Super Mario Sunshine

Its brightest spot is how despite drinking heavily from Super Mario 64 in terms of structure, it is able to give its adventure a unique tone and feel within the franchise’s canon due to its great relaxed setting and its key gameplay component

Mario, Princess Peach, and the general population of the Mushroom Kingdom, probably always worried about the well-being of their hero as well as that of their royal leader, seem to be unable to catch a break. Case in point, in Super Mario Sunshine, the plumber, the princess, and a group of Toads decide to take a trip to the tropical paradise that is Isle Delfino. Sadly, whatever hope of peace and quiet was being carried by the travelers is shattered before the holiday even begins, for their plane experiences quite a rough landing.

Stepping out to look into what exactly had caused the incident, Mario is stunned to find the place – advertised as an untouched natural wonder during in-flight videos – does not look so immaculate: graffiti is splattered over the walls of the small airport and – more gravely – a gigantic Piranha Plant made of disgusting goop sits in the middle of the airstrip. After dealing with the problem effectively, Mario is suddenly apprehended by a pair of police officers, thrown inside a prison cell, and taken to court. As it turns out, a shadowy figure that looks a whole lot like the mustachioed fellow has been terrorizing the island by spreading pollution around its environments and smearing ink on its buildings. And even though Princess Peach tries to object to the accusations, Mario is sentenced to pay for crimes he did not commit by cleaning the island up.

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And, just like that, vacation turns into work, Peach’s safety is threatened, and Mario is hurled at the mystery surrounding the perpetrator’s identity. Super Mario Sunshine, released in 2002 for the GameCube, is the second 3-D adventure starring the gaming universe’s most popular mascot, and given the success of its predecessor – Super Mario 64 – it is a title that could have easily phoned it in by presenting more of the same albeit with vastly improved graphics.

Sure, some may argue that is exactly what it does, for it uses a lot of the elements that made that first tridimensional adventure so great as its foundations while taking advantage of new technology. However, closer inspection of both its spirit and gameplay, especially in the light of many entries in the Mario platforming franchise that – despite their usually exceedingly high quality – have done so little to advance the series’ usual style in meaningful ways, reveals a quest that is quite unique.

As it happened in Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine features one overworld that serves as the gateway to a bunch of stages. And, to get rid of the mess caused by Shadow Mario, the hero must go into each one of those, clear platforming challenges that will award him with Shine Sprites (the game’s version of the stars of Super Mario 64), open the way to new levels, and eventually – after collecting a certain amount of those shiny beauties – face off against the final boss and use the treasures he has gathered to power the island’s legendary Shine Gate, which will revert the place to its former glory.

It is a simple formula that works wondrously, especially because since the number of Shine Sprites required to advance to a new world is not awfully high, players are able to customize their progress according to their level of expertise or desire, choosing either to collect as many of those items as possible before moving forward or to get the bare minimum. The fact that framework is exactly the same as the one from Super Mario 64, though, does not make Super Mario Sunshine feel safe, for what is important is how those bones are filled up, and the game approaches that task with a great degree of originality.

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It all begins, obviously with the setting. Delfino Plaza, the small seaside town that serves as the overworld, and the notable locations of Isle Delfino, which are the background for the levels of Super Mario Sunshine, are, thematically, nicely removed from what one would find within the confines of the Mushroom Kingdom. So much, in fact, that many of its friendly inhabitants belong to species entirely new to the saga. The game, therefore, entirely evades the trappings of the standard overused array of landscapes that most Mario adventures have; forests, caves, deserts, mountains, and tundras are replaced with tropical set pieces.

It is fair to say that having to create scenarios that naturally fit inside a sunny island harshly limited the palette within which Nintendo had to work in visual terms, and indeed pretty much all worlds share some traits, such as sandy shores, large bodies of water, and similar vegetation. Yet, inside those imposed boundaries, designers came through in creating variety, and Super Mario Sunshine boasts rolling hills filled with windmills, a harbor, a beach, a theme park, a hotel, a paradisiacal bay surrounded by colorful stone walls and filled with almost psychedelic structures, and a village.

And everything looks particularly stunning. Although it is a game that came out during the GameCube’s early years, Super Mario Sunshine stands as one of the system’s best displays of colorful cartoonish visuals. The character models still look beautifully smooth. Additionally, thanks to nearly omnipresent strong sunlight, the settings’ colors shine with spectacular intensity and the island’s crystalline waters are a sight to behold. Aligned with a soundtrack that, despite using some classic Mario tunes and sound effects, smartly dives into a cheery tropical vibe, the game emits a relaxing uplifting aura that is rather particular to it.

The GameCube’s power also plays a role in how Super Mario Sunshine is carried by a storytelling component that is far more prominent than that of Super Mario 64, whose narrative was limited to a letter by Peach and a threat by Bowser. The game has not just some well-produced cutscenes – with solid voice acting included – that are concentrated in the introductory portion of the game, hence making up for a nice story-centered beginning, but also punctual events that move the plot forward and take place from time to time.

