18 Years of Super Mario Sunshine

Jake Theriault
Sep 4 · 28 min read
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This article was originally released in video form by Subpixel on August 31, 2020. I wasn’t really planning on posting this here like I’ve done for previous scripts I’ve written for Subpixel, but given that Nintendo just announced an HD rerelease of Super Mario Sunshine as part of Super Mario 3D All Stars, I’m publishing this extensive document here for all of you fine folk.

In August of 2002 — a legally adult and impossibly distant 18 years ago — Nintendo released Super Mario Sunshine upon a salivating North American audience. Directed by Yoshiaki Koizumi and Kenta Usui; written by Makoto Wada; with original music by Koji Kondo and Shinobu Tanaka; and featuring the vocal talent of Charles Martinet as Mario; Jen Taylor as Princess Peach; Kit Harris as F.L.U.D.D.; Scott Burns as Bowser; and Dolores Rogers as Boswer, Jr.; Super Mario Sunshine has since become the third best selling Gamecube title behind Super Smash Bros: Melee and Mario Kart: Double Dash. So for the game’s 18th anniversary I decided I’d give it a replay and do some reading up on its history in order to make an informative retrospective review of what I recalled as one of my favorite Gamecube titles. This is the story of my Super Mario Sunshine 18th Anniversary review:

Three months ago my wife and I were supposed to be sitting on the twinkling shores of a famous beach resort sipping fruity drinks and enjoying sun, sand, and a complete lack of responsibilities. But those of you who are reading this article from anywhere nearer than several years into the future are all too aware of why such a trip ceased to be — for you, much like me, are likely sitting in front of your computer right now, listening and watching as these words I’ve written and images I’ve stitched together play back before you — a desperate gambit to create a moment of distraction for both of us: me, with the hours I spent digging through old articles and playing back through the game into which we shall be diving; and you, with the as yet undefined number of minutes this article will take you to consume. Perhaps you clicked on this article because you’re interested in the subject matter. I hope that is the case. Regardless of discovery, we’re both here now, and we are both very likely in desperate need of a vacation. But in lieu of the vacation I was going to take in April — and the ones I won’t be taking for the foreseeable future — let’s take a look back to when our favorite mustachioed plumber took a vacation of his own; and how, much like many of our own current plans for tropical rest and relaxation, it did not go as planned.

Now, a little bit of context on my own history with the Gamecube as a platform — since our later discussions of Super Mario Sunshine are just as reliant on the hardware upon which it was played as the mechanical and narrative functions of the game itself. During my youth I did not own any consoles of my own. Like many children my age my screen time was restricted to set times during the day, but those rules and regulations were null and void once I left the jurisdiction of my parent’s residence and ventured off to the homes of friends whose parents were more libertarian with regard to their children’s entertainment consumption.

It was in those videogame oases that I first played such classics as Super Smash Bros., Animal Crossing, Mario Kart, Star Fox and — as the subject of this article would suggest — Super Mario Sunshine. Now at this point in my life very few of my friends owned consoles from multiple manufacturers, and families usually ended up segregated along console lines. A few owned Gamecubes (and perhaps with it an N64 or SNES), a few owned an Xbox or PS2 (the latter often owning the original flavor of Playstation as well), and fewer still — in fact only one by my recollection — had in their possession a SEGA Dreamcast (though that particular console belonged to my friend’s older brother and as such I had very few chances to actually explore the Dreamcast for myself). Through my various personal and vicarious interactions with these consoles, the Gamecube was far and away my favorite with many of its first party titles becoming fast favorites of mine, and third party titles like Need For Speed: Carbon, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, and Super Monkey Ball fondly lodging themselves in my memory to this very day.

Fast forward to 2016 when I — fresh from dropping out of college — decided to reignite my love affair with the Nintendo Gamecube. A slick black, refurbished Gamecube soon arrived on my doorstep, and with it a handful of games I hoped would be the foundation of a future collection. Four games I’d purchased seriously, and two I’d purchased out of morbid curiosity. The serious games were alphabetically: Animal Crossing; (The) Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker; Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. The curiosity titles were Bionicle: The Video Game, and Bionicle: Heroes — which were acquired for the sole purpose of a less than successful “Let’s Play” for the YouTube channel I was — at that time — actively managing with my brother and another friend.

But since that moment in 2016 when Super Mario Sunshine came into my possession, it has sat on my shelf — untouched apart from periods of migration from Florida rental property to Florida rental property, at which point it would be lovingly placed (along with the rest of my meager collection) into any number of different 16x16 cardboard packing boxes and carried across the humid and sun drenched Florida landscape to whatever new abode we’d call home for the next few months.

