Completing Super Mario Sunshine in 2023
The pros and cons of vacationing on Isle Delfino
As a big fan of platformers, I’ve played a lot of them through the years. Most platformers involve controlling a character through a series of obstacles by jumping around and collecting things. While that holds true, when you look at the various platformers available, it goes far beyond that. No franchise exemplifies this better than the iconic Mario series, which continues to reign supreme in the industry.
Leading Into the Journey
The Mario franchise is primarily a platformer series (spin-offs aside). If you noticed, 2D Mario differs from 3D Mario, and not just in the obvious ways. The classic games and the “new” games are all about guiding Mario from the start of a level to the end, collecting mushrooms to grow in size and withstand more damage, and gaining power-ups to gain additional hits and unique abilities. The 3D Mario games (excluding 3D Land and 3D World), however, are referred to as “Collect-A-Thons”. In these games, Mario is thrown into a bigger and more open level with several objectives. Completing these objectives rewards Mario with collectibles, which allows him and the player to proceed through the game.
While I’m always up for any kind of platformer, I resonated with Collect-a-Thons compared to traditional 2D games. There was always something fun and therapeutic about going on a big adventure and seeing the collectibles counter go up the more progress I made. Based on that, one would assume I’d be a dedicated fan of Mario’s 3D outings; however, the reality is quite different. Except for Super Mario 64, I did not get to experience these adventures until recently. Growing up, I had access to PlayStation consoles, which is why Mario’s extended adventures into the 3D universe remained unfamiliar to me for a considerable period.
The one game which mystified me the most in the Italian plumber’s catalog was Super Mario Sunshine, Mario’s big GameCube adventure. Back when the game came out, I was unaware of the GameCube’s existence until the legendary G4 channel began airing on local TV, providing me with insights into what I had missed. Since there was no way for me to get a GameCube, I followed TV coverage of the game. Super Mario Sunshine definitely looked interesting and distinct from what I had come to expect of Mario games. Unfortunately, I was not able to play it for some time.
For years I just found it safe to assume it was great like the other mainline Mario games and paid it no mind. One day, by complete coincidence, I was told by a friend who had played the game that it “sucked.” This caught me by surprise. Negative feedback on Mario games is rare. I found that many others shared the same sentiment, even going as far as claiming this was the series’ low point. It wasn’t until recent years that I started hearing more people express that it is an underrated classic, quite a shift from the original sentiment. That said, it appears to be the general consensus that the game’s difficulty spikes during attempts to achieve 100% completion.
This claim intrigued me, although this is not the first game to receive such polarizing opinions and surely won’t be the last. Regardless, this was still part of the Mario franchise, which typically is praised and beloved amongst fan. So to hear such divisiveness among fans, I couldn't help but wonder what I would think of the game.
Following my surprise acquisition of a Nintendo Switch and the lucky find of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, I could finally go on this journey through Isle Delfino for myself. It was time for me to see if sunshine really shines upon this game, or if it might be better to let it be eclipsed by other entries in the franchise.
An Actually Fun Start
My journey through Super Mario Sunshine started as it often does with platformers: following a story cutscene to set up the plot, I ran around Delfino landing site while getting used to Mario’s move set. Mario’s movements remained much the same as they were in Super Mario 64, minus the long jump, which I missed. However, I found the dive jump to be a fun replacement and appreciated the new twist it added. I found F.L.U.D.D, Mario’s main tool in this adventure, and quickly got used to his control scheme. I found it complemented Mario’s move set while also giving Super Mario Sunshine a unique touch. This all ended with grabbing the first Shine Sprite in the game. Only 119 to go…
After grabbing my first Shine, I got to see more of the story, which I will not spend too much time on. While it may be a more involved story than usual, it’s ultimately silly and even frustrating the longer you play. Even if there’s more build up, it all comes back to Mario having to save Peach from Bowser and his son. Considering this is Mario, however, I overlooked the story beats and focused on the game, which continued to be fun. Though I did find Mario a bit too slippery in some areas, I figured I’d adapt in time and pressed on with mission after mission.
Considering I had watched playthroughs of the game throughout the years, I knew what to expect with the missions and knew which ones I should be wary of. That’s when I found out that some of those missions people raged over… weren’t so bad at all! The slow watermelon roll was annoying in concept, but I managed it in just two tries and I didn’t find it that stressful. The Mecha-Bowser fight, which I heard gives people headaches? It ended before I even realized what was going on. Even some of the dreaded blue coins came naturally, though we’ll get to those later.
The game wasn’t perfect, and I’ll never forgive the blooper surfing time limit, but I was having lots of fun playing through it. I was even beginning to wonder if the hate I’d been seeing wasn't a bit exaggerated. I was quickly jumping, hovering, squirting, and Shine collecting and having a good time doing it. No way the rest of the game was going to be difficult to complete, right?
If only, my dear readers. If only…
The Frustrating Stuff
The game’s quality took a sharp turn around the halfway mark, changing my opinion from “I quite like this” to “How is this considered okay game design?”
