I am, quite simply, a Mario fan through and through. There hasn’t been a Mario game I haven’t liked, even Mario spin-off games like the Party series or any of his sports titles (perhaps not counting Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games). But after playing Super Mario 3D Land and loving it, I started to hear rumblings from the Internet about his other great games. Naturally, the classic 2D games were mentioned, as was Super Mario 64 and the pair of Galaxy games. But Super Mario Sunshine was missing, and if it were mentioned at all it was as an example of a bad Mario game. How could this be? Well, as Mario’s #1 fan it’s my duty to break through the muck and say loud and clear that Super Mario Sunshine is without a doubt a Game You Should Have Played.
Let’s set the stage for why some people just weren’t happy with Mario’s GameCube outing. The year is 2000 and people are excited to see what the GameCube can offer. During a tech demo, and if knowledge serves me correctly it was the same tech demo that showed what Link and Ganondorf could look like on the ‘Cube (please don’t quote me on that!), a video detailing a supposed game called Super Mario 128, the proposed sequel to Super Mario 64, was teased. Being the usual characters that gamers are, our first and only assumption was that the tech demo was a definite statement of the game’s existence, showing over a hundred Marios running around, traversing spherical platforms. Naturally, we were confused when we instead got Super Mario Sunshine.
To quell some fears regarding Super Mario 128, while the game was scrapped, the concepts certainly were not. A number of other games were born from the ideas it created, such as Pikmin, Twilight Princess, and Super Mario Galaxy. And also, according to Nintendo, Super Mario Sunshine, a game that couldn’t actually run on either the PS2 or Xbox due to the amount of colors its graphic used (fun facts!).
The basic plot of Sunshine is actually a lot different than most Mario games. No, not so different that Peach isn’t kidnapped and Bowser isn’t the Big Bad once again (that never changes), but the overall game is a drastic shift away from any other Mario game to date and stands alone as something wholly unique. All Mario games include the usual grass levels, water levels, snow/ice levels, fire/lava levels, sand levels, and underground levels, plus perhaps a castle, fortress, or haunted house for good measure. Sunshine, thankfully, does not include any of these as we know them.
Instead, Sunshine gives us a tropical village, a beach, a harbor, an amusement park, a scenic waterfall, a hotel, a village suspended by gigantic palm trees, and a resort island as the hub world. Can you catch the theme here? Everything takes place on the vacation hot-spot Isle Delfino and revolves around that one unified theme. It’s like Mario just went on holiday and we all got to join him.
I absolutely love this concept and need to stop and let it sink in. Mario is one of those characters that people whine on about never changing his formula, never switching things up or doing things different. Sunshine was a very clear attempt to try something different than every other Mario game, both with the setting and the gameplay mechanics themselves, still completely unique again to Sunshine. People forget that everything was different- not bad different but just different- and as a result Sunshine was one of Mario’s least successful adventures. Why would anyone wonder why Nintendo hasn’t taken any real risks with him since?
Speaking of that gameplay, this time around Mario is joined by a sentient hydropack named FLUDD that dispenses useful information while also acting as a spray nozzle, a hoverpack, a jetpack, and a propeller. Water and graffiti are at the center of everything as Mario is mistaken for someone who’s been painting the island in sludge, easily cleaned with a few squirts of water. The platforming is drastically different than most Mario games thanks to the hover feature of FLUDD (no longjump here), but that doesn’t mean the game is easy.
Oh man, the highlight of the game comes when you encounter your first secret level. Each stage had one or two, placed in a cave or open doorway or some such, and when Mario jumped inside he’d be teleported to a place that can only be described as Platforming Hell. FLUDD would be taken from you (eliminating your hover feature safety net) and you’d be expected to get to the end of some of the most difficult Mario stages in his long history. Each level would be just a series of elaborate challenges suspended over insta-death that’d push you to utilize Mario’s primal skills with triple jumps, flips, wall jumps, and careful timing. These challenges were just straight up hard, and they’re worth the price of admission all by themselves. Plus, a snazzy a cappella version of the Mario theme plays during these stages, and who doesn’t like that?
Still, the game isn’t without some drawbacks. For one, this is the only Mario game that contains a fully voice-acted script, meaning that Peach, Toadsworth, and sadly Bowser all have full speaking voices. Bowser Jr is cringe worthy, but when Bowser chimes in with what sounds like someone doing a mocking parody of the character, things go from uncomfortable to just plain painful. At least there isn’t a whole lot of this going on, so it’s by no means a deal breaker. I’m just saying Bowser sounded better in the Super Mario Bros Super Show.
Also frustrating are Blue Coins. In all other Mario games, Blue Coins are just coins that count for 5 coins or something similar, but here you must collect 10 to get a Shine Sprite (the Power Stars of this game). There are 120 Shines Sprites, just like Super Mario 64 had 120 Stars, but 24 of those Shines come from these Blue Coins, which are hidden everywhere in levels to the point of being ridiculously difficult to find. Some are hidden in obvious places, but then others pop out when you spray random objects, forcing you to spray everything like you have OCD. That was a bit much, but yet again, not enough to ruin the game for me.
Even though Sunshine gets a bad rap, a lot of Mario mainstays come from the little island including the Piantas, the Noki, Shadow Mario, Petey Piranha, Toadsworth, and even Bowser Jr. You can see the influence reaching to the Paper Mario series, the Mario Kart series, and even into some of the sports titles besides continuing trends set up here in the Galaxy games. Nintendo certainly hasn’t just abandoned the memory of Super Mario Sunshine, despite what many may believe.
Were I to come up with a hypothesis as to why Sunshine has such a bad reputation, I think it would come down to two reasons colliding head on. The first is that this was the Mario game on the GameCube, a system that only Nintendo hardcores seemed to love (such as myself, which is why it’s my favorite system). The second is that the game breaks away from so many Mario traditions that it’s a bit jarring at first. I mean, neither Koopas or Goombas even make an appearance, or a large handful of other classic Mario enemies, so longtime fans may have felt like this one didn’t technically “count” or something, especially owning to the cornerstone of the game being FLUDD and cleaning pollution from the game.
I think it was just unfortunate timing as the game is gorgeous to look at, even by today’s standards, has a soundtrack that’s severely under-appreciated as well, and was bold enough to try something very new in a series that’s been and still is regarded as formulaic to a fault.
Don’t let this absolute masterpiece go to waste. You’ve got a perfectly serviceable GameCube built into the Wii, so head out and find Super Mario Sunshine at a used games store. It can’t possibly be too expensive. Go play and enjoy. Besides, are there any other Mario games where Mario wears shades and a Hawaiian shirt? I didn’t think so.