But then, a few weeks ago, when I learned of the game’s upcoming 18th anniversary, I decided to pull Super Mario Sunshine off of my Threshold™ 13" 2 Cube Organizer Shelf in White from Target and boot up my slick black, refurbished Gamecube once more in order to again immerse myself in the world of Super Mario Sunshine.

So, without further ado — this is the Subpixel review of 18 years of Super Mario Sunshine.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics’ consensus for Danny Boyle’s 2000 feature film The Beach reads as follows:

The Beach is unfocused and muddled, a shallow adaptation of the novel it is based on.”

Regrettably, no discussion of Super Mario Sunshine can truly be had without first discussing its immediate predecessor: Super Mario 64 — which one could argue is the source material from which all future 3D Mario games have been adapted and compared to — whether justifiably or not. Super Mario 64 broke completely new ground with the Super Mario series, not only because it was 3D, but with how it took advantage of the N64’s hardware to deliver Nintendo fans not only a great Mario game, but a great game in general — going on to become the best-selling game on the N64. So when, five years later, Nintendo announced Super Mario Sunshine for the Nintendo Gamecube, expectations were justifiably high.

Revealed as part of Nintendo’s final Space World event in August of 2001, this early version of Super Mario Sunshine shows off some systems that would make their way into the August 2002 North American release, but surprisingly not its most iconic. FLUDD, the titular water dispersal unit introduced to players in Super Mario Sunshine, and arguably the thing that makes Super Mario Sunshine Super Mario Sunshine. FLUUD though present in the reveal footage — is not ever demonstrated. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, this is the second series to feature Jen Taylor voice acting in a game with something called Flood?” I know! Crazy, right? I would’ve been cool to see FLUDD in action during the reveal.

Mario’s acrobatics are on full display, but nothing of the new traversal systems offered by FLUDD. Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto revealed during a July 19, 2002 Super Mario Sunshine release day press conference that Nintendo was worried about the FLUDD concept getting stolen by other developers, and as such decided not to show any footage of it in action during the 2001 Sunshine reveal. But almost a year later to the day from that 2001 reveal, Super Mario Sunshine was released onto the world to near universal acclaim despite these omissions from the reveal trailer, and despite having to live in the shadow of its predecessor.

For all of Super Mario 64’s innovations — thanks in part to the hardware of the N64 — the technical advancements provided by the Gamecube were not substantial enough to allow Koizumi/Usui and company to be as innovative when it came to the gameplay of Sunshine. The giant leaps taken by Super Mario 64 were shrunk to small steps in Super Mario Sunshine — at no fault to the efforts of the developers. As such Sunshine’s innovations come not from the game’s mechanics, but its setting and narrative. Sunshine is a unique title within the greater and impressively expansive canon of the Super Mario universe if for no other reason than it was the first Mario title to ditch the series’ historic fantasy setting for a different flavor of whimsy.

Growing up in sun-kissed Southern California, at the time of Sunshine’s release I was already very used to swimming in the carefree vibes that can only come from living in a beach community. A year prior to Sunshine’s release was also the first time I’d traveled to the Hawaiian islands, and had been so enamored with the experience that I was ready to do anything to go back. So when Sunshine arrived on the scene I was more than amenable to the prospect of no longer searching for the Princess in another castle, but another cabana.

Super Mario Sunshine brought something to Super Mario that — though present in many of the side-scrolling Mario titles, especially those with overworld navigation — was absent from Super Mario 64: environmental consistency. I mentioned Super Mario’s historically fantastical setting, a setting that carried over from the 2D Mario games to Mario 64. The ornate and awe-inspiring Peach’s Castle served as the hub for navigation around Mario 64’s worlds, but for whatever connective tissue is provided by Peach’s Castle to its outlying regions, many of Mario 64’s worlds exist in nebulous, ill-defined spaces — at least in regards to the holistic geography of The Mushroom Kingdom. These worlds exist unattached and fragmented from the greater world of The Mushroom Kingdom apart from their magical bridge to the Kingdom’s seat of power. Super Mario Sunshine dispenses with these scattered worlds and sets itself in one specific location: Isle Delfino, home of the vegetal Piantas and the calcareously clothed Nokis. Sunshine’s Delfino Plaza acts as a stand-in for Peach’s Castle, retaining the hub-and-spoke aspect of Mario 64’s world navigation; but instead of sending Mario off to parts unknown, Delfino Plaza’s many portals send Mario only to other parts of the island. Many of these gameplay locations also exist in the skybox of Delfino Plaza, adding further consistency to the fictional world of Super Mario Sunshine. Isle Delfino is, despite being populated by strange, bulbous plant-people and only navigable via cannons, pipes, and paint portals, is a more realistic and believable world than any previous Super Mario title. This is the innovation of Super Mario on the Gamecube: believability. Director Yoshiaki Koizumi in a 2002 interview with Nintendo Online Magazine said that this focus on the reality of Sunshine’s world was planned from the start, saying, “…we wanted to make it more real than Super Mario 64. I thought that it would be an interesting feeling to see Mario jumping down from the height of a three story building as opposed to seeing him jump over the traditional Mario environments.”

