Mario is a seemingly unstoppable institution. From his debut in arcades as “Jumpman” to his 30 year run on home consoles, to his literal jump to mobile phones, the Italian plumber has almost always had a successful hit. An iconic character for more than a few generations of players, he is recognizable even to people who don’t play video games, and has even appeared at the closing ceremony of the Olympics. But what we’re here to talk about today is the one time that Mario tried to take a vacation, and how the apparent novelty of a squirt gun turned out to be the next innovating experiment Nintendo would infuse into the series.
For those out of the loop, Super Mario Sunshine is a 3D platformer that involves Mario and Princess Peach going on vacation to the tropical Isle Delfino for some rest and relaxation. Upon arrival, they discover that a mysterious figure has polluted the island with a slippery goop and plastered graffiti all over the place. Mario is framed, and he must prove to the islanders that someone else is behind the damages. Armed with FLUDD, a robotic water gun backpack (courtesy of Professor E. Gadd, who was featured in Luigi’s Mansion), Mario can both clean up the island, and use a new arsenal of water-powered abilities such as water squirting, hovering, turbo dashing, and rocket launching.
Super Mario Sunshine was eagerly anticipated, arriving six years after Super Mario 64 arguably made the mold for the 3D platformer. Many different Mario follow-ups were started, including Super Mario 64 2, which would have had co-operative gameplay featuring Luigi as well as Mario. Super Mario 64 2 eventually fell apart, but different ideas and mechanics envisioned for the title made their way into future projects, the same fate as GameCube tech demo Super Mario 128. As years went on and development drew to a crawl on these various projects, Nintendo shelved the technology until it could be utilized properly in future titles such as Pikmin, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime, and Super Mario Galaxy.
The game that would eventually become Super Mario Sunshine was originally simply based on the idea of using a water pump. According to director Yoshiaki Koizumi in an interview with Nintendo Online Magazine, the idea was deemed too different to work within the Mario franchise. “It was thought that the world was daringly out of character with Mario. Therefore, I thought that a man type character would be used at first. But if there is a man next to Mario, there is a sense of incongruity. Then, we sort of unified the character we thought finally suited the view of the world.” They also had to choose between roughly ten different water-pump options, and while FLUDD was not the favorite choice of the team, it made the most sense from a gameplay perspective.
Sunshine followed a similar setup to Super Mario 64 – a hub world with portals to different courses, which were then broke up into different versions of the same course depending on which Shine Sprite you were trying to obtain. Certain course runs would even put you into an area without FLUDD, forcing you to rely only on jumps and your natural abilities to make it to the end of the course. After Super Mario 64, and especially after going back to Sunshine after all these years, you’d think these particular FLUDD-less areas would be easy. But it’s a pretty big change after spending so much time in this world with a water-squirting safety net.
One of the biggest gameplay mechanics to make it into Sunshine is the triumphant return of Yoshi, marking his ridable debut in a 3D platforming title. For the very first time, players can ride Yoshi throughout a 3D space, as well as use his particularly acidic spit to access new areas of the game. Director Kenta Usui actually at one point mentioned (in the same interview with Koizumi-san) that one of the scrapped ideas for the game was having Yoshi vomit out any water that the player squirted at him.
While highly anticipated, and both critically acclaimed and a sales success, Sunshine was not without its criticism. Many felt as though FLUDD was a gimmick that the game relied on too much, even though every single Super Mario title since 1985 has had some sort of “gimmick” to differentiate the gameplay from past titles. When it wasn’t moving the series to a new generation of play, it was introducing power-ups for the first time, or going to space, or introducing same-screen co-op play, or putting you in the designer’s chair. FLUDD was used heavily in Sunshine, but it was well executed, and the world was designed around the abilities you gained when you strapped on the water-pump.
Another common critique centered on the behavior of the camera, specifically, the erratic behavior. At times, the automatic tracking would move slower than the player, and you’d have to spend an extensive amount of your playtime controlling the camera as well as Mario. More often than not, the camera would be forced to remain on the other side of a wall or obstacle, and you’d only be able to see Mario as a silhouette. While this would become second nature the longer that you played the game, it was pretty frustrating to deal with.
The game wasn’t just filled with issues, however. Yes, a problematic camera is a pretty big issue, but when you’re searching for 120 Shine Sprites, the camera problems tend to fade away and become second nature. There were a ton of fun mechanics that made Sunshine unique, from the different nozzles that could be affixed to FLUDD, to a fun Blooper surfing mechanic. One of my favorite things is still just washing all of the goop away from the island and characters. The goop in Sunshine is very similar to the paint used in Splatoon, and on some courses, it becomes almost like a completionist challenge to clean it all up.
Sunshine was the first appearance of many now-classic Mario characters, such as Petey Piranha or, most famously, Bowser Jr. FLUDD and Isle Delfino would go on to show up in future titles such as the Super Smash Bros. series, and references to the game would also appear in Mario Kart and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.
Again, Super Mario Sunshine enjoyed widespread and near universal acclaim, and what’s unfortunate is that we never returned to Isle Delfino in the form of a platforming adventure. Sunshine 2 has never been mentioned as a possibility, and as of yet, there’s been no talk of Sunshine making a return via the Virtual Console. With the successes of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD for the Wii U, there is hope that Super Mario Sunshine could make a comeback in a prettier package, but until then, we’ll just need to do our best and return to the island a little more often.
Did you ever play Super Mario Sunshine? What did you think of it? What did you like or hate about the game?
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