Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 73, Super Mario 64, and no. 72, Super Mario Sunshine
It's a tribute to the enduring ambition of these two titles that they can have so many faults and still be considered some of the best work Nintendo has ever done.
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Outside of figuring out which game was actually going to top this list, there was nothing I agonized over more than where Super Mario 64 and its followup, Super Mario Sunshine, were going to rank. In the various versions of this list, which was changed and rearranged as more and more games began to fill out the little skeleton ranking I put together to kick things off, and as I had second thoughts about placements when the entire 101 was actually put together, this pair, always linked together, made it as high as nearly cracking the top half, and as low as sitting somewhere in the 90s — almost entirely based on how aggravated I was with their faults at that moment in time, or after playing something better or worse with similar-ish systems.
As is sometimes the case in a situation like this one, the truth of the matter was somewhere in the middle, which is how things ended with the games sitting in the low 70s, still together. Both 64 and Sunshine have real, glaring faults, often related to the camera work that came with their respective territories — 64 as a three-dimensional platformer at a time when that wasn’t really a thing yet, so neither were cameras for them, and Sunshine as a three-dimensional platformer that was also heavy on vertical movement, which, same problem.
Nintendo 64 launch title Super Mario 64 was, at one time, arguably the best Mario game in existence. Maybe you preferred the 2D origins of the series even after playing 64 — hence the arguable — but it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who outright might not have liked what 64 managed to put together. It was an extremely ambitious endeavor whose central concept was likely doubted many times before it actually came to be, and it delivered on its promise. The only thing really wrong with Super Mario 64 is that Nintendo kept making Mario games after it.
The GameCube’s Sunshine was a massive disappointment for some, because it wasn’t Mario 64: But Better, and was instead its own thing. Back in the day, I thought Sunshine was obviously better than Mario 64, but now, well, if I was writing this tomorrow I might flip them in the rankings, as I’ve already done quite a few times in the lead-up to right now. The difference is imperceptible at this point (well, for me: this certainly isn’t a debate exclusive to my own brain), in ways it didn’t used to be, because Sunshine’s legacy has maybe been harmed even more by advances in camera technology than 64’s has, and that’s narrowed the gap to the point where there isn’t really one to speak of anymore.
Let’s focus on the games themselves, though, and less on their ranking. Super Mario 64 changed the game, as it were, but it doesn’t get bonus points for that. What we care about here is how the game plays today, and the answer is… pretty well! There are real sources of aggravation, for sure, the kinds of things that were smoothed out in later 3D Mario titles, but overall, Mario 64 holds up extraordinarily well thanks in large part to the ambition that went into its development. Nintendo did not play it safe in the transition to 3D: they did not just try to do 2D in a 3D space by recreating the Mario you knew, now with polygons. They created an entirely new style of game that would be continuously copied, with many of the significant improvements to the genre oftentimes coming at their own future hands. Neither Banjo-Kazooie title that qualified for this list made it, because, even as they were able to fix some of the camera issues, the same level of ambition in level design wasn’t there, and it shows upon replay 20 years later in a way that it does not when revisiting the even older Mario 64.
That’s not to say that the level design of 64 is flawless, of course. One of the moments that had me throw 64 back down the list involved playing a remade version of a 64 level in a later series release, Super Mario Galaxy 2. Every single thing about the re-imagined level worked substantially better than the stage in the source material, and I don’t just mean visually, which is neat, sure, but not vital from my perspective: what stuck out to me was the massive upgrade to the camera, and the way Mario moved within the stage itself. Everything was so much smoother: the camera and Mario both went where you wanted them to, which created a more confident playthrough of the stage by me, which led to greater enjoyment. Of Galaxy 2, anyway.
What I’m saying is that Mario 64 could have used a full overhaul, and not just an emulated re-release, for the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection, and that probably would have pushed it further up the list and closer to the Mario titles that came after. What we do have, though, remains vital and worthwhile, even if we’re well aware, thanks to a smattering of 64 remake levels in newer Mario releases and fan remakes of the original, that it’s not what it could be.
