When it comes to 3D movement, there’s no arguing how instrumental and influential Super Mario 64 was. Even years later, Mario’s backflip and somersault are stand-outs in the realm of video game movement — but there’s a certain amount of clunkiness to them at the same time. Super Mario Sunshine might not be as important or widely loved as its predecessor, but for me, no game handles movement in as joyous a fashion as it does.
Directly compared to Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine has some clear issues that typically lead people to strongly prefer the former. Sunshine had fewer levels to explore and issues with the camera in tight spaces. It also had a ton of its Shines gated behind a massive amount of blue coins, making 100%ing the game far too daunting to many people without a guide. People were also expecting a sort of evolution in terms of format and design that grew from Mario 64, such as what Rare did with Banjo Tooie.
However, regardless of whether it met people’s sky-high expectations, Super Mario Sunshine was still a great game. Most of Mario’s move set returned from SM64, and his overall controls were smoother and much tighter. The inherent clunkiness of 1996 had given way to a degree of control that still feels wonderful. Mario is simply a joy to control in this game.
The biggest change from the previous game seemed iffy to a lot of players at first though. I’m speaking, of course, of Mario’s FLUDD water pack. The idea of giving Mario a backpack perplexed some people. Sure, Luigi had a similar backpack for Luigi’s Mansion, but that was a spinoff title that wasn’t meant as the successor to what is widely considered one of the greatest games of all time. By comparison, Mario gets a talking water backpack that he uses for hovering and water-based projectile usage. It’s an idea that isn’t necessarily in line with the design philosophy of SM64, and it can make Sunshine feel like a curious footnote to anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with the game. However, I’d argue that FLUDD is one of the most important additions in regards to why the gameplay is such a joy.
Prior to obtaining FLUDD, Mario has most of his basic abilities from SM64 intact, save for his punch. One of my favorite additions, even without FLUDD, is Mario’s slide ability. Pressing the B button while running forward has Mario slide, which he can jump out of before losing his momentum, only to slide again. This is a fast and extremely fun method of getting around. Once Mario gets FLUDD, he quickly gets the hover nozzle, which allows him to use FLUDD as a sort of hover pack. As far as I’m concerned, this is the key ingredient that makes Mario more fun and mobile here than anywhere else.
The hover works wonderfully, with the speed of it being enough for practically getting around and for lining up precision landings, whether they are on balancing lines or on top of an enemy’s head. Jumping on enemies is more satisfying and practical here than it is in most 3D platformers, and it’s mostly thanks to FLUDD. Mario also has a special jump he can do if you jump right after rotating the analog stick. This jump allows Mario a quick way to gain a significant amount of extra height and has fantastic synergy with the slide and hover mechanics. Once the controls become second-nature for the player, it’s endlessly satisfying to make Mario do exactly what you want him to, including one of my favorite things about games like these — getting collectibles in a way the developers didn’t intend.
One of my favorite episodes to do this in is the Pinna Park episode, “The Runaway Ferris Wheel.” This episode tasks Mario with going through a suite of obstacles in order to make his way up the back of the Ferris Wheel. It’s a semi-annoying task that is complicated by the way the camera doesn’t cooperate very well. But you don’t have to go up the back of the Ferris Wheel in order to get the Shine. You can position yourself on a ramp and use Mario’s rotate jump and the hover nozzle in order to get it that way. This freedom of movement extends to many of the game’s challenges.
The game can definitely get repetitive, with a lot of tasks that seem to indicate a copy-and-paste approach to design. However, the sheer fun of the movement elevates the game into something much greater than the sum of its parts. I always have a blast sliding and jumping, only to land, do a spin jump, hover at the height of the jump and then jump and hover again to gain even more height.
Out of all the games I’ve played, I can’t think of anything else that rivals the way Mario moves in Super Mario Sunshine. The emphasis on speedy maneuverability, precision, and verticality is unmatched as far as I’m concerned. The game definitely has some problems, but the movement is truly splendid and makes Super Mario Sunshine a game worth revisiting. Simply nothing else can quite offer what it does. It’s odd that it’s been 16 years and Nintendo hasn’t said a peep about selling a remastered version. That’s a shame, since the game deserves to be remembered and have its stellar movement enjoyed by current and future generations.