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An ode to Mario Sunshine, the only true Mario world

This article is part of Mario Week, our seven day-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario World and 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. To read more articles from Mario Week, go here.

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A hospital bed is either no place to play Super Mario Sunshine or the best place to play Super Mario Sunshine. For me, it was the latter. The game’s colors could not be contained by the gray frame of a 12-inch CRT; they spilled out with abandon, tides of red and yellow and crystal blue against the antiseptic pastels of the pediatric wing. It was the last week of the summer before 8th grade, and I was recovering from an emergency appendectomy. Through the fog of painkillers I remember feeling a pure, sweet gratitude for the gifts that had been bestowed upon me by the joint efforts of Nintendo and my mom. The Wavebird in my hands, which let me play from far away; the handle on the console, which had brought it to my room; the game that smiled above me, offering escape. I felt permanently, helplessly unclean; here was a game in which cleaning is the best and only thing you can do. Even more than that, I wanted to be in a different place; here was a game that offered so much more.

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What do we want from a Mario game? If this were Family Feud, I don’t think the most common answer would be “a sense of place.” We want acrobatics. Precision. Creatures to jump on; things to jump with. Weight and soaring weightlessness in a landscape that exists to be conquered by Mario’s prime directive, the one big thing he knows. The titles of Mario games—like the titles of Jurassic Park movies, which for some reason have almost the same naming scheme—promise a sense of place: Super Mario Land, World, 3D World, Galaxy. Yet within these “worlds,” and within the Mushroom Kingdom, most Mario levels are non-places, fields of abstraction. They float in the void, assembled from elements that could’ve been pulled from Mario’s subconscious: childhood building blocks; spikes and hellfire; bullying quarterbacks; images of himself. Many are defined by “theme,” but theme is a loose and temperamental quality, easily discarded; recent games in the series do hardly anything to make desert levels stay in the desert or snow levels stay in the snow. Every time you play a Mario game it becomes clear once again that you’ve come not to a place— not to the “world” promised—but to a collection of ideas. “Super Mario World”: the “world” is Super Mario.

most Mario levels are non-places, fields of abstraction 

What makes Mario Sunshine different from nearly every game in the mainline series is that it rejects this sense of netherworld nonlocality, perhaps because it didn’t begin as a Mario game. As Yoshiaki Koizumi, one of the game’s directors, explained in a 2002 interview with N-Sider, the developers had been kicking around the concept of a game based around a water pump before deciding to put Mario in it. “It was thought that the world was daringly out of character with Mario,” he said. “Therefore, I thought that a man type character would be used at first. But if there is a man next to Mario, there is a sense of incongruity. Then, we sort of unified the character we thought finally suited the view of the world.” To put it another way: On the first day, God (Nintendo) created the water pump. On the second day, He created an island for it to spray. On the third day, He made a man to use it. On the fourth day, that man was merged with Mario, a being from another dimensional plane. This cosmogony makes a lot of sense in retrospect, and in a way it syncs up perfectly with the game’s narrative scenario. Isle Delfino is not a place tailored to—or conjured from—Mario’s identity and abilities. It predates him, and will survive him. It has history and culture. He is an interloper.

The game’s commitment to crafting a strong sense of place ends up feeling kind of astonishing when one remembers that it’s a Mario game. He jumps on the awnings of fruit stands run by locals (the game is always reminding you that these burly Piantas are “locals”). He dashes, whirls, and rockets past the places where they live, eat, work, and sleep. Every level is like a building block from SimCity or, better yet, the equally microcosmic Tropico: a necessary piece of infrastructure. Their docks. Their amusement park. Their hotel. Their village in the island heights. You can see other levels in the distance because the game wants you to know that they’re interconnected, for better or worse. And that feeling of interconnectedness, in turn, generates a weird kind of socioeconomic realism that spreads out in every direction beyond Mario’s naïve spelunking.

Mario Sunshine is a relentlessly upbeat game, but in a way it conveys some depressing subtext: the plight of the island nation where poverty festers intractably behind a curtain of touristic opulence. Every attraction is empty and overstaffed; there is a sense that the island would wither on the vine if wealthy tourists from the Mushroom Kingdom stopped showing up with their coins. The game’s elaborate harbor level is like the docks in The Wire Season 2, a place that attests in its very nature to economic volatility and dependence; a place that shows that this island, for all its self-governance and aesthetic riches, subsists on capricious foreign investment. No wonder the Pianta P.D. is so eager to arrest Mario for allegedly covering the island with oil spills and liquid diarrhea. This is the kind of place where an ecological-aesthetic problem immediately, necessarily, entails an economic collapse.

