Editor Note: If you’re not familiar with the term “pile of shame”: basically, it’s all the games you’ve purchased over the years but never gotten around to playing. We’re now working our way back to retrospectively review some of ours!
I’ve wanted to play Super Mario Sunshine for a long time. I bought a copy online to play on my Wii, but it turned out it was the wrong region, and my attempts with Freeloader were unsuccessful. Years later, I’m the proud owner of three wonderful Gamecube consoles, and I was finally able to visit Isle Delfino. I’m not sure why exactly I was so excited to play Sunshine; maybe it was just the bright colours and happy characters I love so much in a platformer. Maybe the jet-pack-utility-thing-style gameplay just reminded me of my good friends Ratchet & Clank. Either way, I was sure that Super Mario Sunshine was going to prove to me that the critics were unreasonable and harsh.
Mario needs a vacation; fair enough, he’s been fighting malicious turtles all over the place. He takes Princess Peach and her steward, Toadsworth, with him on a nice relaxing trip to the tropical paradise of Isle Delfino. Unfortunately, somebody’s slopping goop all around the place and ruining the vibes; the beach isn’t the same when you’re covered in a thick oil-like substance, trust me. To make matters worse, this dude looks remarkably similar to Mario (except that his body is a three-dimensional shadow). Our hero is falsely prosecuted due to these similarities and is ordered by the court to clean up the mess they believe he’s caused. Good thing Mario has FLUDD, a backpack that shoots water and also talks for some reason.
The story is definitely on the strange side for a Super Mario game, and I love that. Sure, when a Mario game starts with the princess being kidnapped for the millionth time nobody holds it against the game, but this kind of twist is all it takes to get me far more invested in the game. Sure, I knew where it was headed, but I actually wanted to see how the story played out. That’s a lot more than can be said for most Mario games, or at least the platforming ones. The miscarriage of justice and almost believably styled Isle Delfino approach a weird realism that makes little sense in a Mario game. In the same way as Sonic Adventure, it’s a bit of a mismatch (it’s a perfectly normal city with normal people in it, but wait there’s an inexplicably enormous blue hedgehog that runs incredibly fast and nobody’s worried about that? Okay). It doesn’t quite go over the edge though – it feels like a Mario world, it just presents sides you wouldn’t normally see to these places. Who would imagine Mario tried fairly and taken to jail?
Regardless of any strange narrative ideas, this is a Mario game. It’s about running and jumping, and in this case, spraying water and sliding on your stomach. The reason this game is such a black sheep among Mario games is that it’s inherently different – a new mechanic is relied upon for the entirety of the game. FLUDD gives Mario a projectile-type attack, as well as a jet-pack style hover. This changes everything. Beating a boss is often about squirting water in its mouth, or cleaning some of Shadow Mario’s goop off of it, and platforming is a lot more open.
FLUDD’s hover ability means Mario can not only cover long distance gaps, but perform some pretty precise maneuvers. One that I found myself using a lot, for example, is side somersaulting towards the top of a ledge, wall jumping off of it to get high enough, and using FLUDD to float back over and land on top. The ways that you can use FLUDD in conjunction with standard platforming like this are its real strength – it adds an extra ‘move’ to a potential ‘platforming-combo’ in an otherwise fairly standard lexicon of abilities.
This allowance of more advanced techniques comes across in Mario’s other new moves, too. While the long jump and crouching back flip aren’t here, they’re practically accounted for. Pressing B makes Mario leap forward and slide on his belly. Why? Probably just so they could let you ride the water slide at the beginning of the first level. You can use it pretty effectively though (beyond spamming it to move faster). Using it in the air, or perfectly timing a jump at the end of your slide can result in some awesome platforming. There’s also a diagonal wall-jump in this game. If you come at a wall at forty-five degrees and kick off of it, you’ll move ahead diagonally rather than straight back from the wall. The problem is that it’s very hard to get quite right.
The coolest thing and also most disappointing thing about these moves is that you never need to use them. I love the fact that you could pass a level without doing anything difficult, but if you’ve mastered some trickier moves you can pass it faster. Conversely, I hate that there’s no challenges involving these techniques. I could see why they’d be better off out of compulsory levels, but why not reward more capable players with hidden Shine Sprites (stars), or at least place the collectible blue coins more interestingly. There are some challenging segments in which you can’t use FLUDD, and most people consider these the high points of the game. I was disappointed that they didn’t require a mastery of Sunshine’s unique mechanics either.
The problem most people have with the game is the camera, and it’s easy to see why. If you’re in a slightly tight space, you’re going to have trouble seeing what you’re doing. The camera will often be looking at you through a wall, and even though you can see a shadow of Mario in these moments, it doesn’t make it any easier to platform; you can’t see what you’re trying to jump on. I also had a problem with the controls; they just didn’t feel as good as I’d expect them to. I didn’t feel like I had the accuracy of movement I’m used to from the series, and it’s especially important here when you’re trying to land on a tightrope or wall-jump diagonally. It’s such a shame, because I love the concept so much. Even writing about it now, I feel like playing Sunshine, but I know that the minute I pick it up I’ll remember why I put it down – it just doesn’t feel good to play.
I’m not a fan of the structure of the game either. I really like the traditional 3D platformer structure in which you need, for example, ten stars to progress, but you have twenty potential stars available to collect. I like knowing that I don’t necessarily have to play the levels I don’t like, and that if I do I’ll be ahead because of it. Sunshine isn’t really like that. Sure, there are hidden Shine Sprites that aren’t needed to complete the game, but that’s about it. Rather than choosing your own path through a collection of challenges, you’re playing along the necessary path with the choice to slightly stray from it at times. Once I’d beaten the game I knew there was only ‘side’ stuff left to do, and I had no intention of striving for 100% completion; a rarity for me in a game like this one.
Sunshine is a good looking and sounding Gamecube game. Mario and pals all look great; Isle Delfino has its share of pretty scenery, and the soundtrack is enjoyably joyous. There’s something extremely jarring about this game’s presentation though – voice acting. I don’t mind most of it, I actually think it suits the game for the most part, but one character in particular set me off. Bowser talks in this game. The giant fire-breathing turtle talks like a man. Actually, he talks like a clown. It’s really strange to fight this gargantuan enemy in an intense boss battle and then hear him talk like he’s trying to impress a toddler.
Super Mario Sunshine is a game about hosing down a tropical island, sliding around on your stomach, and not being able to see the character you’re playing as. Refreshing, fun, but also pretty infuriating. It’s not a bad game, in fact, it’s a pretty good one. Being limited to using FLUDD means no power-ups to diversify gameplay, but it adds enough to make up for it. Unfortunately though, it has more than a handful of annoyances to overcome if you want to have fun playing it all the way through.