Super Mario Sunshine
(SMS) is a 3D platform game
developed by Nintendo
for the Nintendo Gamecube
under the directorship of Shigeru
and released in 2002
. The game has received a warm critical reception and has sold fairly well. However, there is a perception
that the game has not been as decisive
as its predecessor, 1996
's Super Mario 64
. The six year interval has seen a number
of pretenders fail to take the platform gaming crown from Mario 64, and expectations were extremely high for this sequel
to one of the most
enduring classics of recent years.
The game does not at first glance appear to represent six years' worth of advancement in the genre. That is not to say that no progress has
been made- the game is more varied and complex than Mario 64, and (naturally) has greatly improved visuals. However, as with the jump from
Doom to Quake, the bulk of SMS's innovations are not immediately apparent (or striking as the move from 2D to 3D) to the casual
Nintendo's plans for Mario on the present hardware generation: a conjecture
As I see it, there is a marked difference in Nintendo's objectives in creating Super Mario Sunshine compared to Super Mario 64. The last
Mario title was entrusted with the task of carrying the machine (the troubled Nintendo 64), at a time when third party support was thin on
the ground and the industry was undergoing a paradigm shift from 2D to 3D. Effectively, it represented Nintendo 'betting the company' on
their most valuable asset.
By comparison, SMS seems to have less of an onerous task on its hands (although, critically, it does have to measure up to the high
watermark set by M64). With the Gamecube, Nintendo have actively attempted to nullify the weaknesses of the N64, ensuring a greater level
of third party support, and have invested heavily in some of their other franchises (Metroid, Zelda, and the fattest cash cow of them
all, Pókemon) to broaden the machine's appeal. As a result of having these more stable foundations in place, it has been strongly hinted by
Nintendo that there will be at least one other Mario title within the lifespan of the machine. The plan NCL have been following could be
seen as a series of incremental steps:
Luigi's Mansion - Simple gameplay, strong emphasis on technology (and experimentation), indirect reintroduction of Mario
(the object of the game being to rescue Mario from the clutches of King Boo).
Super Mario Sunshine - Much deeper gameplay, adaptation of the technology tested in Luigi's Mansion and Pikmin, continuation of
the story from Luigi's Mansion (Mario is now going on holiday after his ordeal), although basically a side story rather than a reiteration of
the traditional Mario story. Structurally, intended to placate Mario 64 fans hoping for more of the same.
"Super Mario 128" (theoretical title, ETA 2004?) - Presumably would feature: More progressive gameplay and design (a greater
departure from M64 than SMS was), refinement of the technology used in the second generation of Gamecube titles, and a return to the Mario
storyline (most importantly, a return to the Mushroom Kingdom setting).
So, it could be argued that Super Mario Sunshine does not represent the peak of the series as will be delivered on this generation of
hardware. But enough of this idle speculation, on to the game itself. (Note that there may be some minor spoilers, I've avoided revealing
the 'big' secrets, but don't read on if you want everything in the game to be a surprise.)
The storyline of the game is fairly thin, and for the most part does not tie into the gameplay from one task to the next. As we join the
story, Mario, Princess Peach, Toadsworth (a retainer), and an entourage of Toads (Kinopio) are travelling to the tropical resort of
Isle Delfino for a holiday. On arrival, they discover that the island has been tainted with pollution and graffiti by a mysterious
villian who happens to look like Mario. (This 'Shadow Mario' is made of water, after the manner of the creature from The Abyss, and
carries a paintbrush with the Gadd Industries logo.) The presence of this evil influence has caused the Shine Sprites
(six-pointed stars with eyes similar to the gold stars in Mario 64) to disappear, having hidden themselves around the island. As a result the
main town, Delfino Plaza, has been enveloped in shadow. Shortly after arriving on the island, Mario acquires a backpack water-cannon called
F.L.U.D.D. (Flash Liquidating Ultra Dousing Device) which can be fitted with different nozzles to give Mario different abilities.
The inhabitants of Isle Delfino, the Piantas, arrest Mario and, mistaking him for the 'Shadow Mario', charge him with defacing
the island and sentence him to cleaning up the pollution and graffiti (using FLUDD). To clear his name, Mario must retrieve the Shine
Sprites and discover the true identity and motives of 'Shadow Mario' and bring him to justice. This quest takes Mario around several
discrete areas of Isle Delfino, with the Plaza town acting as a hub. Shine Sprites are acquired by completing tasks for the island's
inhabitants (among whom corruption seems to be rife, as they claim to be ignorant of where the Shine Sprites have gone, but are only too
willing to make you do their dirty work in exchange for ones they happen to have in their possession), as well as by thoroughly exploring
the island and beating some rather more abstract challenges.
