Several attempts at three-dimensional gaming had been attempted since the medium’s inception. Many games from the eighties would place players in a maze of flat, two-dimensional building blocks to create the illusion of depth. Though this was serviceable for its time, that the player character could only ever turn at 90 degree angles betrayed the strict technical limitations the developers were saddled with. In the nineties, id Software would light up the PC gaming scene when they released Wolfenstein 3D in 1992. Though not terribly different from its spiritual predecessors in how it used clever programming techniques to project the illusion of 3D, id’s effort compelled other development teams to begin seriously consider where the medium should go from there. This sentiment was punctuated with id’s release of Doom the following year.
Though many companies would try their hand at 3D gaming with varying degrees of success, it was Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi of Nintendo who were the first to successfully explore this uncharted territory in the form of Super Mario 64 in 1996. The sheer amount of critical acclaim it received forever changed the face of the gaming industry. Suddenly, 3D gaming went from being considered a pie-in-the-sky scenario to the industry standard in less than a year’s time. Such was the extent of its impact that many subtle techniques from Nintendo’s groundbreaking effort are still being employed today. Becoming the Nintendo 64’s bestselling game with eleven million copies sold, a sequel seemed inevitable.
As early as January of 1997, Shigeru Miyamoto talked about a sequel to Super Mario 64, tentatively entitling it Super Mario 128. As Nintendo put the finishing touches on the Nintendo 64, they included a slot at the bottom of the console that would allow the use of peripherals. The most prominent one they were in the process of developing was the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). In a manner similar to the Famicom Disk System, the 64DD would allow the Nintendo 64 to utilize a new form of storage media. It was to feature a real-time clock for persistent game world design and afford players many new freedoms. They could rewrite data and create movies, animations, and even their own characters. Nearing the end of 1997, Super Mario 128 was renamed Super Mario 64-2. Much like how Super Mario 64 before it generated interest in the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64-2 was to be the 64DD’s premier title. However, the 64DD was a commercial failure when it launched in December of 1999, only selling 15,000 units in total. By the end of its short run in February of 2001, only ten original titles had been released for the unit. Any other proposed title for the unit was reformatted into a Nintendo 64 cartridge, ported to future consoles, or cancelled outright. Among the titles to suffer the last fate was Super Mario 64-2.
Despite this setback, Nintendo wasn’t ready to give up on a potential follow-up to Super Mario 64. During their SpaceWorld event in August of 2000, they unveiled a technology demo to showcase their then-upcoming GameCube console. The project they elected to demonstrate was a Mario game – once again under the working title Super Mario 128. Taking its proposed name literally, the GameCube’s technical capabilities were demonstrated when it rendered multiple Mario models at once, eventually reaching 128 of them.
One year later, at the following SpaceWorld event, fans learned that Super Mario 128 had undergone a complete reinterpretation. Gone was Princess Peach’s iconic castle. Instead, a tropical paradise awaited players. To reflect this change, the game was now titled Super Mario Sunshine. It was notably the first time Yoshiaki Koizumi found himself in the lead director’s chair. The first great impression he made on his superiors was when he wrote the memorable scenario for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. He worked his way up from there, and his ten-year-long apprenticeship culminated in him getting to lead in the creation of the newest Mario installment. The game saw its release in 2002. Though not as impactful as Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine was a well-respected game in its own right, having little trouble amassing critical acclaim and becoming one the console’s bestselling titles. Did Mr. Koizumi’s first shot as the lead director result in a classic experience?
Analyzing the Experience
Having thwarted the forces of Bowser time and again, Mario, Princess Peach, and her loyal retainer Toadsworth are headed off for a well-deserved vacation. Their destination is Isle Delfino. This island is a tropical paradise and a hot tourist destination. It is inhabited primarily by the Piantas and Nokis. While en route to the island the three of them watch a video advertisement to get a preview of the attractions that await them there. As Mario and Toadsworth daydream about the impending festivities, Peach notices a strange, shadowy figure in the background.
Their bubble is burst once their plane makes a rough landing on Delfino Airstrip. A large amount of an unknown, oily substance in the shape of Mario’s head has blocked the runway and put a sizable dent in the concrete. Concerned over the princess’s well-being, Toadsworth asks Mario to cross the shore to the island proper and get assistance.