Mario Sunshine is a relentlessly upbeat game, but in a way it conveys some depressing subtext

That last bit reveals something else that’s different and strange about Mario Sunshine: its commitment to place is intertwined with a commitment to narrative. “Nintendo presents SUPER MARIO SUNSHINE”—a film-style opening credit is the first thing that appears every time you fire up the game, and it’s incredibly strange to see, in retrospect, how much energy the developers (including Animal Crossing scriptwriter Makoto Wada) poured into the cutscenes. An early cutscene begins with a cropped, unsettling close-up of Mario’s face. We find neither meaning nor emotion in his placid eyes, but the shot fades into a shot that tells us more: he is behind bars, right of center, shrouded in darkness. Two cracks of the gavel. “Court is now in session!” yells a nasal Pianta judge. The voice acting is unbearable (though perhaps not quite as bad as the previous Mario game to feature extensive voice acting, Hotel Mario for the Phillips CD-i). But the cinematography is … compelling. The scene feels to me like an homage to the trial in Chrono Trigger, with its chiaroscuro, its imposing and oppressive formality, its heavy atmosphere of dictatorial corruption. (What is Bowser, in this game, if not a Presidente who’s staged a coup?) “Though it is daytime in Delfino Plaza, our poor residents tremble beneath a veil of darkness.” That is literally a line in a Mario game, uttered without irony by the Pianta prosecutor.

Mario Sunshine is by no means the only Mario game to make our hero a stranger in a strange land, or to involve him in a more-than-rudimentary plot arc. The RPG games do both habitually, sending him to the Beanbean Kingdom (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga) or the shifty town of Rogueport (Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door) or the intricate bowels of his nemesis (Bowser’s Inside Story). Nor does Mario Sunshine eschew abstraction entirely; there are several “secret” mini-levels that strip Mario of F.L.U.D.D. and the world of worldliness, foremost among them a giant Pachinko machine that turns Mario into the ball. As I lay recovering in that hospital bed I remember feeling oddly but consistently creeped out by the giant, yawning skyboxes of these unforgiving ordeals. I still kind of feel that way when I try to do them now. And I think I feel that way for a reason: they deny what the rest of the game offers in abundance. They are simultaneously the most purely “Super Mario” parts of the game and the most austerely alienating. They can be fun, but they make you yearn for Isle Delfino again, with its buildings, its water, its rich unplatformed earth.

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In 1956, Roman Jakobson, the great theorist of structural linguistics, made a startling claim about language and art in the essay “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances.” Just as all language boils down to either selection or combination, similarity or contiguity, substituting one thing for another or combining one thing with another, most aesthetic forms betray an allegiance to either metaphor (which expresses similarity) or metonymy (which expresses contiguity). The highest forms of lyric poetry are those that ostentatiously foreground their own capacity for arresting, imaginative metaphor; think of the slouching beast in Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” embodying all that there is to embody about the soul-crushing realities of modernity, or Eliot describing the evening “spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Prose, of course, can be peppered with ingenious metaphors as well, but metonymy—basically, a kind of trope in which an object refers open-endedly to other things it is literally connected to: what kind of car I’m driving will tell you a lot about who I am—is the driving force of any piece of prose that strives for realism, that strives to create and display the structure of a plausible world.

They are simultaneously the most purely “Super Mario” parts of the game and the most austerely alienating.

People tend to call The Wire “Dickensian” because of its large ensemble cast, its sweeping socioeconomic scope, and its commitment to eliciting empathy (or at least sympathy) in the viewer. That’s all true. But to me, the most Dickensian thing about the show is its opening sequence, which changes every season but remains essentially the same. Every shot frames an object or scene that attests metonymically to its place of origin, in the same way Dickens zooms in on knickknacks and clothes and excruciatingly detailed food to give us a palpable understanding of each square of his urban tapestry. The “wire” itself is a kind of metaphor, but the show’s overall logic is metonymic: its moral and aesthetic goal is to elaborate a sense of place, a sense of how everything fits together, piece by piece.

What do we want from a Mario game? Judging by the direction of the series, I think the answer might be “metaphor.” Since Sunshine, and especially since the runaway success of the New Super Mario Bros. games, the series has drifted ever more toward the abstraction with which it began. Galaxy had less story; Galaxy 2 had almost none; 3D Land and 3D World have less than none. The “world” of 3D World is apparently called the “Sprixie Kingdom”; the only way you can tell is by looking at the game’s pointless map. What has happened to the Sprixies? Bowser has trapped them in bottles, which we know only because the game presents a completely wordless image of them trapped in bottles. The game is great, and no one should begrudge it for its IKEA-instruction-booklet approach to narrative world-building. Narrative world-building is not the point. The point is imagination—the ingenuity and intricacy of the individual level. The best levels are those that, like Sunshine’s Pachinko machine, ascend to the upper echelons of “high concept,” making the everyday business of running and jumping transform, metaphorically, into something else.

And yet, I think the great legacy of Sunshine is that it suggests something else we could have wanted: a kind of Mario game in which world-building is not just important but precisely what Mario does. Wires crisscross Isle Delfino, stretching from building to building, windmill to house. As you traverse them you invariably see more of the island than you’ve seen before; the world unfolds with every jump, awkward or well-timed. The thing about metonymy is that it’s always kind of accidental; it proceeds like Mario himself, through associative free-running and leaps of inductive logic. I remember how transfixed I was at the idea that with every unplanned maneuver I might uncover a new pocket of that lived-in world; I remember how weirdly amazing it was to stumble headfirst, Mario-style, into the village where the Piantas were minding their business, away from the demands of the day. Open-world games like Assassin’s Creed promise something like what I’m talking about: a sense of place elaborated “organically,” through the wordlessness of wandering. I think the question to ask is whether they’ve ever brought forth a world like Isle Delfino.

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This article is part of Mario Week, our seven day-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario World and 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. To read more articles from Mario Week, go here.