Mario has appeared in a ridiculous amount of games over the past 30+ years, but there haven’t really been as many mainline entries in the core Super Mario series as most people might think. If you look at just the flagship 2D and 3D console platformers, there were three games on the NES, one on the Super Nintendo, one on the Nintendo 64, one on the Gamecube, two on the Wii, and now one on the Wii U for a grand total of nine core console Mario titles. There are other Mario platformers such as the Mario Land games on handhelds and the New Super Mario Bros. games, but the nine main console installments are what most people think of when it comes to the true Super Mario games. Of those nine games, Super Mario Sunshine stands apart as the most unique entry in the series, but it has also received a reputation as the black sheep of the franchise. Now, there is a lot to really appreciate about Super Mario Sunshine, but first let’s look at the reasons why it’s widely considered the worst 3D Mario game.
Looking at the many aspects of Super Mario Sunshine compared to the other 3D Mario games, it’s clear that it comes up short in a lot of ways. The game follows the same basic formula established in Super Mario 64 and continued in the two Galaxy games, and one of most obvious areas that Mario Sunshine is inferior to the other star collection games is the level and objective variety. Super Mario 64 features 15 levels which each have six main stars and a 100 coin star per level to go along with 6 secret single star areas for a total of 21 levels. Super Mario Galaxy features 15 main levels with six stars each to go along with 27 additional levels which have one or two stars per level for a total of 42 different levels. Super Mario Galaxy 2 went even further with the level variety, sporting a total of 49 levels with between one and three stars per level. Super Mario Sunshine doesn’t come close to the level variety present in the other star collection based 3D Mario games, with only 7 levels in the entire game, each having eight main shine sprites and several additional ones as well.
Now, having fewer levels with more objectives per level isn’t an inherently bad thing, but Mario Sunshine falls short of the other 3D Mario games in large part due to the objective variety. One of the biggest shortcomings of the game is how much it repeats objectives. Mario 64 did suffer a bit from having some of the same objectives on each level, specifically the fact that every level had a 100 coin star as well as a red coin star, but Mario Sunshine goes way further. Like Mario 64, every level in Mario Sunshine has a 100 coin shine and a red coin shine, but several levels have two red coins shines. Also, each level has 30 blue coins, with a shine being awarded every 10 coins. This means that every level in the game has twelve shines with either five or six of them being related to coin collecting. Compared to the Galaxy games, which feature very little repeating objectives, very few coin collecting stars, and only a handful of stars per level, Mario Sunshine has a much greater degree of repetition.
That feeling of repetition isn’t just because of the overuse of coin collecting objectives, but also because of the levels themselves. Unlike other Mario games which send you off to wide variety of themed levels, Super Mario Sunshine is set entirely on a single tropical island called Isle Delfino. The result is distinct lack of location variety across all of the levels. Of the 7 main levels, there are two beaches, two villages, a harbor, a bay, and the most unique setting in the game, an amusement park. Each of these levels has some aspect to set them apart, but they are all tropical and mostly look very similar. If you look at pretty much any other Mario game, you can count on going to all manner of unique and different environments, but Super Mario Sunshine is limited entirely to a tropical setting.
While the setting certainly gets tired as the game progresses, most people come to Mario games for the gameplay, and that is another area where Mario Sunshine falls a bit short of other games in the series, though it is still solid in this regard. The biggest problem I have with the gameplay is the over-reliance on the water pack and lack of true platforming like you’d find in other Mario games. Much of the level and objective design revolves around spraying things with the water pack and collecting things. Even when the game demands you do some platforming, more often than not the water pack is your main tool, and it’s just not the same as the precision running and jumping found in the other games. The only time the platforming reaches the heights of the other 3D Mario games are the ‘secret’ objectives, which send Mario to a series of platforms floating in some nebulous realm without the use of the water pack. These areas actually somewhat resemble Mario Galaxy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they served as the inspiration for that game. These stages offer the best pure platforming challenge the game has to offer, but sadly they are few and far between. The rest of the platforming in the game leaves something to be desired, and overall the gameplay doesn’t have that degree of challenge and tight design present in the other 3D games.
Now, the gratuitous re-use of objectives combined with the lack of location variety and absence of engaging platforming makes Super Mario Sunshine the most monotonous Mario game to play , but there is also a lot about it that makes it the most interesting game in the series. While the lack of location variety is certainly a detriment to the game, the upside to that issue is that Super Mario Sunshine has the a sense of place unlike any other Mario game. The Mushroom Kingdom has been a staple of the franchise for decades, but what do we really know about it? Apart from Peach’s castle, there isn’t a single consistent location in the Mushroom Kingdom across any of the Mario games. If you look at all the Mario games, the levels themselves seem to exist in a void with no world consistency or cohesion whatsoever. Looking at Mario 64, where exactly is Bob-omb Battlefield in relation to Jolly Roger Bay from a geographic standpoint? I can tell you where the paintings are in relation to each other, but the game gives no indication that these locations actually exist within the world of the Mushroom Kingdom.
