Super Mario Sunshine. Mario’s second foray into a three-dimensional plane built on the foundation of 1996’s Super Mario 64. It gave Mario a new way to get around (the F.L.U.D.D. jetpack-gizmo) and sent him out of the Mushroom Kingdom. It also featured an unmistakable pro-environment bent, wherein Mario had to clean up an island coated in pollution. And, of all the games that came out for the GameCube, none had better weather.
Earlier this month, current-gen players were reintroduced (or, in some cases, introduced) to Sunshine as part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a Switch-exclusive collection of the first three 3D Mario platformers, all touched up in high definition. In the wake of the collection’s release, a couple of us debated the merits of this sunny game.
Ari Notis: Welcome, welcome! It is my understanding, Zack, that you are not a fan of Super Mario Sunshine, the best 3D Mario platformer. Can you tell me why you think this way? What justifies these treasonous, heretical beliefs?
Zack Zwiezen: Hello! Just checking, did you misspell Odyssey really badly when you put down Sunshine in that sentence? Because that is actually the best 3D Mario game. But, yes, I’m not a big fan of Sunshine. Though I also want to point out that I don’t hate it entirely or think it’s some awful, garbage game. I just find it very... mediocre when compared to previous and later Mario games.
Ari: Well, now, with Super Mario 3D All-Stars, people get a chance to try out Sunshine alongside its immediate predecessor and successor, Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy, respectively. Have you had a chance to try these games out in their newer, slightly shinier states? I’ll fully admit: I’m coming from the perspective of rose-colored glasses.
Zack: I have not played the collection yet! I did recently play Galaxy via (Nintendo don’t read this part) emulation and it was great. But the last time I played Sunshine was... probably six or more years ago at this point? I don’t like to go back to it. I’ll even admit here, just to be transparent, I’ve never beaten it. I’ve watched some folks, like Giant Bomb, stream it all the way through, but I’ve personally never had the desire or interest in playing it all the way though. I assume you have beaten it at least once or twice?
Ari: Twice, yup. It was one of the first games I played on the GameCube, and I ran through it once again in college, because sometimes you get snowed into your dorm during an especially brutal winter and need to vicariously soak in some warmth through what has to be the most irrepressibly sunny setting in video game history. I mean, I know you harp on the game’s supposed mediocrity—which we can totally get to in a sec—but can you really say that Isle Delfino isn’t just the coolest?
Zack: I actually don’t like the look of Sunshine all that much. In fact, in preparing for this chat I jotted down some thoughts I had about the game and this is what I wrote down about the look of the island: Mario looks out of place in this world, and everything seems too washed out and appears cheap and garish. I feel like I’m at a themed hotel in a terrible part of Florida. The water does look nice, though. And I like that Mario has rolled up his sleeves.
Ari: First off, let’s agree that all parts of Florida are terrible, unless enough of the state’s congressional districts do the right thing on November 3.
But isn’t that washed-out look part of its charm? I loved that, when you start out, everything is all shaded and dreary, like you booked a vacation but completely forgot to check the weather beforehand. And then, as you go, as you collect more Shine Sprites, the city center becomes incrementally sunnier. And it’s like, “hey, things are looking up!” It was a novel and tangible way to show your progression. You earned that washed-out look.
Zack: As someone who grew up in Florida, you are correct.
And sure, I think that’s an interesting way to show progression, I just don’t think it looks all that great. It really looks bad when you compare it to Galaxy. And not even from a “This is a Gamecube game and this is a Wii game” point of view. Just artistically, I don’t like looking at Sunshine.
Ari: That’s totally fair. If someone set a game in a location that constantly reminded me of where I grew up, I’d get pretty sick of it, too. So I hear that. But is it a blanket dislike? Can you even not stand some of the truly unique areas, like that amusement park zone? How about the gameplay and platforming in the zones outside of the town center?
Zack: There’s that level/area where the sun is setting and you can see the amusement park in the distance. (I forgot what it was named.) I liked that place! As for the gameplay, I remember the last time I played it I was shocked at how stiff Mario feels to control compared to other Mario games. Part of this is because you are supposed to rely on F.L.U.D.D. more, which I get, but I never cared much for how F.L.U.D.D. made Mario feel so limited and weak. In comparison, I think Odyssey did a great job adding a new piece of gear to Mario that worked well with him and didn’t feel like it was cramping his style too much.
