Since coming out 20 years ago, Super Mario Sunshine has developed a strange reputation as the dark horse of 3D Mario games. Yes, Mario’s beach vacation has a dedicated fanbase, but it’s routinely ranked near the bottom of “mainline” Mario games (however you may define that.). Indeed, my first playthrough wasn’t exactly the relaxing island getaway I’d hoped for. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the dolphin-shaped Isle Delfino, at least not without a little kicking and screaming. It’s as charming as the day is long thanks to its lovingly well-defined world and setting, but underneath that pleasant Pacific pastiche lies an often frustrating, generally mediocre game—albeit one with something to say.
It’s hard to weigh what’s good for its time against what’s legitimately good when revisiting a game that’s had 20 years to age not only into legend, but also out of contemporary design ethos. But honestly, a lot of Sunshine’s biggest problems feel more innately tied to its structure and core mechanics than its limitations as a game that was released two decades ago.
Most of the levels see Mario catapulted into massive platforming playgrounds, with plenty of space to mess around with the king of digital locomotion. As always, Mario’s a joy to control. Unlike other Mario games, though, he feels slippery; he doesn’t turn on a dime the way he does in the confoundingly tight Super Mario 64, or any of his other previous (or future) outings. That’s usually not a problem, since a majority of Sunshine’s levels emphasize speed and exploration more than they do platforming. But in sections that do require some precision, things get messy quick—especially if the camera isn’t behaving itself, which is frustratingly common.
Occasionally, Sunshine plucks Mario out of the sprawling tropical environments to throw him into a no-frills platforming-only section without the help of F.L.U.D.D., the iconic, nasal-voiced jetpack/hose that Mario uses to clean up Delfino. These levels—which foreshadow the coming of Mario’s next 3D adventure, Super Mario Galaxy—represent Sunshine’s gameplay at its best and at its worst. Because of its cel-shaded look, uncooperative camera and Mario’s seemingly wet shoes, these levels can drag. Strange lighting and textures make it genuinely difficult to properly judge a jump sometimes. But when the technical issues don’t interfere, these levels can go toe-to-toe with many of the Mario franchise’s best.
With the benefit of hindsight, a number of Sunshine’s greatest innovations, most of which were improved upon in later Mario games, felt small in comparison to its frustrating level design and imprecise, slippery feel. Even the always welcome addition of Yoshi isn’t that dazzling.
Again, it’s hard to revisit this game, whose best parts are reminiscent of better games (specifically the two Mario Galaxy games), as someone who never played it as a child. I don’t have any nostalgia for Sunshine beyond Delfino’s appearances in spinoff titles. Hell, my fondest memories of Delfino and its characters remain hitting grand slams with Piantas in Mario Super Sluggers or drifting through Delfino Plaza in Mario Kart DS.
It’s clear that—like with many Nintendo games—rose-tinted glasses carry a lot of sway when it comes to Sunshine’s reputation as a game. But without rose tinted glasses, I’m not shielded from boss fights that make me feel sick and dizzy, nor am I able to avoid fumbling with confusing control schemes or seemingly luck-based challenges.
What kept me going was Sunshine’s relentless charm. Both its world and characters are a delight. It’s fascinating to play a Mario game with something to say—and I don’t mean because of the game’s voice acting. The story’s setup begins the same as ever; with a Bowser (in this case Bowser Jr.) kidnapping Princess Peach. As always, it’s up to Mario to save the day. But unlike other games, Mario thwarts the bratty Bowser’s attempt almost immediately. Instead, Mario gets arrested for vandalizing the island because Bowser Jr.’s been leaving graffiti all over the place while dressed as Mario.
To clear his name and pay back his debt, Mario has to restore Isle Delfino to what it once was. What little story exists in Sunshine plays second fiddle to the world it takes place in. The Piantas and Nokis don’t care about Peach getting kidnapped, they just want their home back.
This setting, an island paradise that’s been polluted and (literally) muddied by interlopers, clearly and simply rings true to the often intertwined problems of climate change and tourism. Specifically the type of climate change and tourism that involves the wealthy (Princess Peach and the Koopas) visiting somewhere at the disadvantage of its indigenous people (the Piantas and Nokis).
This kind of tourism, that’s really not much more than capitalistic colonialism, goes largely unchecked and undiscussed. Far smarter people with more intimate knowledge of indigenous cultures, the climate and economics than I have written at length about the questionable ethics of tourism. If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few pieces I recommend ’Does the Ethical Tourist Really Exist?” by Luda Berdnyk, Yasmina Sahir’s op-ed “Stop traveling to Hawaii, tourism is not sustainable,” and Christopher Reindeau’s blog post “Tourism, Colonialism, and Disease.”
Put quickly and simply, wealthy people displace and take advantage of indigenous people and eventually build resorts over culturally important—sometimes even sacred—ground. Cultural identity and history become erased, exoticized and objectified for profit as the disadvantaged people are offered barely livable wages at these resorts as pitiful recompense.
Many of Sunshine’s most memorable levels—the ones that aren’t the recycled ideas like collecting red coins, chasing down Shadow Mario or racing Il Piantissimo to a flag—often have little to do with stomping on Goombas, but rather the impact Bowser’s minions have on the local ecosystem and its inhabitants. An egg that locals are tasked with guarding is in danger because of an invasive species, toxic waste left by Bowser Jr. blocks locals off from an important resource, and local flora aren’t allowed to bloom because Bowser’s minions are keeping them from getting sunshine. Nearly every unique level points to the ravages of climate change.
Beyond even the most immediate problems presented by Bowser Jr.’s antics, Delfino is clearly an amalgamation of various places in the Global South, the places often most affected by colonization, unethical tourism and climate change.
If you think I’m just grasping at straws, desperately trying to inject some kind of agenda into this game about a silly plumber with a glorified garden hose strapped to his back cleaning up a painted paradise, look up a video of the end of the game. After collecting at least seven Shine Sprites from each of Sunshine’s worlds, Delfino Plaza floods, leaving its inhabitants without their homes. A cave behind the Plaza’s Shine Gate opens up, beckoning Mario to enter. Sure, Peach was missing, but the game brushes the personal conflict to the side as the residents of Delfino are forced onto their roofs.
After entering the cave and partaking in some standard end-of-Mario-game platforming through metal and lava-lined caverns, Mario finally reaches the Koopas. They’re not expecting him, nor were they planning on fighting him. They’re just lounging in a hot tub heated by the volcano without a care in the world. This time Bowser and his son just happened to kidnap the princess while pursuing their true villainy of destroying Delfino. If it were any less subtle, Bowser would say, “Let them eat cake.” What follows is an anticlimactic boss fight with considerably less punch than its implications that lasts all of two minutes, but the setting punctuates the game’s message.
That a Mario game doesn’t just have a message, but is able to communicate it so effectively is deeply impressive. Delfino Plaza and the island of the same name are Sunshine’s biggest brags. While they aren’t enough to save Sunshine from repetitive level design, poor platforming, lackluster boss fights, jarringly questionable structural choices, and occasional motion sickness, they certainly give it a special place in the Mario franchise. Without this world and setting, Sunshine wouldn’t have the rabid cult following it does today.
To the dismay of many, I’m sure, Super Mario Sunshine is definitely my least favorite Mario game when measured critically as a piece of interactive software designed for entertainment. But I also have a deep respect for it as the rare example of the inoffensive, squeaky-clean, kid-friendly Mario saying anything other than “Let’s-a go!”
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.