Super Mario Sunshine (2002)

I think we all fall in love with some piece of media that we know is massively flawed. Maybe your guilty pleasure is a reality TV show, or a cringey rom-com, or maybe you are a fan of 100 gecs. For me, Super Mario Sunshine is my broken game of choice. I’m willing to admit my intense nostalgia for this game, but having played it many times I am well aware of its flaws. Maybe it’s because of the warm island vacation theme of Super Mario Sunshine, but playing this game just makes me happy. It’s like wrapping up in a thick blanket with hot chocolate in winter, Super Mario Sunshine is cozy.

Just from a technical standpoint, Super Mario Sunshine was a pretty massive improvement from its predecessor: Super Mario 64. Visually the game is much more appealing, and in my opinion, it controls a lot smoother as well. There are some other significant differences from its predecessor: the world design, the mission structure, and the inclusion of F.L.U.D.D.. I think all of these changes have pros and cons, and they definitively make Super Mario Sunshine unique.

The world of Super Mario Sunshine is a tropical paradise, through and through. The plot of the game is that Mario and company set out for vacation on Delfino Island, but get wrapped up in helping restore the island after a mysterious villain frames Mario for covering the island in graffiti. The player will visit the various attractions of this tropical island including villages, theme parks, resorts, beaches, and other serene environments. I love the consistent atmosphere of Super Mario Sunshine. Every other Super Mario game focuses on variety of distinct areas, while this game goes all-in on the vacation theme.

I’ll admit that I am not much of a beach-goer in real life. Yet for some reason I love every single beach level in any video game. I always attribute this to growing up with Super Mario Sunshine and its lush palm trees, clear waters, bright sunlight, and tropical tunes. This all begins with the phenomenal hub area of Delfino Plaza. From there you can access all of the other areas in the game, but I spent countless hours as a kid just running and jumping through the streets, leaping on top of the buildings, and sliding on the beach. There are plenty of secrets to be found which makes it a compelling area to explore. The vibrant colors and bright sunlight make it a warm and welcoming area, allowing the player to play around with the various mechanics of Mario’s controls.

The number one thing that sets Super Mario Sunshine apart from its peers is its unique movement mechanics. Mario can do all the classic moves from Super Mario 64, with the exception of the long jump. Instead, Mario comes equipped with F.L.U.D.D., which is a device that allows the player to spray water and use water as a jetpack. You cannot float around indefinitely, but you can get an extra couple seconds of hangtime during a jump. The reason that Super Mario Sunshine is divisive is for its use of F.LU.D.D., the argument is that it deemphasizes the traditional platforming. The player no longer has to make precise jumps, and can float around for a second before landing on platforms.

While it is true that Super Mario Sunshine has less emphasis on pure platforming challenges, it still manages to capture the player’s creativity to attempt tricky maneuvers. I spent hours just trying to scale walls use a combination of side-flips, wall-jumps, and jetpacking. Not to mention that F.L.U.D.D. can be upgraded with extra nozzles that further break the player’s ability to quickly maneuver around the map. Furthermore, Super Mario Sunshine benefits from the fact that it isn’t a pure platformer. The game feels like a hybrid of an adventure game and a platformer. There are more exploration and puzzle-solving elements in Super Mario Sunshine opposed to just platforming, which it shares in common with Super Mario 64. I quite like this combination as it makes the game feel like a genuine adventure across Delfino Island, rather than just a set of arbitrary platforms to jump between.

Super Mario Sunshine is what I would classify as experimental. The use of F.L.U.D.D., the lack of emphasis on platforming, the consistent theme, and the unique level structures all make for an atypical Super Mario experience. Most levels in the game have the player preform some task before they can acquire a shine and complete the stage. While I think that this approach succeeds most of time, sometimes the experiment goes wrong. Super Mario Sunshine has an unusual number of god-awful levels. I don’t mean that they are just boring or forgettable, but instead are truly painful and are known for making people tear their hair out.

In a game where there are 120 shines to collect, not every one is going to be a winner. But Super Mario Sunshine contains over a dozen stages that I dread revisiting every time I play the game. Most of these levels fundamentally change how to move, and all of them feel like janky nightmares. The lily pad level for example has the player steer a sinking lily pad down a fast-moving stream of deadly water using only their water nozzle. You have to precisely collect 8 coins during the ride, and if you miss a single one you have to restart the stage. Not to mention that just getting to this area is a 10-to-15-minute ordeal of tediously waiting on a boat. Super Mario Sunshine benefits from its willingness to experiment, but be prepared to play some genuinely terrible levels.

As previously mentioned, there are 120 shines total in the game. There are eight areas, including the hub world of Delfino Plaza. Aside from the standard levels in each area, they all also contain 30 blue coins. You can trade in 10 blue coins for a single shine. The blue coins are a classic example of a great idea that was terribly executed. The blue coins encourage the player to explore the environments around them, uncovering secrets and trying to jump to hidden locations. Exploration is the strong suit of Super Mario Sunshine, and the blue coins are a huge aspect of this. With such a wonderfully constructed paradise, it would be a shame if the player wasn’t prompted to spend time looking around.

While the blue coins are great at encouraging exploration, they have some major flaws in their execution. First and foremost, there are 240 of them in the game. Meaning that there are 24 shines that are comprised of blue coins; that’s 20% of the total shines in the game. Honestly, that is just too many, they could achieve the same effect with only half that amount. The next issue is that they feel genuinely bad to collect. When grabbing a secret item, I should feel accomplished. Instead, the blue coins make me feel annoyed. The reason for this is that every time you collect one a text prompt appears that asks if you would like to save the game. The text box and saving process only takes a few seconds each time, but over the course of 240 blue coins it can get grating. Interrupting the player’s experience is typically not a good thing.

The biggest problem with the blue coins, however, is how they are spread out across the areas. Each area has 30 blue coins total, and there are 8 separate levels in each area. The issue is that some blue coins only appear in certain levels in the area. For example, one blue coin may be in the first and second missions, but may not be in the following missions. Furthermore, the game does not tell you which missions you are missing blue coins in. You may know that you need 5 more blue coins from an area, but you have no idea which of the eight levels that those blue coins reside in. To legitimately find them all you would have to thoroughly explore all 8 missions in an area. It would be incredibly tedious and repetitive.

Truthfully, I use a guide to find whatever blue coins I’m missing by the end of the game. I’m not sure how anybody is expected to find them all legitimately. I understand that blue coins are an entirely optional objective. But at the same time, I feel like the Super Mario games are designed such that the player is encouraged to collect all 120 stars or shines. You may only need 50 to complete the game, but honestly that feels wrong. The fix for the blue coins would be to simply inform the player how many blue coins are left in each mission to collect, that way you could visit the levels and know that there are blue coins present. It would save a lot of wasted time and frustrated exploration.

I have completed Super Mario Sunshine numerous times, but my most recent playthrough may be the last time that I 100% the game for a long time. At its best, Super Mario Sunshine is an adventure in a tropical paradise. Controlling Mario is a wonderfully smooth and fun experience. On the flipside, Super Mario Sunshine contains many infuriating levels and a healthy chunk of hard-to-find blue coins. In the future I’m just going to stick to the good, and avoid the bad, and I suggest everyone else do the same. Super Mario Sunshine is not a perfect game, but it is a favorite of mine. Something about that relaxing atmosphere keeps be coming back time and time again.

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