Isle Delfino helps elevate Mario's divisive GameCube outing into a uniquely flawed masterpiece.

Haunted forests. Mountains made of cake. The outer reaches of space itself. Mario’s traveled to many spectacular locales over the past 30-plus years. However, none have been as captivating as Isle Delfino, the setting of the plumber’s divisive GameCube adventure, Super Mario Sunshine, which launched in North America 20 years ago today.

This may seem like an odd claim, given Sunshine’s reputation among fans. Even at the time of its release, the game was considered by many to be the black sheep of the series. Contrasted against its pioneering predecessor, Super Mario 64, Sunshine felt uncharacteristically rushed and unpolished, with clumsy platforming and laughably bad voice acting and cutscenes.

And yet, despite its faults, I’ve found myself revisiting Sunshine more often than any other Mario game, mostly just to soak in its setting. 20 years on, Isle Delfino remains the most alluring locale Mario has ever explored — a tropical paradise of pristine sands, shimmering waves and sun-bleached villas. Though it may lack the whimsy and variety of the Mushroom Kingdom, Isle Delfino’s thematic unity makes it feel more vividly realized, imbuing it with something missing from other Mario settings: a sense of place.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

Unlike traditional Mario levels, which are designed almost singularly to facilitate gameplay, each stage in Sunshine is a miniature world, with distinct landmarks to take in and locals to meet. This makes every area feel like a genuine place where characters live, rather than just a series of obstacles to overcome. There’s the harbor, with its fish stalls and precarious scaffolding. There’s the bay, with its towering coral spires and mossy rock faces. There’s the mountain village, with its rubbery tightropes and lilting windmills.

And there’s Delfino Plaza, which remains the best hub area in any Mario game. Delfino Plaza encapsulates everything that makes Sunshine special. Like Princess Peach’s castle in Mario 64, it primarily serves as an accessway to every other area of the island. But it’s also a playground unto itself, with myriad secrets to uncover and mischievous distractions to indulge in. Unlike the emptier hub areas of more lauded Mario games like Galaxy, Delfino Plaza is as much of an attraction as the levels it connects to. I’ve lost hours here spritzing hapless passersby with water, kicking fruits down alleyways, scampering across the terracotta rooftops, and hitching boat rides through the canals.

This is where Sunshine excels over other entries in the series. Though the moment-to-moment gameplay may not be as finely tuned or as inventive as other Mario games, it’s difficult not to be entranced by Isle Delfino’s summery charm. Each time I revisit the title, I can almost feel the seaspray and sun on my face as Mario dashes down a sandy beach or dives headfirst into those crystalline waves. Where other Mario games are hyperactive sprints, Sunshine encourages you to slow down and revel in the scenery.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

These qualities make Sunshine a rarity among the Mario series — both figuratively and literally. Though other Mario games have been re-released numerous times over the years, Sunshine remained stranded on the GameCube for almost two decades, until Nintendo finally dusted it off for the Switch compilation Super Mario 3D All-Stars. While that collection has since been discontinued (it was offered in 2020 as a limited-time release to celebrate the series’ 35th anniversary), it’s still possible to find extant copies in retailers like Walmart — making this the only legitimate way to experience the game today outside of shelling out for an overpriced GameCube copy.

And it’s worth tracking down, if only to dip into this seldom seen curio. Mario’s adventures may have taken him to grander places since Sunshine first launched, but Isle Delfino is charming enough to warrant a return trip.


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