With this small amount of context, you are given control of Mario for the first time. Those familiar with Super Mario 64 will find that the basic controls of Super Mario Sunshine are highly similar – albeit adapted for the Nintendo GameCube’s new controller. A majority of the acrobatic maneuvers Mario could perform in Super Mario 64 such as the wall jump, triple jump, sideways somersault, ground pound, and midair dive have been translated to this installment. Once again, the “A” button, which allows Mario to jump, is the crux of these maneuvers. Pressing the button is, in turn, combined with precise movements of the control stick. For example, the sideways somersault is executed by having Mario run only to turn the control stick in the opposite direction and press the “A” button.
The most immediate change players those fresh off of Super Mario 64 are going to notice concerns the camera. The debut of Super Mario 64 made it clear 3D gaming would need to give players control over the camera in order to have any kind of success. Super Mario 64 went about justifying this basic mechanic in a fashion that seemed oddly deconstructive when compared to the efforts it inspired. Specifically, a friendly Lakitu operated a physical camera, thus literally providing the player with a lens into the game world. This allowed the developers to subconsciously decide on the inherit limitations such a framing device would have. Most notably, Lakitu, and thus the camera, could not normally phase through walls. This is for the best because if the camera could pass through walls, it would be easy for the player to lose track of Mario in tight spaces.
In Super Mario Sunshine, the camera is no longer justified within the confines of the fictional universe. It is now merely a game mechanic within the player’s control. The player can adjust the camera by using the “C” stick. Controlling the camera with an analogue stick is quite a bit different than doing so with the four strategically placed “C” buttons. Unless specifically designed to read pressure, buttons on a controller only have two states: pressed and not pressed. This meant the camera could only be moved in specific increments unless the player opted to position it behind Mario. With the GameCube controller’s “C” stick, repositioning the camera is a matter of holding it down for however long as your current situation requires. Despite the camera not being operated by a real character, it still cannot pass through walls. If the camera hits a wall, a blue, translucent iris appears onscreen, indicating it can no longer move in the direction unabated. If you find yourself in a situation in which Mario is separated from the camera with a wall, you can still make out his silhouette. Any other objects, such as enemies, are indicated with question marks. Though it may seem like an incredibly basic feature, it’s clear from utilizing it that the developers put a lot of thought into the controller layout.
Indeed, it is far easier in Super Mario Sunshine to move and adjust the camera at the same time. This is because these functions are controlled with two separate thumbs. It’s even easy to adjust the camera before performing a tricky jump thanks to the fact that you can also hold down the “L” button, which is typically within reach of the left index finger, when Mario is on the ground to set the camera behind him. This is quite the improvement from Super Mario 64 wherein adjusting the camera and jumping were both accomplished using the right thumb. That game was remarkable in how it employed fixed camera angles to reduce the need to multitask. Even so, there was the odd situation in which they didn’t work so well. In Super Mario Sunshine, this problem is effectively addressed before they even had a chance to manifest.
In one final parallel to Super Mario 64, the traditional, iconic power-up system from the 2D installments does not exist in Super Mario Sunshine. Instead, Mario has a health meter. In this game, it is displayed as a sun icon with each corona representing a single unit of health. If you’re considering using the vast amounts of water present in Isle Delfino to your advantage to restore Mario’s health like one could in Super Mario 64, prepare to be disappointed. Unlike in this game’s direct predecessor, there is a separate meter to measure Mario’s oxygen levels when diving underwater. Though this does sound inconvenient, it also means you don’t have to worry about drowning as a result of taking damage underwater. If either meter is depleted, you lose a life.
The locals, noticing the airstrip’s defacement is in the shape of Mario’s head, have come down to the somewhat logical, if wildly inaccurate conclusion that the Mushroom Kingdom’s hero is the perpetrator. One such person demands Mario clean up the mess. This is something of a problematic proposition because wiping the graffiti away with a rag would take several hours. Given that it damages Mario if he wallows in it for too long, he will need to resort to a more hands-off approach. Fortunately, the perfect tool for the job happens to be nearby.
