Super Mario Sunshine Was the Unappreciated Future of the Franchise

20 years later, the legacy of the ultimate "love it or hate it" Super Mario game is clearer than ever before.

Super Mario Sunshine
Photo: Nintendo

When Super Mario Sunshine was released for the Nintendo GameCube about 20 years ago, it’s safe to say that fans of the most famous fictional plumber in the world were expecting it to be an almost direct follow-up to the legendary Super Mario 64. In other words, many gamers simply wanted to explore the Mushroom Kingdom with more graphical power and a refined camera engine that was still working out its kinks during the previous console generation. 

Instead, they got a game that was even more daring and challenging. Shigeru Miyamoto and his team crafted an immersive platforming experience that was criticized at the time and is still divisive to this day. In fact, Sunshine is one of the few major entries in the Super Mario franchise that some fans simply still don’t know how to feel about.

However, over the years, more gamers have come around to its excellence. Super Mario Sunshine was too unique for its own good, coming at a time when the 3D platformer was hitting its twilight. What about the title made it the successful gem it is today, and why wasn’t it the immediate and clear future of the genre and franchise?

Super Mario and 3D Platforming At The Turn of the 21st Century

3D platformers are notoriously difficult to make and get right. They often combine action, adventure, and even role-playing elements. The original 3D platformers were obsessed with item collection and showing off the ability to move in open space. They were technical marvels that were sometimes easy to forgive for some of their flaws because they so clearly showcased vital concepts that the future of gaming would eventually be based on. As those concepts became more familiar instead of revelatory, though, developers had a difficult time discerning what the average platforming fan wanted.

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3D platforming was becoming a well-worn genre in the early-to-mid-2000s. The glory days of the original Playstation and the Nintendo 64 were in the rearview mirror. Games like Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger left something to be desired by the middle of the sixth generation of home console gaming. It doesn’t mean those games weren’t fun or that their franchises didn’t have strong fan followings. It’s just that the genre went from being a popular powerhouse to an increasing niche concept that often suffered from diminishing returns. Developers knew they needed to figure out what the future of the genre was, but there didn’t seem to be much of a consensus regarding what that future looked like.

For instance, Rare tried to turn the Conker series into a South Park-esque mature (or immature) adventure. Sega and Konami were struggling to figure out what the 3D futures of games like Sonic and Frogger looked like. Elsewhere, franchises like Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter strongly suggested platformers were better off going in a more action-oriented direction.

Granted, none of those genre transitions and experiments were quite as drastic as when Rare and Microsoft turned the Banjo Kazooie series into a vehicle-building/platforming/racing hybrid with Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, but you get the point. Developers were looking to completely alter the 3D platforming genre by combining it with other types of games.

What was missing were more games that really tried to tap into the pure pleasures of the platforming genre and evolve those core concepts for the 21st century. We would eventually get more of those kinds of platformers, but in the early 2000s, there was still this idea that the best thing a 3D platforming game could be is more than “just” a 3D platforming game.

In some ways, Super Mario Sunshine could be considered a kind of bridge game between those eras. In many more ways, though, it highlighted how even the developers of the biggest 3D platforming franchise in the world weren’t quite sure what to do with the genre they helped create.

Super Mario Sunshine’s Vacation From Expectations

2002’s Super Mario Sunshine saw Mario, Princess Peach, and several Toads head to a resort at Isle Delfino for a little rest and relaxation. As soon as they arrive, though, they discover that the island has been overrun by a mysterious substance that has corrupted the former paradise. Even worse, it seems that the island’s residents believe that Mario may be the one to blame for their problems. Soon, Mario is tasked with not only helping to clean up the island but clearing his good name.

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That stange set-up really gets to the heart of Super Mario Sunshine‘s most divisive quality: just how different it was from pretty much every other Super Mario game that had come before.

Much of Super Mario Sunshine‘s negative reception came from fans and critics who simply did not enjoy that change in venue and how it made the game feel like Mario had decided to appear in another character’s game. Admittedly, the game works so hard to put Mario into an entirely new world that it can sometimes feel a bit jarring. The usual cast of characters are stranded on beautiful Isle Delfino: a locale that is supposed to represent paradise. Instead, much of the island is corrupt and polluted, leading to some easy-to-miss commentary on the state of climate change, human interference in the environment, and pollution. This abstract setting that lies in such fierce juxtaposition to Mario’s usual surroundings was not properly appreciated by gamers. 

Yet, there are so many elements of that set-up and world that worked well on their own or, at the very least, when viewed outside of the expectations of what a Super Mario game “should” be. If those world-building elements were introduced in any other type of game, and without the gravitas of Nintendo’s most iconic character, they surely would have inspired an outpouring of imitators in the years after the game’s release. Instead, the reactions of the game’s most vocal critics may have scared some other studio’s away from following too closely in Sunshine‘s footsteps in that respect. You could argue that a similar thing happened with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Years later, though, we do see elements of Sunshine‘s world design and what Nintendo was trying to do with that game’s world in other notable titles. 3D platformers like Pyschonauts definitely feel like they were following in Sunshine‘s footsteps, but even colossal favorites like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feel cut from a similar cloth. Games like that took some of Sunshine’s fantastic devotion to the environment around the avatar and the ways it let you gradually learn about the game’s world via your interactions with it. The rich attention to detail that Super Mario Sunshine used to grab ahold of the gamer and make them learn to love a world that they had never seen before could even be considered a forebear of the things that made an incoming generation of increasingly immersive open-world games so special.

Of course, while Super Mario Sunshine‘s world was somewhat divisive, the controversy it cause was nothing compared to the outrage generated by Sunshine‘s central gameplay mechanic.

