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Super Mario Sunshine: A F.L.U.D.D. of Emotions

Super Mario Sunshine: A F.L.U.D.D. of Emotions - Article

by Kelsy Polnik , posted on 12 October 2020 / 2,324 Views

I've been digging deep into the world of Super Mario, starting with the 1985 NES release and working my way towards Super Mario Odyssey, leaving no Goomba unstomped. Many of these games I've played multiple times, but there are several I hadn't played before and so I've gotten to experience them for the first time. Super Mario Sunshine has always stuck out in the series to me, but I haven't quite been able to articulate why. Having experienced so many Super Mario games in such a short time has, I feel, finally given me the perspective I've always lacked and may allow me to better discuss why I think Super Mario Sunshine feels so out of place as a Super Mario title. 

I think the obvious place to start is with Mario's movement. In every Mario title up to this point I'd argue that the best part of the game is simply controlling Mario. It's always a little bit different, but right from Super Mario Bros' (1985) forward focused momentum, to Super Mario Land 2's (1992) floatier gliding jumps, to Super Mario 64's (1996) vast array of jumps and flips, the games are always fun to play because Mario is fun to move. Each is also designed around its specific power-ups to enhance these movements. Hitting that run speed in Super Mario Bros 3 (1990) or Super Mario World (1991) to take to the air with a Raccoon Tail or Cape is an unparalleled feeling, as is stomping through the bottom of an underwater level with the Metal Cap in Mario 64. It's pretty challenging to find Mario in any form from 1985 to 2001 that isn't fun to be in control of, no matter the stage, the power up on hand, or the platform you're playing on. 

Now, the movement in Super Mario Sunshine does borrow much from Super Mario 64, but it lacks a few key moves, including my personal favorite: the long jump. Their absence wouldn't be a big deal if they were replaced with something equivalent. Unfortunately, the F.L.U.D.D. pack that you're strapped with from the get-go is a poor replacement for the pure joy of previous games, which always let you feel the heft of Mario's movement. Instead your two new default moves are a sluggishly slow moving Hover Nozzle (which negates the whole idea of this being a platforming game) and a Squirt Nozzle (which encourages Mario to spray targets and enemies while standing still or strafing).

The Hover Nozzle behaves like a crutch and disincentives players from having to get better at the game, as any missed jump can simply have you arc around and safely land on the platform that was missed. The Squirt Nozzle can be used to make Mario slide, which admittedly does feel fast and fun... until you quickly crash into something and lose all that momentum with a slow, painful crash and recovery animation. This ability is really only helpful on clear straightaways, as it has next to no cornering utility. Not much of the game is designed to take advantage of this mechanic and it seems lost on anyone outside of the speed-running community. 

If that was all it would be bad enough, but on top of these less enjoyable mechanics the development team thought it would be a good idea to force you to refill the F.L.U.D.D.'s water supply, so you'll occasionally run out of water and not even be able to use these new abilities. This isn't much of a problem on most stages, but when it does become an issue you've usually climbed or traveled a fair distance and are close to your target, but you're forced to backtrack to find a refill if you wish to proceed. Not a fun mechanic. 

Late into the game you can unlock two additional Nozzles: the Rocket Nozzle and the Turbo Nozzle. Both of these make Mario's movement quite a bit more enjoyable, but unfortunately most of the game isn't designed to take advantage of them and you'll often find yourself in situations requiring one of your initial two Nozzles, with the two newer ones only being used for a handful of Shines and challenges. 

Up to this point in the Super Mario series, with the notable exception of the two Super Mario Land titles for the GameBoy, every time a new cast of bad guys has been introduced they've been pretty fantastic and enduring. Goombas, Koopas, Shy Guys, Chain Chomps, Wario, Wart, Bowser, Koopa Kids, Bullet Bills, Hammer Bros, and on and on. Mario has never lacked a good cast of villains. Super Mario 64 may have introduced mainly forgettable new ones (other than Unagi, Big Boo, and Whomp I'd argue), but it also had excellent 3D interpretations of many of its important classic characters. Super Mario Sunshine, on the other hand, introduces an entire cast of duds that are crowned off with the king of duds: Bowser Jr. The few throwback enemies either have ugly remakes (Bullet Bill and Bob-omb) or behave like a different type of bad guy entirely (Blooper, Piranha Plant, and Cheep Cheep). 

