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Why ‘Super Mario Sunshine’ is Good, Actually

The black sheep of the ‘Mario’ franchise shines through with its originality and storytelling, and that terrifies players.

Today, Nintendo finally dropped Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a veritable collection of three of the best games in the Mario franchise, if not all of video game-dom itself.

As someone that has nostalgia for all three of these games in different ways, I was excited to crack into the collection. I started with Super Mario 64, not just because it was the first, but also because it was a game I never fully experienced, having never owned a Nintendo 64. Loading it up, the game shows its age for sure—the graphics are outdated and the camera controls are kludgy — but this was a revelatory experience when it came out, showing people the potential of playing in three dimensions. I wanted to see it for myself without the constraint of being kicked off my friend’s N64.

The game starts off just as you remember: Peach orates a letter she wrote you — with oddly bad audio mixing I might add, Peach’s voice-over is barely audible through the music — asking you to come over for some cake. You arrive at the castle to discover that, hey!, Bowser has once again kidnapped the princess. He’s also used the power of the Power Stars to create numerous pocket dimensions, all reachable via magical paintings scattered throughout Peach’s castle.

It’s fascinating how much of the 3D Mario repertoire was solidified this early on: you got your triple jump, your ground pound, your wall kick, etcetera. And they all feel pretty good, letting you bound across the landscape relatively effortlessly.

So despite the growing vines of almost two decades, Super Mario 64 is still fun to play.

But then I got just two Power Stars and stopped.

Why? Well, I don’t know why. I just didn’t feel anything dragging me along, nothing to breathe life into the experience. It’s a mechanical marvel, a brilliant historical piece, and there are levels filled with that Nintendo wonder and charm, but the early goings-on just weren’t alive enough for me to immediately keep plugging away at.

“Alright,” I thought, “let me try Mario Galaxy.”

Super Mario Galaxy starts off just as you remember: Peach orates a letter she wrote you — with oddly bad audio mixing I might add, Peach’s voice-over is barely audible through the music — asking you to come over to receive a present. You arrive at the castle to discover that, hey!, Bowser has once again kidnapped the princess — and the whole castle too! He’s also used the power of the Power Stars to create a brand new galaxy, reachable only once you’ve collected enough stars of your own to travel to the center of the universe.

And the classic 3D Mario repertoire is there too: you got your triple jump, your ground pound, your wall kick…

Wait a second.

When compared back to back like this, it’s frankly shocking how much Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy trade in the exact same motifs. Yes, there will probably — unfortunately — always be a princess needing saving and goombas needing stomping, but the fact that so much of the desired 3D Mario oeuvre recycles these same icons — the letter, the stars, Peach, Bowser, kidnapping, the flying cap, that same goddamn castle — begs examination.

“But Dylan,” I hear you chirp. “You skipped Super Mario Sunshine. What about that game?”

Well dear reader, I’m glad you asked. Super Mario Sunshine is the perfect example of a game that breaks its predecessor’s (and, oddly, its successor’s) mold to go do something bold and original.

It’s also a game many people hate.

Why People Hate ‘Super Mario Sunshine’

First off, we should all acknowledge that Super Mario Sunshine’s vilified status is due somewhat in part to meme culture. Folks think it’s fun to pick on the oddball, and the psychoanalysis of latent otherism in that stance will have to be saved for another time.

But asking people why they dislike Sunshine usually results in one of two responses:

The first one is “the camera controls suck!” Which, okay, this is a franchise whose previous entry’s camera controls would be charitably described as “still figuring things out,” and were operated via four directional buttons, so I’ll go ahead and say that Mario Sunshine is also worthy of some slack. Not that I think its camera controls needs it. They’re fine.

Then comes Sunshine’s second criticism: “F.L.U.D.D. sucks!”

Now this one is interesting and is worth digging into.

First off, let’s address what F.L.U.D.D. represents intrinsically: a more expanded toolset. F.L.U.D.D., in case you don’t know, stands for Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device, an artificial intelligence-driven water pack that allows Mario to shoot water at high velocity at enemies. F.L.U.D.D. can also be equipped with other nozzles, letting Mario hover, rocket, and jet all across Sunshine’s Isle Delfino.

