A Defense of Super Mario Sunshine

Published: Friday, September 25, 2020 - 12:00 | By: Tyler Chancey
Developer
Nintendo
Publisher
Nintendo
Release Date
September 18, 2020
Multiplayer modes
Co Op, Local
Platforms
Nintendo Switch
Monetization
One Time Purchase
Purchase (Some links may be affiliated)
Amazon Nintendo Store
Oh yeah, I'm playing with fire here

Super Mario 3D All-Stars has been out for a few days, and reception has been warmly received all told. The compilation of Mario's most iconic 3D outings did come with its fair share of minor controversies, but on the whole it is a diehard Nintendo fan's dream of having the best platformers ever on a modern machine. Ever since its release, critics and Mario purists have been tauting the same line: If you ignore Super Mario Sunshine, you'll have a fun time with some of the plump plumber's greatest adventures. It's a stance I noticed a lot of fans have been drawn to, and honestly it makes me disappointed.

Super Mario Sunshine might be the black sheep of the series, but there's a lot of underrated, even amazing elements that have improved the entire Mario franchise for the better, and I will help you see the bright summer sunlight as I break down why.

 
 
Mario surrounded by ghostly manta rays leaving trails of electric slime
Electric slime slathering ghost manta rays. I have no joke, that is bonkers.

Wait, Super Mario Sunshine is Bad?

First, it is odd that the community has come around to finding such contention with Super Mario Sunshine. It was critically acclaimed when it launched in 2002, sitting on an impressive 92 Metacritic score at the time. Reviews celebrated how the game built on the foundation of 3D-platforming goodness the groundbreaking Super Mario 64 established, some even declaring it a natural evolution of the red plumber's energetic jumping formula.

One of the harshest reviews came from Game Critics, which balked at how it was just the same game from 1996 but prettier and with a gimmick. It is telling where the industry was at the time since the same review cited that critical acclaim from other outlets seemed to come more from nostalgia than objective quality, which can be healthily argued. The review also mentioned that the industry was at a turning point after the release of more mature titles like Grand Theft Auto III, which in 2020 feels delightfully quaint compared to where the industry and the medium is now.

This isn't to discredit the critical voices of 2002 at all, it's just an observation that the zeitgeist at the time was pushing demands for innovation and prestige; the kind of climate that makes something like Super Mario Sunshine a testament to Nintendo both dancing to the beat of its own drum and confident in its own inherent quality. At the time, the greatest crime this game committed was just being more of the same with a few extra bells and whistles, destined to be a mere imitation of something better.

And yet Super Mario Sunshine has returned on the Nintendo Switch with a visual touch-up, alongside the 1996 classic that introduced the world to the joy of moving in a 3D environment and the 2006 space adventure that propelled the series to dizzying new heights. What exactly is it about Super Mario Sunshine that has made it endure?

Mario encountering a giant turtle using a yoshi egg for a shell
Not exactly what I think of when someone says ninja turtle but here we are.

Super Island Vacation

The first thing that sticks out with Super Mario Sunshine is that it's the very first main title in the series to feature cutscenes; the very first honest attempt to tell a more in-depth story. The story in question: a simple vacation going horribly wrong. Mario, Princess Peach, and a few her loyal Toad servants arrive at the tropical paradise of Isle Delfino only to discover it covered in sticky tar-like slime. What's worse is the island's source of light and joy, the Shine Sprites, have vanished, and it appears whoever responsible has framed Mario as the culprit.

After a surreal opening where our hero is put in jail—a ballsy move in retrospect for a company so defensive about their flagship mascot—he is charged with one of the stiffest sentences of community service ever. Mario must scour the island of this sludgy goop, retrieve the Shine Sprites, and catch the real perpetrator. Until he does, Mario is not allowed to leave Isle Delfino.

Almost 20 years since the character came on the scene, this was the first major entry that didn't start out with the bog standard rescue mission to save the princess from Bowser. The key location isn't the fantastical Mushroom Kingdom but an island resort with its own local inhabitants and quirks. The different levels you explore aren't self-contained worlds of artistic whimsy but notable landmarks and tourist attractions that have real tangible presence and geography on the island. The central conflict is a bit of a mystery: who is the mysterious Shadow Mario that is committing slanderous vandalism against our beloved hero? Just on paper alone, this was a lot of experimental and bold moves Nintendo was making.

Mario standing on a sandy beach with sunglasses on
Insert "Deal With It" caption here.

