Super Mario Sunshine, Ecco the Dolphin, and the beaches of videogames

It’s summer, when the videogame release calendar turns to dust and we’re ostensibly supposed to go enjoy the great outdoors. Instead of doing that, we’re taking a stroll through the halls of videogames to find its greatest parallels to summer’s best parts. After that, maybe, we’ll go for an actual walk or something.

Summer makes a lot of promises. This is one of the reasons why we admire it. It promises longer days. It promises better nights. It promises active time out in to the world. It promises good food, cold drinks and hot romance. Even if you’re still on the clock for the season, it promises cottages, camping, beaches, and sitting by those bodies of blue in a near comatose state. You may involuntarily hibernate in the cold season, but summer is the time of year that promises it’s okay to relax. Escape to some seaside place to do absolutely nothing. It’s fine.

Super Mario Sunshine is a strange game. Not just because it introduced squirtgun mechanics to videogames, but because, at first, it has nothing to do with rescuing a princess. It begins on a private plane, landing down on an airstrip carrying the Mushroom Kingdom’s power couple hoping to go on sabbatical. Almost every Mario game starts with the plumber being called into duty by a koopa-related crisis, while Sunshine starts with what happens in between those fiascos: A vacation.

What a sad thought. Finally, Mario doesn’t have to stomp out hundreds of enemies, he can hang up his overalls, let his stache grow out and take a well-earned rest. Hopefully he does this, occasionally. But this one time it’s confirmed, things have to turn belly up. The island resort is covered in an evil gloop, Mario is being framed for shenanigans and, of course, Princess Peach is abducted by a dragon with a spiky shell. Great.

In our western canon, this is a story that seems to play out a plenty. An overdue attempt to kick back and relax is rudely interrupted, by assailants, by frat boys, by exes, by surf-ninjas, by your boss’ casually dressed corpse. A fictionalized nightmare that once we’ve conquered enough everyday demons we won’t even get a chance to relax. No rest for the wicked or otherwise. Not even Super Mario.

Part of the fantasy of Super Mario, Donkey Kong Country and other virtual cartoons is that the status quo is laziness. For a man often called a plumber, there is very little to suggest Mario ever does any actual plumbing. Donkey Kong we know is a layabout. For one, his quest is often initiated by the usurping of his snacks—a giant Scrooge McDuck pile of bananas he keeps within arm’s reach, instead of the bananas that grow everywhere around him. Secondly, he is a gorilla. The least casual thing he does is wear a tie.

It’s charming to see this playful layabout lifestyle confirmed, just behind the scenes of so many action games. 

It’s charming to see this playful layabout lifestyle confirmed, just behind the scenes of so many action games. It’s hard to forget the first few minutes of Ecco the Dolphin, a game that actually will not even begin until you dick around for a bit. Dart in the water, do a few flips in the air, splash around. Then all your other aquatic buddies are abducted, and your charming universe of fun and peace is shattered.

People play videogames to relax, but they aren’t usually very relaxing. Proteus, Endless Ocean and Animal Crossing offer different takes on the vast things along the ocean, and Wind Waker gives you it in doses, but new players for those games are often confronted by the anxiety that they don’t know what is expected of them, when in fact the task is very small. Those who like Wind Waker say it’s engrossing. Those who don’t say it’s boring.

The moment a videogame begins is typically the moment the protagonist’s life becomes incredibly stressful. In the cartoon enclosure, a stress-free lifestyle is interrupted by some dweeb who steals your friends and threatens your land. The greatest aspiration is not only to be good but to be relaxed.

Games and cartoons are often moralistic, but sloth is a mixed message: a state of freedom from worry seems to be life’s greatest reward. Ecco does not seem like a busybody. Ecco lives in an ocean that isn’t turbulent or stressful, and one Mario has tried to escape to. When you play Proteus, you’re already there, looking for the variables within it. In our own lives, we work for the weekend, and can’t wait to get away to the beach. Where life is nothing but a fantasy of sunsets, white noise and tiny castles.

I hope Super Mario got back there, someday.

Header image by James Jardine