This is layered on top of Mario’s triple jump, ground pound, wall kick, etcetera, etcetera, making Sunshine’s locomotion and acrobatics one of the most expansive in the series. But the mechanical wackiness of F.L.U.D.D. makes it very easy for folks to go “I don’t want no Super Soaker in my Mario” and call it a day.

But let’s also address what F.L.U.D.D. represents extrinsically: a deviation from the norm.

Y’see, after the revelation that was Super Mario 64, I don’t think people really wanted anything new in their next Mario, but instead something identical to Mario 64 with the graphical fidelity that the GameCube was capable of. But to those folks’ chagrin, the GameCube era was one defined by creative experimentation. It’s one that gave us new ideas like Luigi’s Mansion and WarioWare.

It’s also an era that gave us The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Because of the game industry’s lack of institutionalized knowledge and historicity, you can be forgiven if you don’t remember how much Wind Waker was hated in its hay day. After The Legend of Zelda’s equivalent N64 watershed moment of Ocarina of Time, fans were ready for a dark, gritty, higher fidelity Zelda, especially after the now-infamous Legend of Zelda technical demonstration at Space World 2000 showed them what the future could entail:

But where people expected brooding fantasy in a battle of good versus evil, they instead got this:

Nintendo had changed the text that folks had to analyze, and their old understandings didn’t map perfectly to it, inciting rage. Again, folks didn’t want anything new. They wanted what they had, but better. Why force us to find joy in new creations when those old creations work just fine! Just make those again!

(Side note: it’s ironic then that the return to the stylings of that old Space World tech demo in Twilight Princess — my personal favorite Zelda represented the start of a downward inflection of the series, only for the franchise to be completely reinvented by Breath of the Wild.)

Anticipating folks’ response to the entries of franchised media is a tricky thing. As nostalgic fans of any work say, “I want to feel the same way I felt when I first experienced it.” In media like film and television, this is especially tricky because you’re trying to replicate an identical emotional response with a brand new story. There are ways to help this, sure, like how the Star Wars sequel trilogy trades in visuals and iconography of the original trilogy and avoids the sequel trilogy like the plague, ensuring audience-goers remain docile because too much change is scary.

And games try to do this too: again, look at how fans reacted when Nintendo chose not to replicate the visuals of Ocarina in Wind Waker and the about-face reflected in Twilight Princess. Beyond the visual, another easy way to ensure nostalgic players’ buy-in is to leave the game mechanics unchanged. Players expect games to play like their predecessors — or at least how they remember them playing — and any change is cause for concern.

So as much as Wind Waker has historically been the whipping boy for this impudent response to Nintendo trying new ideas, I believe Super Mario Sunshine has, over time, started to inherit some, if not most, of that burden. It’s not traditional Mario — there’s no letter, there’s no cake, there’s no castle, and there aren’t even Power Stars — and it’s a game that implies that Mario’s skillset could only be improved, forcing you to learn how to hover, shoot, and jet with F.L.U.D.D.

So after an uneven response to the GameCube era of experimentation, Nintendo chose instead to return us to the same Mario 64 motifs. From Galaxy to Odyssey, they all want to hit that nostalgia nail straight on the head and, eventually, return you to Peach’s castle. And what truly pains me is that Nintendo threw the baby out with the bathwater, losing what made Sunshine so great: its unique mechanics, its lived-in world and, most importantly, its story.

Why People Should Love ‘Super Mario Sunshine’

Games as a low art, just now breaking out of its nascent stage, are allowed to be many things — sometimes toys, sometimes sports, sometimes big-budget entertainment, but in the mainstream consciousness, games are still struggling to find the allowance to simply be stories.

Traditional storytelling in many (not all) games is seen mostly as a value-add — a thing that makes you stop momentarily and go “well, that’s nice,” in the midst of running, gunning, and jumping on stuff. And this, of course, is becoming less and less the case with each passing day, but we nevertheless have to stride further towards games as a vehicle for storytelling as opposed to storytelling just being a weak justification to string gameplay sequences together.

