Why Sunshine is the weakest link of the Super Mario franchise

By Joe Delaney

Being the shameless Nintendo shill that I am, one of the last major games I purchased this year was Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a collection of three games I already own that costs $60 and is only available for a limited time for no reason. 

I know that I shouldn’t be supporting Nintendo’s anti-consumer practices, but I just can’t help myself. This is a one-sided relationship. I go to work every day while Nintendo stays home and cucks me. I give Nintendo oral, but they never reciprocate.

That’s alright though because it’s just so cool to have these games on the go. Right after my copy came in the mail, the first thing I did was play Super Mario 64 for approximately the 794th time. No matter how many times I play this game, I’m always so blown away by how much fun it still is. 

Like I’ve said in the past, the amount of freedom this game gives you puts most open-world games to shame. During this playthrough, I tried to collect stars out of order whenever I could, and I was surprised by how often the game lets you do that. It’s the best game in the collection, as far as I’m concerned.

RELATED: What open world games can learn from Super Mario 64

Super Mario Galaxy sure does give Super Mario 64 a run for its money though. It’s been a while since I played the original Galaxy, since every time I get the desire to play Mario in Space, I usually opt to play the superior sequel instead (which is suspiciously absent from this collection). Playing it again after all these years really made me appreciate it a lot more. It’s so full of imagination and new ideas that almost all work. I wish the game was a bit more accessible in handheld mode, but I’m still thrilled to have one of the four good Wii games on a different console. 

Yep, these two games sure are good, a retro classic and a modern classic. Sure would be a shame if there was a third game to discuss, one that isn’t nearly as great as these two. Some might say, even a bad game. That would make this collection like a sandwich, with 64 and Galaxy as two slices of delicious artisan bread with a piece of shit in the middle… 

Okay, let’s talk about how Super Mario Sunshine isn’t very good.

I’m being a bit hyperbolic; I know. Sunshine isn’t a bad game really, but it’s as close to bad as Mario games get, and it’s by far the worst 3D Mario game, which I know is not a popular opinion. How could I possibly think that Sunshine is worse than either Super Mario 3D Land or 3D World? Those games are forgettable, by-the-numbers, Nintendo on autopilot, uninspired trash! Right?

Yeah, those games are basic for sure… but they’re also competent. Their levels are far from memorable, but at least none of them make me scream in frustration. The controls are overly simple, but at least they control well, which isn’t something I can say for Sunshine. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’d rather play a game that’s forgettable and good than one that’s memorable for almost all the wrong reasons.

When Sunshine first came out, it was well received critically and sold decently, but it was almost universally considered a letdown as a sequel to Super Mario 64. Years went by, and Sunshine was looked at as the weird entry in the Mario canon, as it should be. However, thanks to nostalgia, younger millennials and older zoomers have started to look back more fondly on this game. And being a cynic, I just can’t let people like something that I don’t. 

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So why do people enjoy this game so much? The answer is simple: they like the aesthetic and atmosphere. It’s no more complicated than that. Whenever I ask someone why they like this game, it always comes down to them liking the way it looks and loving the island vacation vibes. This is normally where I would say that those are stupid reasons to love a game, but I’m not going to do that here. Those are the two best things about the game.

Super Mario Sunshine just might be the best-looking game of the sixth generation of consoles. It’s not just the glow-up from the Switch port either. Go back and play the original Gamecube version, and you’ll be amazed how well it holds up visually. I would say it honestly looks better than a lot of early Xbox 360 or PS3 games. Bold and colorful art direction will always stand the test of time, and the same can’t be said for drab “realistic” graphics, even when they’re in high definition. 

I do also admire how much the game sticks to the island theme (for the most part, we’ll get into that soon). Every single main level in the game adheres the concept of this being a tropical getaway for Mario and pals, and it makes the levels all feel like part of a cohesive world. This sounds like it would limit variety, but Sunshine does a good job with making each area feel like a unique place on this island. No one is going to confuse the haunted beachside resort for the dangerous amusement park that really needs to get shut down before some Pianta kid gets decapitated.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s rip this game apart. 

