Ever since its release on the GameCube in 2002, Super Mario Sunshine has been one of the black sheep of the Super Mario series. Its water pack-themed gameplay and stagnant setting certainly make it stand out from other Mario titles, but it’s those same elements (and a handful of others) that have always prevented Sunshine from being the kind of revered classic that Mario is used to starring in.
It’s all relative, of course. On its own merits, Super Mario Sunshine still provides a great gaming experience, and it probably holds up better than the other 3D platformers of the GameCube/PS2/Xbox era. If it were an entry in another series, Sunshine may have been a defining moment. But in a series that houses more “best games ever” than any other, simply being “great” isn’t great enough. Sunshine was a victim of its own expectations.
Those expectations certainly were high, seeing as Sunshine was the follow-up to Super Mario 64, a title that changed the direction of gaming from then on out. And with a six year build-up to a 64 sequel, suffice to say Sunshine had a lot to live up to. Those shoes were simply too big to fill.
If we take a step back and look at Sunshine on its own merits – away from all-time greats like Super Mario Bros. 3, World, 64, Yoshi’s Island, and the later Galaxy games – it’s easy to see that there’s a lot to love in Mario’s polarized GameCube outing.
In Super Mario Sunshine, Mario, Princess Peach, and a group of Toads are vacationing to the island resort of Isle Delfino. Of course, there’s never time for Mario to catch a break, and no sooner does Peach’s plane land on the island’s airstrip that they realize something is horribly wrong, with a toxic goop polluting the landing pad. Mario quickly finds a strange, talking water pack called F.L.U.D.D. (Flash Liquidizing Ultra Dowsing Device), and uses it to clean up the airstrip (why anyone else couldn’t use F.L.U.D.D. when it was just lying around is anyone’s guess). As it turns out, the whole island is being covered in this strange goop, with the culprit being a Mario doppleganger attempting to frame Mario for the ordeal.
Sure enough – despite the doppleganger’s obvious blue, gelatinous body – the inhabitants of Isle Delfino (the tree-headed, big-nosed Piantas and the hermit crab-esque Nokis) hold Mario responsible for the crime, and sentence him to clean up the island and clear his good name. It’s definitely a nice change of pace from Peach getting kidnapped (though that happens a little later as well), but the voice acting (yes, voice acting) leaves a lot to be desired.
That’s all besides the point really. Mario games are never about the story, and all this polluted island clean-up business is little more than a reason to introduce the new water-based mechanics.
Being a sequel to Super Mario 64, Sunshine plays very similarly to its revolutionary predecessor. Mario retains his triple jumps, summersaults, wall jumps, butt stomps and dives that he learned in 64, only now he has possession of the F.L.U.D.D. to give him new moves.
The two primary functions of F.L.U.D.D. are the squirt nozzle and the hover nozzle, with players being able to switch between the functions with the press of a button. The squirt nozzle is used to clean up sludge and to shoot other objects when necessary, while the hover nozzle, as its name implies, allows Mario to hover for a short time, which really comes in handy for some of the trickier platforming.
Additionally, two other nozzles are acquired later in the game, and are more or less Sunshine’s equivalent to the usual Mario power-ups, as they temporarily replace the hover nozzle when obtained. The turbo nozzle allows Mario to move super fast, being able to break through certain walls and run on water, while the rocket nozzle gives Mario a higher jump than he’s ever had before or since.
Although F.L.U.D.D. may seem a bit on the gimmicky side, it’s a gimmick that ultimately works, as it adds a new twist on 64’s platforming mechanics. Meanwhile the fact that you’ll frequently have to “reload” it by finding a body of water to recharge gives it a little something of a shooter element (I can’t help but feel Splatoon borrowed a little something from F.L.U.D.D.). And the idea of a water-based platformer is still an intriguing concept looking back on it today.
Best of all is that Sunshine’s Mario controls so well. Mario wrote the rulebook on how to make a platforming hero control fluidly, and Sunshine provides some of the most cohesive controls in the entire series. Aside from wall jumping sometimes being a little finicky, I can’t think of much to complain about in the control department.
Sadly, not everything in Sunshine works as well as Mario and F.L.U.D.D. The camera, though an improvement over 64’s, still suffers a bit from the same faults of its predecessor. A number of bonus areas, in which Mario is thrown into more cramped platforming gauntlets, are particularly hindered by the camerawork, as it can be difficult to get the camera in the right angle while simultaneously trying to make sure Mario doesn’t fall to his doom on a tricky, moving platform.
Similarly, you may find that there are more than a few technical issues with the game. Though they may be small and (mostly) inconsequential, pointing out technical issues in a mainline Mario title is normally unheard of. But it seems Sunshine didn’t have as much time to receive the usual “Mario polish,” and you may find Mario getting stuck or an enemy’s animation not showing up more often than you’d like.
