Super Mario Sunshine doesn't have fans, it has fanatics. I'm one of them.
Nearly two decades ago, my first experience with Mario Sunshine left a permanent impression, and it's one for which I’ve lived in perpetual nostalgia ever since. I recently replayed the original GameCube release in full, and I’m happy to report that it blew my mind wide open for the second time in my adult life.
Sunshine tends to get very little credit, and in retrospect it’s even regarded by many as an outright failure. In the run-up to its re-release on Switch, I'd wondered if it might receive a warmer reception the second time around, but alas, most reviews of 3D All-Stars have cited it as a franchise misstep, and a few have been downright brutal.
Sunshine did everything a Mario game wasn’t supposed to do
I’ve always considered Mario Sunshine the unsung masterpiece of the core Super Mario catalogue. Fearless and inventive in its conception and design, Sunshine did everything a Mario game wasn’t supposed to do, yet it succeeded.
Before I go further, I'll share my three-sentence review of the new Switch release, which I started playing the moment it hit: It's a nice updated port that leaves the original game relatively untouched. The HD makeover is lovely, the widescreen presentation featuring a less obtrusive HUD is a huge upgrade, the frame rate is fine, and the water cannon's re-mapping from one button to two translates well enough, though the game desperately needs a patch to include an option for inverted aiming control to match the original. A more ambitious update would have been great, but the direct nature of the port ensures that the magic of the GC original is fully intact — and nothing beats that.
An earth-like tropical island, a pseudo-open world, a story-driven quest, and gameplay centered around a robotic water cannon — virtually every major aspect of Sunshine was unprecedented in the Super Mario canon upon release, and most of it remains so two decades later.
The plot is thin and characteristically silly, but it’s also undeniably endearing: Mario, Peach, and a pack of Toads fly to the tropical paradise of Isle Delfino for a vacation, but upon arrival, they find that the island is plagued by a villainous graffiti artist disguised as Mario. The real Mario is subsequently convicted and ordered to clean up the island with the help of F.L.U.D.D., a robotic water cannon, and soon enough Peach is kidnapped away to the island’s volcano by Mario’s shadow doppelganger. The introduction of Bowser Jr. adds a layer of intrigue, as he gets his own borderline-Freudian subplot with Peach atop the volcano.
Upon revisiting the game, I attempted to delve into its history, but found that precious little is readily available in terms of developer insights and background. There’s an old dev team interview, a few offhand mentions in Iwata Asks, and not much else. More recently, writer and fellow Sunshine enthusiast Aaron Garst authored a great feature on the game that goes pretty deep, and it's very much worth a read. Despite the overall scarcity of background info, what’s available can be stitched together to form a patchwork of the game’s history.
Where am I?
Sunshine’s island paradise setting is a true oddity in the context of the series — it feels more like an idyllic representation of a real place on our planet than it does a make-believe location in the Mario universe. It’s also distinctly separate from Super Mario Odyssey’s surreal representation of real-world elements and places, though at one point Isle Delfino was apparently set to feature normal human characters like the inhabitants of New Donk City. Comments by director Yoshiaki Koizumi even seem to hint that the game’s water cannon was originally meant to be operated by a man who would accompany Mario, though the translation makes his words hard to parse:
“It was thought that the world was daringly out of character with Mario. Therefore, I thought that a man type character would be used at first. But if there is a man next to Mario, there is a sense of incongruity.”
Humans didn’t end up making the cut, but in their place, Isle Delfino was populated by two all-new humanoid variants — the large Pianta, a jovial folk dressed in hula skirts; and the little Noki, an amphibious shell-clad race who hail from a breathtaking bay of ancient ruins on the island’s north side.
Both in Sunshine itself and in the larger Mario universe, these characters managed to fit in seamlessly, acting as a sort of bridge between the game’s earth-like setting and the cartoony tradition of the franchise. The fact that they looked and felt so much a part of the island only served to further enhance the sense of immersion.
Super Mario Sunshine truly feels like being on vacation
The game’s development team, led by Koizumi and producer Takashi Tezuka, did their homework to create an island setting that would feel like an actual tourist destination, and they succeeded brilliantly. Nearly two decades after its release, playing Super Mario Sunshine truly feels like being on vacation — ‘magical’ is the only word I can use to describe the experience. And despite the fact that Isle Delfino represented such a radical departure from the series’ familiar locales, the setting felt perfectly natural.
If Mario Sunshine has a kindred spirit, I’d say it’s 1988’s Super Mario Bros 2, which until Sunshine’s release had remained the sole core entry to be set firmly outside the normal confines of the series. Delfino’s island paradise setting was a far cry from the surreal dreamworld of Subcon, but both were equidistant from the series tradition, and both were gloriously weird.
Open world illusion
In an odd way, the Sunshine experience has always reminded me of Ocarina of Time. Just like OOT’s Hyrule, everything on Isle Delfino feels tangible and connected, yet there is no open world. Both games used relatively crude tech to achieve a marvelous illusion of scale and connectedness, all via smoke and mirrors.