Isle Delfino is inhabited by two races of creatures that are new to the Mario universe- the slow, pear-shaped Piantas (mountain people),
and the petite, shell-dwelling Noki (the Sea People).
I was quite surprised to see qualifiers in the previous writeups warning that the graphical standard of the game might not be up to the
players' expectations. This is strange, as the graphics in Sunshine, while not always boasting a high polygon count, are consistently
brilliantly realised and exhibit many innovative effects.
The most immediately noticable of these is the unlimited draw distance and depth of field effects. From any location in the (often
massive and highly complex) areas, you can see all the way to the horizon with no fogging or pop-up. This long draw distance also works
for small objects and details. (Best illustrated on red coin stages, where the coins can often be spotted from a vantage point on the far
side of the level.) Beyond a certain point, a level of detail system kicks in to reduce the complexity of distant objects, but this is
rendered completely seamless by a 'heat haze' that mildly distorts anything a certain distance from the player. Certain locations in the
game (e.g. the top of the Shine Tower, the Ferris Wheel, and the Windmill) show this technology off to spectacular effect, with not only
the whole of the stage visible below you, but the other areas of the game visible (and animated) on the horizon!
Another powerful and well utilised effect is the 'sludge' system. At various times in the game, areas are coated in mud, paint, lava
or oil or some other viscous substance. These bodies of liquid act completely dynamically- for instance you can spray parts of it away
using the FLUDD cannon, or smear it around by having objects slide or roll through it. It also conforms to gravity, sliding down walls and
floating on water. Pieces of goop will actually stick to Mario as he comes into contact with it, requiring him to spin around quickly or
enter water to wash it off. It is difficult to describe the sludge effect in action, you really need to see the game running at first hand
(or on video) to appreciate it.
As water plays such an important role in the game mechanic, it is also represented using highly advanced graphical effects. Interestingly,
water is represented using a wide range of effects working in tandem instead of a universal polygonal effect such as the sludge. Bodies
of water (lakes and oceans) are represented with a glistening, undulating surface (an enhancement of the uncannily lifelike effect used in
Pikmin) that reflects sunlight. Anything beneath the surface is distorted and cast in a bluish light. When Mario enters the water, he
creates ripples around his body (these are not fully realised ripples that effect the whole water surface), an effect that is created by
indirect rendering. Water sprayed from FLUDD uses different effects again: the water stream is a trail of particles, blurred together in
a separate rendering pass. When water hits a dry surface, the particles turn to translucent circles which contract as they 'evaporate'.
If you spray water onto the ground directly in front of Mario, you will see that the puddle will have his reflection in it. There are a
number of other specialised effects, such as the wake Mario leaves when swimming, or the mist caused by fountains and sprinklers.
Reflections on flat surfaces are quite spectacularly used at some points in the game. On one stage there are giant tilting mirrors that
can be walked on; another has a large, stagnant lake that reflects everything over it, and the Pinna Park stage has a pool below the
swinging pirate ships in which they are reflected. When viewed at close range these reflections are a little pixellated, but are impressive
all the same.
Another interesting effect, which ties in with the sludge, is the use of character morphing, which is primarily used on the Piantas and
certain types of enemy. In addition to their precalculated animation, these characters can squash and stretch dynamically like a jelly.
This adds a more lifelike appearance to the numerous aquatic themed enemies, such as jellyfish, fish, turtles and squid (known as
There are a number of other small touches in the graphics that are worth noting. The shading on character models is not gradiated smoothly
from light to dark- it's abruptly thresholded at a certain value on character's skin. This gives the impression that the skin is shiny with
sweat. Another interesting 'post-rendering' effect is the imposition of Mario's outline which is drawn when a wall gets between Mario and
the camera. These are not especially computationally expensive, but are interesting all the same.
With this brief tour of the technical visual highlights concluded, you can see that a lot of development effort had gone into creating the
rendering tools to bring this Mario title to the screen. I should also mention the actual quality of the artwork, modelling and
animation itself. Anyone who played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time on the N64 should have some inkling of the
absolutely world-class production values that Nintendo can bring to bear on their flagship titles, and on this front Sunshine doesn't
disappoint, although it will almost certainly be overshadowed by the forthcoming The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the visual
design has been elevated to one of the core distinguishing features of the product.
