Super Mario Sunshine: The Mario That Should Have Been More

I was originally just going to write one of my “Replaying” articles in relation to Super Mario Sunshine, which I am currently replaying via Super Mario 3D All-Stars (which came out on my birthday, something I may have mentioned once or twice). But as I’ve been playing it, I feel I have more to say than about Sunshine than what my “Replaying” features usually entail. The more I thought about it, the more I think something closer to my recent write-up on Howl’s Moving Castle is more apropos. So here we are.

Look, first thing’s first, Super Mario Sunshine is not a bad game. In fact, if this is the weakest 3D Mario offering, than Mario has done well for himself, because Sunshine is still a very fun game in a lot of ways. But with the possible exception of Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, Sunshine is undoubtedly the weakest 3D Mario game by a mile, and possibly the weakest “main entry” in the whole series (unless we’re counting the Super Mario Land and New Super Mario Bros. titles as part of the main series of Mario games).  And it could have, and should have, been so much more.

Now, in more recent years, Super Mario Sunshine is talked about in a more positive light than in years past. Though it’s surely no coincidence that Sunshine’s newfound reverence should occur around the same time those who were young tykes during the game’s 2002 release are now old enough to reflect on Sunshine with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles.

I have seen a number of YouTubers and people on social media try to defend Sunshine to the death, but again, it’s probably no coincidence that all of its defenders are of a certain age. Yes, I myself have nostalgia for Super Mario Sunshine, and I repeat that it isn’t a bad game. But playing Sunshine today, it would be incredibly difficult to put forth a credible argument that it’s one of the better Mario games once the nostalgia glasses come off.

Travel back to the 2000s, and some of the backlash against Sunshine may have been excessive (the gaming community has a bad habit of only working in absolutes), but it wasn’t entirely unfounded. Super Mario Sunshine is a good game, but not good enough for a series that’s usually associated with greatness.

Think about it this way: Up until Sunshine’s release in 2002, every “proper” entry in the Mario series was considered an all-time great in the medium (unless, again, you counted the Super Mario Land titles, though Nintendo themselves has only seemed to retroactively include them in the canon in more recent years). Super Mario Bros. was the biggest game of all time when it was released in 1985, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World were released in the early 90s, and are still considered some of the best games ever made even today. The same goes for Yoshi’s Island, albeit to a humbler degree. And of course, Super Mario 64 revolutionized gaming from that point onward. Even Super Mario Bros. 2, which is now often labeled the “black sheep” of the series, only really earned the monicker in hindsight, after its status as a reworked Doki Doki Panic became more common knowledge. But Super Mario Bros. 2 was still better than most other NES games, and it’s still fun today, and not a whole lot of NES titles can boast that.

Point being, the Super Mario series had (rightfully) earned a reputation unlike any other in video games (Zelda comes the closest, but back then Zelda games were much less common, though I still think Mario would ultimately win out when taking things into consideration in modern times). Yes, Mario still has a peerless pedigree in video games, but at that point, the series was undefeated. Its record unblemished.

Super Mario Sunshine became the series’ blemish.

Sure, Super Mario Sunshine received some strong review scores upon release, but that may have been a case of the hype getting to the reviewers (this was the successor to the legendary Super Mario 64, after all). It didn’t take too long for fans and critics alike to realize Sunshine didn’t quite have the same magic as its predecessors (something similar would happen with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword over nine years later, and lord knows it’s happened with most western AAA releases over the years).

At the time, most of Sunshine’s detractors pointed at the F.L.U.D.D., Mario’s new waterpack, as the gimmicky reason why the game wasn’t up to the series’ standards. Though I think that’s unfair, as F.L.U.D.D. was actually a fun idea, one that still feels unique not just for the series, but platformers in general. It even added to some of the acrobatic moves carried over from Super Mario 64. Seriously, a platformer centered around water is still a pretty great idea.

Others lamented the lack of variety in the environments, with the entire game being centered around a single, tropical island theme. Sunshine’s contemporary defenders argue that this gives the game’s setting, Isle Delfino, a stronger sense of place than the environments of other Mario games, often pointing out how you can see one level in the distance while playing in another. I find myself somewhere in the middle of this. I like the little details such as how Isle Delfino is presented as one connected world, but considering the variety of different places Mario visited even back on the NES, it does make things feel pretty stagnant in Super Mario Sunshine by comparison.

What really brings Sunshine a peg below other Mario entries is simply that it lacks the polish the series is known for. Mario games tend to be timeless, with the forward thinking creativity in their design making them outlive the hardware generations they’re released in. It really should be no surprise why Mario was such a big hit in the 1980s. Again, compare the series’ 8-bit outings with virtually any other NES title. The Mario games are still fun. The others…kind of show their age. Some may wish the Mario series had more focus on stories and stronger world-building, and while such additions certainly would be admirable, if we’re looking at things from a pure video game standpoint, the Mario series is practically untouchable.