Ari: Mario is indeed a bit clunkier, which is why I—breaking from widespread consensus here—wasn’t a huge fan of the levels that take F.L.U.D.D. away from you. But on the flip side, F.L.U.D.D. is so fun! Like, sure, Mario can’t jump that well. But then you’d unlock those extra nozzles. And then you’re able to launch yourself four stories into the air with a rocket. Or get all F-Zero with the Turbo nozzle. Who needs a flawless triple jump when you can break the sound barrier? Such a blast! (Not sorry for the pun.)
Zack: And then you get to an area and have the wrong nozzle… I was getting ready to bring up how much better the levels without F.L.U.D.D. are and now I find out you didn’t like them. Like those levels, well, most of them, are great and I feel like they ended up being the basis of 3D World and 3D Land.
Ari: Yeah, I see that, which I guess gets at another thing that makes Sunshine so great: You can feel how foundational it is to the future of Mario. Super Mario 64, for all its merits, took something that sang in two dimensions and transposed it to three (to put it in the most reductive terms possible lol). But Sunshine staked ground with a new game mechanic, a new-ish villain, and a new setting outside of the Mushroom Kingdom. And a lot of that stuff just turned out to be a one-off, if you don’t count cameo appearances in Mario Kart or Smash or whatnot. It proved that Mario could be an innovative series, rather than an iterative one, and, I’d argue, even paved the way for Odyssey’s eventually more out-there elements.
Zack: Sure! You can feel Nintendo getting more experimental with Sunshine. They were willing to try some stuff, even if it didn’t work perfectly. And I do respect that aspect of Sunshine. But on the other hand, it also feels a bit sloppy compared to other Mario games. The amount of bugs and weird glitches I’ve seen, both on the new port and in the old original, is wild. And then you have really bad ideas... like the blue coin nonsense.
Ari: Hold up. What do you have against blue coins?!
Zack: In this game, they are terrible. Having to track them down to unlock shines wasn’t fun. And there wasn’t a great way to manage your collection of found and not found. It felt like filler, as a way to make the game longer. Like how you fight Shadow Mario 200 times, but it’s the same thing, just a new area. Or the other recycled bosses that pop up multiple times.
Ari: Okay, yeah, I’ll give it to you—Shadow Mario is the absolute worst, and I see how the blue coins could be irritating, even if I’m not totally sold on that point. (I think they’re fun!) But a lot of that stuff could be chalked up to the fact that video games just weren’t as user-friendly 17 years ago as they are now. Is some of your dislike for the game a result of the fact that it lacks many of the design mechanics and decisions we may take for granted today?
Zack: That’s true! And it gets back to something I’ve been trying to do for years: Be more critical of the past things you loved. (Or in this case, others loved.) I see a LOT of folks who are praising Sunshine and explaining how it’s their first Mario game and how much they love it. And I think it’s good to step back and look at older games, warts and all, and not just see them as these great things, but as flawed though still fun experiences.
But I also get it. It’s 2020 and the world sucks. So I get going back to Sunshine for many right now is a form of self care and a way to go back to what was probably a simpler time. And I hope nobody takes my criticism of Sunshine too seriously or thinks I want them to stop playing it! I just find it to be a really meh game that’s part of a franchise that usually is so much better.
However, we haven’t actually discussed the worst part of Sunshine. So, as we get ready to wrap this up, I want to make sure I get a chance to quickly mention it.
Ari: Hit me.
Zack: Yoshi is in this game. Yoshi is bad, normally, but in this game his juice nonsense is just the worst. And the way he can’t touch water.
Ari: Oh, man, no way! The Yoshi juice added Metroidvania elements—or, well, Metroidvania-lite, I guess—which is yet another fun wrinkle in the gameplay. Also, free fruit juice. You can’t tell me Mario doesn’t need a boost to his Vitamin C levels.
Zack: I don’t think Mario wants to drink dinosaur vomit. But I don’t know the man. What I do know is that Nintendo needs to bring Super Mario Galaxy 2 to the Switch at some point before I (Nintendo skip this next part) emulate it. And I’m also happy that Sunshine is a game that is different. I’ll always be happy when Nintendo tries something different, even if I don’t always enjoy the results.
Ari: That’s something we can agree on: When Nintendo gets creative, it really is a ray of sunshine.
Zack: (Because of your pun, I hate Sunshine more now.)