On the airstrip is a unique water pump invented by Professor E. Gadd dubbed the Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device (F.L.U.D.D.). The pump has been outfitted with an artificial intelligence. Scanning Mario, it identifies him as its customer and agrees to help Mario clean the graffiti. By pressing the “R” button, Mario can shoot the water F.L.U.D.D. has stored. If you hold the “R” button all the way down, Mario will stand in place as he’s shooting water. You can refill the water supply by pressing the “R” button when Mario is standing in a sufficiently deep body of water. F.L.U.D.D. can store quite a bit of water, though if Mario is standing in water, the pump will simply draw from the larger source.
F.L.U.D.D. can be outfitted with multiple nozzles throughout the game. By pressing the “X” button, you can between the standard nozzle and a secondary one. By default, the Hover Nozzle is equipped. Mario can use the Hover Nozzle to shoot a concentrated stream of water at the ground for a brief duration. It’s particularly useful while he is airborne, as it extends the ground he can cover with his jumps. One needs to be careful using it, as he is left with no momentum when the stream dissipates. Later in the game, Mario can outfit F.L.U.D.D. with the Rocket Nozzle or the Turbo Nozzle. These replace the Hover Nozzle when collected. The Rocket Nozzle, true to its name, launches Mario in the air when used. It can only be used once before Mario touches the ground, and it takes a lot of water to utilize. Finally, the Turbo Nozzle shoots out a constant stream of water behind Mario’s back, causing him to run much faster than he could normally. It constantly taps into F.L.U.D.D.’s supply when in use, though he can use it indefinitely if submerged in a sufficiently large body of water.
To Mario’s surprise, there turns out to be a monster in the middle of the graffiti, though he is able to defeat it easily with F.L.U.D.D.’s assistance.
With the runway restored to normal, a strange object resembling a Power Star appears. Upon collecting it, Mario is apprehended by the authorities and is made to stand trial. The prosecuting attorney reveals the island has been covered in this oily graffiti. In the midst of the pandemonium, the Shine Sprites have fled, casting the island in perpetual darkness. Brazenly ignoring Princess Peach’s attempt at an objection and the fact that Mario was on a moving plane as the perpetrator committed the crime, the defendant is found guilty. He is then ordered to remain in Isle Delfino until the entire island is cleaned. The authorities take him to the largest city on the island, Delfino Plaza, where he is to begin his work.
While there, Mario happens upon a doppelgänger – the shadowy figure Peach saw in the video advertisement. Making use of a paintbrush also invented by E. Gadd, this mysterious enemy has been polluting the island with graffiti. Mario gives chase to the figure through a portal leading to the island’s fertile region, Bianco Hills.
It is at this point that the experience begins in earnest. Super Mario Sunshine is part of a subseries of platforming games known as a collectathon in most circles. The subgenre was codified by Super Mario 64, and enjoyed a lot of success for the duration of the nineties. However, the genre had fallen out of favor a mere three years later following the 1999 release of Donkey Kong 64. Rare’s highly anticipated follow-up to Donkey Kong Country 3 ended up taking the idea of the collectathon to an illogical extreme, necessitating absurd amounts of backtracking on the player’s part to make any significant progress. Though Donkey Kong 64 sold well, it irreparably damaged the genre’s credibility in the eyes of fans and critics alike, and going into the 2000s, developers of 3D games began offering audiences experiences vastly different than those that jumpstarted the paradigm shift.
Though made by Nintendo rather than Rare, Super Mario Sunshine could then be construed with this context as a return to form of sorts for the collectathon. While Donkey Kong 64 made players run around a given stage at least five times to collect everything, Super Mario Sunshine greatly streamlines the exploratory elements. Delfino Plaza acts as a hub world, housing portals to the game’s main stages similar to Princess Peach’s castle. Each stage is, in turn, divided into eight different episodes. By completing them, Mario is awarded a Shine Sprite.
