I think what’s wrong with Super Mario Sunshine is it was in “development hell” for years before its release. “Development hell” is a term in software development where you’re trying to ship a product by a deadline (say, Christmas) but progress is stalled.
A true Mario platformer didn’t coincide with the GameCube’s launch, and we instead got Luigi’s Mansion. Super Mario Sunshine was released about a year after that.
The plot, which is awfully heavy with voice acting for a Mario game, is that Shadow Mario is painting Isle Delphino with graffiti and has stolen power from the Shine Sprites, which shed light on the town. Mario is falsely accused in a court trial of causing the mischief and ordered to clean up town. With a gimmicky water-pack called FLUDD, you enter worlds and collect a shine sprite (like a star in Super Mario 64) in each “episode.”
This game is rife with inconsistency. I noted in the Mario 64 review that stars are thematically consistent across courses. Here, there are almost no similarities between episodes where you collect shine sprites. The eight red coin challenge is back, and now instead of collecting 100 coins, you chase Shadow Mario across the course for the final episode. The buck stops there.
Bosses are frequent, but differ greatly. One boss is an eel who needs his front teeth cleaned and his back teeth removed. There is an octopus from which you must remove two tentacles, then pull on its mouth. Rinse and repeat a second time to defeat him. A Piranha Plant must have its mouth filled with water and its weak point hit three times. There’s just no consistency.
To make the point even further, there are multiple ways to enter worlds. You can jump into graffiti, blast off to a distant island in a cannon, jump into a warp pipe, or look at the sun from a designated location. Who was behind these conflicting designs? This one thing in particular smells of development hell. Teams not talking to each other about changes, for example.
If there is good that came out of Super Mario Sunshine, it is the challenge levels within worlds. FLUDD is taken from you, and you must rely on Mario’s running and jumping to get through. There may be platforms made out of sand that crumble after you step on them. There may be rotating blocks you must stay on top of as they travel to safer locations. There can be blocks that appear and disappear. These kinds of puzzles are in the later Super Mario Galaxy games, and I’m glad, because they are fun to complete.
At the moment you collect 50 shine sprites, compared with Super Mario 64’s 70 stars, you can make your way forward to finish the game, Both games max out at 120 of their respective collectibles. I had a good time getting 120 shine sprites as a teenager, but I’m not eager to do it again. You get a special image at the end of the game, and that’s it. No Yoshi on the roof or other unique in-game moment for being a completionist.
It’s heartening to see the modding community got a couple of hacks in place so the game runs at 60 frames per second, and in widescreen (perhaps the console mod community doesn’t get enough credit). Visually, the game is an improvement over Mario 64, but at times it feels slight. The textures are often muddy, and the more you look at Mario, the more you realize it isn’t that much higher in polygon count than the N64 game. Music is top notch, and Koji Kondo got help from Shinobu Tanaka composing the soundtrack.
We really needed a stepping stone between Super Mario 64 and the Super Mario Galaxy games, and this is it. It just feels like they didn’t have a single idea that was better than that in the direct predecessor, but they tried so hard with things like casino games, chain-link fence traversal, and frequent boss fights. Mario’s water-pack is a gimmick, and covering levels in slime you can clean up is a cover up for poor level design. If you play Super Mario Sunshine, enjoy the challenge courses and the music, but I won’t blame you if you put the controller down.