This believability extends not only to Sunshine’s physical world but also its inhabitants and enemies. We’ve talked already about the Pianta and Noki people, but all of Isle Delfino’s wildlife, both passive and aggressive, is different from previous Mario titles. Some enemies bear similarities to enemies found in Super Mario 64 or Mario’s 2D titles, but there is enough variance between these vaguely familiar foes and their Mario 64 counterparts that they can stand as wholly unique to the world of Super Mario Sunshine. When Nintendo decided to make a world that was completely separate from that of the Mushroom Kingdom, they committed to it. So while some people may lament that lack of classic Goombas or Koopas, Nintendo’s commitment to the new world of Isle Delfino is extraordinarily admirable — especially as a franchise game with, for all intents and purposes, a totally new aesthetic from its predecessors.

Various updates to the camera, including an option to switch into “Third-person cover-based-shooter” mode, provided a handful of new ways to experience the Mario universe; and new characters like Shadow Mario and Bowser, Jr. ended up becoming staples of future Mario titles; but the most exciting addition to Super Mario Sunshine was FLUDD — a sentient Swiss Army knife Super Soaker that provides Sunshine with its key gameplay hook. A conveniently aquatic themed acronym for Flash Liquidizing Ultra Dousing Device, FLUDD’s ability to pump water at enemies and environments is the reason to play Super Mario Sunshine. But we’ll talk more about him later.

Now on the island’s landscape: though I’ve claimed to have chosen to replay Super Mario Sunshine in order to make this article about its 18th anniversary, perhaps I wished to return to that tropical paradise of Isle Delfino ever since Coronavirus first prevented my wife and I from travelling to the aforementioned but unspecified famous beach resort — a trip which we’d booked and paid for months before the phrase “novel coronavirus” began appearing with increasing and ominous regularity during the American news cycle. And though I hadn’t played Sunshine in over a decade I assumed my recollection of Super Mario Sunshine was fairly robust. You can imagine my surprise when — while using this playthrough as an escape from the chaotic, nightmare version of the United States that has manifested during the apocalyptic Bingo card that is the year of our Lord 2020 — I was, near the end of the game, sent to a place called “Corona Mountain”.

Corona Mountain is one of ten tropically-themed playable areas on Isle Delfino — including the introductory area of the Delfino Airstrip and the hub area of Delfino Plaza. Let’s take a couple minutes to dive into the rest of Isle Delfino to see how this world fits into the game that is Super Mario Sunshine.

Playable almost immediately after the start of the game, Delfino’s scenic and Grecian-seaside-villa-inspired Bianco Hills is an excellent space for — if you’ll allow me a pun — getting your feet wet with Sunshine’s traversal and combat. Delfino Plaza is an interesting playground in its own right, but without enemies to avoid or engage the Plaza is really just that: a playground.

Bianco Hills is notable because it’s here amongst Bianco’s chalk white houses, meandering canals, and gently drifting windmills that players are first introduced to Petey Piranha, a monstrous floral creature in the tradition of such classic vegetative monsters as Audrey II from Frank Oz’ Little Shop of Horrors or Biollante from the 1989 classic kaiju film Godzilla vs. Biollante.

Tangentially, by way of my own fact-checking the details of this article and in an effort to determine the first appearance of the Audrey plant in Little Shop, I determined (though already knew) that Frank Oz’ 1986 Little Shop of Horrors feature film was an adaptation of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1982 Little Shop of Horrors musical. What I did not know was that the 1982 musical was loosely based on Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors, released in 1960, which furthermore was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel The Reluctant Orchid. There’s some speculation that Clarke’s novel was itself inspired by a 1894 short story by War of the Worlds author H.G. Wells called “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”. All this to say, up to this point I had not truly appreciated the hundred-plus years of history involved with Petey Piranha’s origins.

Petey appears as a boss in two of Bianco Hills’ Episodes, and though neither fight is remarkably fun or innovative (in fact I found the second encounter with Petey more annoying than anything else), I’d be remiss not mentioning this leafy monstrosity since they’ve since become a staple of the Super Mario series, branching out into a number of other Nintendo franchises including Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros.