There is little negative criticism that can be made regarding the lively character designs (again, as with Pikmin, seeming to draw
slightly on the Moomins for inspiration, and also, in the case of the Piantas, from the Goons in the Popeye cartoon), and the
picturesque, stylised environments. Some of the terrain textures on a couple of the stages, seemingly intentionally distorted to appear
similar in style to Yoshi's Island, look somewhat ugly and barren, but these are a rare exception.
The bulk of the gameplay takes place within a set of locales on and around Isle Delfino. Each of these levels is large enough to take a
few minutes to walk across, and realistically organised enough to prevent there from being any direct route to do this. Most of the levels
make extensive use of all three dimensions- most notably Pianta Village (see below). Note that I have avoided comparisons to Mario 64's
levels because I don't know that game inside out. But generally speaking, Sunshine exhibits a greater level of detail and complexity
in its level design. (Note: the level names below are from the English language version.)
An introductory stage where Mario initially touches down on the island and collects FLUDD. This stage can be returned to at will after
the final boss is defeated. Fairly small and nondescript.
The hub level, a fairly advanced Pianta settlement located on a peninsula backed onto the mountainside. Introduces many of the basic
concepts and allows the player to practice with Yoshi and the various FLUDD nozzles, in the service of finding the (numerous) shines hidden
around the place. Some of the activities that can be carried out here include exploring the sewers, swimming (or riding the ferry boats)
to the outlying islands, delivering fruit to the villagers, trading blue coins for Shines, as well as of course accessing all the other
stages and a number of secret levels such as the Pachinko machine, via picture warps and pipe warps.
The first stage that Shadow Mario leads Mario to, featuring a walled courtyard area containing water wheels and windmills, adjoining a
large lake with a massive windmill tower at the far side, accessible via bridges and tightropes. A large but visually underwhelming
stage, with a simplistic layout to ease you into the game, although the final challenges involve traversing a frustrating series of
tightropes. Contains one sublevel, the interior of the windmill which is used as a venue for a boss battle.
A very 'hardcore' environment, about as different as can be imagined from Bianco Hills. The majority of the level is a construct of
girders, meshwork and cranes over the water of the harbour. (Very much in the vein of Donkey Kong.) There are also a number of boats (and a
yellow submarine) moored there at various times. There is a small fishmarket and promenade on the shore. Most of the challenges on this
stage require a lot of traditional 3D platforming. There is one sublevel here, the 'Blooper Circuit' accessible on one stage via a cave in
the cliff-face, where you are challenged to race on the back of a squid. This is rather reminiscent of Wave Race: Blue Storm.
A very large white sand beach, backing onto some forested shelves of land (where the Sand Bird tower and its surrounding mirror towers
are located), and steep green hills. The beach is infested with hostile, dead-eyed enemies called Cataquacks, which are rather like a cross
between evil ducks and squashballs. This wide open stage is a good showcase of the scale and draw distance mentioned earlier. Highlights
include the strange plants (that when watered bloat into massive sand sculptures), the swivelling mirrors (used to aim sunlight at the Sand
Bird Egg), and the beautiful clear ocean and coral reef. It is also the only stage to suffer reproducible frame rate problems (although
only from one spot- looking at the whole level from the sea near the coral reef). The only sublevel is a rather abstract encounter with the
An amusement park on an outlying island reached by being shot from a cannon in Delfino Plaza. The level is actually made up of two
seperate areas- a beach area outside the gate (complete with painfully cute giant sunflowers, who respond to watering with almost
orgasmic delight), and the park interior. This is possibly the densest area in the game, driving home the differences in level design from
Mario 64. The park contains a massive ferris wheel, a working rollercoaster (the riding of which is a frenetic, disorienting experience
reminiscent of the prerendered ride games of the early 1990's, except now rendered entirely in real-time), two swinging pirate ships, a
water feature, a 'Yoshi-go-round', and a clam cups (teacups) ride. Much has been made of the technical issues on this level- it is
apparently possible to fall through the pirate ships, and the action of the camera in the (vitally important) area behind the ferris wheel
leaves a lot to be desired. But it's still mainly good fun and visually very distinguished.
One of the last areas in the game that can be accessed, again comprising of several smaller areas. The first is the beach and hotel grounds.
(The Hotel Delfino itself is initially not present, and grows larger with each subsequent challenge.) It is always just before sunset
when Mario visits this area. The hotel interior comprises of four floors that are infested by ghosts (where have I heard that before..?) and effectively acts as a maze of sorts, with all manner of clever secret passages leading from room to room. The
third and final area is the Casino Delfino below the hotel, which contains a huge roulette wheel and seems strangely empty, suggesting
that it was intended to be used for some purpose that was cut due to time constraints. (Although it is used, albeit in a seperate sublevel,
for the boss battle in this stage.)
