15 years ago, this very week, Super Mario Sunshine arrived for the GameCube. I remember it really well, because, 15 years ago this very week, I started college. I moved out of my childhood home with the help of my parents, said a tearful goodbye, and embarked on that right of passage for many middle-class kids—moving into a tiny, smelly room with a complete stranger.
I grabbed a copy of Sunshine that week, of course, to accompany my consoles—I brought my Dreamcast and Gamecube with me, along with a crappy little 13-inch analog TV and a handful of favorite games—which would help me make the transition to my new life.
Much ink at the time was spilled over the fact that the GameCube launched without a Mario title. Instead, it arrived in 2001 with Luigi's Mansion (which has since spawned a respectable series). This was unheard of at the time, as Nintendo consoles launched with Mario games, top-of-the-line Mario Games, game-of-the-decade contenders like Super Mario World and Super Mario 64. And there, instead, was Mario's crappy brother, holding an oversized vacuum. I'll never forget that Dan Hsu of Electronic Gaming Monthly was basically disgusted and gave the game a 5.5/10 review, much to my shock.
But Mario wasn't far behind, about ten months after launch with Sunshine, a tropical-themed take on 3D platforming. The whole game takes place on Isle Delfino, with beaches, amusement parks, villages and piers replacing the more typical ice world, volcano world, pipe world theme of previous games. It reviewed well, but the game was nowhere near the revolutionary project that its predecessor was.
I made my way through Sunshine pretty slowly—it would be a year of slowly chipping away before I even really took a stab at Pianta Village. I had a lot going on! Six classes, two majors, and most importantly to me at the time, cross country and lacrosse, which, even though we were a Division III school, we were in competitive conferences for both. Also, Wind Waker came out halfway through my freshman year, and that game is still an absolute masterpiece.
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I don't think Sunshine is quite on that level, but it certainly wasn't a misstep. Super Mario 64 is just an impossible act to follow, and Sunshine did very well to differentiate itself, both thematically and mechanically, with an emphasis on the fludd (Mario's magical water jetpack/watergun). The stages still hold up beautifully, with plenty of memorable areas—the climbing sections of Ricco Harbor, the verticality born of rickety amusements of Pinna Park, the subtle, chill beauty of Noki Bay.
Sunshine was there for me, when I ran into difficulties and growing pains. I had a really, really bad first roommate situation, and the new room I moved into wasn't much better. I lived with a stranger who didn't like me, and I was an 18-year-old kid struggling with depression, despite all my activities and sports and friends. There were really three games that got me through that first year at school—this, Wind Waker, and Animal Crossing. All of them excellent, familiar in some ways, engaging and big enough to give me plenty to do and take solace in.
The happiness of Sunshine was a balm for me, especially as winter closed in. It could be -10 outside with howling winds, but inside, I was chilling on Gelato Beach, wading in crystal-clear water. I could hang with my buddy Yoshi. I could take a breath and escape a little bit, from this terrible room and difficult roommate, from the crappy weather and loneliness that, I think, comes pretty naturally along with your first year away from home.
I still get tempted, every now and then, to return to the game, even more so than the Galaxy series. Now that it's had an anniversary, and I'm halfway down memory lane already, I think I'll take that plunge again soon.