A FLUDD of Controversy

Looking back, it really does seem like the Sunshine team was, in their own way, also trying to show that 3D platforms needed to evolve. At the very least, it seems they felt platforming didn’t have to mean just jumping from one place to the next. At the same time, you get the feeling they perhaps thought it was time for 3D platformers to reignite what once made the genre feel special rather than start over completely. The epitome of that philosophy (as well as Sunshine‘s infamy) rests with the FLUDD device.

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The FLUDD was a water jet pack that Mario carries on his back throughout Sunshine. Primarily used to clean up the various “gunk” that plagued Isle Delfino, it also changed the way you were able to move and accomplish your goals in the different stages of the game. It made Mario’s movements more versatile and could even be altered depending on what nozzle you discovered and opted to use in-game.

In theory, it was the ultimate example of how platforming needed to become more fluid (pun not intended), more liberal, and a little less traditional. It forced you to think differently about how you navigated the game’s 3D environments. Ideally, forcing players to reconsider how they navigate such a space would have had the same impact as Super Mario 64‘s revolutionary gameplay had.

There were a few problems with the entire FLUDD concept, though. Not only was it sometimes incredibly difficult to control (Sunshine is, generally speaking, a very difficult game), but Sunshine‘s wonky camera system often made it even more difficult to pull off the more elaborate movements the FLUDD pack theoretically allowed for. Besides, some fans weren’t ready to see their favorite character explode into the air like a rocketship or hover over stretches of platforms. To them, it felt like a betrayal of Mario’s primary skillset and the beloved Super Mario 64‘s core gameplay.

Mechanical issues aside, it’s those expectations that really gave Sunshine a tainted name out of the gate. Super Mario Sunshine‘s team was stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to please the fans while also expanding on the medium at large. They kept the sandbox gaming that was popular in Super Mario 64, but this also meant they couldn’t go all-in on the originality that the title was so clearly flirting with. Maybe a few fixes to Sunshine‘s controls and camera would have helped, but there was the sense that people wanted the Super Mario 64 “sequel” that Sunshine just wasn’t despite some of its similarities to what that hypothetical direct sequel might look like.

To make matters worse, some players even disliked the select sections of Sunshine where FLUDD is taken away from you and you’re forced to rely on Mario’s more traditional platforming maneuvers. Those stand-alone courses ask the gamer to get him to the finish line with precision wall-jumping, leaping, and spinning. Some appreciated the ways those sections appealed to veteran fans with their more traditional gameplay. Others loathed those same levels for their infuriating difficulty and required what seemed like unfair platformer skills. 

Love them or hate them, I feel that part of the reason those sections felt so out of place is simply that they were out of place. The basic concepts behind there were starting to become a little outdated and certainly felt out of place in the context of everything else Sunshine offered. Nintendo was right to expand on Mario’s moveset with FLUDD. Sunshine‘s controls and camera hurt FLUDD’s potential, but they also impacted the more traditional (if more challenging) platforming sections as well. Sunshine‘s struggles can be traced back to the execution of its ideas rather than the ideas themselves.

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Maybe there’s another world where Nintendo and fans realized that Sunshine may have not quite gotten where it was trying to go but was still on the right path. Instead, we live in a world where Sunshine doesn’t even always get credit for the ways it did positively impact the franchise.

Ain’t No Sunshine When He’s Gone

For a game that is often seen as divisive, it’s odd to think that Super Mario Sunshine did have a positive impact on the franchise…eventually.

At the very least, future games in Mario’s catalog used some of the same ideas Sunshine introduced or hinted at. For instance, exploring completely foreign settings is something that both Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Odyssey did to critical acclaim. You could argue that those games featured more interesting worlds, but there’s a sense that fans were generally more willing to accept and embrace wildly different Super Mario worlds by the time those titles came around. It also didn’t hurt that Nintendo was able to use Sunshine as a crash course in more advanced 3D controls and cameras. We’ve been benefiting from that game’s “failures” in those areas ever since.

More importantly, Galaxy and Odyssey successfully repackaged and improved upon Sunshine‘s adventure-like system of stylistics, and objective-based collectibles. What those games understood, specifically Odyssey, is that if you are going to create a game environment that is overflowing with personality and little nooks and crannies to discover, you need to reward the player for finding those things. By comparison, finding individual Shines in Sunshine often required you to complete too many little objectives for an eventual payoff. It feels like the thought process at the time was that Nintendo needed to replicate Super Mario 64‘s star system as closely as possible while making collecting each key item more complicated than it was before. It would take a little while before they refined that evolution.

That’s the funny thing about Super Mario Sunshine. For a game called Sunshine, it certainly lived in the shadow of Super Mario 64. Was it a natural evolution of Super Mario 64, a game that tried to be too different from Super Mario 64, or a game that wasn’t different enough from Super Mario 64? Those are all reactions that reviewers in 2002 had towards a game that ultimately grabbed everything from “Game of the Year” to “Most Disappointing Game of the Year” awards. After years of almost universally beloved Super Mario games, Nintendo had finally delivered a “love it or hate it” Super Mario game. They had a vision for the future that was built on the past but just couldn’t stick the landing in quite the same way as they had miraculously done in the decades before.

Ultimately, Super Mario Sunshine’s legacy is as a game that was too early for its own good. It was an imperfect blend of the genre’s history and future that captured an era of uncertainty. With 20 years in the rear-view mirror, it’s now easy to see how vital it was and how its more obvious faults shouldn’t have stopped others from following in its footsteps.

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