I first played Super Mario Sunshine on the Wii, using the original GameCube disk. I enjoyed the sunny graphics, but it was just too hard for ten-year-old me. I couldn’t get past the first boss fight at Pinna Park or the first shine of Ricco Harbor. So, after a few weeks of trying, I gave up and moved on to other things.
Now, though, I’m back with a vengeance.
Last time, when I reviewed Super Mario 64, I covered a game that everyone loves. This time? Well, it’s not so simple. Super Mario Sunshine is probably the most controversial Mario game ever made. While there are no outright bad Mario games, there are a few that almost no one will really defend — the New Super Mario Bros. series comes to mind, as well as, if we’re willing to go there, Hotel Mario on the CD-i (actually, I take back what I said; that one is a bad Mario game, and it’s why Nintendo doesn’t license its characters anymore). But Super Mario Sunshine is better than those overshadowed younger siblings. It has to be, simply by virtue of being a full-fat 3D Mario experience. The question is whether it can really join the ranks of the big boys, the likes of Galaxy and Odyssey and 64. Some people insist that it should, and some people swear that it couldn’t. My answer? Well…you’ll have to read the review to find out, won’t you?
As always, we’re splitting this review into three sections: Presentation, Mechanics, and Structure. For Super Mario 64, I didn’t follow this format, but I feel that it’s appropriate for Sunshine because I do actually have something to say about the game’s story and the progression of a player through it. So, without further ado, let’s-a-go!
I think mechanics and structure vary in relative importance depending on the game. For example, an RPG with a poor story and bad quest design, but good mechanics, will be more frustrating in the long run than an RPG with clunky mechanics but a good story and passable quest design. For a shooter, though, the opposite would be true; mechanics would reign supreme. However, unless you’re playing a visual novel, the presentation — things like graphics and writing — is never going to be the most crucial part of a game’s experience unless it makes things irredeemably, unplayably awful. So I think it’s best to cover it first.
As far as graphics go, Super Mario Sunshine leaves little to complain about. I’ve been playing the Switch rerelease, and the HD rendering makes the game look genuinely good, even from a modern perspective. It’s bright, colorful, and cheery, and just looking at the game makes me happy. In this day and age, in 2020, what more can we ask for? Even the water looks pretty good, which is impressive for such an old game.
The music is similarly pleasing. The Delfino Plaza theme is obviously a bop, but Ricco Harbor is my personal favorite. Even the secret level theme, an initially-objectionable acapella rendition of the Super Mario Bros. main theme, grows on you over time, even as the levels themselves…don’t. And, while I haven’t mentioned the other songs, they’re all good in their own way — never once did I want to mute the game or find that the soundtrack was making a frustrating level feel even worse, the way I did with some of the Celeste B-sides.
In terms of general tone, Super Mario Sunshine feels much more like a modern Mario game than its elder cousin. Sure, the tropical theme is unusual, but you have all the usual staples: Princess Peach gets kidnapped (though not right at the beginning), there are annoying Toads around, you can ride Yoshi, and the list goes on. Mostly, though, what made me feel at home was the writing. Super Mario 64 felt like it was aimed younger than a typical Mario title, even though I, a player nearly old enough to be the parent of a child of my own, struggled at times to beat it. Super Mario Sunshine, though, invents the Mario series’ consistent E10+-sure-give-it-to-your-kid-but-they’ll-need-to-be-12-to-actually-finish-it packaging, and the dialogue is part of that; it’s not as juvenile as before, although, you know, it’s still Mario.
I think that’s pretty much it for presentation. There is actually one more thing I wanted to discuss in this column, but it weaves into the game’s story as well…so you’ll have to read on to the Structure section to find out what it is. Overall, Super Mario Sunshine doesn’t disappoint in the presentation department. The game looks, and sounds, like it should be one of the greats. It’s the mechanics that would…suggest otherwise.
Mechanics are especially important for a platformer like Mario. If the basic act of jumping doesn’t feel good and work well, then nothing else is going to either. And when a game box says Mario on the front, you know that’s a promise to the player, a promise that the game’s mechanics, at least, will be exactly as desired. Does Sunshine deliver on that promise? Well…read on.
