It’s rare that one of Mario’s core platforming entries garners just as much vitriol from fans as it does praise, but Super Mario Sunshine has been the subject of this kind of discourse for 18 years now since its release on the GameCube all the way back in 2002. Following its re-release for Switch via the Super Mario 3D All-Stars compilation – which also includes 1996’s Super Mario 64 and 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy – the debates between fans about the merits and failings of the game have become reignited, and thanks to modern social media, voices on both sides have become louder than ever. But why is it that a cheery tropical getaway for gaming’s biggest icon has become the cause of nearly two decades of fan bickering?
Sunshine’s most immediate point of contention is its distinctive departure from the inharmonious nature of Mario’s other adventures. Instead of sending the plumber bouncing around a cacophony of distinct and separate worlds, with their own disjointed one-off themes and mechanics, Sunshine has Mario firmly planted within seven worlds (or eight, if you want to count the final world that contains one linear challenge) that fit a unified theme of a holiday resort. The concept of sticking to one ubiquitous motif seems like it could be a good hook for a platformer, and Sunshine makes an admirable attempt at building a cohesive world with this theming, but it also comes at the cost of the creative variety one would rightfully expect from a Super Mario title.
Jumping between a harbor, a beach, a theme park, and more might sound like it would offer enough distinctiveness to keep the game fresh, but in reality, they mostly share a lot of the same aesthetics and mechanics which can leave the adventure feeling like it loses steam at around the halfway point. One might be hard-pressed to find a game that better captures the unmistakable feeling of long Summer days, and that feeling has likely been a key factor behind Sunshine’s popularity with some fans, but for everyone else, it can leave Sunshine feeling less consistently inventive and exciting than other entries.
The Summer atmosphere isn’t Sunshine’s only trait though. On this adventure, Mario’s almost always accompanied by FLUDD; a water-spraying backpack that acts as the focal point behind the vast majority of the game’s challenges. While some adore FLUDD for the extra versatility it adds to Mario’s move-set and changes it adds to the gameplay as a whole, others feel the contraption diverts the focus from tight platforming to other activities (mainly clearing up gunk and graffiti). What’s more is that when platforming does become the focus, FLUDD acts as somewhat of a crutch, with the ability to hover in the air for a few seconds nullifying some of the challenge and satisfaction. FLUDD is an addition that some will immediately enjoy while others will feel an indifference – or worse, hatred – towards, meaning that FLUDD alone can drastically tip the scale of one’s enjoyment by itself.
Making the issue worse for anyone who isn’t won over by Sunshine’s unmatched holiday vibes and the addition of FLUDD is the head-scratching structure. In Super Mario 64, players could finish the game on 70 Stars of their own choosing, with the only other stipulation being that each player also had to finish the three Bowser boss fights. With seven Stars being spread across 15 stages, and 120 Stars total being present within the game, it meant that players had a lot of freedom in which Stars they could choose to pursue, with entire levels being potentially skippable. Despite having a similar approach to the level design as 64, with the player also revisiting larger levels numerous times to uncover all of the Stars (or Shines, as they’re referred to as in Sunshine), with these levels being connected by a hub world which also housed hidden Shines, Sunshine locks the final confrontation with Bowser behind the requirement of finishing the first six missions of each stage and then defeating Shadow Mario for the seventh mission.
Not only does this force the player to engage with stages and missions that they may actively dislike, but it also means that every other Shine in the game is worthless for most players, outside of the dedicated few gunning for 100% completion. What’s more is that a large portion of the Shine count is padded out by the 240 Blue Coins hidden throughout the game, meaning that a guide becomes a near necessity for anyone who doesn’t want to waste hours aimlessly turning over each stone in every level. The structure, decrease in stage count from 15 to 7, and abundance of Blue Coins can all be traced back to Sunshine’s biggest detriment; its rushed development.
Akin to some of its GameCube contemporaries such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Mario Sunshine suffered from a short development cycle of around 18 months. It feels abundantly obvious that the team wasn’t able to create a game as comprehensive as 64 with the short development time, so in turn, Sunshine had to employ the other aforementioned tricks of a more linear progression and the inclusion of Blue Coin’s to make the game appear larger than it actually is. It’s a huge disappointment for anyone looking for an adventure that allows for the same amount of freedom as 64, and it’s an aspect that even the biggest Sunshine advocates have a hard time defending.
The unwavering commitment to a unifying aesthetic and the inclusion of FLUDD would have likely been enough to make Sunshine more disagreeable than a number of Mario’s other platforming adventures regardless, but a tighter development schedule led to more damming issues that further exasperated any personal grievances with the game. Regardless, the joyous core of Sunshine has managed to captivate a portion of the fanbase, and if nothing else, it’s one of the plumber’s most distinguished and curious platforming adventures to date. If Shigeru Miyamoto’s comments from a few years back are any indication, it doesn’t seem like Sunshine will ever receive the full remake treatment it probably deserves to draw out the game’s full potential, but it undoubtedly remains the most deserving of a revision within Mario’s lengthy legacy.