It would appear that Super Mario Sunshine is considered the black sheep of the Super Mario family (at least of the ones Miyamoto was involved with— Super Mario Land 1 & 2 are the real black sheep). It has weird gameplay gimmicks with FLUDD spraying water making the game cleaning up paint and dirt instead of defeating bad guys and fun platforming. It’s the only Mario game to feature extensive voice acting, which understandably puts a lot of people off, especially when Bowser speaks. There’s a lot to be said about that game, but today I’d like to discuss one aspect of it that I think is often overlooked when you compare Sunshine to the other Mario games: the level themes.
I’m not the first person to take note of this, but Mario games often have a pretty standard pattern to the level themes in its games. Grass level, water level, lava level, castle level, spooky level, jungle level, snow/ice level, desert level, etc. These have been the basics of level themes for Mario games (heck, for a lot of video games) since like, Mario 3, and it’s gotten to be a little lackluster. Even Super Mario Odyssey, which I quite enjoyed for the record, left me wanting with its thematic choices in many areas. There were a few there to mix it up, like how the Wooded Kingdom had a ton of robots and metal structures, but all in all it was the same old, same old. And it’s honestly really disappointing to me because of how unique Sunshine’s were.
Super Mario Sunshine had the unique task of feeling like an island vacation through and through. Mario, Peach, Toadsworth, and some Toads were on holiday to Isle Delfino, a tropical getaway location, and the game needed to revolve around that idea. As such, they couldn’t be the same ideas they typically use. It would be difficult, after all, to make a tropical themed snow world. Thus, we have the levels in Sunshine.
It’s interesting, because one might think that because the levels are pretty thematically similar to each other that they could very easily be blurred together. I think the opposite happens. Because the developers were unable to rely on traditional level ideas they went out of their way to make more specific, and to me at least, interesting level concepts. They all explore different concepts and portions of what a tropical island might entail, instead of having a typical beach or tropical level that’s just sand, crabs, and ocean (looking at you 3D World, Odyssey, and others).
Gelato Beach is the most like what I just described, being a beach with a lighthouse. Sirena Beach is technically a spooky level, but it also doubles as a hotel that many tourists to Delfino Isle would stay at. Speaking of tourism, there’s Pinna Park; which is an amusement park, and the most tourist-y level Mario visits. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Pianta Village and Bianco Hills, which feel like places locals reside. While both ostensibly being residence areas, they’re pretty different from each other in terms of layout and building structure, with Pianta Village being a pretty flat area with simpler, hut-like houses, and Bianco Hills being more varied in verticality and having stone or brick houses. Ricco Harbor is the most urban of all the levels, being where a lot of business is done, with cargo ships and whatnot finding port there. Finally, there’s Noki Bay, which is the most water-themed of the levels. It finds ways to explore the concept, with waterfalls and giant seashell structures.
It’s not like these are the most complicated areas in the world. There’s not Dark Souls level of world building hidden within the halls of Bianco Hills. But there doesn’t have to be. All I’m asking is that we stray away from the traditional list of level ideas. I think people often have difficulty thinking of new, original ways one can theme a level in a video game, and I think Super Mario Sunshine gives a nice, simple answer: heavily theme your game and explore different facets of that theme. The more general a game is, the more generic the level concepts seem to be. So, credit where credit is due to Super Mario Sunshine, the far from perfect but unique and fun Mario game I doubt we’ll see something akin to from the Mario series any time soon.
Super Mario Sunshine’s Levels are a Breath of Fresh Air Amidst Other Mario Titles.