Remember how Ocarina of Time was a traditional Zelda through and through, but was the first 3D game in the series that stood out for just how well it brought that classic gameplay into the third dimensional space? Remember how it was a smash hit both critically and commercially? And how Nintendo, wondering how in God’s name you follow up what many were calling the best game ever made, decided to give a development team a year to do whatever they could think of, and they wound up producing the entirely unique, wonderful Majora’s Mask? Seriously, the leaps Nintendo took with MM are super weird to think about.
But they did the same thing with Super Mario Sunshine, the first true, fully 3D platforming sequel to their uber-popular Super Mario 64. Granted, the team had more development time than they did with Majora’s Mask, and they were working with the soon-to-be-legendary GameCube, Nintendo’s powerhouse of a new system. It would have been easy to retread the same ground that 64 covered as a safe way to introduce 3D Mario gameplay to the wonderful, purple, little box of joy. In many ways, it did. It let players loose in semi-open levels filled with enough secrets to encourage replay, while also providing the player with a variety of objectives to complete. Mario can still triple flip, wall jump, and do all his classic moves from 64.
It also introduced players to people with palm trees for hair, a sentient jetpack that’s not a jetpack, a handler for Princess Peach, some jaw dropping plot twists about Peach’s relationship with Bowser, and an Earth-friendly message.
It’s a weird sequel.
Let’s-a dive in, shall we?
Mario and Crew Take a Vacation
Let’s briefly discuss the premise. Mario and the gang have been invited to Isle Delfino, a beautiful, lush resort with plenty of fun locales. About .091746 seconds after they set foot on the island, Mario is framed for the pollution that’s been plaguing the island. He is given FLUDD, a talking water pack that can be used to clean up the island. Peach is kidnapped my Mario’s mysterious doppelganger, and he is sentenced to clean up the island as penance for his non-crimes and seeks to rescue Peach along the way.
It’s a wonderful, creative premise that gives the game a flavor all its own. Sure, the overall plot is the business-as-usual “save Peach” storyline, but the tropical setting let the developers give us mechanics and locales that we simply hadn’t seen before in a Mario game, and really haven’t seen much of since. It at least showed that the developers put some thought into what direction they wanted the plumber’s 2000s identity to go. It’s rare for a mainline Mario title to have any sort of premise beyond “save the princess.” The more creative ideas for Mario stories tend to be reserved for the RPGs (one of which we will be covering next week). It was a nice change of pace is what I’m trying to say.
Plus, the brand new, never before seen setting let the developers introduced us to a whole host of new species we hadn’t seen before. Pinatas, with their huge noses and aforementioned palm tree hair, are instantly iconic, goofy but lovable things who populate most of the island. Nokis are cute little hermit crab type creatures that are ready made for adorable plushes. These new races felt like natural extensions of those we already knew about like Toads. They proved to be popular enough that they would continue to appear in spin-offs all through the 2000s, from the sports titles to the RPGs.
Mario Actually Being a Handyman
In his long, long career, Mario has been a fighter, princess saver, tennis player, go kart racer, baseball player, extreme soccer player, Yoshi tamer, professional swimmer, and many other things that have nothing to do with plumbing. In this game, Mario is forced to clean the island, finally making him actually handy in a practical sense.
All joking aside, FLUDD is an interesting, unique mechanic that adds to the game’s weird identity. You had to monitor your water levels, although you rarely ever ran out due to the way the environments were designed. You had four nozzles, with two being available from the start and two requiring certain conditions be met. Each one served a different purpose in solving the puzzles of the environments. The spray nozzle is your bread and butter. You could aim with the control stick and clean up all the goo in the environment, clean off NPCs, and put out fires in certain levels. The hover nozzle is a fantastic addition to 3D platforming; it lets you hover in the air for a few seconds at a time, bringing a useful but not game breaking margin for error to the proceedings. Then there was the rocket nozzle, which allowed Mario to launch into the air, useful for reaching high places. And lastly, there was the turbo nozzle, which allowed him to run around faster than a certain blue hedgehog.
