This Christmas I got a heap of new games from the last year under the tree and I can’t wait to dive into them. Dishonored is likely the first I’ll get to, but in the midst of the holidays I got the weirdest urge to revisit some older games. Among Earthbound, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the original Mass Effect, I tried paying Super Mario Sunshine a visit after nearly eight years. I’ve played a lot of Mario since then and it’s been an interesting experience seeing how it holds up in the modern context.
A lot of people were down on that game when it came out, despite incredibly high critical success, and while I was too young to be critical when I first played it, I’ve been trying to give it an objective yet comparative look. After all, it is a strange Mario game. With no goombas to be found, Super Mario Sunshine exudes interesting development choices on the part of Nintendo, and it’s really worth looking back at.
Let’s glance at the development history for a second. Originally, Nintendo was planning a sequel to Super Mario 64 before taking a drastic turn. The Gamecube era was pronounced by unconventional design choices. Metroid went boldly into 3D, Mario Kart racers were given partners, and The Legend of Zelda saw its most visually distinct entry. It only makes sense that Mario followed the pattern.
Instead of jumping and punching, the player is given the power of water. Instead of the hills and caverns that dominate the Mushroom Kindgom, Mario players were treated to an island not yet seen in that odd, yet lovable universe. In the context of all the other Mario games, Super Mario Sunshine can feel refreshing at best and foreign at worst.
Gameplay-wise, it still maintains a high Nintendo-born standard of comfort. Even with the unfamiliarity of water as a core mechanic, I was surprised by how quickly I got used to the hovering, jumping, and diving. No, this is not an example of Nintendo slipping up on controls. But there are ways in which the game does fall flat in comparison to the likes of Super Mario Galaxy and even Super Mario 3D Land.
Obvious improvements in Super Mario Galaxy of course are music and visuals, but the shortcomings come to a glaring cataclysm with the levels in which FLUDD is stolen. Most are traditional platforming levels with floating islands and spinning cubes, and my god were they difficult. Seriously, I have no idea how my younger self coped with the anguish they quickly cause. Maybe its because Super Mario Galaxy did this kind of level design so well that I cursed out to high heaven with death after death after unfair, miserable death. Compared to that glorious gem of traditional yet seriously original game design, these levels fall prey to imprecise controls, likely because the game forces the player to use FLUDD as a crutch for so long. Too often I’d forget that I couldn’t just hover my way out of problems and nose dive into a deep and sorrowful abyss.
Maybe then the controls weren’t as precise as they are now, and I just didn’t notice because I was never forced into precise executions like in the later 3D games. I remember a particularly soul grinding level involving Piantas that toss Mario at very specific angles and distances. But I could rarely get the precision just right and the bastards would just toss me off the edges, widely missing my marks. That level took more than an hour to beat.
But what I do like about the game is its world. Isle Delfino is a delight to explore, and unlike in Super Mario Galaxy, you never really feel alone. That’s what I think I was missing in Galaxy (a game that I loved very, very, very much, by the way). There was something about it that felt cold and lonely. Beautiful, stunning, yes. But friendly and warm? Not really.
Maybe it’s because Sunshine is the most adventure game-y Mario game to date. It seemed to take a bit of influence from the likes of Banjo Kazooie and other games by Rare. It exists in a concrete, semi-realistic world that operates under more conventional rules than say, Super Mario 64 and especially Super Mario Galaxy with its sweeping planets and crazy platforming. There’s a population of people counting on you and cheering you on and you get to see a constant flow of progress affect it.
With the exception of the frustrating platforming segments, it also gives the player greater flexibility and forgiveness. Galaxy gave the player three blocks of health. Sunshine let you have eight. There’s rarely moments with immediate death as a threat and besides the aforementioned platform levels, I really never died much. Often levels had you find puzzles within the world to solve instead of reaching an ending. The only punishment for not getting it the first time was loss of time, rarely life.
No, I don’t like Sunshine more than Galaxy. I’m not even sure I like it more than 64. But It was a good game, for its own ways, unafraid of how different it could be despite its flaws.