So it’s odd that the game I’m using to defend my pro-ludonarrative stance is Super Mario Sunshine, a product of a franchise that is the progenitor of “jumping on stuff.” But that’s just it: if Mario can be imbued with a good story, then the same should be true for any game.

Let’s break it down:

Super Mario Sunshine starts with Mario, Princess Peach, and Peach’s trusty advisor Toadsworth on their way to a vacation on Isle Delfino via the Toadstool royal jet. They all watch a taped advertisement for Isle Delfino’s resorts and attractions, as well as the succulent seafood on offer, which Mario drools over. In the back of one of the shots in the ad, Peach sees a mysterious figure that looks distinctly like Mario. She tries to voice her concern to the other two, but they’re too busy fantasizing about their R&R.

So before you get to any gameplay you get this:

  • Characterization for Mario beyond just blank avatar, who slides into the comic relief protagonist, easily distracted by food
  • More importantly: characterization for Peach, who gets more voiced lines in this scene than she does in most games and is pitched as the clear-headed character of the impromptu trio

The plane has to stop short on the runway, where a giant, sludgy Proto Piranha has taken up residence. Here, Mario finds and befriends F.L.U.D.D., and they work together to defeat it.

Immediately after saving the day, the local Delfinian police come and arrest Mario, convinced that he is the one that has covered the entire island in toxic waste, causing the island’s resident spirits, the Shine Sprites, to vanish from Defino Plaza. And after Sunshine momentarily turns into a courtroom procedural, Mario’s punishment is to clean the entire island.

Now what’s missing in this Mario game so far? There’s no Bowser, there’s no castle, there’s no kidnapping, no stars, no Koopas, no Goombas, none of that. Instead, we have an inciting action beyond “save the princess,” where Mario has been falsely accused in a court of law and must atone for another man’s sins. If you’re one for “tradition,” you’d immediately be thrown off by this game.

Later on, we find that the shadowy doppelganger— colloquially referred to as “Shadow Mario” — is in fact newcomer Bowser Jr., who has been convinced by his father, the Koopa King himself, that Peach is his biological mother and that Mario stole her from them. While this does lead the back half of the game into the traditional Mario motif of damsel in distress, the game at the very least earns it. Bowser instead of just kidnapping Peach weaves this false tale of a lost mother to his son, inciting him to do his dirty work.

This is all done, by the way, through actual, real-deal voice acting. I think we overlook the importance of giving a character a voice. Every Mario game before or since has characters converse through grunts, subtitles, and pantomiming. Peach may let out a “Mario!” every now and again in Galaxy or Odyssey, but she never again gets to verbalize fully-constructed sentences and therefore never gets to become a fully-realized character again.

Super Mario Sunshine is the only Mario game interested in its characters as actual characters, from Peach’s thoughtfulness to Bowser’s deceitfulness to Mario’s doofiness. But since the GameCube era, they’ve just become like so many action figures strewn about the living room floor, used to vaguely gesture at one another to justify an action sequence. Mario has reverted once again into an avatar for the player, as opposed to his role as a silent protagonist in Sunshine, a slight but important distinction. Silent protagonists can still have a personality without a voice — just look at Wall-E — whereas avatars exist simply to fulfill the whims of the player.

And with Nintendo cracking down on the Mario universe, preventing new characters from being created within it, it seems unlikely that we’ll see a game as creative and as story-driven as Sunshine. There is of course Super Mario Odyssey, a game I’ll admit comes close to being a Sunshine successor — down to the fact that the F.L.U.D.D. mechanics are partially available in the game’s Seaside Kingdom — but is ultimately splitting the difference between the maximalism of Sunshine and the minimalism of Galaxy.

So thanks Sunshine haters, I’m going to spend the rest of my life with Mario games with threadbare plots and simplistic characters. Thanks a lot.

Written by

Podcaster and indie game dev. I run Wardcast, a weekly podcast about game development, business dev, socially-minded game news, and more.

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