The first thing I’d like to discuss is the camera. My review of Super Mario 64found that the game’s biggest, most glaring issue was that the camera was essentially nonfunctional. So if Super Mario Sunshine were to suffer from the same problems, that would be a great (or, well, not great) indicator of where it fell on the quality spectrum. Fortunately, things are better this time around. Most importantly, there is a functional right stick that allows you to spin the camera largely as desired. Also, you have the ability to center the camera behind Mario, where it damn well belongs, thank you very much, with a quick tap of the left trigger. Between these various improvements, I rarely found myself running into the kind of controller-smashing camera moments I regularly experienced in 64. There are some hiccups, though. Whenever you’re in a small, enclosed area — the Noki Bay ruins level is awful for this — the camera really starts to fail, and you have to battle it as you navigate what’s already a patience-testing maze. One Shine, the Ferris Wheel one in Pinna Park, is needlessly difficult because of the amount of time you have to spend platforming up a cramped vertical tube where the camera is constantly having a seizure, but luckily you can cheat to skip that section, which is what I did. Overall, however, the camera has improved enough from 64 to not be the main source of frustration, and that, at least, is a relief.
The game does tend to suffer in the control department, though. There are no attacks besides jumping, which honestly feels like an oversight; any 3D platformer needs a way to reliably take out enemies without resorting to a jump, which can be unreliable. Mario feels as great as he always has to move, but with the left trigger bound to the camera and the right trigger bound to F.L.U.D.D., nothing is left over for Mario’s signature crouch. You can still ground pound; the left trigger does that, but only when Mario is in the air. The lack of crouching really blows, frankly. My two favorite moves from the 3D Mario games are the long jump and the backflip, but you can’t do either in Sunshine. Instead, you have to rely on the backwards somersault, which can more or less replace the backflip but does nothing to supplement Mario’s normal jump distance the way the long jump can. The best you can do, in terms of clearing wide gaps, is the spin jump. The spin jump! The spin jump is probably the most niche, difficult-to-execute move in Mario, and now you actually have to use it sometimes. Why, God, why?
I’m not saying that the crouch moves were essential to a Mario title, even if they were my favorites. But the game chooses to replace them with something that is, in my opinion, totally inadequate. Enter F.L.U.D.D. (Dramatic music plays). F.L.U.D.D. is fun at best, clunky and hard-to-use at worst. You could almost beat the whole game without it — I think it’s really only mandatory on a couple of bosses — but since I had it, and since I didn’t have a couple of other tools I had grown used to, I needed something to fill the gaps. And, indeed, that’s what F.L.U.D.D. is supposed to do; its hover nozzle, easily the most important nozzle, is in constant use for everything from stunning enemies to extending jumps. The problem is, using F.L.U.D.D. completely kills your momentum, leaving you crawling through the air at a snail’s pace. My wall-climbing technique — somersault, wall kick, use F.L.U.D.D. to turn around in midair and gain height to be able to grab the ledge — took probably twice as long as if the game had been Super Mario Odyssey and I had had Cappy instead. It also means that gaps you think should be possible to clear often end up being too wide, since running starts don’t really help when F.L.U.D.D. just eats the extra speed.
As for the other main nozzle, the spray nozzle, it felt pretty worthless, to be honest. I was very glad that the muck-cleanup aspect of the game kind of went out the window after the first few levels, because the spray nozzle just doesn’t work that well. If you use the right trigger to spray while running, you only clean a narrow path approximately five feet in front of you, and this technique doesn’t work at all when going down slopes — if there’s goop, you’ll hit it and take damage. On the other hand, using the various stationary-fire modes, which require either holding the right shoulder button or clicking the right stick, looking where you want to aim, and squeezing the trigger, feels clunky. Aiming is always hard — there’s no crosshair and it feels a bit too sensitive — so on boss fights where it was required, particularly Petey Piranha, I ended up missing opportunities to deal damage because I was fighting with the water jet instead. Almost no enemy is actually damaged by the spray nozzle, just stunned or knocked back, so it’s useless as a weapon and can’t replicate, say, Cappy’s role in that respect. Finally, the missions that required you to use it the most — the Shadow Mario levels — were some of the game’s most underwhelming. While I like using F.L.U.D.D., I can’t help but feel like Sunshine might have been better without it.