At least, it usually is. Sunshine does admittedly try its hand (relatively) harder in regards to story than the other non-RPG Mario games – something its modern defenders love about it – but such elements really can’t make up for Sunshine’s shortcomings as a video game.

“The bonus stages have more traditional Mario platforming. It’s no surprise these sections are often considered the game’s highlight.”

The GameCube was the first time a Nintendo console would be released without a Mario game beside it (Luigi’s Mansion made it to the GameCube’s launch, and may feature Mario characters, but calling it a “Mario game” wouldn’t feel accurate, and not just because the lesser Mario brother had the starring role). It may be because of this that Sunshine can feel like it was rushed out of the gate, with Nintendo hoping to release it as soon as possible to help lift up the GameCube. But more development time would have done Super Mario Sunshine a lot of good.

I already mentioned the game’s lack of variety in setting, but the real bummer is how these limitations are seen in the game’s ideas. Once again, one of the things about Mario games that gets the most praise is their willingness to introduce new ideas at every turn, and retiring these ideas before any of them can overstay their welcome. These ideas may not always be winners (even Super Mario 64 stumbled in some areas, and it wasn’t until Galaxy that the series reclaimed the full power of its bombastic imagination it had during its 2D heyday). But the effort that goes into these ideas to tinker and toy with the gameplay of Mario’s world are always appreciated.

“This section in the game’s fourth stage combines Super Mario World’s cage-climbing with the F.L.U.D.D. mechanics. It’s actually really fun and creative. The game could have used more of this.”

That’s why it’s so disappointing when Super Mario Sunshine can’t seem to stop throwing Red Coin missions at the player. Yes, Super Mario 64 featured  fetch quests for eight red coins as well, but these missions were limited to one per level, and a few bonus stages. But Sunshine revels in them. Each level has about two red coin missions in Super Mario Sunshine, but actually feature more than advertised, considering many of the game’s ‘secret Shine Sprites’ are earned by re-entering bonus areas within the stages, and collecting the red coins that are found within them upon a second visit.

You might think “that isn’t that bad.” And perhaps on its own it wouldn’t be. But when you consider every stage also houses an obligatory “chase Shadow Mario” mission in order to progress the story, things start to feel repetitious really fast. Super Mario 64 may have had one red coin mission per level, but Sunshine’s stages feel like they’re comprised of a series of the same missions for the most part.

The best moments of the game are the Shine Sprites that are built around obstacles within the level, such as the aforementioned bonus areas (where Mario is temporarily robbed of F.L.U.D.D.) and some fun obstacle courses in the main stages themselves. But they’re in the minority, with Sunshine all too often falling back on the same few tricks.

This is all the more glaring by the fact that Sunshine features considerably less levels than Super Mario 64 had. 64 had fifteen proper stages (plus bonus levels and three Bowser stages), while Sunshine only boasts seven proper levels. Some might bring up the “quality over quantity” argument, but that’s just the thing. 64 filled its larger library of levels with more ideas, while Sunshine has fewer stages that repeat a small handful of ideas over and over. So 64 has Sunshine beat in both quality and quantity, and it was released six years prior…on weaker hardware… during the pioneering days of 3D gaming.

Sadly, this feels like a side effect of Nintendo trying to get Sunshine on the market as soon as possible. Who knows how many more levels could have been added, and what could have been added to the existing levels, had Sunshine been given more time in development.

Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Sunshine, clearly hoping to replicate Super Mario 64, features one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites to collect, just as Super Mario 64 housed one-hundred and twenty Power Stars. If the red coins and Shadow Mario missions weren’t padding enough, than the blue coins really feel like they’re just filling out a quota.

Super Mario Sunshine has two-hundred and forty blue coins to find across the game. Unlike Super Mario 64, where blue coins were simply worth five regular coins (an easier means to claim a level’s “100 coins” star), the blue coins of Sunshine are their own separate collectible. Now, this could have made for a great side quest, with players unlocking new features and secrets whenever they reach a certain milestone of collected blue coins. Instead, the blue coins are simply traded to acquire… more Shine Sprites.

It’s ten blue coins for one Shine Sprite which, if you do the math, means a good chunk of twenty-four of the game’s one-hundred and twenty Shine Sprites are simply acquired by trading in blue coins in the game’s hub world. This is where it really feels like the development team had to cut corners. The search for the blue coins could have made for an intriguing side quest, if it provided some unique rewards (say, for example, if the rewards included things like F.L.U.D.D. being able to store more water, Mario getting extra health, you unlock new colors of Yoshis, things like that). But by making the blue coins simply a means to collect all the Shine Sprites, it just comes across as padding. Both the main quest for Shine Sprites, and what could have been a promising secondary endeavor with the blue coins, feel unfulfilled by smooshing them together.