Now we need to touch briefly on Delfino’s other sights in order to get to the truly standout levels. In order of their accessibility within the narrative you’ll travel to: Ricco Harbor, a jungle gym of steel and cables that in another universe might have fared well as part of the empire of Charles Entertainment Cheese; Gelato Beach, a seaside retreat that, while absent of the pollution that covers the rest of the island, is home to more than one type of aggressive fauna; Pinna Park, a coastal amusement park complete with a wide variety of runaway or otherwise inoperable coasters and attractions; Sirena Beach, home of the world famous Hotel Delfino — though during the events of Sunshine bears more resemblance to The Haunted Mansion than Sandals Grand Cayman; Noki Bay, the ancient and dilapidated cliffside home of Delfino’s Noki inhabitants; Pianta Village, the ancestral home of the Pianta people; and the aforementioned Corona Mountain, a looming sight that can be seen from every other location on the island.

Of these visitable environments, there were three that had entirely slipped from my memory. I’ve already mentioned my lapse of memory regarding the serendipitously referential Corona Mountain, but equally as absent from my mind were two other late game locations: Noki Bay and Pianta Village. The mysterious void these three levels left in my mind makes me question if I actually ever played the end of the game before this. I remembered the final cutscene, but had I just seen it elsewhere — viewed in some context completely divorced from the actual game? Perhaps it was their own presence within the game (or lack thereof) that caused them to leave such a negligible impression in my mind. Maybe they were just shorter levels.

I knew that with Corona Mountain this could easily have been the case, but how did Noki Bay and Pianta Village shape up? Well after the playthrough I undertook to prepare for this story, and inspired by the reviews of Tim Rogers, I decided to take stock of all the footage I’d recorded to see how these and other areas and aspects of the game occupied my playtime. As a further prelude to this math heavy section of this story I should note that this playthrough of Super Mario Sunshine was undertaken with the knowledge that it would not be a completionist playthrough. I was strictly focused on covering only what was required to get the credits to roll. However, without fully recalling the specifics of that task, my playthrough did extend into unnecessary territory in a handful of places.

Calculated from the source footage, my total playtime — cutting out any fiddling around in the main menu at the beginning of each play session — was 15 hours, 49 minutes, 52 seconds, and 32 frames. According to howlongtobeat.com the average completion time for the main story is 16.5hrs, though that time balloons to 31.5hrs for a 100% completionist run. I completed the game with 66 Shine Sprites out of the 120 scattered around Isle Delfino.

Using this unfiltered data we can determine that roaming around Delfino Plaza fills 13.5% of the game, Bianco Hills 9.7%, Ricco Harbor 18% (though that number is slightly inflated due to my repeated failure to complete the 8th Episode of the level), Gelato Beach 7.5%, Pinna Park 10.1%, Sirena Beach 7.5%, Noki Bay 6.7%, Pinata Village 9%, and Corona Mountain 1%. The Delfino Airstrip occupied .4% of my total game time — less time than is spent in menus — and unless one truly fails to grasp the gameplay of Super Mario Sunshine right off the bat, I imagine that number would be fairly consistent across all worldwide playthroughs of Super Mario Sunshine. Additionally, each level contains a number of “Secret” levels within levels, which take up 8.7% of the total playtime.

By these numbers, everything we’d call formal Gameplay took up 92% of the overall playtime, with cutscenes, transitions, credits, and menus taking up the other 8%.

In this unedited run the shortest time between Sprite collections was 1 minute, 25 seconds, and 27 frames and the longest was 1 hour, 13 minutes, and 58 seconds between Sprites. Now I know what you’re thinking — “I thought you were going to talk about standout levels?” Well, we’re getting there — don’t you worry. But I’ve got a few more numbers to look at. I wanted to see what the data would look like if I only tracked attempts that ended in the successful collection of a Shine Sprite — removing any instances of “Too Bad!”, “Game Over”, or moments where I became frustrated with a level and warped back to Delfino Plaza.

By only tracking this bare bones run, we can determine that it would actually only take 9 hours, 58 minutes, 1 second, and 40 frames to complete Super Mario Sunshine. According to the Sean Poole “One Dollar/One Hour” metric, one could argue that Super Mario Sunshine is not worth its sticker price, but I’d argue that a 10 hour run of Sunshine can only be accomplished by someone who has played the game before. The time it took me to re-learn Sunshine’s systems was markedly less than someone playing it for the very first time in 2002.