Mario has also consistently had a small but endearing cast of allies (with the exception of Daisy in Super Mario Land), namely Mario, Luigi, Toad/Toads, Peach, and Yoshi. The end. It's a tight cast considering how many games there are in the series. Yoshi was a big deal when first introduced in Super Mario World, a game that was designed to highlight him, which was a smart move. In Sunshine your new additions are: Toadsworth... and Piantas. And honestly the Piantas could be considered the true antagonists of Super Mario Sunshine. The first new ally since 1991 and we get Toadsworth? Really? 

Super Mario has always been extremely light on narrative and that has never held it back. Super Mario Sunshine tries really hard to force a narrative into the series, and while the overall goal may be admirable, the end result is simply terrible. This attempt at narrative even leaks its way into Sunshine’s progression, which I feel hurts the game substantially. The earliest Mario games are straightforward and linear, no question about it. But starting with Super Mario World, then followed by Super Mario Land 2 and Super Mario 64, the series really started to allow the player more freedom. Super Mario 64 has my favorite progression up to this point in the series, where you simply need to beat X number of stages to unlock additional ones. You choose which challenges to tackle and in which order, and you can even obtain Stars in a stage other than the one you selected and entered. It's a simple but genius progression system. 

With Super Mario Sunshine's ambitious story progression system, however, you're locked into a single Shine at a time, with no variance.  On top of that, as you progress through the Shines in each stage the game attempts to tell a story, but usually at least four out of the available 11 Shines are completely irrelevant to that story. Some of the Shines don't even make sense story-wise, such as Shadow Mario stealing your F.L.U.D.D. for certain challenges, only for you to have it back in your possession for no apparent reason afterwards. On top of that the Piantas, which you're helping to clean up their island and return their Shines, seem to be in possession of at least a quarter of the Shines you've been tasked with obtaining. Why push a narrative if it's not going to be logical and consistent? 

The game never explicitly tells you that you need to reach the 7th Shine in each of the main stages to open the final battle with Bowser. I had 80+ Shines and hadn't seen any game progression in ages because I didn't realize this. I just kept plugging away until something hopefully happened. That's bad design, but it's not even my biggest issue with this style of progression. Because each Shine can have a different stage layout it's impossible to achieve the 100 coin Shine on most of the stages; you have to trial and error them until you find the Shine that actually allows you to complete this challenge. That's a mess. On top of that certain Nozzles and hidden blue coins are also locked away in very specific Shines on every stage. Maybe all of this would be forgivable if the story was great, but - spoiler alert - it's not. The cut scenes are also some of the most painful out there, even for the game's era. And they're unskippable as well!

Super Mario games up to this point had done a great job of giving the player a good variety of level types: Castles, Overworlds, Underworlds, Underwater Stages, Cloud Stages, Ice Stages, Pipe Worlds, Little Big Worlds, Outer Space, and more. All you get in Sunshine is Tropical Island, so you'd better like it. The Haunted Hotel that you unlock after clearing yet another beach is a welcome change of pace, but everything else on offer feels very repetitive. Super Mario World also took place on an island, but it felt so much more diverse than Sunshine. You know what else Super Mario World did better? Yoshi! The Yoshis in Sunshine are devastatingly disappointing; one drop of water and they're gone. Did I mention the setting is a tropical island, covered with and surrounded by water?

To say that all previous Super Mario games are without technical issues and glitches would be a lie. But it's true that running across one is far from the norm. Even in the ground-breaking Super Mario 64 it's quite rare to run into technical problems. Oh baby is Sunshine littered with common issues though. From the camera getting stuck or passing inside of objects, to falling through the stage completely, to regular game freezes, it can really start to grate. And the final fight - that moment you've been working your way towards for hours - is unforgivably broken. When Mario falls through the giant target that he's meant to smash into in order to advance the fight, 25% of the time what should be a tense and triumphant battle turns into a teeth-gritting test of patience. 

This next part is far more subjective, but I've found that I loved playing almost every dang level in most Super Mario games... except Super Mario Sunshine. In Super Mario 64, which has a whopping 120 different challenges for you to complete, I found that 10-12 of them weren't particularly fun, but the rest were incredibly satisfying experiences. I'm not saying there's no fun to be had in Super Mario Sunshine - indeed I like quite a few parts of the game - but when stacked up next to pretty much any other Super Mario title it's quite joyless. From a ridiculous Pachinko Machine Shine, to slowly traversing boats while travelling at a snail's pace with a Yoshi who can't make one misstep with his slippery controls or face defeat, to walking around spraying every slightly out of place bit of scenery and grain of sand across the game's many, many beaches in the hopes of stray Blue Coins or the occasional Shine, there are just so many moments that are far too monotonous or frustrating to be fun. 