I wish I could say that’s the end of it. Sadly, Sunshine has some more cut corners in the gameplay itself. As I said, Mario games usually hold up really well because they’re much more polished than their contemporaries, but that simply isn’t true of Sunshine. Some fans like to claim that Super Mario Sunshine is the hardest 3D Mario game. It’s not, but if it were, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Case in point, there’s a Shine Sprite in the game’s second stage, Rico Harbor, that sees Mario surfing on a Blooper to collect eight red coins (of course). Once you’re on the Blooper, you can’t get off the Blooper. Once you collect the eight red coins, you freeze while you watch the Shine Sprite animation, only to revert back to full speed in a split second, which really throws you off. And to collect the Shine Sprite, you have to land on it dead center while riding the Blooper, but if you bump into any walls on the Blooper, you die!

Here’s a montage of videos I took on my Switch to show you why, when you put these things together, it makes for an aggravating time.

To this I have to say… did no one at Nintendo think this one through? Or test it? This is the kind of sloppy design you would find in poorly-aged NES games. To think that a Mario title would be guilty of something so clunky seems unheard of. But here we are.

It’s not an isolated incident, either. Yet another mission in Rico Harbor (which is otherwise an aesthetically pleasing level), “Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure” is a chore. In Sunshine, Yoshis will hatch from their eggs by bringing them their desired fruit. In Yoshi’s Fruit Adventure, the Yoshi egg in question will always want a durian. In order to get a durian, you have to get on some rooftops to reach the switches on top of two giant fruit dispensers. Pound on the switches and a fruit comes out. But it’s a random fruit, with the durian only showing up some of the time. So you have to jump between the fruit dispensers pounding the upright switch over and over, hoping that a durian shows up. If one does show up, there’s a good chance it will fall down the nearby ledge. And of course the durian is the one fruit Mario can’t simply pick up (he probably doesn’t want his gloves to smell of durian stank), so if it falls it’s almost impossible to get it back where it needs to be to get it to Yoshi, meaning you have to get back on top of the fruit dispensers and start over.

Once you manage to kick/squirt the durian over to Yoshi, you have to ride the dinosaur through something of an obstacle course. Sounds promising, but again, it feels untested. Yoshi has to spit juice at jumping fish to create platforms (as one does), then ride said platforms to more stagnant ones that are part of the level. But if you shoot the fish at the wrong time, the platform won’t be in the right spot. You either can’t reach that platform or won’t be able to reach the place it carries you to, and the fish don’t respawn until the platform moves its full distance. Not to mention Yoshi only lasts for a limited time in this game. And if you fall off the platforms, you’ll land in water which dissolves Yoshi meaning you have to start the entire process over again!

Suffice to say, Sunshine feels like its difficulty can stem from all the wrong places.

That’s before we even get into the game’s inconsistent animations (notice how Shadow Mario makes a flipping sound even when he doesn’t perform his flipping animation), or the arduous task of keeping track of your blue coins (you can go to a screen that tells you how many you’ve collected in a level, but it doesn’t tell you how many are in a level or which ones you’ve already claimed).

“On the other hand, Sunshine is the only Mario game that has a boss that’s a Stephen King reference. That’s pretty cool.”

Again, I have to stress that Super Mario Sunshine is a good game. But it’s a good game in a series of great ones. It provides fun gameplay and some memorable moments, but whether because of a rushed schedule or lack of creative passion, Sunshine just doesn’t have the Mario magic.

Imagine what could have been, had Sunshine been given more time to be polished. Perhaps it would be talked about in the same regard as 64 and Galaxy are today, instead of being “that one Mario game” that only fans of the right age conveniently seem to herald.

Super Mario Sunshine would be the first time a “proper” Mario game would fail to deliver a defining title in its era. A fun and enjoyable experience, to be sure. But to all those revisionists who insist Super Mario Sunshine is one of Mario’s greatest adventures… No, it really isn’t.

Replaying: Super Mario 64

Super Mario 3D All-Stars is great (it was released on my birthday, ya know). I mean, it has it’s problems (a series of this caliber deserves grander presentation than a simple startup screen and brief descriptions of the games included), and the absence of Galaxy 2 really is inexcusable (had it been included, this would be the best video game compilation ever). But it’s still a compilation of two amazing classics and also Super Mario Sunshine, so I’m not about to complain too much.

Though Galaxy is easily the best game of the bunch, I decided to do things chronologically and started with Super Mario 64 first. Super Mario 64 is, from a historical and influential standpoint, one of the greatest videogames of all time (with Tetris and the original Super Mario Bros. perhaps being the only games to top it in those categories). Super Mario 64 is also one of the defining games of my life. Though I think there were better games before and better games since (Super Mario World is a far better game, for example), there are few games that are as ingrained in my mind as Super Mario 64. I played and replayed it so often as a kid, that even when it’s been years in between playthroughs, I can still recall where, when and how to collect (almost) every star and red coin. I know the stages inside and out, and can track down most everything in the game without giving it a second thought. Super Mario 64 is burned into my psyche.

