones of Isle Deflino’s residents will try to lure you in. It’s enough to make even Toad blush, but the lush surface and polished graphics of Super Mario Sunshine feel cheaply cosmetic and slightly facile—like a little-league participation trophy.
On the other side of the table, Luigi’s Mansion’s artwork is the game. The spectral atmosphere is filled in by dimly lit, cob-web-laden hallways, menacing shadows that linger between cracks of lightning, and a spine-tingling soundtrack that predates the Stranger Things 80s revival that ruined synth forever. Just listen to this:
It’s almost Halloween. This round goes to Luigi’s Mansion.
Both games have weaponized backpacks. That’s a good start. Both backpacks are made by Professor E. Gadd. That’s an even better start. By the time Super Mario Sunshine was released, however, Elvin (that’s really what the ‘E’ stands for) had close to a year to tidy up his craftsmanship. As a result, F.L.U.D.D. is basically a semi-autonomous robot that comes with quite a few bells and whistles.
Luigi might have stolen the family’s looks, height, and wardrobe, but Mario has F.L.U.D.D to make up for it. By contrast, Luigi carries around the meager old Poltergust 3000. As a feat of engineering, the Poltergust wins by a landslide (it can suck up ghosts), but F.L.U.D.D. is a more dynamic piece of machinery. So, when it comes to gameplay, Super Mario Sunshine affords you more free-flowing creativity than you’ll find hiding among the ghosts that haunt the halls of Luigi’s Mansion. At times, the Poltergeist 3000 can make Luigi’s Mansion feel like a point and click adventure.
But what Luigi’s Mansion lacks in mechanics it makes up for with a colorful cast of characters. The ghosts and ghouls that you’ll encounter are an odd bunch–a dog, a fortune teller, a pool shark, twins, and even a baby. Unfortunately, their visible character traits are really all we’re given. Like much of the game, players are left to surmise the backstory of each ghost with very little to go on aside from the items found in their room—a punching bag for the meathead, a plate of food for the glutton, a crystal ball for the fortune teller, and a bone for the dog.
Despite the gaudiness of their individual appearances, the ghosts are mostly innocuous—few prove too much of a match for Luigi’s weapon of choice. The Poltergeist 3000 cleans out room after room with less difficulty than a three-ton magnet might pick up a paper clip (Ok, Boolossus is actually a little challenging). Super Mario Sunshine, on the other hand, makes you work for each sprite. Every boss is unique—requiring considerable tact and, dare I say, artistry to defeat.
The end-game boss for both titles is Bowser. Although, the “Bowser” in Luigi’s Mansion is really a piloted mech with King Boo controlling the show from within.
Related: Every Enemy In The First Luigi’s Mansion
Neither final stage offers their respective title’s toughest challenge, but the build-up and level design in Super Mario Sunshine is a cut above Luigi’s Mansion’s. If you champion simplicity above all else and think a haunted house is scary enough without supremely challenging gameplay, that’s fine. But I prefer to sweat profusely and swear at the screen when playing games, so Super Mario Sunshine takes this category. That’s two to two.
The path through Luigi’s Mansion is a linear one. It’s not a perfect line, but there’s a rigid, labyrinthian structure to the game’s floor plan that offers little flexibility. Granted, the restrictive layout of Luigi’s Mansion’s gameplay does have its merits. It mirrors the almost claustrophobic environment that Mario finds himself in and threatens to tighten its grip on Luigi at every turn. In a way, it works. But, ultimately, falls slightly short of what I’m looking for in a game that begs a second play.
The sprawling nature of Super Mario Sunshine gives you room to roam. It’s not technically an open-world game. The various parts of Isle Delfino that you must explore aren’t brought under one roof, but there is a sandbox feel to the game that connotes space. The objectives are still basically linear, but it’s not quite as bolted down as Luigi’s Mansion. As a result, you can take your eyes off your next task, speak to the islanders, and breathe a little easier. At the end of the day, this means Super Mario Sunshine is the better candidate for repeat playability.
Super Mario Sunshine Outshines Luigi’s Mansion in More Ways Than One
If You’re really bad at math, let me help you out. That’s three to two, with the victory going to Super Mario Sunshine. These are both games that I (and many others, I’m sure) will never grow out of. Luigi’s Mansion deserves a round of applause—there really is nothing quite like it within the Super Mario canon. But, alas, someone had to win, and Super Mario Sunshine’s winning narrative, long-term playability, and slightly more engaging gameplay give it an edge that Luigi’s Mansion ultimately can’t compete with.
Critics will call it bloated and a step backward from Super Mario 64. Sure, the game by no means escapes the trappings of the Mario franchise, but it doesn’t need to. Super Mario Bros—when it was first released for the NES in 1985—sold over 40 million copies. 35 years later, the game is still the franchise’s best-selling title. With that in mind, staying true to the original form doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
Read Next: Super Mario Bros: Every Iteration Of Princess Peach, Ranked By Design
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Nathan is a writer who currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. He enjoys long walks down Knickerbocker Avenue, cold Burger King chicken nuggets, and being stuck on the Soul of Cinder for close to two years.
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