Super Mario Sunshine is still a dreamy masterwork

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The water still looks good. More specifically, the water still looks like good graphics. Water, at the turn of the millenium, was the measurement of a developer’s visual muscle: can you massage a bathtub of crunchy polygons until they melt and purl? Many tried and failed (remember the wavering gloop of Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex?), but Nintendo delivered the goods. The game was Super Mario Sunshine, and the water came in many flavours. There was the sea, clear, blue-tinted, and thin. The streams and lakes, which were a crisp, drinkable turquoise—and, when tainted with spilt paint, a suspicious lavender. Then, of course, there was the silver-white spume, jetting from the gizmo on Mario’s back. Nineteen years on, and it’s all as it was in my head—every mouth-drying shade. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop out of sync.

I did wonder, before playing the reissue—which is included in Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a limited-edition compilation, set to evaporate from the eShop at the end of this month—whether my recollection might be hazy, dehydrated by romance. Back in 2002, after all, I was squinting through the heat and fizz of a 480p resolution, in a boxy format (our fondest memories of games are always in 4:3, with the periphery of our lives chopped off and channeled into a square frame). Now, through the wide window of the Switch, in 16:9 and 720p, it’s all come flooding back.

That evaporation, by the way, may drive more people to purchase Super Mario 3D All-Stars than the pure desire to revisit a trio of classics. Today is the last day that it’s on sale. If Sony or Microsoft tried to persuade us that one of their exclusives would be gone forever, we would laugh. When Nintendo tries it on, we buy it. The company is perfectly happy to slide into the pipes of its past and emerge with treasure, the better to squeeze a few extra gold coins out of us. But it’s never desperate to. I can rattle off a string of easy ports that would go down a storm, baffling in their absence, and I still hanker for that elusive 3DS version of Metroid Fusion, available only to those who purchased the console at launch, before its price was cut. In the case of this new collection, however, it was Sunshine alone that drew me in—not the gravitational pull of Super Mario Galaxy nor Super Mario 64, whose hero’s love affair with the camera, and the sway it held over the medium, is rivalled only by that of Charles Foster Kane.

So, why Sunshine? Why should a game that opens with Mario slacking off aboard a pink aeroplane, dreaming of food, and ends up with him being blamed for vandalism and pressed into community service, still have such a hold on me? No goombas, no castles, no blocks to crack with Mario’s steadfast cranium, no Luigi, and no real reason for Mario, Princess Peach, and their entourage of Toads not to break parole, hop back onto their plane, and breeze back to the Mushroom Kingdom. Our first order of business, when reappraising this strange game, is to cast our eyes upward, to the clouds of criticism that darken its legacy. For many, the departure from those norms was too much, coupled with the contraption at the game’s heart. I am speaking about the Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device, better known as F.L.U.D.D., which soaks into every corner of the action.

Nintendo’s usual approach, when it comes to Super Mario, is to cram more ideas than would fit comfortably in any other triple-A release, and to treat them like disposable Yoshis: good for a piggyback, not for the long haul. F.L.U.D.D., however, which Mario uses to hose away the slime that coats the beaches of Isle Delfino (note the rainbowing colours of the ooze, and the oily allegory that streaks through the game), is here to stay. The entire adventure is whisked along on its high-pressure currents. Mario’s jump is infused with a frothing jetpack, allowing him to hover, and thus the platforming is diluted. His movement speed is boosted by a rear-spraying nozzle. He even gets shot into the heavens like a bottle rocket.

And yet, most exciting of all, to the kid for whom summer was the epoque of the Super Soaker, you could blast anything in your path with a torrent of freshly schlurped seawater. (Nintendo’s allure has always lain in close proximity to toys; its games, many of them plastically bright, never neglect their obligation to lift the spirit.) How strange that the principal joys of Super Mario Sunshine, those of spritzing away graffiti in the name of civic duty, would be seen, in the years that followed, as sure signs of a tradition being watered down. The obvious comparison is to Luigi’s Mansion, which launched with the GameCube, beating Mario to the punch by a year. That game—a showcase for the oomph borne on those beautiful miniature discs—sucked us in with its physics. Luigi, as far as can be from warm weather, traipsed about with a vacuum cleaner on his back, and half the fun was hoovering up curtains like spaghetti, and whipping vases into a precarious wobble. You couldn’t even jump.