Lastly for the game’s mechanics, and I guess this goes under Mechanics and not Structure, the use of powerups was a little odd. The few things that might count as “powerups” — Yoshi, the rocket and turbo nozzles — were barely used at all. In 64, what powerups there were were actually required for a few stars, and in Galaxy and Odyssey Nintendo took a more conventional approach to them, but in Sunshine…well, there’s almost nothing. Off the top of my head, you do have to use Yoshi to progress a couple of times, and the alternative nozzles were available sometimes as shortcuts, but they were never mandatory. There’s not even any kind of cutscene or fanfare when you equip them for the first time. Though I don’t object to a Mario game having few or no powerups, I just wonder why they were included at all — they’re just so unimportant.
So much for Mechanics. Sunshine does feel good to play…most of the time. When it doesn’t, though, it really doesn’t, so much so that you kind of wish that Nintendo had spent more time making everything fit together a little better. It almost seems like some levels were designed without the new F.L.U.D.D. mechanics in mind. Speaking of which…
We’ve arrived at the final part of the review: the one in which I cover the game’s Structure. For Super Mario Sunshine, I feel that that term mostly applies to level design, game progression, and (unusually for a Mario game) cutscenes. I’ll be honest: I feel that this is the worst part of the Sunshine experience. The game’s other foibles — the camera, the limited controls — pale in comparison to some of the crimes against fun that I’ll cover in this section. So, without further ado, let’s get into it, starting with level design.
I don’t know what it is about Super Mario Sunshine. The game is colorful and happy, with cheery music and lighthearted writing. But it also makes me angry. I get madder, faster, playing Sunshine than any other Mario game. Why? Well, I think part of it has to do with the level design. Take Ricco Harbor, for instance. The first shine, Gooper Blooper Breaks Out, has you platforming across the harbor before finally fighting a boss. The problem is that the platforming isn’t the easiest, especially if you’re still unused to F.L.U.D.D., and one misstep means plunging into the ocean, at which point you have to swim all the way back to the beginning. That’s incredibly frustrating, as you can imagine, and the same kind of thing keeps happening throughout the Sunshine experience. Sirena Beach has you fighting the game’s hardest boss in a battle that can take more than ten minutes. The problem is, it’s not a test of skill, but rather of patience, since camping in the surf at the edge of the map guarantees that you’ll be safe enough. One false move, though, and you’re juggled around from enemy to enemy — Mario has no invincibility frames, like this was on the NES — before dying and having to start all over again. Or, again, Ricco Harbor — the second Blooper mission has you rocketing around the harbor collecting red coins, but running into any obstacle means death, and you can’t slow down enough to guarantee your safety. The worst part is that the biggest challenge in that mission is actually jumping back onto the dock to collect the Shine, something that led, for me, to many, many deaths and endless frustration. The game is full of so many missions like that that sometimes it feels like it doesn’t want you to enjoy it.
But the normal missions aren’t the half of it! Every world has at least one “secret” mission, all of which are required to complete the game. You have to platform through a cut-and-paste world of toy blocks and generic baddies, but there are no checkpoints and few 1-ups, and any slip lands you in a bottomless pit. Some of these levels are incredibly difficult; The Hotel Lobby’s Secret, for example, took me two and a half hours of attempts to complete. Partly, this is because Mario’s moveset is very limited without F.L.U.D.D.; he has no way to extend jumps and no way to hang in the air even a bit longer than gravity would allow. That means that the experience is very unforgiving. It’s okay for video game levels to be hard, of course. I really enjoyed the Darker Side in Super Mario Odyssey, even if it did take me dozens upon dozens of attempts. But the secret levels aren’t hard in a way that feels fair, and when I beat them, I didn’t feel like I had achieved something worth achieving, just that I had beaten a game that hated me. The fact that Game Overs are a thing in Sunshine meant that I periodically had to go all the way back through Delfino Plaza and the level the Secret was hidden in to try again, which only added to my rage.