More important than those shifts in aesthetics, presentation, and spirit, though, are the ones that happen in the gameplay front. And in that regard F.L.U.D.D. (which stands for Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device) is the star of the show; a water pack that is key in helping Mario get rid of the sludge as well as handle platforming obstacles, it can be used in a number of ways due to its various configurations.

The Squirt Nozzle sprays water at foes or objects, and it can be used either while on the move if the R button is pressed lightly; or, if the R button is fully held, while Mario is locked in place and the analog stick is therefore free to be used for aiming. The Hover Nozzle, meanwhile, works as a jetpack, and its water flow – which lasts for a handful of seconds – slightly increases the character’s altitude little by little while it is in use. Further into the game, other two options are eventually unlocked: the Rocket Nozzle, which through a massive burst of water launches Mario high into the air; and the Turbo Nozzle, which allows the character to run at absurd speeds both on land and on water.

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This deck of options, which can be cycled through with the X button and are always used by pressing R, is – besides being easy to use – quite well-employed by level designers in the making of platforming challenges that would have been nigh impossible tasks in Super Mario 64. There are a lot of filthy spots that can only be cleaned, enemies that can only be defeated, and devices that can only be activated with the Squirt Nozzle; similarly, there are altitudes that can only be reached with the Rocket Nozzle, and barriers and timed challenges that can only be overcome with the Turbo Nozzle. Meanwhile, the Hover Nozzle, which is likely the most frequently used of the four, plays more of an auxiliary role, as it lets Mario move between elevated places without having to descend to the ground and helps players a great deal when it comes to negotiating tighter platforming segments as the fact it allows Mario to hover in the air for a while allows his jumps to be more precise.

In fact, the Hover Nozzle is so helpful that it is arguable it sometimes makes a few challenges that would have otherwise been truly brutal too easy. Fully aware of that shortcut, though, Nintendo constructed a lot of the structures in Super Mario Sunshine in such a way that using F.L.U.D.D. is absolutely mandatory; rather than making most of the game easier, then, the likable sentient machine is an integral part of its fabric. But that does not mean the astounding acrobatic prowess displayed by Mario in his Nintendo 64 outing goes to waste; on the contrary, not only do most of his jumps return (save for the Long Jump, which is left out due to the presence of F.L.U.D.D.), but executing them is a delight. The responsiveness of the controls seen in Super Mario 64 was already excellent (especially for its time), but Super Mario Sunshine polishes Mario’s moves to an incredible degree, and even his most complex actions – such as the Wall Jump – can be executed easily without any hitches.

If one’s precision in the use of F.L.U.D.D. is tested to its furthest reaches out in the worlds and in the overworld, which also houses a bunch of interesting secrets and Shine Sprites that reward extra exploration, Mario’s acrobatics are pushed to their limits in what the game calls Secret Levels. As it turns out, some of the Shines (usually two for each world) are only acquired after reaching and entering caves; in these, Shadow Mario will take F.L.U.D.D. from the plumber and he will be left to navigate brutal segments full of moving platforms, spinning blocks, and all sorts of devilish traps without his handy backpack, having to rely only on his jumps.

Besides working as pleasant linear deviations from the wide open nature of the big worlds of Super Mario Sunshine and the first showcase that 3-D Mario could also pull off old-school gameplay, those obstacle courses – which throw the character towards his death whenever he falls – are by far the hardest portions of the game, and their difficulty level occasionally is so high some of these stages have become, rightfully so, infamous. Ultimately, what they are, though, are smartly designed tough challenges that are generally fun and test players’ skills quite finely; their only problem is in how if all lives are lost inside one of those caves, Mario will be forced to re-enter the world and make his way back to the Secret Level he was in, which is a frustrating punishment given some of the courses do take a lot of tries to be cleared.

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Despite its blatant excellence on both fronts of the platforming genre – the one that is open-ended and was inaugurated by Super Mario 64, and the one that is linear, often absurd and that would yield marvelous results in the Super Mario Galaxy saga – Super Mario Sunshine does falter at points. First of all, opposed to the fifteen worlds of Super Mario 64, the game only has seven of those and that is a small number even if each one of the levels carries eight regular Shines and three secret ones.

In a way, Super Mario Sunshine tries to counter that shortcoming very nicely; the eight normal goals of every world – appropriately named episodes – sometimes produce big changes in the scenery: new structures appear, bosses come up and start causing destruction, entire areas of the level are covered in sludge, and more. As such, even if some episodes are a bit too similar (with all worlds featuring one duel against Shadow Mario where the plumber must chase his imitator and splash him down, and a challenge involving gathering eight red coins somewhere), all those objectives play differently from one another, as worlds undergo little metamorphoses in between them.

That design choice, though positive in that regard, creates another small problem. As a consequence of those changes, only one shine can be gotten from any episode, differently from Super Mario 64 where – upon entering a world – players could stumble upon any of its stars. Whenever an episode is chosen, an introductory video always clues players into what needs to be done and where they have to go by showing the change that has occurred as well as the final objective pretty clearly.

