It’s often remembered as a misstep for the franchise, an odd, tedious adventure with an inane story. I don’t disagree with that last part. The story is just plain weird. But, make no mistake, Super Mario Sunshine is among the best Mario games Nintendo has ever released—right up there with Super Mario World and Super Mario 64.
Hear me out.
In Super Mario Sunshine, players take control of the world’s most famous plumber as he traipses around the tropical paradise of Isle Delfino. He and Princess Peach are there to enjoy a relaxing vacation. But soon after they arrive, a villain known as Shadow Mario is seen vandalizing the island with graffiti and Mario gets blamed.
As punishment, Mario is ordered to clean up the island using a device called FLUDD (Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device), which sprays water and talks to Mario like a robotic Navi. To make matters worse, Shadow Mario kidnaps Princess Peach.
Players soon learn the graffiti polluting the island is just a small part of a larger problem. FLUDD explains that Isle Delfino’s Shine Sprites, the paradise’s source of power, have fled the Shine Gate where they’re known to gather. This leads to the residents of Isle Delfino falling into a depression.
Out of the goodness of his heart—and also because he was instructed by the court—Mario decides to clean up the island and rescue Princess Peach. It’s an unusual setup but it amounts to a charming, exciting, and challenging experience, one that displays Nintendo at its quirky best.
The gameplay was fantastic
Like other 3D Mario games, Super Mario Sunshine featured tight controls and a world that was open and free-flowing. As the follow-up to Super Mario 64, there were a lot of similarities, but Nintendo made sure to introduce plenty of new gameplay features. The main difference was the innovative backpack named FLUDD, which was used to clean up Isle Delfino and interact with objects in the environment. It also gave Mario the ability to reach new areas of the game.
At the start, FLUDD features two nozzles: squirt and hover. Squirt lets Mario spray away the nasty goop covering Isle Delfino; Hover gave Mario the ability to temporarily hover in the air. Later on, as players progressed, Mario unlocked a rocket nozzle, allowing Mario to shoot high into the air, and a Turbo nozzle, giving Mario the ability to travel at high speeds.
These new mechanics added fun elements to the game’s excellent platforming, making it more of a challenge to traverse the varied stages. Players had to think about how best to utilize FLUDD in order to progress through levels and find secret areas. It was peak Mario while simultaneously feeling like something completely new. FLUDD helped freshen up Nintendo’s tried and true platforming formula, which has always been about Mario running and jumping and collecting coins. (There was plenty of that in Super Mario Sunshine.)
Although it was far from revolutionary, the top-notch level design, control mechanics, and gameplay proved Nintendo could infuse old formulas with new ideas. It was the same experience people loved about Super Mario 64 while evolving the franchise in an exciting way.
But that’s not why Super Mario Sunshine holds such a special place in my heart. I’ve never admitted this publicly, but I love to clean.
Cleaning is a cathartic experience
As a kid, I hated cleaning my room. It felt like punishment from my parents. Whenever the question came up—Did you clean your room?—my answer was almost assuredly, “No!” Same went for doing chores. Manicuring the yard and sweeping the patio felt like being sentenced to hard labor. It was the last thing I wanted to do.
But that changed as I got older and by the time Super Mario Sunshine was released in 2002—14 years ago!—I had grown to love it. I don’t know what single experience changed how I felt, or when exactly the turning point came. But cleaning and organizing became cathartic. There was something about making an unclean surface pristine.
A major part of Super Mario Sunshine’s premise was to cleanse Isle Delfino of the toxic sludge, which perfectly served my enthusiasm for cleaning. I know how ridiculous that sounds. In a video game that provides players with an escape from reality, I liked the most mundane thing about it.
Even in situations when cleaning the goop wasn’t required—or, later, when the goop disappeared—I made it my duty to completely purify the island. In Bianco Hills, for example, when the beginning mission requires players to navigate to the big windmill, I spent time washing the level down. And I’m talking every nook and cranny.
Some might consider this a massive waste of time. I found it extremely satisfying.
I’m sure the game’s designers didn’t have people like me in mind when Super Mario Sunshine was being made. Most people I know think cleaning sucks and I totally get it. To them, I’d recommend playing Splatoon, which is essentially the antithesis to Sunshine.
But cleaning was my secret obsession when playing through one of Nintendo’s most underrated Mario games. Sure, I loved the excellent platforming, bright graphics, and wonderful music. But it was cleaning up Isle Delfino that I loved most.