These edits also mark big changes in how each level fits into the whole game. The Delfino Airstrip still occupies less than 1% of the game, but Delfino Plaza actually jumps from 13.5% up to 18% of total game time. Bianco Hills similarly jumps from 9.7% to 13%, though Ricco Harbor — now divorced from my many failed attempts to complete the 8th Episode, drops rather precipitously from 18% to 10%. Gelato Beach jumps up from 7.5% to 11%, Pinna Park creeps up just a hair from 10.1% to 11%, and Sirena Beach too climbs from 7.5% to 9%. Other decreases in game presence are Noki Bay, which slipped slightly from 6.7% down to 6%; and Pianta Village which crashed down to 5% from its original 9%. Corona Mountain stays the same at 1% of the whole game, and time spent in “Secret” levels falls from 8.7% down to 5%. Furthermore, with less time spent in levels, Cutscenes and Transitions actually end up occupying 6% of the game up from 5.1%; and time spent in Menus rises to 3% up from 2.6%.

But does this data shed any light of the mystery of my having forgotten the last three levels of Super Mario Sunshine? Well if you look at the numbers from the, let’s call it, “Optimized” Playthrough, you can see that I was spending less and less time completing Episodes as I advanced through the game. As my skill with Mario’s acrobatics and FLUDD’s arsenal of nozzles increased, it was easier to navigate and conquer Delfino’s new regions. I imagine that, much as I experienced Super Mario Sunshine in 2020, my skill curve in the early 2000s was likely quite similar, meaning I would’ve spent less time in the later levels than I did in the early ones — and with that decrease in time, a decrease in that level’s impression within my memory.

So as I postulated earlier, Super Mario Sunshine’s FLUDD water dispersal unit is the gameplay hook in Super Mario Sunshine. FLUDD has four nozzles you can acquire over the course of the game, three for traversal and one for combat and environmental manipulation, which offer a fair amount of variance in how and when you’ll use FLUDD’s abilities to conquer your current objective. In an interview with Nintendo Online Magazine, Sunshine Director Kenta Usui revealed that there were at one point 10 candidates for FLUDD’s nozzles, with Producer Takashi Tezuka reiterating that because of a desire to focus on gameplay over gimmicks, only four nozzles were selected from the bunch.

I also want to take a moment here to address the localization of Super Mario Sunshine. In the English localisation of the game Mario’s water cannon is called FLUDD, as we’ve already mentioned, and in the Spanish localisation — at least for North America — is also called FLUDD. However, I think the German localization should’ve been used worldwide, wherein FLUDD becomes DRECKWEG, an amalgamation of the German “dreck” meaning “dirt” and “weg” meaning “gone”.

Only two of the four nozzles are available at the very beginning of the game, the squirt nozzle and the hover nozzle. Now maybe it is my age or my infrequency in 2020 handling a Gamecube controller, but my early hours in the game were spent operating FLUDD with all the finesse of a firefighter desperately clinging to an out of control hose. With time I was able to achieve a kind of ballet precision with FLUDD, but not before embarrassing myself over several hours of failed expeditions across Isle Delfino’s tropical landscape.

Now, necessitated by the fictionally consistent world of Isle Delfino is Super Mario Sunshine’s take on the franchise’s world famous platforming. Super Mario Sunshine is — by definition — a 3D platformer, but the platforming in Sunshine is by and large much lower stakes than in previous Super Mario titles. With the exception of Pianta Village and the final boss battle above Corona Mountain, none of Sunshine’s environments allow for Mario to just fall off into the ether and die. Mario can still take fall damage from certain heights, and certain Episodes feature environmental hazards that will damage Mario over time, but Pinata Village and Corona Mountain are the only areas that have the classic “dropoffs into infinite voids” that have become a staple of the Super Mario series ever since Super Mario Bros. in 1985.

Sunshine makes up for this lack of traditional Super Mario environments with “Secret” levels within levels. If someone in the future were to play and review Super Mario Sunshine with zero knowledge of previous titles in the Super Mario franchise, I’d imagine they might find the “Secret” levels to be more than a little peculiar amongst the game as a whole because it almost feels as though — given Sunshine commitment to the game’s tropical setting — the “Secret” levels are not only tonally and aesthetically dissonant from everything else in the game, but also wildly more punishing. This punishment comes in three forms: firstly, dropoffs into infinite voids; secondly, near constantly moving or otherwise crumbling geometry; and finally, the absence of FLUDD.

Like nearly every Episode of Super Mario Sunshine, you are able to revisit these “Secret” levels, but upon your first playthrough you’ll be met with a short cutscene of Shadow Mario stealing FLUDD off your back — leaving you with only your curiously acrobatic body to traverse the nightmarish scenarios of Sunshine’s secret levels. But how much more difficult are these “Secret” levels than Sunshine’s other environments?