Such a sentiment would be blasphemy for Mario, whose attempts at cleaning up involve the usual array of leaps, and for whom a departure from the norm is a far dicier proposition. Luigi had the luxury of having nothing to depart from; his journey into the plush gloom was a step into the spotlight, and, even if he quailed at its spectre-like glare, he had already won the day by having little to lose. His brother, on the other hand, down in Isle Delfino, may have been under the sun, but he was much in shadow. This was cast not by the villain—a watery doppelgänger with a paintbrush, who frames Mario for the local pollution—but by the plumber’s previous outing.

The development of Sunshine can be traced back to the wake of Super Mario 64, in 1997, but all you will get is traces. In the November, 1999, issue of Nintendo Power, Shigeru Miyamoto said, “Well, for over a year now at my desk, a prototype program of Mario and Luigi has been running on my monitor.” That project would morph many times, casting off various code names—among them the double-charged “Super Mario 128” and the less ambitious “Super Mario 64-2.” Eventually, the game we got took shape, and it clearly flowed from the template of its predecessor. “The concept was to take everything good from Mario 64, and add this idea to it,” noted producer Takashi Tezuka.

It’s a splendid plan, but the problem, for the seasoned Mariogoer, is that everything good in 1997 starts to feel stale five years on. The hub-based structure returned (those rippling paintings that festooned the halls of Peach’s castle were replaced by lurid smears of paint), and so did the swing and snag of the camera. It was as if the game had hitched a ride on new hardware, had its graphics rinsed to a sparkle, but still had one foot stuck in the last generation. Compare its successor, Super Mario Galaxy, in which you were gripped not only by gravity, as you capered over the surfaces of hurtling planetoids, but by the game’s will to loose itself from the tug of tradition.

Sunshine was the directorial debut of Yoshiaki Koizumi, Miyamoto’s protégé, who had undertaken a ten-year apprenticeship at Nintendo. He is the one responsible for the surreal premise of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the events of which swirled in the mind of a beached and slumbering Link. There is more than a hint of the dreamlike in Sunshine. For one thing, the voice-overs sound foggy and lagged, as though the actors were halfway to bed. What’s more, some levels have been drained of logic, not only in their baffling objectives but in their art design; what are we to make of the Sand Bird, an enormous creature made of blocks that sift and scatter on the wind? Indeed, the whole setup has a sense of fleeting unreality to it—swap the holiday for a doze, and you can imagine Mario snapping awake and shaking off the crazy-coloured visions of the last few hours.

Only, that’s the thing about Sunshine: it’s nearly impossible to shake off. Playing it is like lounging on the coast of some balmy country, absorbing the delirious mood, and then emerging, into the cruelty of a British April, and finding yourself gusting damply along, still half-wrapped in its light and warmth. This is down to two things. The first is the art direction, which, better than any game since, captures the feeling of a hot place. The blur that rises off its bleached-white plazas is pierced, here and there, by vivid hues—the lime-green wave of a hillside, the orange yolk of a smoking volcano. Even with my Switch on low brightness, I still seemed to come away squinting and thirsty. The second is the music, by Koji Kondo and Shinobu Tanaka. “The music is inspired by the game controls, and its purpose is to heighten the feeling of how the game controls.” That is Kondo, talking about composing for Mario, and here his method holds true; the entire soundtrack feels submerged. You need only listen to the first four seconds of “Delfino Plaza Theme,” with its plucky currents of guitar and its swells of accordion, to feel thoroughly swept away.

This is why—in similar fashion to The Legend of Zelda—it can be tricky when trying to pin down the chilly reception. Check the reviews from the time, and they’re all glowing; it’s only after the spell has dimmed that you can begin to pick fault with its pleasures. All these years later, I still can’t can’t bring myself to begrudge its shortcomings. It may lean on the same creaky hub design, but it also happens to be the best hub that Mario has ever had. Its play may be strapped and buckled to F.L.U.D.D. for the duration, but it isn’t as if the old-fashioned formula couldn’t do with an ultra dousing. If you played it then and have felt your opinion grow cool and overcast; if you loved it and you long for a return trip; or if you neglected the getaway completely, and you’re eager to bask in its air for a few fevered days; treat the game like you would if it were a sudden burst of sun—get it before it’s gone.

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