Firstly, whenever Mario dies or fails a mission, he’s booted out of the stage. In order to try again, you have to re-enter the stage, pick the mission, and start all the way from the beginning… without checkpoints. Yes, I’m aware that Super Mario 64 followed this blueprint, and it was a problem there too. I can forgive 64 more, however, since it was the first go at this type of game, so some trial and error was bound to happen. In Sunshine’s case, the problem is even worse because this is a sequel to Mario 64. I expected it to improve upon the faults of its predecessors. Besides that, many other games in the platformer genre, like Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro the Dragon, removed that frustrating design and thus allowed for a faster pace. So why couldn’t Super Mario Sunshine follow suit?
Mario’s slippery controls only highlighted the game’s lack of fairness, which caused him to slide off platforms too often with little input from me. Not to mention that F.L.U.D.D acted inconsistently with its physics, leading to instances, for example, where I moved in the exact opposite direction of where I wanted to go. Combine all of those with a camera that isn’t the greatest and you’ll find yourself getting booted out of a level and trying again from the beginning for reasons which are, literally, out of your control. These factors made the game more annoying than fun to play.
Super Mario Sunshine seems to just want to annoy the player rather than have the player engaged in a fun journey.
Take the character Yoshi, for example. In order to get Yoshi to hatch from its egg, you need to give it the fruit it wants, which is often given to you at random. After hatching, you can ride it to reach areas that only Yoshi can access. However, you soon realize that the fruit you feed it has different effects, which can impede your progress if you need a specific Yoshi. Let’s not forget to mention that Yoshi has a time limit. If you go too long without feeding Yoshi fruit, they will disappear, forcing you to find another one. If Yoshi touches water, they’ll instantly die. Why? Who knows!
At one point in the game, you’re required to hatch a Yoshi on a slow-moving boat to access a secret pipe. During the trip, you have to jump to a platform to feed Yoshi a fruit and switch to another boat since the one you’re on turns back. However, if Yoshi slips from the platform because you landed on it wrong, it dies, and you have to restart the entire sequence. Even if you succeed, the mission is painfully slow and unfair, which doesn’t make it a good or challenging design. It feels like an artificial way of making the game longer and testing the player’s patience.
I know all the problems I’m mentioning also existed in the original GameCube release. Whether the Switch version should have fixed those problems or not is one thing, but I should stress that even back in 2002, I would consider the same things problematic. Comparing Sunshine to another celebrated platformer, Jak and Daxter, which was released a year earlier on the PS2, I feel it holds up better in terms of controls and game design than Sunshine.
Was it Worth the Trouble?
After the mission like the Yoshi one, I wanted to quit because I knew the game would throw more annoyances at me as I kept playing. I’m a platformer fan, however. I had to keep going. I had to see this journey to the end. While there were some fun moments like some levels where F.L.U.D.D is taken away (Mario’s slippery controls aside), and some upgrades that were cool, it didn’t compare to the pachinko mission. This is a level where you are just thrown onto platforms with terrible physics that will make you hate everything about life. It didn’t make the coin hunting any less daunting.
Blue coins play a big role in the game, and as I promised earlier, I’ll discuss them now. I managed to locate nearly half of them on my own, and some were quite easy to spot. However, some of the coins ignored all logic and left me with no option but to look up a guide. I understand if some consider this cheating, but some of those coins felt as if the game was cheating, too! I’m just leveling the playing field. Additionally, there are 240 blue coins! That is a lot! Even with a guide, it felt exhausting trying to find them. This collect-a-thon made the whole gimmick feel tiring, which is the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.
But I persevered, I defeated Bowser, and when this journey ended… I didn’t think it was worth it.
I knew what was waiting for me once I beat it. I knew it would not be something which would make me look back at the journey with positivity. I was disappointed when my entire journey through this game closed with a lame postcard and nothing else. The journey started in a fun way and there were some glimpses of light… but it didn’t matter once the credits rolled. It dawned on me the frustration was for nothing. The only thing I got for all of this is the ability to say: “I did it.”
I did it, though. I got through the entirety of Super Mario Sunshine. I can honestly say that it overall left a bad impression on me. It’s no wonder why it’s often seen as the black sheep of the Mario franchise, and unfortunately, I have to agree with the criticisms rather than the praise. Super Mario Sunshine was, at its very best, enjoyable. At its worst, it was a frustrating mess. I cannot see myself ever going back to this game and I can honestly say I feel weird about finally getting it off my backlog.
After years of wondering and thinking, I finally got the chance to play this curious piece of Mario history and form my own opinion about it. Regardless of what I thought, I cannot deny that it was quite the interesting experience giving this game a fair shot. The only positive thing I can take away from it is the sense of accomplishment from finishing it, while the rest was a frustrating test of patience. It is disheartening to feel that way about a game I’ve wanted to play for years. It’s difficult to find out you agree more with the negative feedback than the good.
My vacation on Isle Delfino wasn’t relaxing. It was frustrating.
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