Within my nearly 16 hour playthrough, I spent 1 hour, 22 minutes, 54 seconds, and 1 frame struggling through these “Secret” levels. That’s 20 minutes longer than I spent in Noki Bay, 14 minutes longer than I spent in Gelato Beach, and 11 minutes longer than I spent in Sirena Beach. And furthermore, if we only calculate successful runs of “Secret” levels, that 1 hour and 23 minute run time drops precipitously to a mere 18 minutes, 18 seconds, and 27 frames. If that doesn’t tell you something about the difficulty spike of Sunshine’s “Secret” levels, I don’t know what to tell you. I wondered if at some point in development someone had a thought that Isle Delfino as a whole didn’t have enough of Mario’s trademark acrobatic platforming to be considered a true Super Mario game, and so the “Secret” levels were created. I discovered that this was exactly the case, with Shigeru Miyamoto calling these levels “the basis of the Mario series”.

Though that is not the say the rest of the game is devoid of interesting platforming — far from it. From my most recent playthrough I’d pick Ricco Harbor and Noki Bay as the game’s best platforming areas, partly for the platforming itself but also — as is kind of the thesis of this whole story — with how these levels naturally weave the design and aesthetic of their environments into the platforming sections.

Ricco Harbor’s industrial theming means that the platforms which Mario will traverse will not just be randomly floating platforms as is the case in the “Secret” levels or as is the case in any number of 2D Mario games, but instead are boats, cranes, scaffolding, and piers — all of which have a natural and logical reason to exist in Ricco Harbor. Likewise Noki Bay, designed as the cliffside home of the Noki people, offers a bounty of vertical traversal up and down the bay’s viridescent cliffs and coral outcroppings.

Additionally Noki Bay offers some of the best environmental storytelling on Isle Delfino. Beyond the tale of trying to clear Mario’s name or save Princess Peach from the clutches of danger, the story of Delfino’s quest for a cleaner home is told somewhat wordlessly throughout the events of Super Mario Sunshine. Delfino Plaza, dark and grimy at the beginning of the game, grows cleaner and brighter as you progress and collect Shine Sprites. Other levels share this progression, beginning in one state and ending in a more joyful paradigm, but perhaps none as much as Noki Bay. In Noki Bay’s 1st Episode the waters surrounding throughout the level are tinged with purple toxins — harmful to both the Noki people and our brightly dressed hero. But via Mario’s actions as the Episodes advance, the Bay returns to a glistening and crystalline blue, with the 8th Episode revealing that the waters are once again clean enough for the Noki to return to their underwater home.

And though Noki Bay offers some of the most interesting platforming in the game, it is — in my opinion — Sunshine’s non-platforming sections that make it so memorable in the Super Mario cannon. There are two Episodes in particular that stray from the traditional Mario formula, the first of which takes place in Pinna Park:

Pinna Park’s first Episode — called “Mecha-Bowser Attacks” — is the most exciting of Sunshine’s 57 Episodes. By the time Mario reaches this Episode, the player will have participated in anywhere from 3–5 other boss battles, each of which are pretty standard multi-phase boss fare. But while this Episode features a boss fight with the aforementioned Mecha-Bowser, the whole fight is on rails — the rails of Pinna Park’s colossal, sinuous rollercoaster.

Recalling for the second time in Sunshine’s narrative an antagonist from the Godzilla franchise, the battle with Mecha-Bowser, while perhaps not requiring as much finesse as Sunshine’s previous boss battles, provides such a different experience from anything else in Super Mario Sunshine. While nearly every other boss encounter revolves around revolving around one big enemy or another, the battle with Mecha-Bowser takes you on a sweeping tour of Pinna Park, letting the coaster’s wide turns and towering inversions guide you around the tense boss battle. Water missiles dotted around the track provide you with the means to defeat the mechanized King Koopa, while FLUDD’s standard nozzle offers you the means to defeat the Bullet Bills sent to stave off your future attacks.

Secondly I want to mention the third Episode of Sirena Beach called “Mysterious Hotel Delfino”. Similarly to “Mecha-Bowser Attacks”, “Mysterious Hotel Delfino” takes familiar aspects of Sunshine’s gameplay and provides new ways for you to experience them. This Episode is more a puzzler than a platformer, turning the newly risen Hotel Delfino into a two star seaside labyrinth of suites, stairwells, air vents, bathrooms, and indoor water features. While many of Sunshine’s levels are more micro-open worlds with multiple paths to your final objective, Hotel Delfino stands in the rich tradition of Super Mario 64’s “winding path up a mountain” levels — where the level serves as a mostly linear test of the player’s problem solving and acrobatic acumen.

