With the release of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on September 19 comes a reminder that while Super Mario 64 and Odyssey are lauded as some of the greatest Nintendo games of all time, the underloved Sunshine is a standout Mario game in a class of its own.
As the black sheep of the more open-ended 3D Mario games, Sunshine is often criticized for its mission structure and being less polished than most mainline Mario titles. But it commits to a cohesive theme better than any other 3D Mario platformer, especially when compared to the globetrotting Super Mario Oddysey.
Super Mario Sunshine, which was released for the Nintendo GameCube in 2003, is set entirely on Isle Delfino, a dolphin-shaped resort inhabited by the Pianta, a race of large and colorful creatures with palm trees growing out of their heads.
That tropical feeling pervades every moment. It is inescapable.
While Sunshine features eight worlds like most Mario games, they all fall under this tropical resort theme. Instead of a desert level, we get Gelato Beach. Instead of a grim castle inexplicably full of lava, we get an area set within a volcano. Every aspect of the game goes back to that same core theme of a tropical adventure. Some less common settings, like a harbor and amusement park, are also thrown in for good measure seemingly just because they work so well within the setting. You can even see some areas in the distance on other stages, adding to the cohesion.
This leads to a sense of ludonarrative resonance not typically found in Mario games that almost always focus more on gameplay than plot or worldbuilding. Sunshine's gameplay definitely feels less polished than other modern Mario games, but the game's commitment to its tropical setting makes it really stand out from others, like Odyssey, where the environments feel disconnected.
Super Mario Sunshine maintains this tropical feel throughout, and it helped establish a consistent atmosphere and visual style that has served as a basis for each Mario since. It's just too bad that subsequent titles forgot about that sense of cohesion. Because of Isle Delfino, Super Mario Sunshine is one of the most fun Mario games ever despite being one of the most challenging.
It’s a shame that Super Mario Odyssey couldn't replicate the same kind of consistency. Released for Nintendo Switch in 2017, Odyssey sees Mario visiting Kingdoms around the world to stop the wedding of Bowser and Peach. While Odyssey is a better 3D platformer than Sunshine, most Kingdoms in the newer game have unique graphical styles that don’t mesh well with each other, so it winds up feeling thematically inconsistent.
This is most noticeable in the Luncheon Kingdom, which adopts a low poly art style for its world, and the Ruined Kingdom that features a realistic castle and has Mario fight a dragon. Cool things are still happening. It just feels pretty random.
These styles might've been memorable enough to hold their own in standalone Mario games, but as one-offs within Odyssey, they feel out of place alongside the more normal-looking Kingdoms in Super Mario Odyssey.
Levels like New Donk City and the Mushroom Kingdom are on par with Delfino Plaza from Super Mario Sunshine at certain moments, but they feel sort of clobbered together within the game as a whole. New Donk City and the Luncheon Kingdom don’t feel like the same Mario game, whereas you could never forget that Ricco Harbor and Gelato Beach are from Super Mario Sunshine because they complement each other so well.
The globe-trotting nature of the Odyssey adventure does lend itself to this approach of having the player visit various disparate areas around the world. Replaying Super Mario Sunshine as part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, however, has made me appreciate the fact that it may just be the best-executed world and atmosphere of any 3D Mario.
Super Mario Odyssey might seem like a better game because it has tighter controls, an enhanced moveset, and more polish than Super Mario Sunshine. But it feels revelatory to notice that Odyssey's biggest flaw — the disparity between the level designs — is exactly opposite to Sunshine's greatest strength.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars is available now.