Widely regarded to be the most beautiful area in the game, and certainly the one with the best music. The bay area is made up of tall white
cliffs surrounding a deep coastal pool cut by the massive waterfall. Most of the activity takes place on the way up the cliffs, in the
network of passages behind them, and in climbing the massive stone towers capped with giant shells that rise out of the pool. The sublevels
(the inside of a bottle, and later a massive underwater cave where the Noki live) require Mario to wear a diving helmet, and employ a
tricky but satisfying swimming/diving control system with massive amounts of inertia. Noki Bay is the one level with the least in the way
of nagging flaws, and its boss battle (Eely Mouth's Dentist) is probably the most cinematic episode in the whole game.
Another technical showcase level, the Pianta village is actually a massive platform (possibly an outcropping from the central, giant palm
tree) over a massive, bowl-shaped bottomless pit. The area is represented at different times of day for each challenge. The central tree can be climbed, and allows access to a simply vast volume of air space as well as a vertigo-inducing view. Depth is also
exploited on this stage, as the underside of the giant platform can be explored by dangling from wire meshes and hopping across giant
The Village also plays host to a massive, flaming Chain Chomp that Mario has to cool off by dragging it into a bath. This creature just
happens to have what looks suspiciously like an Xbox logo cut into it (and is described as being "prone to overheating"...). Surely a coincidence.
The final stage, a brief but meticulously designed and challenging obstacle course within the island's volcano, leading to the final boss battle. (I won't spoil it, but I found it to be technically very slick but surprisingly easy.)
In each of the stages, apart from the Airstrip, Plaza and Corona Mountain, there are eight shine challenges that can be attempted, which are
unlocked sequentially. There is also at least one secret shine in each area, and a second shine that can be earned by returning to the void
level to complete the void coin hunt after the final boss battle. Another shine can be had for collecting 100 coins in any given area. There
are a total of 120 shines to be found in the game, including 24 than can be obtained by trading in all of the 240 blue coins that are hidden
around the levels. Any questions?
The following are the types of challenges that are presented in most of the areas.
Void Levels (a.k.a. obstacle courses)
Void levels are accessed by finding hidden entry points within the normal levels. On entry to a void level, Shadow Mario 'steals' FLUDD from
Mario, meaning that the player must rely on their jumping and running abilities without the assistance of the hover nozzle.
Void stages are so called because they consist of series of platforms and objects suspended in a void. Without the constriction of having to
conform to representing a 'real' location, these highly abstract stages manage to best recapture the gameplay of the earlier Mario games. The
obstacles usually involve negotiating jumps and balancing on imaginatively designed moving platforms. Most of the platforms are based on
cubes and other geometric shapes. There are a number of objects made of specific materials- such as giant sugar cubes that disintegrate when
stepped on, cube-shaped watermelons that can be burst, rubber trampolines, and protruding nails that act as tiny stepping stones.
To further enhance the old-skool atmosphere on these stages, the backdrop is often made up from graphics and motifs from the 2D Mario
games, and the music is an accappella rendition of the Super Mario Bros. theme.
On revisiting the void levels after defeating Shadow Mario, you are allowed to use FLUDD, but to gain a second shine you have to
collect 8 red coins within a very tight time limit. (These void coin hunts are basically the final challenge in the game for the truly
Red Coin Hunt
A fairly straightforward challenge- Mario must find and collect 8 red coins hidden around the area. Later levels introduce time limits and
other variations- such as one in Ricco Harbour where you have to collect the coins while riding a fast-moving blooper.
Shadow Mario Chase
The easiest challenges- Mario must chase Shadow Mario around the stage, spraying him with water until he surrenders. Usually can be beaten
first time with no problems.
Some activity must be completed within a certain time, usually involving cleaning things with FLUDD. (For instance, find and rescuing 10
trapped Piantas, or cleaning all of the goop off of a beach.)
Il Piantissimo Race
These levels involve a race from one end of an area to the other against a freakish, thin Pianta-like character. (Tip: you can travel faster
over flat ground by spraying water in front of you and sliding on it.)
There are a wide variety of bosses in the game, and most require you to figure out a way to beat them that is not immediately obvious. These
include pulling off a squid's arms, cleaning an eel's teeth, throwing people's bombs back at them, beating the shit out of a caterpillar, and
What platform game would be complete without some stages that consisted mainly of traversing obstacle courses made from platforms? The most
notorious of these is the Ferris Wheel stage in Pinna Park, where the uncooperative camera makes things even more difficult than necessary.
