Earlier this week, Nintendo finally announced Super Mario 3D All-Stars for Switch, a compilation with Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. But while 64 and Galaxy are often the subject of universal praise, Sunshine can be a bit more divisive.
So I’m here to defend it.
Why does Super Mario Sunshine even need defending? When you look at the numbers, you’d think that it doesn’t. On Metacritic, it has an average review score of 92. The average user score, which is often much harsher, sits at 8.6. That’s still lower on both sides than just about every other 3D Mario game, but these are still strong numbers. It’s also a sales success, at least for a system that sold as few consoles as the GameCube did. Super Mario Sunshine, which debuted in 2002, sold over 6.28 million copies. That only puts it behind Super Smash Bros. Melee and Mario Kart: Double Dash as far as best-selling GameCube games go.
Nintendo sold about 21.74 million GameCubes, so more than 1-out-of-4 GameCube owners also bought Sunshine. So while Super Mario Odyssey sold much better at 18.06 million copies, the Switch itself is a much more successful console than the GameCube ever was. Nintendo has moved over 61.44 million Switch systems so far. That’s a pretty similar ratio to what Super Mario Sunshine and GameCube share. Odyssey’s ratio is better, but not insanely so.
So it’s not like critics or GameCube owners rejected Super Mario Sunshine. But if you partake in a decent amount of gaming social media, you’ll quickly see that Super Mario Sunshine has a lot of detractors.
Walking on sunshine
And before I mount my defense, I want to say that many complaints are valid. Sunshine is not the revolutionary masterpiece that Mario 64 is. It’s also not the whirlwind of creativity of the Galaxy games. Look, I’m not going to say that it’s better than those games. Still, I love Super Mario Sunshine.
A large part of that is because the fundamentals of all 3D Mario games are so good. Even all these years after the 1996 release of Super Mario 64, no 3D platformer has managed to feel as good or precise to control as these games. Mario is an acrobatic powerhouse. Simple movement is a pleasure, but the games are at their best when you master and string together platforming skills like wall jumps.
Movement is the best part of any 3D Mario game, and Sunshine gave Mario a lot of fun, new tools. Most of these center on F.L.U.D.D., Mario’s water backpack that you can use as a gun, hover-pack, and more. The hovering is the most important feature. Similar to something like Yoshi’s flutter jump, it helps give you an extra bit of control, height, or distance, making it possible to correct mistakes or even reach areas that would normally be inaccessible. But since you need to keep F.L.U.D.D. filled with water, which you can do by filling him up from any water source, it’s not a total crux. Instead, you have to be careful about managing your liquid inventory.
F.L.U.D.D. is great, and it helps make Sunshine feel special compared to all other Mario titles. But it’s not the only reason that I love Sunshine. I adore its tropical theme, too.
Most Mario games don’t float around a single aesthetic. Instead, each level will do its own thing, often reusing the expected tropes (desert level, ice level, forest level, etc.). Sunshine, however, dances around this tropical island theme. It’s glorious. Just thinking about the game makes me feel like I’m on vacation.
And the levels don’t all bleed together, because each stage has a different play on that theme. One level focuses on a shipping yard. Another centers on a hotel (which may be haunted by ghosts). I love seeing Nintendo explore a single idea like this. It’s certainly better than running around another snow-themed level.
In the shadow
I don’t mean to dismiss people’s complaints with Sunshine. I even have a few more of my own. The bosses aren’t all that interesting, and you keep fighting the same ones over and over. It also has one of the least memorable final Bowser battles in the series. And the voice-acted cutscenes, while a worthy experiment, have aged and feel awkward now.
However, I still always have an amazing time when I’m playing Super Mario Sunshine. Its tropical beats and bright colors fill my heart with happiness. If it suffers, it is only in comparison to some of the other 3D Mario games. Titles like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, and Super Mario Odyssey aren’t just great. They’re some of the best games of all time.
I’ll tell you what, though. Maybe I won’t take Sunshine over those gems. But I would take it over just about any other 3D platformer.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.