These episodes are somewhat analogous to how the stages in Super Mario 64 were presented, but there’s a key difference. In Super Mario 64, the names of the Power Stars often gave the player hints on how to obtain them, but there typically wasn’t anything stopping players from obtaining them out of order. This was evident as early as Bob-Omb Battlefield, for one could obtain the sixth star with a fraction of the effort required to reach the first. As of Super Mario Sunshine, this is no longer the case. The event flags set up by each episode prevent players from obtaining the Shine Sprites out of order. To wit, the red coins that would award Mario with a Power Star do not appear outside of their associated episode. There is also generally less ambiguity when it comes to finding them because the episode titles spell out what you must do as opposed to merely hinting towards the correct course of action. If you’re completely stumped, you can take advantage of the island’s lively population to give you hints.
Although this may sound disappointing for those who liked being able to explore the stages unabated, there is something of a compromise to be found. To begin with, Super Mario Sunshine, much like Super Mario 64 before it, awards Mario a Shine Sprite should he obtain 100 coins in a stage. It could be considered a little more difficult this time around, as there are no blue coins to expedite the task. Blue coins still exist, but they now form the basis of a currency system. There exist 240 in the game – each stage houses thirty while the remaining ones can be found in the plaza and the surrounding areas. Within Delfino Plaza is a Blue Coin Shop, though there is only one item to purchase there: Shine Sprites. Each sprite costs ten blue coins to purchase, meaning twenty-four are obtainable through this method.
There are also two hidden Shine Sprites within each stage. Though it may seem daunting picking the correct episode to find them, they usually do follow a predictable pattern. Within most of the stages is at least one subarea wherein Shadow Mario steals F.L.U.D.D. These subareas are intended to present the player with pure platforming challenges. You must simply reach the Shine Sprite without falling into the bottomless void below. This is typically easier said than done because without F.L.U.D.D. to adjust your jumps, you must practice with the controls until you’ve gotten the hang of things. If you return to these stages, you can revisit them. The second time around, you’re allowed to keep F.L.U.D.D., and if you explore the subarea extensively enough, you be rewarded with a second Shine Sprite.
Like Luigi’s Mansion before it, Super Mario Sunshine was a great title to use in order to showcase the processing power of the Nintendo GameCube. In a game where water plays such an important role, I have to say that the developers made the ocean look incredible. In Super Mario 64, bodies of water resembled how they looked in the 2D installments. In hindsight, it was easy to tell they were effectively large, blue polygons capable of changing Mario’s physics upon entering them. The camera’s lens cleared up if Mario dove deep enough, but the illusion was easily shattered. In Super Mario Sunshine, the ocean is not only appropriately clear as it looks when inspecting it up-close, you can see it has fairly realistic waves. Though certainly surpassed since then, it was a remarkable effort for 2002. It is probably as a result of this attention to detail that Super Mario Sunshine runs at thirty frames per second as opposed to sixty as originally proposed.
I also have to praise this game for having such a wide variety of challenges. As various genres had begun to cement by the time of the twenty-first century, you could count on games to adhere to their respective rulebooks. For example, if a game began as a first-person shooter, you could expect the interface to remain throughout the entire experience, never changing unless mandated by the plot. This didn’t adversely affect the quality of these games, however. As long as the designers made players extensively apply their knowledge of the game mechanics, abiding by the tropes of a genre gave them leeway to explore them in their own way. However, Super Mario Sunshine goes a bit of a step further than most games when it comes to its challenge diversity. If you decide to pursue every single Shine Sprite in the game, Mario will have ridden on a fast squid creature, shot rockets at balloons when riding a rollercoaster, and jumped around a giant pachinko machine. When you consider that, unlike in Super Mario 64, every area in Super Mario Sunshine is united under a single, tropical motif, it’s impressive how it seldom feels repetitive.
Along those lines, what I believe to be the greatest strength of Super Mario Sunshine is the design of Isle Delfino itself. The courses in Super Mario 64 came across as video game levels. While they were more than serviceable in that regard, it did make the game feel disconnected and random. This wasn’t helped by the fact that many stages simply floated over a giant void. Although this didn’t seem unusual at the time, creating a stage in such a fashion even a few years later would cause players to believe the game was never finished. Meanwhile, Super Mario Sunshine takes many cues from Super Mario World. In addition to many of the area’s themes being remixes of the game’s main melody, they clearly exist within the same world. It’s to the point where you can actually see other areas in the skybox. Invisible walls prevent you from simply traveling to different areas without the use of portals or warp pipes, but it’s a nice touch that complements the enclosed map of the island.