Still, while these flaws are notable, they’re hardly game-breaking. With how well Mario controls, along with the overall execution of the level and mission designs, it’s hard to complain too much.
Super Mario Sunshine ultimately has a similar structure to 64, with Mario traversing a central hub world to access the “proper” stages, which house a series of missions, each one capped off with acquiring a Shine Sprite (Sunshine’s equivalent to 64‘s Power Stars). There are, however, a few differences that perhaps played a part in Sunshine’s more divisive reception.
The first of these differences is that Sunshine is actually more linear than 64. Contrary to recent popular opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with linear games, but considering that many like to praise 64 and Sunshine for being the “sandbox” Mario games, it may surprise some to revisit Sunshine and find out that’s only true to an extent. While Banjo-Kazooie dropped players into a stage to unearth its collectibles at their leisure, 64 and Sunshine’s mission-based level format gave a set objective that needed to be accomplished at that time. 64 did actually allow players to tamper with that format, as they could at times accomplish the requirements for a stage’s later stars while attempting to get an earlier one, but Sunshine doesn’t share that element, instead having the selected mission dictate the Shine Sprite to be collected almost entirely (the only exceptions being a handful of the game’s hidden Shines, or a level’s obligatory 100-coin Shine Sprite). The delightful hub world of Delfino Plaza is where the game is at its most open, but the stages themselves are more limiting.
Again, that’s not a bad thing per se, but perhaps one reason Galaxy was so warmly received is that it was more honest with its linearity. Galaxy had level structure that was more akin to Super Mario World than 64, so the linearity felt like a cohesive whole. But Sunshine presents its stages as open-world sandboxes but, fun though they may be, they’re not quite that.
One of the other big differences in Sunshine from other Mario titles is that every stage is built around its tropical island theme, which works for better and worse. In terms of better, it makes Isle Delfino feel like an alive location, with the different levels even being visible in the distance of others. In terms of worse, it also means that Sunshine lacks the sense of variety and surprise that the best Mario titles have. Sure, there’s a dose of different locations, like a harbor and a beach and a haunted casino (which is located on another beach…), but there are no castles or giant worlds to speak of. Isle Delfino is definitely a unique location in the series, but it seems to be in some kind of bubble away from the franchise’s usual fairy tale elements.
That’s not to say that Sunshine is devoid of the series’ indelible mark of surrealism, as the aforementioned platforming gauntlets that serve as the bonus stages – where Mario is robbed of F.L.U.D.D. and has to rely on his own abilities – seem to be housed in a bizarre, often pixelated dimension, with random shapes and objects suspended in space in such a way that they feel like a precursor to the Galaxy titles. It may not be a surprise that Sunshine’s detractors often single these segments out as the game’s highlights.
While Mario’s world may seem (relatively) more grounded and less fantastic in this GameCube adventure, there’s still a terrific sense of joy to be had. Many of the Shine Sprites are a blast to obtain, and even Yoshi joined in on the action (albeit sparingly), being able to use his hovering and enemy-eating abilities of the past, while also being able to spit up juice (eewww!), which works similar to F.L.U.D.D. but with its own properties (like turning certain enemies into platforms). Not to mention that Super Mario Sunshine still looks visually impressive for a fifteen year-old game, and its music is upbeat and fun, and perfectly captures the game’s setting.
There are some other disappointing elements though. Not counting Delfino Plaza or the bonus stages, Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels, which is considerably less than Super Mario 64’s fifteen! Yet, the game has just as many Shine Sprites as 64 had Stars (120), with a decent chunk of twenty-four of them being obtained by trading blue coins to a raccoon in Delfino Plaza (ten blue coins for one Shine).
With twice the number of blue coins as there are Shine Sprites, collecting them all may have made for a fun sidequest, especially seeing how some of them are so esoterically hidden (stand on a certain platform and squirt the moon!), that finding them would actually feel more worthwhile if trading them in unlocked some kind of secrets. By simply making them a means to get every Shine Sprite, it makes it feel as though both the Shines and the blue coins were only partly realized. I would have much rather had the game spent more time crafting another level or two for those additional Shine Sprites, and thinking of something more unique to do with the blue coins, then simply slapping them together in what really feels like an effort to save time.
It should once again be emphasized that , while many of these criticisms are just, others are more relative. Sunshine has both the honor and misfortune of being a part of a series with an abnormal consistency in high quality and creative spark. So while Sunshine may be well executed in most respects, and is still a whole lot of fun to play today, its more restrained and conservative sense of invention makes it lesser than most of its Mario series brethren, and its more rushed elements bring it down a peg further.
For most other series, a game of Sunshine’s quality may have felt like a trip to paradise. But for Mario, it feels like he’s taking a vacation from being the best at what he does.