Retro Scope: Super Mario Sunshine

Summer fun in the sunshine!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 06/26/2014 09:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

Every time I boot up Super Mario Sunshine, I guffaw when I think of how people refer to it as the black sheep of 3D Mario games. Maybe I’m just a little jaded, but this installment remains one of my favorite Mario games, and one that I think deserves more respect than it gets. After years of adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, Nintendo finally gave Mario the vacation he deserved. Well, sort of, until Mario is framed and has to clear his name! Set on the tropical Isle Delfino, Sunshine set a new precedent for graphical achievement, and its gameplay introduced a fun new twist with the introduction of Mario’s sentient water pump, FLUDD. Tight controls, beautiful visuals, and a killer soundtrack– if this is a black sheep, Nintendo could do a heck of a lot worse.

I think part of Sunshine‘s unfair reputation came as a result of following in the shoes of Super Mario 64. After six years of waiting, players were expecting Sunshine to rock their world as that revolutionary title did, so it was to be expected that some folks were going to walk away disappointed. Mario 64 also opened a Pandora’s box of me-too 3D platformers, (some of them weren’t half bad, of course) which further stacked the deck against Sunshine. So, essentially, Sunshine had its work cut out for it, and as a result, some people feel like the game didn’t deliver the goods. I beg to differ!

Sitting down with Sunshine again, I’m immediately transported back to August of 2002, when the game first came out. It was late summer, and in the Bay Area, that’s when the heat (well, our version of it, anyway) comes in full force. I was about to be a Junior in high school, and between bits and pieces of summer reading, I was absorbed in Mario’s newest adventure. I spent weeks plowing through Sunshine, with my sister in tow. I’d never seen anything quite like it. GameCube might have been a tiny box, but that thing packed a punch. I’m a sucker for water in video games, and nothing had shimmering waves like Sunshine. Playing the game today, I’m equally entranced by how much Nintendo squeezed out of its hardware. Level design is perfectly varied, and every location is a feast for the eyes.

It’s interesting to see what sprang from Sunshine. Sitting at the title screen, I remember how I used to think that a 2D Mario would play great if he could move around like he did on that menu screen. Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 did just that with their excellent 2D stages, which felt much the same! Sunshine‘s Special levels, where Mario is devoid of FLUDD, are also reminiscent of the pure challenge that the Galaxy games would go on to embrace, too. The Piantas, the race of people introduced in this game, have become mainstays in the Mario universe, along with Bowser Jr. It’s a shame Petey Piranha hasn’t gotten much screen time, of late! For all the talk of a lack of ambition, quite a few new things were introduced in this game. Mario 64 might have built a new framework, but Sunshine added some real gristle to it.

It’s not that Sunshine is perfect, of course. The voice acting is a bit a grating, certainly. I think finding a better balance between Saturday morning cartoon and Pixar film would have been a better route to go, but as it stands, Bowser lost a little of his menace in Sunshine. Yoshi’s turn at playability in a 3D Mario was also lackluster. Being landlocked and shooting juice (that was weird, right?) just didn’t hold a candle to the fun of Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island. Beyond those and other minor issues, Sunshine‘s ability to create a sense of place and spectacle remains right up there with some of the best Mario games. Sunshine truly transports the player to an island paradise, and every location feels like being on vacation– but with a little danger thrown in!

With his sleeves rolled up, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shades, Mario was on display like fans had never seen him. Sunshine, more than any game besides the RPGs, made Mario feel like a real person and not just a shouting avatar bounding across TV screens. The cinema scenes were more ambitious than any other 3D Mario game’s, and helped sell a cute, and sometimes funny tale of Mario trying to exonerate himself, and (of course) ultimately free his lady, Peach. Sunshine has a lot of heart, and it represents a simpler, happier time in my life when I used to spend time at my grandma’s on summer vacation. It’s all the joy of summer, and you don’t even need any sunscreen– go hunt down a copy and experience it for yourself!

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