The levels are beautiful, but the objectives within each one all range from boringly easy to horrifically frustrating. Sunshine infamously had a super rushed development, so they didn’t have a lot of time to make a ton of fun and unique missions. That’s why in Ricco Harbor you must fight the same boring squid boss twice. They don’t even switch up the fight at all, you just need to do the EXACT SAME fight but in a different location.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the game were structured like Mario 64, where you can choose which stars you want to collect to beat the game. You don’t want to play Wet Dry World? No problem. But to beat Sunshine, you’re forced to collect the first seven out of eight stars in every level. With Super Mario 64’s approach, you could skip the sand bird mission, but in Sunshine, it’s mandatory. The worst part is that the game doesn’t even tell you what its completion criteria are, so you have to either look it up in a guide, or just keep playing its subpar levels until the game decides it’s over.

The level design itself is also very confused, like it can’t decide what kind of Mario game it ants to be. Super Mario 64 was open-ended, while Galaxy was much more linear. Both games succeeded in their respective approaches because they dedicated themselves to their design, but Sunshine fails because it tries to have it both ways. 

All the levels have the open sandbox layout of Super Mario 64, but unlike that game, you can’t break the sequence of the star missions. You can only do the star mission that you have selected for that level, so you’re funneled into doing one objective with no real incentive to explore. Seriously, there are arrows that point to where you’re supposed to go, it’s that linear. In fact, it’s even more restrictive than Galaxy, because at least in that game you could find secret stars if you go off the beaten path. In Sunshine all you get for your curiosity is a blue coin every now and then. 

I know what you’re probably wondering: what about the secret levels? Everyone loves those! You know, the missions where Shadow Mario/Bowser Jr. steals your water jetpack and makes you complete a platforming challenge. There’s no way I can hate those, right?

… Right?

Alright, I can’t say I hate them, but they’re still not great. They’re the best levels in the game for sure (which isn’t saying much). I think it’s funny though that the stages that everyone loves the most also happen to be completely disconnected from the main game. Everything else in the game is so cohesive, but then suddenly your island excursion is interrupted by a trip to another dimension where you’re just jumping on blocks in space. 

(Side note: A Hat in Time, a game that was hugely inspired by Sunshine, yet is infinitely superior, borrowed this concept with its time rifts. It works in that game though because it doesn’t clash with the rest of the game)

While the secret levels are okay, they do highlight what I think is Sunshine’s biggest flaw: the controls. This is odd for a Mario game, since the series has always been known for having tight and responsive gameplay. But Sunshine teaches you that controls can be too responsive, too sensitive. In other Mario games, you build momentum as you move, starting off a bit slower, but gaining speed as you go. But in Sunshine, once you put even the slightest bit of pressure on your control stick, Mario goes bolting like Sonic on meth.

Mario’s water jetpack helps a little with the sloppy controls, since you can use it to hover if you ever mistime a jump. That’s really all it’s good for though because the jetpack isn’t used in any interesting ways. In fact, I’d say most practical implementation of its mechanics are incredibly janky and frustrating, like when you use it to steer the world’s most unmaneuverable boat over a lake of lava. Sunshine removed the long jump and replaced it with a big squirt gun that doubles as an unreliable jetpack. 

The worst part is that Nintendo could’ve fixed so many of this game’s problems with the 3D All Stars collection. They could’ve tightened up the controls, removed some of the jank, made certain levels skippable, and yet they didn’t do any of that. Super Mario 64 and Galaxy didn’t need much improvement, but the lack of any touch ups to Sunshine when it so desperately needed it shows how lazy this port really is.

As it stands, Sunshine is still the same beautiful mess it’s always been, for better or (mostly) worse. Many people love this game for making you feel like you’re on a fun vacation with Mario, and I don’t begrudge anyone for what they enjoy. This game doesn’t feel like a vacation to me though, it feels like a chore. In that way, Super Mario Sunshine is a perfect metaphor for itself: a lovely island getaway that quickly gets ruined by sloppy shit.

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