Back when Super Mario Sunshine was released in 2002, signs were everywhere that Nintendo had finally, unequivocally lost its freaking mind: Link's recently revealed Wind Waker makeover; Metroid Prime's apparent reinvention as some sort of first-person shooter; Mario's weird water cannon and sudden tree-hugging tendencies. Years later it's much easier to peg Sunshine for what it actually is: one of the most entertaining, satisfying, and solid 3D platformers ever made.
The plot is simple: Some shadowy, Mario-shaped figure is wreaking havoc (and sullying Mario's good name) on the tropical resort island Delfino, gunking the place up with unsightly graffiti. To stop the citizens from whispering sordid things about him behind his back, Mario must now clean up the island and release the armada of enviro-friendly Shine Sprites hidden throughout the scenic sub-islands.
Each of these levels is an ingeniously wrought hyperplayground, and even though there are multiple tasks to be accomplished within the same area (fight a boss, collect eight red coins, win a race, explore a labyrinth, catch Shadow Mario and so on), there are enough sub-areas and new twists accompanying each task that the levels rarely get boring. The game's mechanics are ripped directly from Super Mario 64, the archetype for all 3D platform-hopping games. Sunshine's wall jumps, triple-hops, and backflips feel completely natural, thanks in part to the GameCube controller, which was clearly designed with this kind of gameplay firmly in mind.
The addition of Mario's water cannon isn't just the gimmick that it first appears to be - as you hover over gaps, save yourself from ill-timed jumps, and hose down enemies while running in furious little circles, you'll soon start to wonder how Mario ever lived without it. The only big gaffe is the primitive and occasionally adversarial camera; it requires too much babysitting, and most of your deaths will be a direct result of its poor tracking.
The graphics are beautiful. Awesome water effects, mesmerizing mirrors and delightfully animated boss beasts abound, but textures don't look so hot when you're zoomed up close. The game's citrus-flavored island theme isn't as colorfully varied as a Mario world should be; the enemies aren't the same you're used to, and lots of levels end up looking like the same Corona commercial. We look forward to the day Mario returns to the Mushroom Kingdom.
But until that day arrives, history hath spoken. Even three and a half years later, there hasn't been a more complete, entertaining, lovingly wrought platformer made for the GameCube. Mario remains the undisputed king of all mascots, even when he's on vacation.