Not to hammer the Banjo titles too hard, but whereas their style of three-dimensional platformer can feel rote and tired upon revisiting today — some of the worst collect-a-thon aspects of the era mixed with frequent “humorous” interruptions to the gameplay — Mario 64 remains inspired (and mostly stays out of your way, too). The good ideas are great ones, and both outshine and easily outnumber the bad ideas. Like Ocarina of Time, in many ways, served to teach you how to play a three-dimensional Zelda — not just one game, but the entire birth of a genre — Mario 64 manages the same for the platformer. Neither is able to reach the heights of many of their followups (you can relax, Zelda fans, I’m still not writing about Ocarina for a while yet), but the heights they did manage to reach remain impressive all this time later. There’s some real on the shoulders of giants action here that’s worth recognizing. Nintendo stuck with the concepts of Mario 64, with levels hiding layers and layers to peel away as you revisited them, for a reason.
Sunshine works, on a macro level, in much the same way as 64. Enter an area, find the Star (or Shine, in this case), and then enter it again for a slightly different scenario and focus to find another one. In Sunshine, though, was also the addition of F.L.U.D.D., a backpack-based super soaker that also let Mario hover, changed how Mario moved and interacted with his environment, and gave him new options to choose from when fighting enemies. Those enemies were often covered by or made up out of paint that was blotting out the tropical scenery and wildlife of the game’s setting, and it was Mario’s job to clean up this mess. Not just because the locals believed he was the source of the mess, thanks to a doppelganger situation, but also because — you guessed it — Princess Peach would eventually be kidnapped and need to be rescued, and Mario needed to find the Shines to progress as badly as Isle Delfino’s residents needed the Shines back to brighten up their paradise once more.
Sunshine’s most infuriating moments are far worse than 64’s. Here’s a one-word example for you sure to cause those who know to grimace: Pachinko. What makes Sunshine continue to stand out for me, though, what makes it worth the aggravation, is that it still in many ways remains unique among Mario platformers. The verticality is something they didn’t revisit much at all to this degree, until Super Mario 3D Land (also on this list) came out on the 3DS. Some might bemoan the lack of some of the jumps and maneuvers that were found in 64, but the replacements using F.L.U.D.D. and its various nozzles were more than adequate replacements, and in some cases, opened up entirely new ways of traversing Mario’s environment, too. Whereas Mario 64 has clearly been surpassed in obvious ways, many of Sunshine’s designs haven’t even been attempted again. And since they worked the first time around, well, they remain the best in class by default, but are also of a high enough quality that they overcome all of the negative things I could say about the game but will instead just imply with this ranking relative to other 3D Mario titles.
Not all of Sunshine feels unfamiliar and unique to it, though. It brought about some enclosed platforming challenges, sans F.L.U.D.D., that would be expanded upon in basically every 3D Mario thereafter. The inspiration for those future levels hold up in much the same way Mario 64’s source material remains worth revisiting even with all of the sequels and improvements made to the formula since. Otherwise, though, Sunshine is very much its own thing, that’s unlikely to be fully revisited or looked back on with the same fondness and nods that Nintendo tends to give games like 64 or Super Mario Bros. 3: criticized just enough that Nintendo hasn’t bothered trying to iterate on the core concept, but still great all the same. If Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time share a bit of a genre origin story kinship, then the outcry against Sunshine’s specific style of platforming and the reaction to Wind Waker’s art style have their own relationship.
It really is a tribute to how big Nintendo was thinking at the time of 64 and Sunshine that they both can have so many faults — faults that seem incomprehensible now in a world where two Galaxy titles and Odyssey exist — but that I can still find so much to love in them in spite of these problems. They still feel very modern in so many ways. Their influence on future games is so obvious, but not in a way that makes these seem lesser in comparison: the best parts are Nintendo at their best in the platforming space, but there just isn’t as much of the best as there would be in later games in the series.
I do not suggest you go looking for a copy of either title on their original systems, not unless you have money to burn. (In which case, might I instead suggest visiting my Patreon page?) The Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection might not be what it could have been, but at least it’s three games for the price of one, and now that Sunshine has GameCube controller support, the weirdness of a porting a pressure-based control scheme to a system with digital triggers is gone, too. Though I guess, really, it was fitting to not quite get a port of Sunshine right, either. Otherwise, is it really Sunshine?
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