Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week is a change from the last few thoughtful and dark shooters, with a favourite that is almost as divisive as it is cheery and fun.
#24. SUPER MARIO SUNSHINE, by Michael Cripe
Super Mario 64 is regarded by many as the most important game ever made. At its worst, the game’s influence is wide reaching and insurmountable on a number of levels. From Bob-omb Battlefield to Bowser’s Castle, the Nintendo 64’s platformer of perfection not only ushered in 3D platforming but 3D movement in gaming as a whole. After the reception—both critical and commercial—careened through the stratosphere, only one question remained: where does Nintendo take the Italian Plumber from here? Some dreamt of a souped-up version of Super Mario 64 called Super Mario 128 that would feature twice the levels, twice the playable characters, and twice the fun. The reality of what was planned behind the scenes, though, was the infamous, risk-taking Super Mario Sunshine.
At some point after Super Mario 64, someone on the development team likely said “you know what Mario needs? A talking water jetpack.” A second stroke of genius would come later, of course, when the game’s premise of cleaning up a graffiti-ridden city would come to fruition.
All jokes aside, for a game that was supposed to be the follow-up to one of the most innovative titles ever produced, some of the initial information about Super Mario Sunshine was off-putting to say the least.
By the time the Nintendo 64 had run its course, the era of the GameCube was approaching. Fans knew that Nintendo needed a home run as did Nintendo, so the stakes and anticipation were high. Sure, the sunny settings of a tropical island and Mario’s monumental increase in polygons were impressive, but the game just gave off a weird vibe in its Space World 2001 trailer.
Another year passed and the sequel final saw its release. To this day, the game’s quality is debated. However, most would recognize that the sunny sequel grows on a lot of its predecessor’s shortcomings.
Super Mario Sunshine is one of the tightest controlling games ever made. If responsive controls are the game’s bread and butter, then the cohesive level design is the main course. Looking out from a Ferris wheel in one zone yields the view of an ocean that looks full of life.
Across the wavy waters, though, are other locales that Mario can visit on a whim, granting physicality not seen in Mario games since. The subtle increase in lighting with each Shine Sprite collected and heat waves present when looking into the distance do not hurt this sense of impact on the world either. In more ways than one, Super Mario Sunshine is a technical marvel, especially for its time.
The camera is not ideal, but still stands a platform above its predecessor’s Lakitu option, and the generally challenging level design ebbs and flows in all the right ways. For example, the notorious F.L.U.D.D. accompanies Mario on his graffiti clean-up journey and serves a number of purposes. F.L.U.D.D. expands on Mario’s move set with the hover nozzle, making for controls that utilize the GameCube controller’s particular design.
Controlling Mario with the water pack feels natural, as the device is more of an extension of the plumber’s classic moves than a redefinition. To account for players becoming too reliant on this new crutch, some segments of the game strip the talking jetpack away. These sections provide genuine tension, as even a slight miscalculation can lead to death.
Super Mario Sunshine is at its best when taking advantage of challenges and newly introduced mechanics , but the negatives are impossible to ignore.
Two words: blue coins. Though not necessary for completing the game, blue coins contradict gameplay that normally encourages freedom of movement. Upon collecting each of the 240 blue buggers, players will be halted by a pop-up menu asking if they would like to save their progress. Some areas are littered with blue coins, leading to laughable moments of constant stop-and-go.
Sadly, some of these oversights can likely be chalked up to a rushed development. Many aspects of the game are pretty polished and it shows, even if the more glaring problems like unskippable cutscenes or some missions that feel like nothing more than fluff also manage to occasionally stick out.
What the game passes on as a story is as comedic. In short, Mario is heading to vacation away from the Mushroom Kingdom to the beautiful Isle Delfino. To his surprise upon arrival, the city has fallen under darkness thanks to a Mario clone who has covered every sidewalk and landmark in “icky, paint-like goop.”
Hilariously, Mario is tried for the crimes of the doppelganger, which leads to a full-on, five-minute court scene that involves Mario behind bars, unskippable dialogue, and Princess Peach shouting “objection.” As part of his community service sentencing, Mario must clean up all the graffiti and collect all of the town missing Shine Sprites. You cannot make this stuff up, really.
Despite the cutscene’s absurdity, these qualities set Super Mario Sunshine apart not only from the rest of the Mario games, but other games in general. The cutscene should certainly have the option to skip it, at least upon repeat visits, but that does not stop the wholly original tone this game opens up with. Not a single thing in Super Mario Sunshine is ripped from any other title before it. Any relics of the past are derived from its own franchise, and even then the improvements make Super Mario Sunshine unrecognizable.
Future iterations on the Mario formula would resort back to power-ups, a reliance on familiar enemies, and less unique quirks. Of course, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a great game and its use of power-ups does not detract from its quality. The thing is that the same-old-same-old cannot fuel the Nintendo flagship forever. Nintendo needs more risks like the leap of faith that is Super Mario Sunshine. Thankfully, Super Mario Odyssey takes a step in the right direction, but Sunshine short hopped so that Odyssey could long jump.
When a game is as successful as Super Mario 64, nothing is more logical for a publisher than to order a healthy dose of the same but slightly different for a follow-up. Thankfully, back when the GameCube released, Nintendo had more in mind than just playing things safe.
Super Mario Sunshine should not exist. Instead of holding its cards close to its chest with the overdone and predictable, Nintendo opted for the pipe less traveled in every conceivable way. A doubling down on narrative, redefinition of gameplay, and drastically new look stand in direct opposition to the smart thing to do. The result is a seemingly rushed game with plenty of issues, yes, but Super Mario Sunshine will always remain an example of creativity and uniqueness shining through the darkness that is an industry chained by the need to make money by way of safety.
Creativity and, most importantly, art need to take risks to push the boundaries of what is possible. Super Mario Sunshine’s linearity and blue coins are a stain on the history of the Mario formula, but the vacation away from the predictable should always be looked back at fondly.
Thanks for joining us for one of the least likely, but still worthy, Super Mario games. Do you have a favourite Mario game of any kind—why not join in the discussion below? Next week’s game could not be more different from a Nintendo romp, as we look at a titan of one of this list’s best represented genres. In the meantime, you can follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.