20 years ago, Nintendo made the best 3D Mario game of all time
Time to shine.
Mario is the king of platformers, and each entry in the franchise always brings something wildly new and inventive to the genre. After the overwhelming success of Super Mario 64, Nintendo could have easily sat back and made a safe sequel, but instead, it decided to release one of its weirdest and most imaginative games ever. Super Mario Sunshine is an utterly surreal experience, and it’s the messiest and best 3D Mario game all at the same time.
Mario Sunshine opens with the iconic plumber and Princess Peach arriving at the tropical getaway of Isle Delfino for a much-needed vacation. Right off the bat, however, an evil Mario doppelganger appears and starts spreading a horrible paint-like substance over the island. Unfortunately, Mario is accused of committing this crime, and literally within the first hour of the game he’s arrested, goes to court, and given community service to clean the entire island. What other Mario game has a premise that absurd?
As it turns out, the absurdity of those opening moments seeps into every aspect of Mario Sunshine, making it something wildly different from the rest of the franchise. The core of Mario Sunshine’s gameplay is a sentient water backpack called FLUDD, which lets Mario spray out water for a variety of effects. Of course, you need to spray water to wash away paint, but another nozzle lets Mario use water to hover, and later unlocks let him rocket into the air and move at high speeds.
The FLUDD completely changes the way you think about platforming in a Mario game, making you take into account its extended traversal options and paint-clearing abilities. In a way, it’s the precursor to Super Mario Odyssey’s Cappy, which also alters how you approach the game. Mario Sunshine’s levels are completely designed around the FLUDD as well, with sprawling levels that encourage you to use the new water abilities in inventive ways. Mario Sunshine hugely innovated on Mario’s traversal mechanics, a trend that the franchise would continue across each of its main entires ever since.
Part of what makes Mario Sunshine’s level designs shine is the setting. Most Mario games include variety of settings — fire, ice, underground, and so on. However, Mario Sunshine’s island setting required the development team to get really inventive with making levels feel different, while still making sense within that overall setting.
Each area in the game feels meticulously designed to be different, from the amusement park to the harbor. Mario games are always chock full of creativity, but Sunshine just feels so vibrant and colorful, and the game’s music absolutely captures that same idea. This is the game that introduced the iconic Isle Delfino theme, after all.
The boss battles in Mario Sunshine lean heavily into these unique mechanics. For example, the Meely Mouth boss requires you to clean his teeth by using the FLUDD, while Petey Piranha makes you spray water into its mouth until its belly is full, then letting you ground-pound it.
Mario Sunshine is an offbeat charmer that feels so unlike the rest of the series. It’s the only main game that features full voice acting in cutscenes, and the island setting feels so detached from the usual Mushroom Kingdom. This is also the game that introduced Bowser Jr. into the mix, creating a whole slew of uncomfortable questions about who his mother is.
Each new location surprises you with something new and imaginative, and you’re never quite sure what lies around the corner. Sunshine wasn’t afraid to get weird and disregard everything you think you know about what makes a Mario game. That willingness to be different and new is exactly what makes Mario Sunshine the best 3D game in the series, and created a roadmap that every subsequent entry would look to.