Sirena Beach more broadly is probably also the most diverse and dynamic of Sunshine’s worlds, with Hotel Delfino offering more varied theming amongst its playspaces and experiences, even if some of those experiences don’t quite hit the mark. And unfortunately, those swing-and-a-miss experiences are more the exception than the rule.

Super Mario Sunshine, while taking place in a joyfully rendered tropical locale, suffers at the hands of its structure. I almost wish Super Mario Sunshine were a completely open world instead of the hub-and-spoke structure carried over from Mario 64, because truly the most fun thing in Sunshine is exploring the world. I loved Sunshine’s platforming as a means of discovering more of Isle Delfino, but I enjoyed it infinitely less so when my life depended on it. To get to the final boss battle with Bowser you need to beat the 7th Episode of each level, which doesn’t sound so bad until you learn that Sunshine requires you to beat each level’s Episodes chronologically. This chronological structure is great for Sunshine’s storytelling — especially in worlds like Noki Bay — but horrible for it’s pacing.

The issue with the game’s chronological Episode structure is tied directly into Sunshine’s believability-breaking “Secret” levels. If you’ll recall I spent nearly an hour and a half trying to beat “Secret” levels in my 16 hour playthrough, but only 18 of those minutes were successful runs through a given platforming challenge, meaning I spent little over an hour just dying over and over. If I’d done every “Secret” level perfectly the first time, I don’t think I would’ve had an issue with the structure or pace of the game; but it’s these levels, with their immersion breaking aesthetics and egregious spike in difficulty, that bring the pace of Super Mario Sunshine to a grinding halt. And since Super Mario Sunshine is the Mario series’ most narrative-heavy game, that’s a problem.

Part 5: Who Framed Mario Mario?

That’s his full name. Miyamoto said so.

Before 2002, the Super Mario titles were not what one might call “narrative driven”, with the possible exception of Square’s 1996 Super Mario RPG — though it too still followed the tried and true tale of rescuing the damsel-in-distress from the big, bad monster. But Super Mario Sunshine, while it does include an element of damsel saving, is a genre-bending adventure more akin to a modern whodunnit than a simple tale of chivalry. In terms of both length and depth, Super Mario Sunshine’s narrative greatly surpasses those of its predecessors, building off the events of Super Mario 64 in organic and dynamic ways. If Super Mario 64 is Whiplash then Super Mario Sunshine is Whiplash.

Now when I pitched that joke to the rest of the team, Will suggested some alternate comparisons — that Mario 64 is the Alien to Sunshine’s Alien vs. Predator 2, or that Mario 64 is the 1982 Thing and Sunshine is the 2011 Thing. But neither of those fit into the thesis of this part of the story — that Super Mario Sunshine’s story is good, actually — so my stupid joke stayed in the script.

The story begins from the moment you insert the Super Mario Sunshine disk into the Gamecube, which launches a pre-main menu cutscene that serves to familiarize the characters — and by proxy the player — with the setting into which they are about to venture. Through the negligence of Isle Delfino’s Board of Tourism’s video editor, this tropical sizzle reel also introduces the antagonist — though Princess Peach is the only one to notice. And so begins the whodunnit.

Upon arriving on Isle Delfino, Mario and company discover that the island has been defaced and polluted by a brush-wielding Jackson Pollock wannabe bearing a striking resemblance to our hero. Mere moments after Mario and company’s arrival, Delfino’s judicial system — armed with insufficient evidence and numerous eye-witnesses that could prove otherwise — charges Mario for the villain’s crimes, sentencing him to community service cleaning up the island. However, Isle Delfino’s lackadaisical policing — while initially the reason for your incarceration — allows you freedom to pursue your doppelganger and clear your name. And so begins the actual game of Super Mario Sunshine.

And this is the thrust of the narrative for almost the entire first half of the game. Until completing Pinna Park Episode 1 — “Mecha-Bowser Attacks” — the whole game is focused on catching and discovering the identity of Mario’s doppelganger. Within the narrative of Super Mario Sunshine, the timing and reveal of Shadow Mario’s identity aligns with the story’s shift from a whodunit to the classic damsel-in-distress tale, though the motivations of the doppelganger story carry over into the rescue narrative. When the player finally learns that Shadow Mario is in fact Bowser Jr., we learn that the only reason the young Koopa is kidnapping Peach is to save her from Mario. From Bowser Jr.’s perspective, his father has spent years trying to rescue the Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom from Mario’s clutches — not the other way around.