It's pretty telling that the most universally praised parts of Sunshine are the Secret Shine Stages, in which the game strips you of its main mechanics and themes (and even music). So much of the game simply isn't enjoyable: carrying fruit isn't fun; spraying inanimate objects with water isn't fun; cleaning pollution off the ground isn't fun; getting 80-90 coins in a stage and realizing you have to exit and try the next Shine in order to obtain the full 100 coins isn't fun; buying Shines from vendors with the cruelly hidden blue coins isn't fun; waiting for birds to fly back towards you when they're out of range so that you can spray them isn't fun. These aren't one off experiments either, they're repeatedly re-used as if they're supposed to deliver some sense of accomplishment. 

You may have noticed in the last paragraph that I took a small jab at the music in Super Mario Sunshine. That was intentional - Sunshine has one of the least memorable soundtracks in any Super Mario game.

Secrets have always been a big part of the Super Mario experience. From the simple beginnings of Coin Heavens and Warp Pipes, to the far more rewarding Star Road, players are always rewarded for exploring or mastering levels in Super Mario games. The reward for 120 stars in Super Mario 64 I'll admit is quite anti-climactic, but when you finish the Star Road levels in Super Mario World you're rewarded with both a message from the developer as well as a great new look to the game and many of its enemies. After what's quite a gruelling experience of getting all 120 Shines in Super Mario Sunshine my hope was that my effort would be rewarded with something more akin to the Super Mario World experience, as opposed to the Super Mario 64 one. What you're rewarded with is simply a post-credit postcard with a picture to remind you just how forgettable the entire new cast was. It's without a doubt not worth the effort to obtain it. 

I've been very critical here, but that's because I love the Super Mario series so much that I ended up ultimately being very dissatisfied with Super Mario Sunshine in particular. There are very few Super Mario games that I'd recommend people interested in the series skip. I'm kind of torn on this one in that regard. It really didn't do anything that any other entry hasn't done better, either before or since, and looking back it doesn't feel like it hit any important milestones for the series, such that a player could benefit from seeing its place in the evolution of Super Mario. The one thing that used to stand out to me was its attempt at a narrative in a Super Mario game, but I'd rather direct players to Super Mario Galaxy, which did a better job of telling an interesting story by an order of magnitude. It is the only game in the series that I feel requires a player to resort to external sources in order to 100% it (every other entry gives you the tools in the game to achieve that goal), but that's not a good thing. When racking my brain to end on a positive note the best I can do is that the Secret Shine Stages are awesome and it's a colorful game. 

I know Sunshine has its defenders, and if you've read this and are one of them then please leave a comment - have I got something wrong or overlooked some of the positive qualities of Super Mario Sunshine? What are your favorite parts of the game and why? I would love to have a discussion about where it fits into the Super Mario scale in terms of its quality. I actually don't think it's the worst entry in the series, but I do think it's near the bottom of the pile.

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rapsuperstar31 (on 12 October 2020)

It's better than I remember it being as a kid. It was the most frustrating game I've played at the time. I died quite a bit more in games like Celeste, and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, but when I die in those games it never felt cheap, where Sunshine always felt cheap when I died due to a camera angle, Mario not triple jumping when I pushed jump for the third time, or jankly mechanics on levels like Pachinko. The mechanics that I hated as a kid like having to do the casino puzzles before going into a tough level without the FLUDD or riding the boats with Yoshi on the main map, to get to the frustrating level. And of course, there are not enough levels and too many blue coins. Trying to get 100 coins, and only being able to find 94 in certain sections of levels was pretty annoying as well. Ultimately its a good game, and if it wasn't a Mario game it would be better than it is. I was happy to give it another go, and I ended up getting 112/120 shines this time through, but I just don't have the desire to find the remaining blue coins.

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Slayer of God rapsuperstar31 (on 12 October 2020)

That's an interesting idea that if it wasn't a Mario game I might think of it more fondly. That very well could be the case!

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Slayer of God rapsuperstar31 (on 12 October 2020)

That's an interesting idea that if it wasn't a Mario game I might think of it more fondly. That very well could be the case!

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Slayer of God rapsuperstar31 (on 12 October 2020)

That's an interesting idea that if it wasn't a Mario game I might think of it more fondly. That very well could be the case!