And often, when a Shine isn’t frustratingly difficult to collect, it’s just incredibly cryptic. For example, The Boss of Tricky Ruins in Noki Bay had me wandering the level for upwards of half an hour, searching for the one pathway that would lead me to the place I was trying to go, with near to no guidance as to what, exactly, I was even looking for. Mysterious Hotel Delfino in Sirena Beach forces players to search a hotel top to bottom, trying to find the secret way to grab a pineapple and thus unlock Yoshi and a Shine, with almost no information given to help. There were quite a few missions along those lines, where I didn’t know exactly what I had to do. I’m not saying that everything in a video game has to be exactly clear, but I’d like to at least know what the puzzle is that I’m trying to solve. Before you call me a filthy casual, know that I found that Super Mario 64, an older, worse-designed game, was generally clearer in its directions than Sunshine. Sure, the little hints weren’t always enough, but at least they told you where, generally, you were supposed to be searching.
This crypticness could extend to progression as well. You’re never told what is actually required to beat the game, so I, this time a filthy casual through and through, had to Google it. All you have to do is beat the first seven missions of each level. Bonus stages in Delfino Plaza, like the infamous pachinko machine? Waste of time. Blue coin hunts? No need. And, unlike in Super Mario 64, where you could get any 70 stars you wanted, including secret stars, or Super Mario Galaxy, which had the same system, or Super Mario Odyssey, which required you to get 124 moons out of 999(!), you have to get those 49 Shines to unlock the final level. No other Shines need be collected if all you want to do is see the end credits, and, in fact, trying to get them is a complete waste of time. This leaves you with no alternative ways to progress. I hated those accursed secret levels so much that I would gladly have done the pachinko machine or whatever else instead of them, but I didn’t have that option. Why are there even optional Shines if they don’t count towards progressing through the game? And why are you encouraged to get them all, every single one, if the reward is (spoiler alert) incredibly lame? It’s mystifying, almost as mystifying as those stupid Noki Ruins.
I’ve spent long enough now kvetching about the game’s design that I think it’s time to move on to dialogue and voice acting. The fact that I needed to include a section for this shows just how unusual Super Mario Sunshine is. The game has fully-voiced cutscenes, and honestly…they’re just weird. It’s unsettling to hear Bowser Jr. speaking in complete sentences, or to have Mario be constantly lectured by his sidekick, F.L.U.D.D. Ironically, even though Sunshine usually has too little guidance, F.L.U.D.D. always talked too much, so much so that I found myself laughing out loud when asked if I wanted to hear its explanations again. Besides that one little issue, though, there’s really nothing wrong with the cutscenes. It’s just that they feel like they don’t belong. Mario has never had fully-voice-acted cutscenes since, and I feel like that’s because Nintendo agreed with my take. Breath of the Wild is strange for the same reason; after so many years of Nintendo’s shoestring VA budget, having more effort put is almost unsettling.
I guess that’s about it for Structure. This game drove me bonkers, to be completely honest, and that was always because some of the game design decisions made were completely mystifying. Still, though, things mostly work as expected. You play the levels, beat them, and then go on to a final boss fight; pretty standard for a Mario game. The problems I found were more of a result of my expectations for the Mario series than of the game’s actual quality. So what was the verdict? Well…read on.
Super Mario Sunshine can be aggravating. Despite its sunny presentation and generally tight controls, it can feel like the game doesn’t want you to enjoy it. Reviewers generally agree that this one could have used a little more time in the oven, and I tend to feel the same way. Nintendo’s current strategy of letting games stew for as long as they need, even if they come out painfully behind schedule, stems from the twin disappointments of Sunshine and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker; neither were really bad games, but clearly needed a bit more TLC. It has its fun parts, though, and sometimes, briefly, you really do feel like you’re on vacation. Isn’t that the best we can do in 2020?