While one could mount a fairly defensible argument that Super Mario Sunshine is an overall more polished experience than Super Mario 64, I have to say than many of the ideas the developers proposed didn’t work so well. Going into the game, one major problem presents itself straight away: its premise. To be fair, the mainline Mario games never relied heavily on their plots to amass acclaim. Featuring an athletic, portly plumber who can shoot fireballs saving a princess from a giant creature that seemed to be a cross between a dragon and a turtle, Mario was, from the very beginning, sold on its gameplay.
Regardless, even if a title is to be sold on its gameplay, it still has to have a workable premise. It doesn’t have to be a great premise, but it does need some kind of internal, consistent logic to it – even if it would make no sense from a realistic standpoint. The reason I say this is because Super Mario Sunshine has what could very well have been the stupidest premise a Nintendo game ever had by that point in history – at best, it would be a close second behind Yoshi’s Story. As soon as the game begins, it’s clear the Piantas aren’t particularly intelligent between their inability to distinguish Mario from his shadowy doppelgänger and their completely broken court system that makes the one from the Ace Attorney universe seem benevolent and fair by comparison. Even after observing Mario chasing Shadow Mario in broad daylight, they never draw the connection. It’s not as though Super Mario Sunshine entirely operates on the weird brand of cartoon logic wherein people can’t see through a paper-thin disguise. The Nokis, shellfish-like people who also inhabit the island, are smart enough to notice that Mario and Shadow Mario aren’t the same person and actively assist the former however they can.
It gets worse when you attempt to actually contextualize the game’s basic goal. Mario is on a quest to amass enough Shine Sprites so that he can dispel the darkness cast over the island and stop Shadow Mario’s plans. As it turns out, a significant portion of the Shine Sprites are in the possession of the Piantas themselves. This facet was easy to accept in Super Mario 64 because most of the characters who gave Mario Power Stars, being the affable members of Bowser’s forces, wanted to test him in some way. Meanwhile, if one of Peach’s retainers found one, they would turn it over to Mario without any fuss. Shine Sprites are an integral source of power for Isle Delfino, yet the island’s own citizens are hoarding them from the government for no reason until Mario wins a minigame or fulfills some other task for them. Obviously, the reason they choose to hoard them is because there would be no game to play otherwise, but it’s still a flimsy justification.
Some fans have argued that Isle Delfino’s citizens aren’t actually hoarding the Shine Sprites, but rather hiding them from Shadow Mario and reserving them for when the genuine article earns their trust. Though this is an interesting interpretation, it still doesn’t account for the Blue Coin Merchant, who happens to be in possession of twenty-four of them. Despite his city facing a serious crisis, he won’t hand over any of them unless he is paid ten blue coins. The citizens of Isle Delfino are shown to be highly apathetic as best exemplified by their refusal to help out a man who is on fire at multiple points, yet the Blue Coin Merchant manages to ace them all in the art of not caring.
While the blue coins are terrible from a narrative standpoint, their purpose in gameplay is even worse. You really have to go out of your way to find all of them, as they can be hidden in downright cryptic spots. This by itself is insufferable, but what makes collecting them particularly tedious is that there is no easy way to keep in track of how many in each stage have been found. The stats page only keeps in track of how many Shine Sprites you’ve collected in each stage along with the number of blue coins you currently possess. It does not keep in track of how many blue coins you have found in each area. Unless you deliberately go out of your way to comb every single area for all of the blue coins as soon as they become available, chances are good that you will miss several along the way. If you opt to do this and wish to find them all once you’ve unlocked everything, be prepared to set aside a lot of time in the endeavor.
When Super Mario 64 launched, certain fans were a little disappointed over Yoshi’s absence. Being popular enough when he debuted in Super Mario World to get his own game a mere five years later, they wondered why he didn’t play a role in the series’ first 3D outing. This isn’t entirely accurate, for you could encounter Yoshi by getting all 120 Power Stars. This would, in turn, allow Mario to access the roof of Peach’s castle. There, Yoshi would meet up with Mario, giving him 100 extra lives. However, this was essentially a gloried cameo and the reward for finding him amounted to nothing considering the only thing left to do would be to defeat the final boss. Though this sounds helpful, there is a 1-up Mushroom hidden just before the final boss that respawns every time you lose, meaning you effectively have unlimited chances anyway.