Playing this classic again on the Switch reminds me what an integral part of gaming Super Mario 64 was (and still is). Yes, it’s definitely rough around the edges – with its camera being cumbersome and Mario sometimes feeling a little slippery to control – but creatively, it was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing, it still amazes.

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or poetic that gaming’s biggest icon of the 2D era was also the one that, in its first go around, got 3D gaming so right (okay, it’s poetic). Yes, some of its technical aspects have aged, and Super Mario 64 isn’t pretty to look at (though the HD sheen of the Switch version makes it look better than ever), but when you consider how 3D video games at the time were so unwieldy and broken that the concept was considered a fad doomed to die a sudden death, Mario’s transition into 3D was as flawless as anyone could have hoped for, perhaps more so.

Playing Super Mario 64 again today, it’s still a lot of fun, which is more than you can say for…pretty much every other early 3D game. Yes, its blemishes are more apparent to modern eyes (that damn camera), but it still feels like a delightful virtual playground whereas its contemporaries feel like taxing eyesores.

I do have to admit, it is a bit of a bummer that Nintendo opted to only optimize the game’s presentation and give it an HD makeover, as opposed to remaking it entirely. I mean, I get that new games are the priority, but surely Super Mario 64 is one of the games in Nintendo’s history that warrants a from the ground-up remake. I mean, Crash Bandicoot had it done, and as much as I love Crash Bandicoot, he’s certainly no Mario.

Whatever. As always, it’s the game that ultimately counts, not the look. And as stated, Super Mario 64 is still a great game, and its inventiveness for the medium as a whole can’t be understated. Super Mario 64 wasn’t simply “Super Mario World but in 3D” (an unpopular complaint I have against Ocarina of Time is that, structurally, it’s essentially A Link to the Past with a 3D makeover, with all the added hiccups that come with the N64). It reworked how platformers are structured. Sure, you still had linear goals, but you could go about them in different ways, and sometimes achieve a goal other than the intended one. And one thing Super Mario 64 did that I still don’t think many 3D games have done (even the 3D Mario titles, until Odyssey came around) is how it gave Mario moves and abilities that were made solely for the sake of taking advantage of 3D space, and how the game incorporates certain goals (stars) simply by utilizing these moves.

There are stars that simply require the player to master Mario’s wall jump in order to reach them, areas that can only be reached with Mario’s trickier to perform movements, and hell, Mario’s little breakdancing move seems to only exist because it could now that Mario was in a 3D environment. The player can almost sense that Miyamoto and company must have had an absolute blast making the game, and just had fun discovering what they could make Mario do with his added dimension.

“It’s strangely seldom mentioned how, in Super Mario 64, you’re actually controlling two characters. Mario himself, and the Lakitu holding the camera.”

This infectious sense of joy doesn’t just apply to the technical aspects of the game, however, but the creative ones as well. As much flak as I’ve been giving the game’s camera, how fun of an idea was it to make the in-universe reason for the camera being that Mario’s adventure is being recorded by a local news station (which, naturally, uses a Lakitu flying on a cloud as the cameraman, explaining away the controls for the camerawork)? Or what about the clock-themed world behaving differently based on where the clock hands are when you enter the stage? And to this day, a gaming moment from my early years that I can still recall clear as day was chasing after a rabbit in the lower levels of Peach’s Castle, and running into a wall that began rippling upon Mario’s contact with it, revealing yet another of the game’s levels just waiting to be explored. Up until that point in the game, the stages were all accessed via jumping into painting. So for just a basic wall to deceptively be the portal to one of the stages might still be the most beautifully mischievous detail in video games.

Suffice to say, I’m having a lot of fun revisiting Super Mario 64. Of course, there’s a lot of frustration as well, trying to wrangle around the camera, controlling the flying power-up, and Mario’s sometimes sporadic actions. Frustrations I don’t get when playing either of the Galaxy games or Odyssey (which, with all due respect to Super Mario 64, are all superior games), or even 3D World for that matter (which might also be a better game from a technical standpoint). But hey, Super Mario 64 was the first of its kind, for it to still be as fun and creative as it is today is probably more than anyone could have asked for.

The Mario series has had more “perfect games” under its belt than any one series (I might even argue it’s had more than most other prominent series put together). Super Mario 64 is not one of the perfect Mario games. But it still, to this day, is a one of a kind gaming experience. A video game wonderland that, while it may feel aged in a number of respects, still comes across as a timeless classic.