As in OOT and Super Mario 64, a big part of the magic in Sunshine lies in what’s out of reach — places you can see but can’t visit. The island feels enormous, even though so little of it is actually traversable. The vast majority of its unreachable terrain is covered by nothing more than an obscure green texture, yet the game casts such a spell on the subconscious that it feels like something must be there.
Sunshine serves as a reminder that restrictions on player freedom can actually enrich an interactive experience by leaving the great beyond up to a players’ imaginations. The game’s distances often reveal places you’re intimately familiar with but can’t directly travel to, as evidenced in the following image:
You climb a giant palm tree in Pianta Village by moonlight. Arriving at the top, you look to the distant horizon and see billowing clouds moving over the ocean underneath a starry night sky. Far below, Pinna Park and its giant ferris wheel glow in silence just offshore. You feel like you should be able to descend the mountainside to the beach and swim to the island, and you want to, but you can’t. Putting it all out of reach heightens the feeling, effectively spinning a technical limitation into a magic trick.
The transportive effect is instant
This skillful conjuring of illusion defines the entirety of the Isle Delfino experience. You can almost taste the saltwater and feel the sunlight and the breeze; the vacationing Noki and Pianta encountered in random locations around the island actually come across as real people on their own private mini-vacations; the fresh (and ever-changing) catch of fish and squid on display in Ricco Harbor somehow seems as if it really was caught that very morning in the ocean; and so on.
Three industry generations after the game’s release, I can stand on a cliffside ledge in Bianco Hills gazing out over the game’s shimmering turquoise ocean, and when I look down to see Ricco Harbor hundreds of feet below, I still feel like I’m there. The transportive effect is instant.
Best water ever
No examination of Mario Sunshine would be complete without highlighting the game’s water and the role it plays in the settings and game mechanics. I’ve seen and experienced games with water that is far more realistic, far more complex and far more technically impressive than that in Sunshine, but I’ve never played a game with water that’s so jaw-droppingly gorgeous — including Odyssey. The way the ocean gently swells, the way the sunlight shimmers on the water’s surface, the hypnotic dance of light and motion that never ceases — it’s enough to make me want to dive in, and it’s remarkably soothing. There’s simply nothing like it. (DigitalFoundry published a detailed video breakdown of the water in Sunshine a couple years ago, and it’s a must-see for those interested.)
Another element of the game that's rarely spoken of is its unique graphical style — no game prior had ever looked quite like Sunshine, and no game has since. A subtle cartoon-like shading effect seems to have been added rather late in production (it's hard to spot in early screenshots), and the color saturation was cranked up to near-ludicrous levels, resulting in a one-of-a-kind visual experience that brands itself in the mind like a vivid summer memory.
And speaking of summer, the game has big, bright, giant exploding watermelons.
Super Mario quest
Sunshine is so story/quest-focused that it often feels closer to a Zelda game than a Mario game, something that Koizumi would masterfully revisit in Odyssey fifteen years later. Interestingly, in an Iwata Asks discussion of story content in Super Mario games, Miyamoto even made a comment that seems like a possible dig at Koizumi over the amount of story in Sunshine:
“Ever since Super Mario Sunshine, however, I'd felt there was something not quite natural about certain developments. I had, of course, talked about that with him all along, but when it came to certain central elements, there were areas we had each somehow avoided bringing up.”
The story in Sunshine may be thin, but cleaning up the island and seeing it come back to life is undeniably heartwarming. Again, the only other experience I can compare it to is Ocarina of Time — specifically, the endearing feeling that comes from restoring light and peace to the various regions of the game’s Hyrule. The former may be silly and the latter serious, but there’s a real tenderness conveyed in both experiences.
From a design perspective, the game’s central focus on quest is perhaps best highlighted by the presentation of its “Secret” challenges — ‘traditional’ Mario levels in which the lone goal is to survive a surreal obstacle course suspended in space and reach the Shine Sprite (Sunshine’s take on stars) waiting at the end, stripped of your F.L.U.D.D. water cannon on first run-through. These levels are solely accessed via dimensional portals housed in caves, giant seashells, and other dark spaces — a design necessity, as the game world itself is so grounded in its quasi-reality that the challenges otherwise wouldn’t have fit.
Among these levels are some of the greatest 3D gauntlets and nail biters in the entire Super Mario catalog. From their surreal wooden-toys-in-a-void-of-space visual style to the ingenious and often maddening course design they feature, the do-or-die nature of the stages results in the best kind of Mario frustration. The gradual ramp-up in difficulty from the beginning to end of each course is enough to bring on a panic attack — “The Sand Bird is Born”, in particular, could lead to a nervous breakdown. Each level is pure, unadulterated Mario platforming at its very best. Koizumi incorporated something similar in Odyssey’s hat-less courses, and they're wonderful, but most are child’s play compared to Sunshine’s challenges.