If a fan was clamoring for Yoshi’s inclusion, Super Mario Sunshine bears news both good and bad. The most obvious piece of good news is that Yoshi has returned for this installment. When traveling Isle Delfino, you may find a Yoshi egg. Above the egg is a word balloon with a fruit inside of it. By presenting the egg with the matching fruit, it will hatch, and Mario can begin riding Yoshi. He retains the Yoshies’ signature ability to flutter jump. By holding down the “A” button while airborne, Yoshi will hover for a few seconds, extending the length of his jumps. He can also eat fruit and spew juice corresponding to the color associated with the one he last consumed. The juice is capable of dissolving certain kinds of obstacles F.L.U.D.D.’s water supply has no effect on.
Fruit and other objects can be picked up and carried around by walking up to them and pressing the “B” button. When it comes to fruit, the lone exception are the durians. These fruits adorned with several sharp points vaguely resemble soccer balls, and if Mario walks up to one, he kicks it instead. Durians are well-known in Asia for their pungent odor, though they aren’t available in most Western supermarkets. This is due to a combination of their propensity to spoil quickly and inability to be frozen. It is through Super Mario Sunshine that many Western gamers were introduced to durians, and by extension, a facet of Asian culture they don’t typically get to experience.
The downside to Yoshi’s inclusion is that he comes across as a last-minute addition. To begin with, he is barely utilized; you can’t take him into certain areas and you lose him once you’ve collected a Shine Sprite. This means outside of Delfino Plaza, he only appears in the episodes in which players are forced to use him. Actually trying to use him is easier said than done. His controls are highly awkward, lacking the pinpoint precision when trying to navigate Mario. On top of this, Yoshi needs to regularly eat fruit in order to maintain his existence. If he goes too long without eating, he disappears. There is some degree of mercy in that the juice meter being based on a timer means he effectively has unlimited ammunition until he starves. Though this is appreciated, Yoshi disappearing unless he constantly eats fruit is highly irritating. The areas in which he is used tend to have an abundance of fruit, but having to keep his stomach full is annoying. It especially doesn’t help whenever you have to go out of your way to retrieve the one fruit you need to hatch him – especially if it’s a durian.
Perhaps Yoshi’s greatest failing in Super Mario Sunshine concerns how he handles water. Yoshi has generally had mixed results when it comes to immersing himself in water. In Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Story, he could swim normally, yet between those two titles in Yoshi’s Island, he needed a submarine transformation bubble in order to dive beneath the surface. Meanwhile, in Super Mario Sunshine, Yoshi follows in the footsteps of classic video game protagonists such as Simon Belmont in that he cannot swim at all. If he makes contact with the water, he dissolves instantly. Interestingly, the manual attempted to justify this by stating that the Yoshies of Isle Deflino cannot stand water. Whoever wrote the manual was better off leaving this mechanic unexplained because the idea of a creature that lives on a tropical island being unable to tolerate water in any capacity is ludicrous. Considering one of the missions involves taking Yoshi across a giant body of water across multiple awkward platforms, you can only imagine how irritating it is. If you attempt to play it, you will learn it manages to be even worse than my description made it out to be.
One of the more subtly annoying aspects about Super Mario Sunshine concerns the various minigames you have to play to obtain Shine Sprites from the locals. If you fail, Mario loses a life for some reason. It’s not as though these games are shown to be a threat to Mario’s life – he simply drops dead after losing. The life system already became pointless in Super Mario 64 because checkpoints were exceedingly rare, meaning you had to complete a mission in one shot regardless. Even if you found one and lost a life afterwards, there was nothing stopping you from obtaining a replacement 1-up Mushroom elsewhere and reentering the stage.
With how Super Mario Sunshine deducts kills Mario in the event you fail a minigame, I can’t help but think it was in an attempt to justify keeping the life system around. This development utterly fails to do so. The only real consequence for losing all of your lives is getting kicked back to the title screen. In preparation, you can either stockpile your extra lives or trudge back to the episode in question from the starting point in Delfino Plaza whenever you run out. Either way, the life system only succeeds in adding a dimension of busywork in a game that otherwise doesn’t feature a lot of pointless filler. What makes this especially strange is that one early racing minigame merely kicks Mario out if he fails to beat the record. I can only guess as to why this rule wasn’t consistently enforced across the board.