As a result, the free exploration of Super Mario Sunshine’s beautiful worlds is often thrown out the window. Players can make a beeline for the location highlighted in the opening trailer fully confident that the Shine Sprite they are after will be found there and that going anywhere else will be fruitless. Comparatively, Super Mario 64’s approach of using only the subtext of each star as a tip on what has to be done and also of allowing players to, via curiosity and exploration, discover unexpected rewards works better, as it is more suitable for the open design of the worlds. Sure, some Shines do require a good deal of exploration, as getting to the places that are shown is either hard or not enough to get the coveted golden treasure, but those are the minority.

These two shortcomings, however, are pretty tiny and will hardly harm players’ enjoyment. There are other times when, sadly, Super Mario Sunshine stumbles upon graver issues that generate frustration in different degrees. Firstly, there is the camera system, which uses the GameCube’s excellent C-stick to give players total control over the perspective that is displayed on the screen. Unfortunately, there are occasional instances when the system does not work so well; more specifically, those situations arise when the camera behaves in such a way that objects – sometimes walls – stand between the virtual lenses and Mario.

In those cases, to make the character visible, the game turns him into a shadow (showing Super Mario Sunshine was prepared to handle those broken scenarios) and at times it is almost impossible to make the camera move around the obstruction, as it will completely lock in place. Secondly, there is the welcome addition of Yoshi, which instead of being pleasant turns into a disappointment for three reasons: because he is sadly underused; because the dinosaur literally runs on juice and has to eat fruit every couple minutes to refill his tank, otherwise he will just vanish into thin air; and because he is totally vulnerable to water – an element that is very present in Super Mario Sunshine – and will be lost whenever he falls into it.

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The biggest of all problems with Super Mario Sunshine, though, is easily the blue coins. All worlds have thirty of them, and for each ten that are collected Mario can go to Delfino Plaza’s boathouse and exchange them for a Shine Sprite. It is a good challenge because those items force players into performing a more dedicated kind of exploration and into engaging in nice extra puzzles and time-based challenges. The big oversight comes in how many of the coins are exclusive to certain episodes. Therefore, in order to find all of them, players have to thoroughly scour levels an unthinkable eight times, which is way too much by all reasonable parameters, especially when there are only a few blue coins missing and it is impossible to know which episode they belong to.

The same dumbfounding problem afflicts one of the three secret Shine Sprites of every world, which is acquired via gathering 100 regular coins. Given how different the episodes are, with some of them strongly limiting one’s access to the map and all of them altering the distribution of coins around the worlds, players have to pretty much hope they choose to go after the 100 coins in an episode that is suitable for that task, because in some of them finding that amount of gold is very hard.

As such, although Super Mario Sunshine is most of the times an excellent display of platforming greatness both in its open worlds and in its linear portions, it presents a few rough edges that can make it more frustrating than it should have been. Its controls, its camera (though not perfect), and the variety of its objectives show greater maturity in relation to Super Mario 64, but – at the same time – the excess of direction that its episodes possess takes away much of the joy that comes with the unexpected discoveries of unguided exploration.

Nevertheless, the game is undeniably fun, often inventive, very challenging to those who want to fully complete it, and quite welcoming to anyone who just wishes to get to its end. Alongside those qualities, its brightest spot may be how even though it drinks heavily from Super Mario 64 in terms of structure, it is able to give its adventure a completely unique tone and feel within the franchise’s canon due to its great relaxed setting and F.L.U.D.D., its key gameplay component. Because of that, it is a must-play for absolutely everyone, as the well-designed experience found here cannot be had anywhere else.

Final Score: 8 – Excellent

5 thoughts on “Super Mario Sunshine

    1. It’s a wonderful Mario game, and one that gets sadly overlooked amidst other equally wonderful installments of the saga.

      Thanks!

  1. Lower-tier Mario for sure. But even lower-tier Mario is better than most. The only 3D Mario I’d say is a weaker entry is #D Land on 3DS, which is the only 3D Mario game that can’t be considered ‘great’ to some degree. Sunshine is heavily flawed, which is something I can’t really say about most of the other 3D Marios, but it’s still excellent, and probably a better 3D platform than anything else of the GameCube/PS2 era.

    Also, when you think about it, Mario has never really had much competition in the realm of 3D platformers. the 2D Mario games, although still probably the all-around best examples of their genre, competed with Sonic, Mega Man, Donkey Kong and Kirby (some would also say Rayman, but I never considered that series on the same level). The biggest competition the 3D Mario games have had was Banjo-Kazooie, but that lasted all of two years. Nothing since has challenged Mario’s 3D platforming throne.

    1. I am not a big fan of Super Mario 3D Land either. It was a game that left me completely cold, so I agree.

      Interesting take on how the 3-D Mario games never really had any consistent competition. I had never thought about it, and I am inclined to agree there.

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