Sunshine came out in 2002, a whole six years after Super Mario 64. Visually, the jump to the GameCube makes itself known, as the scenery on Isle Delfino still holds up today. It looks exactly like a tropical paradise you’d want to escape to, especially when everything is so stressful. The content of the levels though... Now that’s anything but paradise.
The gameplay in Sunshine is a mix between 64 and Galaxy, in that there are big worlds like you’d see in 64, but you can only complete the set mission you sign up for due to layout changes between missions, like in Galaxy. Where the gameplay differs the most is through the introduction of F.L.U.D.D., the water pump companion who is incredibly helpful for combat and platforming. There are one hundred and twenty Shines to collect throughout the game like in 64, though only eight levels and a hub world as opposed to 64’s fifteen.
An unexpected area where Sunshine shines (no pun intended) is the story. It’s surprisingly involved for a Mario game, featuring the moustachioed plumber getting sentenced to community service for graffiti crimes he didn’t commit, which is why he needs F.L.U.D.D.’s help. Whilst I'm usually not much of a fan of false imprisonment tropes, it’s so out of place in a Mario game that it loops back around to hilarity. Some great characters are also introduced in Sunshine, like Bowser Jr, Petey Piranha, and Peach’s aide Toadsworth, all of whom have had spin-offs since. Voice acting plays a bigger role too, but it’s a bit dodgy. The Mario cast should stick to one-word utterances and the odd random noise.
Something I liked at first was Sunshine’s emphasis on verticality. There’s lots of climbing, with F.L.U.D.D.’s hover nozzle making precision jumps more forgiving. What undermines this is that when Mario gets hit, he gets sent flying. Far. Combine this with high-up thin platforms and the frustrating experiences of being knocked all the way back to the bottom are inevitable. My worst encounter with this was in Ricco Harbour, as the wind spirits would come from behind and knock you off the scaffolding. Avoiding them was often tricky because of how thin the platforms were. That to me is bad design: a deliberate way of wasting your time and making you start the level over as extra padding. Speaking of padding, Sunshine loves it. Twenty-four Shines of the one hundred and twenty are bought by collecting Blue Coins, which need to be collected across the various levels. If this was halved (or less) it wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but thirty hidden collectables in most levels is just excessive.
Wonky physics also cause problems with the level design. As great as Mario’s moveset is (I love the slide that replaces the long jump), when he’s walking or jumping you’d think he had blocks of ice attached to his shoes. It can feel like you’re fighting the janky controls, especially when it comes to wall jumping. Usually reliable in Mario games, in Sunshine it’s a toss up when it comes to not only if you’ll connect with a wall, but if you’ll jump off at the angle you expect as well. Too many times I’ve randomly gone diagonally with no warning and it’s only ever hindered my experience. Even Mario’s regular jump just hasn’t worked for me sometimes, he’s stood still or slid instead of jumping. It simply defeats the point of a platformer if the game refuses to let you jump.
A bigger problem is that a lot of levels, particularly the ones without F.L.U.D.D., are designed as if the physics are more reliable. In fact, the physics are another enemy to overcome, and that is the opposite of how any good platformer should feel. A prime example of this is seen by comparing the secret levels with rotating wooden blocks to the Twisty Trials Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy 2. It’s the same setup, but the newer game controls in a way that isn't attempting to throw you off the nearest cliff at every possible opportunity. I really like that galaxy, but unfortunately the same can't be said for the secret levels in Sunshine.
The placement of Shines at the end of missions is as big a problem as some of the other level design issues. Going through a level is hard enough sometimes, but to top it all of some of Shines spawn in brutal places. The eight coin Blooper challenge on Ricco Harbour has the Shine spawn on land, so you have to jump over the dock and hope that you make it. Otherwise, you can say hello to playing the level all over again. There's also the annoying little detail that deaths throw you back to Delfino Plaza, and those extra few seconds of wasted time certainly stack up. There are just a great number of inconveniences - it's as if the level designers want you to suffer.
Though it hasn’t caused me as many deaths as the strange physics or cheap Shine placement, the camera has driven me up the wall more times than I could count. In open areas, it’s mostly fine, but the inverted x-axis is something I’m still struggling with. Tighter areas are the worst because you usually can’t change the camera. Instead, it’ll get stuck and snag, while any attempt to change that will result in failure and anger. Lots of anger. This is the only console 3D Mario game I’ve played in the past year (which is all of them except 64) that I’ve not completed 100% after finishing the story, that’s how done I am with it. Games like Spyro the Dragon had a much more reliable camera four years earlier, Sunshine has no excuse.
Given the rumours of a remaster for Sunshine (and other 3D Mario games) due to be released to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros, we might not be far off seeing the game on Switch. Hopefully, Nintendo takes this opportunity to fix the many issues that plague Sunshine, one of the buggiest home console Mario games there is.