What I feel to be the greatest flaw of Super Mario Sunshine, however, concerns the physics engine. In a platforming game, you want to stop at nothing to ensure the controls are responsive to the player’s inputs and that basic functions behave in a consistent fashion. While Mario himself is easy to navigate under normal circumstances, the same can’t be said for any minigame or subarea that utilizes a unique control scheme. One of the more infamous stages places Mario in a giant pachinko machine. Not only are the controls locked in an incredibly restrictive fashion, how Mario interacts with the pegs is bizarre. It’s as though they have a hitbox that extends beyond their graphical representations. Moreover, Mario slides down the slopes in this stage in ways that he wouldn’t in the rest of the game. This often leads to him falling into gaps that wouldn’t present a problem elsewhere.
The flaw is especially noticeable whenever you’re made to swim underwater. Super Mario 64 was groundbreaking in a number of ways, but one of the most remarkable things about it lied in how easy the developers made underwater navigation. In Super Mario Sunshine, chances are great even returning players will struggle in their attempts to swim. It’s difficult to explain unless you’ve experienced them firsthand, but swimming in this game will often result in you going too far, coming up short, or otherwise miscalculating precise movements. It’s especially pronounced in Noki Bay, the game’s designated water stage.
Given the many flaws present in both the gameplay and the story, it’s unintentionally fitting from a thematic standpoint that every single one of them congeals and forms the backbone of the final stage. After Shadow Mario floods Delfino Plaza, he retreats to the nearby Corona Mountain, taunting the real Mario to follow him. By contrast to the areas that preceded it, Corona Mountain is a one-way path akin to the Bowser stages in Super Mario 64. While it had the opportunity to present a tough, but fair challenge as an appropriate sendoff, it, in practice, manages to be an exercise in frustration.
Corona Mountain is the Isle Delfino’s obligatory lava stage, and it only takes a few minutes of playing it to realize why that is the case. Unlike in Super Mario 64, Mario doesn’t bounce off the surface of the lava in a comical fashion. Instead, it kills him instantly. This by itself isn’t too much of an issue, for it could be seen as an interchangeable alternative for your standard bottomless pit. It becomes a hassle when you’re made to navigate a small boat across a large body of lava.
You’re meant to use F.L.U.D.D.’s water jets to propel the boat, and the engine is very fickle when it comes to how it behaves. It is admittedly sensible that where Mario stands on the boat determines how it moves. If he stands at the front of the boat and shoots left, it will turn right and vice versa. If he stands at the back of the boat and shoots left it will turn in that direction and vice versa. Finally, if Mario stands in the center of the boat, it will turn only slightly. This takes a lot of practice to master, which isn’t helped by the fact that the boat can only take one hit before capsizing. Much like the pegs in the pachinko machine, the boat can potentially crash simply entering the general vicinity of a wall or pillar, though at least in this case, there is plenty of room to avoid them. Once you’ve traversed the lake of lava, Mario grabs a Rocket Nozzle and propels himself into the final battle against his archnemesis.
Though a plot-heavy experience, Super Mario Sunshine is notable for being the first main game in the series to not be catalyzed by Princess Peach getting kidnapped by Bowser since Super Mario Bros. 3. In fact, this installment affords her the most screentime in the mainline series yet, and her characterization is handled very oddly, to say the least. She is the first to see Shadow Mario cause mayhem and draws the painstakingly obvious conclusion that he and Mario are not the same person. She even attempts to object at Mario’s trial knowing that he is innocent, though she is overruled in the end. At first, it would seem as though this marked the momentous occasion of a Mario adventure not involving her being kidnapped at all. Unfortunately, the writers couldn’t leave well enough alone.
