When Nintendo launched the Gamecube on November 18 2001 it marked a series of firsts for the company; it was the first Nintendo console to use disc-based media, the first to mandate the use of memory cards to save game date, the first to offer deep connectivity with a handheld and the first console from the big N to launch without a Mario platformer. The N.E.S. had Super Mario Bros., the S.N.E.S. flaunted Super Mario World and the N.64 had the 3-D masterpiece Super Mario 64. Sure, Luigi’s Mansion was there to give the series a presence on the console at launch but that was more of an adventure game, and fans were screaming for the next Mario platformer. Well they wouldn’t have to wait long, as in August of 2002, Nintendo answered their prayers and dropped Mario on a tropical island on another quest to save the princess and clean up the place at the same time.
The game greets us with Mario, Peach, Toadsworth and several Toads on route to a tropical vacation spot named Isle Delfino for some much needed R&R. But as soon as they arrive on the dolphin-shaped island (a tip of the hat to the Gamecube’s codename - ‘Dolphin’) it becomes clear that this will be no ordinary vacation. A large creature made of a sort of liquid goop has taken up residence right on the runway at Delfino airport and is preventing the team from disembarking. Soon after landing you meet up with F.L.U.D.D. (Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device); a powerful water canon who is carried like a backpack, and who will become your partner for the duration of the adventure. After the duo defeat the goop monster and recover the games first Shine Sprite, the authorities arrive on scene and arrest Mario and F.L.U.D.D. on charges of vandalism. Mario is found guilty of spraying graffiti all over Isle Delfino, which has dispersed the islands guardian Shine Sprites, and is duly tasked with cleaning up the entire island. It is soon discovered that a doppelganger disguised as Mario is the one responsible for the vandalism and Mario sets off in search of the impostor who soon takes possession of Princess Peach, giving both Mario and F.L.U.D.D. much to do on this tropical escape.
The main objective of the game is the recovery of the 121 Shine Sprites scattered throughout Isle Delfino, although only half are needed to face the final boss. The central plaza of Isle Delfino acts as the game's hub, linking all the different regions of the island together. Once Mario enters a region, the title of the level and a short video hint of how to get the Shine Sprite are shown, similar to Super Mario 64. In addition to these, they are many Shine Sprites hidden throughout the island, which usually require the player to solve a complex puzzle or enter a secret area. Another way to earn Shine Sprites is to collect and trade in the blue coins that are scattered throughout the island. Once you have collected 10 of these coins you can then go to a shop in the central plaza and trade them in for Shine Sprites.
The game plays very much like a regular 3-D platformer; you run, jump, swim and dive around much as you would expect to, and the one major addition to the gameplay is the use of F.L.U.D.D. to assist in the platforming. With the various nozzles that you can acquire for you back-pack bound friend, Mario will be able to add hovering, rocket jumping and turbo running to his arsenal. Another big part of the gameplay is the ability to switch to a behind the shoulder view and use F.L.U.D.D.’s water canon to attack enemies and clean up the paint they leave behind. The game even features the return of Yoshi (not available as Mario’s partner since 1991’s Super Mario World.). In these levels you use Yoshi’s patented flutter jump and extendable tongue to help Mario reach difficult to find Shine Sprites. Speaking of difficult, Super Mario Sunshine easily gives the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 a run for the title of the hardest game in the series, with the Yoshi and F.L.U.D.D.-less levels offering a particularly difficult challenge. The Blue coins are also sometimes hidden in ludicrous places and you're offered no hints whatsoever on how to find them, making finding all 121 Shine Sprites an achievable challenge only for the most dedicated of gamers. It should be noted that levels in which you are deprived of F.L.U.D.D. would eventually serve as the basis for the basic design of some of the stages for Super Mario Galaxy, sort of a look into the future of Mario’s platforming adventures.
The graphics of Super Mario Sunshine still hold up extremely well to this day, notably the water effects which shimmer and flow with such realism you’ll wonder how this was made all the way back in 2002. Every area of Isle Delfino is ripe with detail, both in the environments themselves and in the effects, like the glow of the sun or the wind in the trees. However, it’s unfortunate that the beautiful scenery of Isle Delfino is also one of things that hurts this game the most. By setting the entire game on a tropical island far from the classic Mushroom Kingdom the game is barely recognisable as a Mario game, the levels are all tropical themed; no ice, deserts, sky or fields are to be seen at all. The enemies are for the most part new, and only bare a passing resemblance to something Mario would have stomped on in previous games.
The music for the most part is excellent and very pleasing. The tunes are all catchy and recognisable, most notably the remixed version of the classic Mario theme for some of the special levels. The inclusion of voice acting is also welcome, and for the most part the character voices are well acted and scripted, although one in particular (I won’t spoil anything here for you) will quickly have you reaching for the mute button, and leaves you wondering how Nintendo ever ok’d something so cringe-worthy.
The quest for the Shine Sprites could take you anywhere from 10-15 hours if you are only interested in getting to the ending, or 20+ hours if 121 Shines is your goal. However, be warned that once you’ve gotten the last Shine Sprite that’s it. There are no special modes or hidden extras to come back for, although the game's difficulty and variety of gameplay styles all help to keep the game feeling fresh and exciting past the first few hours and will ensure that you always have something to do while exploring Isle Delfino.
Nintendo has never been known to deliver the expected. When people anticipated Super Mario 64 2, Nintendo gave Mario a backpack and threw him into a tropical paradise. Super Mario Sunshine is often called the black sheep of the 3-D Mario games, because it strays so far from the Mushroom Kingdom we all grew up with and introduces new locations, new allies and new enemies that seem foreign and odd to those who grew up jumping around with the moustachioed hero. But once you really sink your teeth into Super Mario Sunshine, you will find the same Mario game you grew up with, expertly mixed with a whole new experience for the series. Here’s hoping that Nintendo will re-visit Isle Delfino one day, be it in a sequel or a New Play Control game on Wii, so we can all see why this definitely is a Gamecube game that shines.