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drbunnig (on 13 October 2020)

I can't say I've ever really experienced any of the technical issues highlighted (played through around 15-20 times on PAL Gamecube). How common are they? The camera criticisms I can understand (although it never gave me too much bother personally), but I've never had the game freeze, fallen through the stage or had trouble with the final boss. I don't think you're the only person who has mentioned stuff like this... have I got lucky somehow?

Although I love the game, I enjoyed the article and can appreciate your point of view.

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Slayer of God drbunnig (on 13 October 2020)

I've always played on the NTSC-U version so I can't speak to the PAL version.

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Slownenberg (on 13 October 2020)

It's a great game. I see people since the 3D All-Stars release talk about how it's so buggy. I don't remember any bugs when it came out, and have yet to encounter any in a few hours of play on the Switch. I like that it provides a different experience thanks to the FLUDD mechanic. I will say it is less memorable than all the other console 3D Mario games (well I haven't played 3D World). I think it ranks lower than the rest, but that's just saying it is the lowest ranking game of one of the best series in gaming. It's still a blast to play, just not quite as iconic and brilliant as the other games. If it wasn't a Mario game it'd be thought of like Banjo Kazooie: one of the few 3D platformers outside of Mario games that really stand out, and that is good enough for me for the "black sheep" of the 3D Mario series.

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RolStoppable (on 13 October 2020)

I never had the game freeze on me in ~20 playthroughs. Falling through the floor on the final boss fight has only happened to me after smashing a target when the hit detection of the falling stones bumped Mario below them instead of having him touch them like a wall. I actually liked that the camera could go through walls in this game because it annoyed the hell out of me when the camera in Super Mario 64 couldn't be rotated due to a wall in the way. The one time that the camera can't go a full 360° (the pachinko level) is what everyone complains about, because the camera doesn't mimic your control input. The stage with the giant sandbird is the second worst one in the game after the pachinko level; not because of the camera, but because of the physics and hit detection that can bump/teleport Mario similar to the issue on the final boss fight.

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RolStoppable RolStoppable (on 13 October 2020)

Many of the shortcomings of Super Mario Sunshine are due to the lagging sales of the GameCube that forced Nintendo to release the game sooner than they wanted to. That's why the quality assurance suffered in comparison to other Nintendo games, that's why the game's content was padded with the blue coins. There really should have been another 2-3 worlds, but there just wasn't time, similar to how The Wind Waker also saw two of its dungeons cut because GC hardware sales were just that bad and new first party games had to come out fast.

Much of the dislike for SMS stems from the game defying player expectations. Anyone who insists on playing it like other Mario games will be put off by its controls and mechanics. If you want to enjoy this game, you have to accept that it plays differently, and once you do that, the gameplay is literally a lot more fluid. You can quickly move through the levels by spraying a little water in front of you and divejumping into it for an unlimited slide. That's a lot more convenient and less tedious than the repeated longjumps in other 3D Mario games. The shrine levels without F.L.U.D.D. are better platforming obstacle courses than anything seen in Super Mario 64, Galaxy 1 and 2, and Odyssey.

The level variety is good despite a limited overarching theme of tropical island. Water worlds aren't a particularly enticing proposal in platformers, because swimming is always slower than regular movement on the ground, but despite its overall theme, there's not much swimming to do in SMS. The worlds you get are mountain village, harbor, beach, amusement park, haunted hotel, cliffs and tree village. Only seven worlds result in a distant last place in variety in the grand scheme of 3D Mario games, but it's not as water-heavy as it seems at first.

The bottom line is that even a bad Mario game is still better than the vast majority of other games out there. SMS definitely ranks behind its "brothers" in the 3D Mario series, except Super Mario 64 which has me conflicted because on one hand it's clunky and unresponsive in comparison to later 3D Mario games, but on the other hand it did things first, so being a bit rough around the edges can be forgiven.

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ireadtabloids (on 13 October 2020)

The piantas potentially being antagonists of the game was my favourite part of this article.

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Slayer of God ireadtabloids (on 14 October 2020)

Sad but true

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Machina (on 13 October 2020)

Which Super Mario game is your least favourite Kelsy? (You say it's not this one, so I'm curious to know which it is).

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Slayer of God Machina (on 13 October 2020)

Super Mario Bros Deluxe and Super Mario Advance are both definitely below Sunshine for me. I'm not a big fan of 3D Land and World as well, but I'd need to play them again to see where I'd place them in comparison.

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Slayer of God Machina (on 13 October 2020)

And Super Mario Land as well

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