Super Mario Sunshine takes place entirely on Isle Delfino, and the game does an excellent job of making it feel like a consistent location. The game uses a hub area like other 3D Mario games, but all the levels are actual locations on the island. In many cases you can actually see other locations in the distance, and the game even provides a map that shows you where each of these locations are in relation to each other. Though the lack of unique looking environments may not be great from a gameplay variety standpoint, the consistent look across all the locations contributes to the game’s great sense of place. Each of the locations feels like something that would actually exist on this island. Of course an island resort would have an amusement park, a beachfront hotel, and a shipping harbor. Every level contributes to the feeling that Isle Delfino is a real place and not just a video game environment.
Let’s be clear though, the great sense of place the game establishes in no way makes up for the shortcomings it has in regards to level design and variety. If we look at the most recent Mario game, Super Mario 3D World, that game takes almost the exact opposite approach. Absolutely nothing about the level and environment design in Mario 3D World feels at all like a real place. The majority of the game consists of levels that appear to be random patches of land floating in an abyss of nothingness. The game is monumentally better designed from a pure gameplay standpoint, but the environments are video game levels and nothing more. You could never imagine the levels in 3D World existing for any reason other than as a place for Mario and company to platform their way through, whereas Isle Delfino is constructed in such a way that you could see the Piantas and Noki actually living there whether Mario showed up or not.
The other aspect of Super Mario Sunshine that really makes it stand apart from other entries in the series is the narrative. Now, the Mario series has never been about story, and even by the standards of other 3D platformers of the era such as Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, or Sly Cooper, Super Mario Sunshine is nothing special from a story standpoint. However, compared to every other Mario platformer ever made, Super Mario Sunshine is without a doubt the most interesting in terms of narrative, and more importantly represented a willingness to take risks and try new things from the development team. Pretty much every Mario game before and after Super Mario Sunshine has the same plot: Bowser kidnaps Peach and Mario has to rescue her. Mario Sunshine certainly has Peach being kidnapped, but there is much more to the story than you’d typically find in Mario game.
The first thing you’ll notice about the narrative elements in Mario Sunshine is the presentation. The game features some excellent looking cutscenes with actual cinematography and direction that goes far beyond the 30 second vignettes of Bowser tossing Peach in a bag you’ll find in all the current Mario games. Even more surprising is the fact that the game has actual voice acting, which while not great, isn’t terrible and fits with the Saturday morning cartoon vibe of the game’s plot. Without going too in depth, the basic plot of the story is that Mario, Peach, and the Toads are visiting Isle Delfino for a vacation. Once they arrive, Mario is framed by a mysterious shadow version of himself for spreading mysterious goop around the island and chasing off the shine sprites, leaving the island in a state permanent shade. As punishment, Mario must clean up the island and return the shine sprites. Along the way, Shadow Mario is revealed to be Bowser’s son in disguise, who promptly kidnaps Peach, believing her to be his mother.
The plot is very basic and nothing special, but it does something no other Mario game has done; it gives context to the gameplay. Even though in the end it basically boils down to the same plot of every other Mario game, Peach being kidnapped, it feels much more genuine in Mario Sunshine because there are actual reasons for why things happen. Bowser Jr. has actual motivations for kidnapping Peach, and there is actually some pretty decent characterization of both Bowser and his son. Believe it or not, there is actually some good material here about a single parent child coping with the fact that he never knew his mother and how the father deals with that tough subject. In the end it’s still a silly Mario story where an Italian stereotype has to save a princess from a giant lizard with a turtle shell, but the narrative in Mario Sunshine has a refreshing degree of substance compared to the rest of the series.
Despite the great sense of place and interesting narrative elements, there is little doubt in my mind that Super Mario Sunshine is the weakest entry in the main line Mario series. Instances of challenging platforming sequences are few and far between, the game puts far too much focus on collecting, and both the number and variety of levels is severely lacking. The most unfortunate thing about Super Mario Sunshine is that the things it does well haven’t even been attempted by any other Mario game before or after, but the areas where it comes up short are better in pretty much every other Mario game. As great as the Galaxy games and Super Mario 3D World are, it’s a shame the lukewarm reception to Mario Sunshine seems to have deterred Nintendo from trying some of these things again. I would really love to see a Mario game with outstanding gameplay and design of Super Mario Galaxy 2 combined with the narrative and world building elements of Mario Sunshine, but I honestly don’t see that happening any time soon.