Some of the greatest 3D gauntlets and nail biters in the entire Super Mario catalogue
I find these courses all the more compelling due to the way Sunshine presents them — as a sideshow feature in a quest-focused game, as opposed to the spotlight treatment received by similar challenges in the Galaxy titles or even Super Mario 3D Land / 3D World.
Granted, I like the Galaxy games and I adore 3D Land and 3D World. But Sunshine’s presentation of the trademark gauntlets-hung-in-space trope is like a bite of dessert following a meal as opposed to dessert being the entire meal, and I find the former to be more satisfying than the latter.
A common gripe when it comes to these stages and the game in general is a lack of precision when controlling Mario. Indeed, there’s no denying that something is different about the way Mario reacts in Sunshine — his movements and responses are a bit looser than usual, requiring some practice to master and a reliance on timing. It could be argued that this tendency makes the game's precision-based challenges more difficult and/or frustrating, but as far as I'm concerned it's all part of the fun. Controlling Mario in Sunshine feels different, but it also feels great once you get the hang of it, and the learning curve makes success that much more gratifying.
On a related note, the game is chock-full of the craziest glitches you’ve ever seen, resulting in scenes of outrageously surreal hilarity that somehow manage to add to the experience. Take my word for it.
The GameCube controller was quintessential Nintendo: Design an input device specifically tailored to Nintendo games, and forget about third parties entirely. Stubborn, shortsighted, constraining, and a pure joy to use, no game felt more perfectly married to the GC controller than Super Mario Sunshine — it was as if they were made for each other, and they likely were.
Which brings us to Mario’s F.L.U.D.D. water cannon, one of the game’s most divisive features. Loved by some and derided as a gimmick by others, you either love it or hate it, and I love it. It’s hard to overstate just how crazy Nintendo was to build a major Super Mario release around such a quirky concept, but it was Nintendo crazy, and that’s the best kind of crazy.
F.L.U.D.D. has three nozzles in total — you start with the standard Hover Nozzle, which immediately becomes your best friend, and you gradually unlock the Rocket Nozzle and Turbo Nozzle. The latter two are insane, akin to something dreamt up by a six-year-old lacking any sense of danger.
The entire GC controller feels like an intrinsic part of the Sunshine experience. With its vibrant colors and amorphous buttons, it’s as if the controller itself could have been found within the game world.
Of course, herein lies the only glaring downgrade in the Switch release: The original game employed the GC controller's analog triggers to control F.L.U.D.D.’s water pressure, and the controller was a huge part of the overall Sunshine experience. That it’s not an input option, even when an official adapter exists, is a genuine letdown. I dreamed of a scenario in which Nintendo would make special GameCube Joy-cons to coincide with Sunshine’s Switch release, but it wasn't meant to be. Thankfully, I'm relieved to report that the Switch edition's two-button substitute for the GC original's variable water pressure works well enough in practice, and once you get used to it, you barely notice the change. It's inferior, but not a deal-breaker.
Over the years, it's been clear that some at Nintendo have continued to hold Sunshine dear. Both the Pianta and the Noki, not to mention Isle Delfino itself, went on to find a rather permanent home in the greater Mario universe, popping up in Galaxy 2, Mario Kart 8, and Super Smash Bros., among other places. More recently, Koizumi has been very candid about the game’s influence on Odyssey.
A largely unnoticed piece of Sunshine’s legacy is Wuhu Island of Wii Sports Resort fame. Essentially a Mii-adapted version of Isle Delfino, the island had its own version of everything Delfino had — the volcano, the downtown plaza, the ancient ruins on the north side, etc.
Miyamoto himself went on record as having spent over 10 years conceiving Wuhu prior to its 2009 appearance in WSR, which makes the Delfino connection all the more obvious. It first appeared in beta form in the 2006 Wii airplane E3 demo before a soft debut the following year in Wii Fit; Miyamoto later indicated that the island, which he considered a character, would be a centerpiece of Nintendo’s software for years to come, but it’s been more or less MIA for years now. As a huge fan of the Wii / Mii brand of games and Resort in particular, I'm holding out hope for its return. Considering the fact that Nintendo is the place where ideas never die — Delfino eventually became Wuhu, Sunshine’s paint became Splatoon’s paint, etc. — I’d say there’s a good chance we haven’t seen the last of the island.
Two decades ago, Koizumi and his team at EAD weren’t afraid to throw the series playbook into the fire, and the end result was a very special kind of crazy — an oddball masterpiece. Sunshine may have flown under the radar in its lifetime, but now that the Switch port is here, it’s finally getting the second life it always deserved.
The naysayers may continue to dominate the narrative, but a new generation of Sunshine fanatics is no doubt being born right now. They’ll play it, they’ll love it, and they’ll never stop talking about it. It’s just one of those games.