Send A FLUDD, Gonna Drown 'Em Out

It's only when we get into the level design, structure, and pacing that some elephants in the room get addressed. In the case of Super Mario Sunshine, that elephant is a talking water pump. Within the first five minutes of the game, Mario gets FLUDD, a superpowered power hose that shoots water and can also convert into a jetpack. This is used to help fight back against the slime infesting the island and give Mario a bit more maneuverability with his distinct jumps.

 

When it comes to why Super Mario Sunshine is so derided, FLUDD is the major target of scorn. Most critics claim that giving Mario a jetpack harms his platforming ability, this is the guy who is known for jumping after all. FLUDD was seen as a gimmick to make the game easier as well as pad things out with some light resource management: needing to refill the water tank every now and then.

There were other elements that alienated fans of Mario 64 as well. The levels do a lot more handholding with more direct instructions like cutscenes and signposts. And for all of the game's cinematic trappings, the actual game starts to feel padded halfway through, with the actual finale being introduced then stretched out to cram in a few more levels and courses.

Mario in a hotel surrounded by ghosts
Wait, you wanted the other plumber with a gadget on his back? Well, work with what you have.

What's So Great About Super Mario Sunshine?

Now to actually qualify my statement about this game actually being great. Keeping the entire adventure to a tropical island resort meant that a lot of the challenges and boss battles Mario faced had to fit this specific framework, leading to some true outside-the-box level design. Highlights include a boss fight in a haunted casino where the key to winning involves using hot peppers and fruit, a sequence where you perform high-pressure water jet dentistry on a giant eel, and a showdown with a giant robot using a rollercoaster ride to your advantage. That kind of imaginative chaos just wouldn't have been possible without this aesthetic restriction.

Better still is that very imagination is still grounded in Nintendo's iconic polish and movement fundamentals. Detractors of the game love to bring up the "secret" sequences, levels where Mario has to get to a goal without using FLUDD, as "the only good parts," but it shows just how firm a foundation the game has. For all of the pearl-clutching of FLUDD dumbing things down, it never takes anything away and adds greater appreciation for those areas where you need that extra boost.

 

In its own coy way, the very trappings of the game suggests the appeal isn't necessarily challenge but the setting itself. Why would a place meant for relaxation have death traps to begin with? This becomes doubly apparent when you remember that Isle Delfino is a vacation resort, and the antagonist of the game is a little kid whose big plan amounts to getting Mario arrested and thrown in jail for large-scale vandalism. in terms of tone and pacing, this isn't the end of the world but a simple farcical odyssey.

Mario facing a giant ghost on top of a large roulette wheel
I got 500 coins on purple!

Even the game's cinematic storytelling aspirations helped widen what a Mario story could be. If Super Mario Sunshine hadn't proved it was actually possible to thread a story between its levels, we may have been denied the moving children's storybook structure of the Star Festival and the introduction of Rosalina, a character with arguably the most tragic and beautiful origin story in the entire franchise, in the series' next installment, Super Mario Galaxy.

In fact, this is not the first time Nintendo made a big change in this series. There was another time they had a Super Mario game that was a drastic change to their formula. It added in easier elements, unique worlds, locations, and characters never seen before. It was even derided for being too easy and straying too far from its core. That game was the international release of Super Mario Bros. 2. That game gave us playable Princess Peach, Shy Guys, and many more elements that have gone on to become staples.

This gets to the heart of why Super Mario Sunshine is so divisive. When people demanded something more challenging and thoughtful, the game was content with just being lighthearted fun. When more critical voices demanded evolution and refinement, the developers experimented with jetpacks and a tropical island setting. It was one of those rare times where Nintendo decided to loosen their collective ties and get a little weird with their franchise, which has only made its odd design decisions stand out more among its peers.

Mario on the back of a large bird made out of sand
Trust me, without FLUDD this would have been absolutely impossible.

But now with 14 years of perspective, a lot of those odd design decisions hold up. The more serene atmosphere and low-stakes scenario works in Super Mario Sunshine's favor, giving it its own identity when compared to its other entries. I am glad more players are able to experience it with fresh eyes outside of the tumult of its original release.

Plus, it's the only game in the collection where Mario can wear a pair of sunglasses and ride a Yoshi, making it the best game in the collection bar none.


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Staff Writer

Born in 1990, Tyler Chancey's earliest memories were of an NES controller in his hands, and with it a passion that continued into his adulthood. He's written for multiple sites, has podcasted, and has continued to shape and encourage new talent to greater heights.