After chasing Shadow Mario to an amusement park, he reveals his true identity: Bowser Jr. This son of Bowser insists on calling Peach “Mama Peach” for some reason. This results in Peach infamously responding, “I’m your… Mama?” to Bowser Jr. To be fair, she was likely meant to be completely incredulous at such an insinuation and calling him out on his delusional claim, but the subpar voice acting doesn’t make this clear. It gets stranger in the ending when Bowser Jr. admits Peach isn’t really her mother and knew this all along. Either way, when Bowser Jr. reveals himself, he kidnaps Peach. For her part, she makes no effort to escape despite not being restrained in any significant way. If the writers intended for Peach to be captured, it would’ve been for the best if they were upfront about it and started the game off that way. As it stands, they wasted a perfectly fine opportunity to developer her character.
Once Bowser Jr. makes his appearance, the average player will guess that Bowser must be the main antagonist of this game. Such an inference would be correct. The final fight against Bowser in Super Mario 64 is one of the greatest boss battles in the medium’s history. Everything from the music to the atmosphere was executed flawlessly, and the game thoroughly tested everything the player had learned up until that point just to reach him. Even after having fought him twice before, he still managed to be quite intimidating, taking three hits to defeat as opposed to the traditional one.
With a predecessor that was admittedly difficult to live up to, the Super Mario Sunshine team had their work cut out for them. What did they decide to do as a follow-up to one of the medium’s greatest moments? They took note of Bowser Jr.’s presence and turned Bowser into a stereotypical bumbling sitcom father. When Mario arrives on the scene, he is annoyed that his rival would dare disturb his family vacation.
Needless to say, this speech doesn’t possess the same intimidation factor.
His decay as a villain extends beyond the narrative and into the actual gameplay as well. While even a seasoned veteran who has cleared the game multiple times may struggle against Bowser in Super Mario 64, a journeyman or novice enthusiast may find themselves trouncing him on their first try in Super Mario Sunshine. All you need to do is use the Rocket Nozzle to propel Mario into the air and Ground Pound the five points of the arena. Despite not having access to the Hover Nozzle, Bowser’s attacks are easy to avoid. The only difficult part is avoiding falling victim to a glitch that clips Mario through the floor.
In the end, Princess Peach is rescued, the Shine Sprites make a return, and all is well – or so everyone thinks. The final battle against Bowser took its toll on F.L.U.D.D., and it breaks down, asking if it was of assistance with its final words. Fortunately, one of the Toads repairs F.L.U.D.D., who declares that their vacation begins now. This scene was probably meant to invoke pathos for the machine that helped Mario on his journey, but the problem is resolved so quickly, it’s more laughable than anything else. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the ending of Super Mario Sunshine is outright terrible, but there’s no getting around how the final sequences make for a rough landing in what was already a hit-or-miss experience.
Drawing a Conclusion
In a lot of ways, I would have to say Super Mario Sunshine is Mario’s answer to Yoshi’s Story. Both are competently programmed games marred by bad design choices. To be fair, the bad design choices in Yoshi’s Story apply to the entire game whereas in Super Mario Sunshine, they come across as isolated incidents. As such, Super Mario Sunshine, as a whole, is a much more salvageable game than Yoshi’s Story because you can count on it to not make the same mistake twice. Instead, it makes multiple unique mistakes throughout the entire experience that eventually diminish the goodwill from the well-designed aspects until barely any of it remains.
Despite its many problems, Super Mario Sunshine has fared well in hindsight owing to its difficult nature and unique mechanics. Some have even reported enjoying its plot, likening it to a Saturday Morning cartoon. While I can appreciate a tough game, a lot of the challenge present in Super Mario Sunshine stems from wrestling with the controls. Furthermore, while the Mario series has never exactly worn its plot as a badge of honor, it still comes across as insipid and insulting to one’s intelligence. The level design is legitimately good, but it can only carry the experience so far when the smaller elements surrounding it are of such varying quality. If you’re a fan of the series, I don’t think you could go wrong by attempting to pick it up. That being said, if you’re completely unfamiliar with Mario, you’re better off looking elsewhere for a point of ingress, though there are certainly worse choices out there. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t consider Super Mario Sunshine to be in the same league as the woefully misbegotten Yoshi’s Story, and for Mr. Koizumi’s first attempt at directing a game, it wasn’t bad. By that same token, however, later installments ultimately choosing to distance itself from this one isn’t exactly a great indication of its quality.
Final Score: 6/10