I’ll always defend Super Mario Sunshine. The GameCube Mario game is the most polarizing installment in the series as it ditched basic platforming for a unique water cannon mechanic. It’s unlike anything else in the series, and few games have really followed its lead. Love it or hate it, the game’s F.L.U.D.D. mechanic was a fresh idea that turned cleaning a dirty island into a cathartic experience.
So, I was immediately sold when I saw The Gunk, which releases today on Xbox consoles, PC, and Game Pass. Finally, an adventure game that builds on those “clean-up” mechanics I loved as a kid. But what’s especially notable about the adventure game is that it’s more deliberate in its environmental themes than Super Mario Sunshine was, showing just how much games have grown up over the past two decades.
The Gunk begins with a spaceship touching down on an alien planet. The crew is there to drain it of valuable resources so they can make some cash. Players control Rani, who travels the planet literally sucking flora up with a backpack vacuum.
The mission quickly gets derailed, though, as Rani discovers the game’s titular gunk. The planet is covered in patches of black sludge that blocks paths and buries plants. Much like Super Mario Sunshine, players need to clear the gunk away, though by sucking it up rather than splashing it with water.
It’s still a satisfying gameplay hook nearly 20 years after Sunshine’s release. The cleaning mechanic is simple, but it triggers a warm feeling in my brain. Just like real life, it just feels good to clean a mess up. More so, it’s rewarding to watch the world spring back to life thanks to my efforts, with dead plants reforming and turning into platforms I can jump on. It’s the same catharsis I got when playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits earlier this year and watching its rotted world instantly transform into lush landscapes in the blink of an eye.
What’s particularly nice about The Gunk is that it’s upfront about its environmental themes, which wasn’t so much the case in Super Mario Sunshine. On its surface, Sunshine was a game about pollution, though one that didn’t really grapple with the idea in a meaningful way. Its brown goo was just part of a traditional Mario plot about the Bowser family trying to kidnap Princess Peach. You can extrapolate some larger themes from it, but it would require some stretching. You weren’t exactly getting much nuanced, thematic storytelling in 2002.
The Gunk acts as a modern counterpoint, showing just how much that’s changed. Rani quickly abandons her planet-destroying mission as she simply gets lost in the beauty of the world around her, much to her partner’s annoyance. She’s in awe the whole time, discovering a natural wonder that she instantly feels compelled to protect. None of that is subtext or interpretation. The cleanup mechanic is there to support those themes rather than be a pleasurable but meaningless feature.
At their best, video games have the power to present ideas and reinforce them through smart play. Turning an act of environmental conservation into a pleasurable mechanic is as good a way as any to make players reflect on their ability to protect their own non-digital world. That kind of experience used to be one reserved for educational games, but games have grown up. Today’s developers are more confident in their ability to inform and entertain players at the same time.
Admittedly, The Gunk isn’t always the most enthralling game. Cleaning ooze can feel slow at times, and the game features a shallow combat system that’s thin on ideas. Even so, I walked away from the adventure feeling bright-eyed about the current state of gaming. I wish I had more games like this when I was growing up — ones that respected me enough to talk to me like an adult.
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