The game doesn’t just make these abilities act as handicaps to the platforming mechanics introduced in 64. They’re integral to the various challenges the game throws at you in its varied levels. Like 64, there are 120 Shine Sprites (in lieu of stars) to collect, with each one essentially serving as a “you did the thing” marker. Also like 64, there’s a central hub in the form of Delfino Plaza that changes and evolves as you get more Shine Sprites. You gain access to more worlds to explore, each with 8 main levels, as well as hidden objectives.
The game has a whole smorgasbord of different objectives to complete. One of the game’s earliest and most iconic is the showdown with Petey Piranha in the gorgeous Bianco Hills. It’s a simple but enjoyable boss fight since Petey is so well designed. But really, the developers put on their thinking caps for the challenges in the game.
Most worlds have “secret” levels, which are straightforward, platforming based challenges in a weird, limbo-esque dimension. These almost feel like you’re exploring a kid’s toy box, as the platforms you run across kind of look like building blocks. These were often highlights since they focused on classic, raw platforming.
But there are a whole host of creative objectives as well. In Ricco Harbor, one of the early worlds you unlock, there’s a later level where you must enter a sewer tunnel where you wind up racing on the back of Bloopers. It’s a nice change of pace from the platforming and puzzle solving. There’s another level in the expansive Noki Bay where you must spray different sections of a cliff side to get to the top of some ruins. Then there’s Sirena Beach, home of the Hotel Delfino, a curiously haunted place that just can’t seem to get rid of its supernatural problems. One of the standout levels in that world sees you exploring the hotel to find a secret room no one can find the entrance to.
There are also the expected Red Coin hunts, which require you to search every nook and cranny of one of the world you’re in. It’s a lot of fun to soak up the colorful, interesting locales like the amusing Pinna Park or Pianta Village. Your first time through, you never quite know what to expect from each level. And, much like 64 before it, the central hub of Delfino Plaza is expansive and packed with its own fair share of secrets that open up the more abilities you get. From cleaning off the giant Shine Sprite on the shine gate to discovering a bizarre, pinball type level, the game constantly rewards curious and experimental play. It even included the beloved Yoshi, allowing Mario to ride him around for the first time ever in 3D (and yes, he is very fun to use, despite the fact that he attacks by spraying stomach acid all over the place).
It all feels like a real expansion on the ideas introduced in 64. You gain more abilities, go through unique objectives, and defeat bad guys in a whole new way with FLUDD on your back. It was a great way to get 64 veterans invested in Nintendo’s new console since the game feels so distinct from its predecessor.
A Gorgeous Island
It’s shocking how good looking Super Mario Sunshine remains to this day. It uses bright colors and the series’ usual creative art style to really bring the world to life. Sure, from a technical stand point the game has aged, but like Wind Waker proved just a year later, it shows how a really great art style can stand the test of time.
And while the game doesn’t have as iconic a soundtrack as some of the other games in the series, it’s no slouch in the sound department, either. It has a really nice soundtrack that perfectly complements the game’s various locales.
So, here’s the thing. While the game does have a huge variety of objectives, it runs into a problem—not every objective is fun. It’s the cost of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. There are plenty of outstanding, fun levels in the game, but others are exercises in pure frustration. Three stick out to me in particular and have remained in my brain years and years later.
The first is a level called “Eely Mouth’s Dentist.” In this level, you are tasked with diving deep into Noki Bay and cleaning the teeth of a simply gigantic eel. It seems simple enough, especially when you are given a helmet that is supposed to help you survive under water. Except it doesn’t really do that. You dive down the lake falling for what seems like forever, while your health drains every few seconds. You need to get coins to replenish your health or suffer a watery grave. Then, when you reach the bottom, you can actually fight Eely Mouth, who sucks you in and shoots you back into the air, at which point you must fall slowly to the bottom all over again to clean his teeth with your hover nozzle. Mind you, controls are laggy and imprecise, because why would there ever be a fun under water level in a Nintendo game? This was a supremely frustrating, pointlessly difficult challenge.
