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