Precision platforming – it’s something that pretty much comes as standard in Mario titles, these days. I’ve had my hands on Super Mario Odyssey, and it’s a delight – aesthetically as peachy as we’ve come to expect from Nintendo since the advent of HD visuals, but more pertinently it controls sharply and tightly, in all the right places.
Not once, navigating either the steel-and-glass environs of New Donk City or the Sand Kingdom’s Tostarena, did I ever feel that the game was anything but completely in tune with what I wanted it, or rather what I wanted Mario and his headgear ally Cappy, to do. But Super Mario Sunshine, wow. The GameCube platformer, Mario’s only main-series entry on Nintendo’s much-loved sixth-generation home system, is a title that I’ve long owned, sandwiched between copies of Zelda: The Wind Waker and F-Zero GX. But weirdly, perversely, I’ve never properly found time for it.
Until now, that is. 2017 marks Sunshine’s 15th anniversary – the game came out in its native Japan in July 2002, the States in August, and Europe in October – and with Odyssey a few weeks off (and spurred by it), I figured now would be an ideal time to dive into a supposed classic that, for whatever reason, I’d not indulged properly in before.
And, I kinda wish I’d left it alone. Which isn’t to say that that Sunshine – which I dipped the tiniest toe into, back when, but never went past its opening few moments – doesn’t still impress, in some respects. It might have a decade and a half of dust on it, but Sunshine’s visuals are bright and appealing, even when the textures don’t stand up to impressive character models (a remaster would work wonders, mind). The music, by Koji Kondo and Shinobu Tanaka, never disappoints, mixing familiar motifs with breezy new arrangements reflecting the game’s tropical setting.
Speaking of which, we’re on Isle Delfino here, rather than in the Mushroom Kingdom, on a Mario-and-pals vacation (Luigi, weirdly, didn’t get invited). Yes, poke around and there are the series-faithful pipes below the ground, numerous areas to uncover, and secrets hidden in plain sight – but it’s genuinely refreshing to explore areas that aren’t so incredibly synonymous with Mario history.
Like Odyssey, Sunshine unfolds in a non-linear manner – you needn’t play through all stages of the first “world” to begin making progress in the second, and each location is accessible via a town centre-like hub, Delfino Plaza. Spray the graffiti “M”s with your FLUDD gadget, and lo, the portals open. Find other “M”s around Delfino, and cleaning them up reveals blue coins, essential to your ultimate quest of gathering 120 Shine Sprites, little sun-shaped entities that power the island.
Sorry, skipping ahead of myself here, aren’t I? Your objective is to wipe all the ugly, polluting paint, gloop and grime from Delfino – and that’s something Mario is commanded to do, because the native Piantas think he’s the guy who made the mess in the first place. (Obviously, he didn’t – it’s Bowser Jr, making his series bow and disguised as a shadowy version of Mario, who’s behind the vandalism.) The Shine Sprites used to gather at the Plaza’s Shine Gate – but since the island became plastered in paint, they’ve scattered, and Mario’s got to round them up. Yup, it’s a collectathon! But since earlier Mario games effectively popularised this style of platformer, sure, we’ll allow it.
FLUDD? Now, there’s a thing – and it is, most certainly, A Thing. Within minutes of starting Sunshine, Mario is literally joined at the hip with a water-spraying device, apparently sentient if not totally autonomous, called FLUDD – aka the Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device. With FLUDD, Mario can wash away Bowser Jr’s paint, spray bosses into submission, switch the flow to hover in mid-air for a limited time, and eventually propel himself at great speeds both vertically and horizontally. FLUDD’s a neat contraption-cum-companion, and a nice piece of innovation on the part of Nintendo EAD’s designers, something unprecedented in the series. But that FLUDD never returned in a main Mario game, restricted to cameos in spin-offs, might be illustrative of a divisive reception.
What’s in no doubt, and what really prevents Sunshine from connecting as a contemporary gaming experience, is that this game’s controls are a mangled nightmare of axis confusion and analogue-stick wrangling, and the camera is one of the worst that I’ve ever experienced in a major, big-budget game. That exactness of Odyssey, refined as it was through the Galaxy games and the joyful 3D World, where you feel you could land Mario (or whoever) on a pinhead if asked to, is wholly and woefully absent here.
Instead, Sunshine fights you, putting whatever it can between the camera, the screen, and our hero – buildings, trees, submarines, cranes, pirate ships, navigation signs, bits of coral, moving platforms, giant watermelons – leaving the character a slippery silhouette and more likely than ever to fall down a deadly pit or suffer an enemy attack. You do what you can with the GameCube pad’s stumpy C Stick; but hours in, it simply never feels right. Perhaps this is why I put Sunshine down, back when, and never returned?
Reviewers in 2002 largely praised Sunshine, but some made a point of singling out its awful camera – and I’d like to think that Nintendo took that criticism on board, and learned from it, given the slickness of what followed in their 3D Mario series. Certainly, the late Satoru Iwata, the game’s executive producer, had speculated that its complicated controls would put people off; and producer Shigeru Miyamoto would comment after its release, "We should have designed the game differently, but we couldn’t."
Played today, with the benefit of having sat down with Galaxy and everything else, Sunshine persistently frustrates, and that becomes a real obstacle to enjoyment. Circling the main analogue stick to perform a spin jump gains Mario height but loses already hit-and-miss accuracy, and with the camera often exhibiting signs of having a madcap mind of its own, it’s too easy to end up right where you don’t want to be. Certain sections where the camera is fixed don’t suffer so badly – Blooper surfing, for example. But honestly, if Sunshine was a modern release, and it was this annoying to get through due to its perplexing perspectives, it’d surely be panned.
Evidently, 2002’s critics were more patient, or preferred to sing the praises of the game’s aforementioned positives, extending as they do to some wonderful stage design and variety. And when the game is flowing smoothly, it’s absolutely worthy of its Nintendo Seal of Quality. But then, too often: a bump, a slump, a life lost, all because of what we’re seeing. Or, more pertinently, what we’re not.
And if you, too, haven’t really seen Super Mario Sunshine before now, but are tempted to turn back time ahead of its hero’s next adventure, I personally recommend you leave it. Life’s too short for bad games; Sunshine may not be all bad, but in those moments where it’s really doing a number on you, trading clarity for chance – one word: pachinko – Mario's sole GameCube outing is, as much it pains me to say it, a very bad game.