The second level that stands out to me is the first one from Sirena Beach. It’s titled “The Manta Storm.” It turns out that Hotel Delfino has fallen under the sand due to a gigantic ghost manta ray because—clearly—mushrooms had an influence on this series in more ways than one. The tan manta ray glides across the environment and touching it will hurt Mario. There aren’t many coins scattered around either, so taking damage can lead to certain doom. Damaging the manta ray enough causes it to split into a smaller one, and so on, and so on. Eventually, you’ll have a whole swarm of insta-damaging manta rays flying around at a speed that makes them extremely tough to hit. Sure, you could play it smart and take them on one at a time, but that’s time consuming as hell. So either you go for a speed run and deal with a whole swarm of annoyingly fast enemies, or you tediously take on the little things one at a time. Either way, it’s not very fun.
The last really bad level is “The Watermelon Festival” on Gelato Beach. Essentially, you need to find the biggest melon you can and bring it to the juice bar. The thing is that the biggest melon on the map is all the way atop a mountain, and the physics for it are so wonky that if you aren’t absolutely careful as can be, it’ll clip on a piece of level geometry and break, forcing you to go all the way back up to get it again. Add on enemies that come at you like melon-seeking missiles, hellbent on ruining your day, and you have yet another level that is just not much fun.
There are a few other small gripes, too. For instance, Blue Coin hunts are crucial to completing the game 100%, as there are several Shines locked behind collecting them all. Later in the game, they become races against the clock—spraying a blue coin symbol in one place will make the coin appear in another place, and you must get there in a certain amount of time to permanently obtain the blue coin. The camera often misbehaves, making you change the trajectory of your jump without meaning to, which can sometimes set you back quite a ways. These issues don’t ruin the experience, but they certainly stand out in an otherwise enjoyable game.
The Bowser Jr. In the Room
The last point I want to touch on is a plot thread that is introduced and unexplored about halfway through the game. The first level in Pinna Park, “Mecha-Bowser Appears!” is a fun boss fight against, you guessed it, a giant robot form of Bowser. You travel on a roller coaster launching missiles at him, and eventually blowing him up. He’s being controlled by Shadow Mario, it should be noted.
When you beat him, Shadow Mario is revealed to be none other than Bowser Jr. using a weird scarf that allows him to change shape, as well as a magic brush that “makes his wishes come true.” He got it from Luigi’s Mansion’s Professor E. Gadd, because that old loony apparently gives away reality-altering inventions like they’re candy. Anyways, he reveals in a cut scene with some comically bad voice acting that Bowser told him Peach is his mother. Peach says “Mama Peach? I’m your mama?”
She doesn’t deny it.
It brings up so, so, so many uncomfortable questions about the Mario storyline. Does this mean Bowser and Peach have canonically done the diddly? Did Bowser like, drug her during her pregnancy and child birth so she wouldn’t remember giving birth to a very spiky baby? What are the depths of Bowser’s depravity? Why doesn’t she deny it? Why does Mario seem unfazed by all this? Maybe Mario was in on it the whole time? Is Bowser Jr. secretly the Mario version of a Nephilim, half Koopa, half angel?
Alas, the world may never know the answer to any of these questions. If you have any insight into this story beat, please for the love of God tell me.
What we’re left with at the end of the day is a sequel that truly did expand on many of the ideas laid out by its predecessor. Super Mario Sunshine brought a whole new corner of the Mushroom Kingdom into the spotlight, with many character designs and bosses that went on to make numerous appearances in other Mario spin-offs. Its unique mechanics were really creative and the level design was similarly great. It threw a whole host of interesting, unique challenges at players, and while some are certainly quite frustrating, it gave the game an unpredictable feeling. It’s a product of a time when Nintendo wasn’t afraid to really experiment with their beloved IPs, and it stands tall as a unique, if somewhat flawed, entry in the storied franchise.