Now entertainment — especially in the case of crime or espionage thrillers — has many times dealt with the subject of doppelgangers — either in instances of actual identicals as is the case in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy or those of disguises as often appear in any number of James Bond or Mission: Impossible films. More often than not, stories of doppelgangers or doubles revolve around the notion of one half of the pair having been wronged by the other, as is the case in Enemy, Jordan Peele’s Us, John Woo’s Face/Off, or perhaps the bit of pop culture most closely resembling the Super Mario SunshineThe Man Who Haunted Himself, a 1970 thriller starring Sir Roger Moore.

Not only does the main character sport a jaunty mustache, as does our protagonist; but he also has a butler named Luigi. The main conflict of the film follows much the same thread as the early hours of Super Mario Sunshine, with Moore’s Harold Pelham suddenly finding his life usurped by a double. Unlike Mario’s double, Moore is not being impersonated by an enemy, but discovers that his doppelganger is in fact a true copy of the man himself.

Though Bowser Jr.’s motivations for impersonating Mario and defacing Isle Delfino are not as defined as his motivations for kidnapping Princess Peach, we can make some assumptions based on previously released doppelganger entertainment. Peach is kidnapped twice during the events of Sunshine, once rescued by Mario before Bowser Jr. has a chance to escape out of Delfino Plaza, and then once again at the very end of the game. Both kidnappings occur when Mario is visiting other parts of the island. Though we’re never told that Bowser Jr. has been tracking Mario’s movements, we can assume that given his tenacity and passion with regards to his attempts to rescue the woman he believes to be his mother, that Bowser Jr. — knowing Mario and company had plans to recreate on Isle Delfino — chose to impersonate the soft-spoken plumber with the specific goal of landing Mario in jail. Perhaps, seeing his father’s many failed attempts at directly and openly kidnapping Princess Peach, Bowser Jr. decided to try something with a little more subtlety, and perhaps even a dash of subterfuge.

I was reminded during this playthrough of Super Mario Sunshine — especially when considering the motivations of Bowser Jr. of an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit called “Double Strands”, which sees the detectives of SVU stumble upon a pair of twin brothers, where one brother in the pair attempts to frame the other for a string of his own crimes.

Now as a thriller, insubstantial as it is, Super Mario Sunshine does its job well in establishing an air of mystery regarding who the doppelganger is and why they’re defacing the island; but returning to the topic of pacing that we touched on during the discussion of Sunshine’s “Secret” levels, the cutscene in which Shadow Mario is revealed as Bowser Jr. and shifts the story towards the more traditional rescue narrative, occurred during my playthrough at 3 hours, 37 minutes, 5 seconds, and 44 frames. Let’s consider this the beginning of the second act of Super Mario Sunshine. Now the next relevant story beat involving Shadow Mario, in which he is shown retreating from Delfino Plaza to Corona Mountain — precipitating the events of the final confrontation with Bowser and Bowser Jr. — occurs at 15 hours, 34 minutes, 16 seconds, and 55 frames. Let’s call this the beginning of the third act of Super Mario Sunshine. That’s nearly 12 hours between major story beats. Though Super Mario Sunshine can be played mostly out of order, the narrative — given the fact that in order to complete the game the player must first complete the 7th Episode of each level — is quite linear, so it’s somewhat astounding that there is such a huge gap between the biggest story beats in the game. Not only that, but once we reach the precipice of the third act, it takes less than 15 minutes to reach the conclusion of the story.

All this to say, while Super Mario Sunshine has one of the most fully-formed and unique narratives in the whole of the Super Mario franchise, it is not executed as well as it could be. But, for this being the first Mario title to implement full voice acting, the first Mario title to take place outside the Mushroom Kingdom, and the first Mario title to have a story of such depth — I can’t help but admire Super Mario Sunshine, flaws and all.

Super Mario Sunshine — for whatever criticisms I’ve written into the script — is something special. Nintendo took a risk with this game. They took a risk with the tropical setting of Isle Delfino. They took a risk making a Mario game with fully voice-acted cutscenes. They took a risk with FLUDD, with Sunshine’s non-traditional platforming, and with Sunshine’s irregular narrative.

I think that Sunshine’s tropical setting, though a point of contention amongst fans of the series, is the game’s greatest strength. The consistency of the space across all of its many landscapes, creates one of the most coherent and visually appealing worlds of any Super Mario title. I love roaming through that world. I loved it in 2002 and I loved it in 2020.

It’s courageous if not somewhat poorly executed narrative is too a bright spot within the Super Mario canon. Looking back on the 18th anniversary of this game, it’s obvious which parts of Super Mario Sunshine haven’t aged as well as some of its peers; but all in all I think Super Mario Sunshine is still an excellent experience that any fan of platformers, collectathons, or Super Mario titles should play.

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