Most of the areas have some features that are either the focus of a mini-game, or offer an alternate route to completing some of the
challenges. For instance the boats and lily pads, and the tightropes which you can swing from to get to hard-to-reach areas. There is the
rollercoaster in Pinna Park, hidden levels based on water slides and a pachinko machine, the slot machines in the casino, crate-smashing and
Sound does not play an important role in the game, at least, little more so than in previous Mario titles. The majority of the game has
newly composed themes that are not as catchy as the classic Mario themes, but are still very listenable and do not grate after extended play.
The Mario theme used on the void levels will probably be the highlight for most people.
Sound effects are pretty standard platform fare, with the addition of some nicely distinctive footsteps-on-wooden-floor and other
atmospheric noises for the void levels. The voice acting is pretty good too, although largely confined to the few cutscenes. The piantas and nokis speak in a kind of 'nonsense
language' accompanied by text, which sounds quite amusing in places.
So what makes the game work?
The most successful aspect of the game in my opinion is the control method. Once you get the hang of assisting your jumps with the hover
nozzle, and manually adjusting the camera with the C-stick (an added level of complexity over M64, but one that grants you even greater
control) the controls become second nature, and it becomes possible to fling Mario around the levels with confidence. Watching someone else
play the game for the first time shows what a profound effect learning the controls has on the game- for the first few hours most players
have only a haphazard control over Mario, but gradually their skil develops.
It is reported that each of the Mario games, Nintendo's developers use the control method as the starting point, building a 'test area'
where their designers can concoct new, fun things to acheive through mastery of the controls. This is clearly a highly fruitful method to
designing platform gameplay.
The criticisms leveled at the game are many and varied. The (partially) manual camera has been met with howls of dismay from some quarters.
But I would argue that it's necessary, now that the levels are more dense than Mario 64's, to be able to move the camera freely
instead of relying purely on predefined camera 'tracks' built into the levels. As far as I am concerned, the only problems with the camera
arise when it tries to fight against the manual controls, occasionally refusing to pass through certain walls, or tilting violently at the
neck of certain narrow platform areas.
There has also been criticism of the arduous difficulty of some of the stages in the game. As far as I am concerned this reflects more
poorly on the critics than the game itself, with even the most demanding sections of the game being well within the capabilities (if not the patience) of mere
mortals such as myself. A couple of the later stages (notably Yoshi's Fruit Adventure) are too much like a chore than a challenge, with an
unreasonable amount of faffing about having to be done before the core of the task can be attempted each time. But most of the game is well balanced.
A less easy criticism to quantify is the degree to which SMS builds upon the playful, inventive aspects of Super Mario 64. Critics cite many nice
touches in M64 that suggest the subtext of a knowing dialogue between the designers and the player, the most commonly cited being the
appearance of Lakitu in the mirrors at one point (but there are many other elements in the game that contribute toward this goal, both large
and small). By comparison SMS is seen by these critics as being 'soulless', and while I wouldn't go that far I feel that there is a
disconnect between the player and the game world that means, outside of the controls and a few stand-out sequences, the game does not go out
of its way to sell you the Mario fantasy.
Certainly coming from Nintendo, the reigning masters of the platform genre, this underlying ennui was seen as a betrayal by some. I think
that this dissatisfaction, while in part can be attributed to Nintendo's failings in the consistency of the game, also points to a larger
issue: what place does the platform game have in the modern gaming scene? The days when a mascot platformer was seen as the killer app, the
most prominent technical arena and the type of title with the broadest appeal have long passed. But it seems that some people expect the
genre to still be able to foster massive technical and imaginative advances. I would argue that this expectation is unrealistic, and that
although platform games still have their place, they are no longer at the vanguard of video game development. The genre, in its 2D and 3D
incarnations, has had an exceptionally long innings, but I think that in future the trend towards action adventures and more meaningful,
literate (or at least, articulate) interaction with the game world will send pure platformers the way of the scrolling shooter or point and
click adventure. How Mario might adapt to a more role-playing based style of gameplay would be interesting to see (although it has been tried once already with Super Mario RPG on the SNES).
These issues aside, Super Mario Sunshine is one of the best games on the Nintendo Gamecube, and worth picking up if you have an interest in
the genre or just want a game that is going to offer you a long, challenging and varied period of gameplay. It can be considered as the first
game on the machine to belong to the second generation of software, and in this respect marks the end of the goodwill period extended to the
rather variable launch titles (most of which seem a lot less appealing today at the same price tag, but doubtless will soon slip down to a
midrange price). If you do not like platform games then it is unlikely to convert you.
Also, as with many games of late, don't even think about running this game in 50hz.