How 'Super Mario Odyssey' Was Shaped by One of Mario's Biggest Flops

'Super Mario Sunshine' didn’t cause a splash at release, but it transformed the careers of Nintendo’s brightest designers

Nintendo released 'Super Mario Sunshine' in 2002, and it was not nearly as popular as its revolutionary 'Super Mario 64.'

One essential principle has guided the Mario series for nearly four decades: Mario transforms. Mario eats a mushroom and transforms into a man twice his size, capable of smashing bricks with his bare fist (not his head – look closely). Mario eats a flower and turns orange, shooting flames from his fingertips. Mario discovers a leaf and transforms into a flying raccoon, his rapidly flapping tail elevating him to heights like a hummingbird. While Mario's nominally a short-statured plumber, throughout his history he's transformed his career countless times. He's been a construction worker, a boxing referee, a physician, a typing instructor, a tennis pro, and an explorer of galaxies. One of the rare constants in the Mario universe is that the man himself remains in a continuous state of change.

And yet few of Mario's transformations stand out as stranger or more whimsical than his brief detour as an unjustly imprisoned vacationer sentenced to beach cleanup duty on a tropical island. During a blisteringly-hot summer 15 years ago, Nintendo released Super Mario Sunshine, its highly-anticipated follow up to the revolutionary Super Mario 64. After ushering in the era of 3D action games during the prior generation with its effortless upheaval of the platforming genre, expectations were perhaps untenably high for Nintendo's next take on Mario.

Unfortunately, with its fiddly controls, ambiguous stage goals, and a demanding, frequently unfair difficulty, Super Mario Sunshine failed to deliver on the promise of its predecessor. It's not uncommon these days to hear Super Mario Sunshine maligned as a tragic misstep or, even harsher, referred to as the lowest point in the franchise's history. But just as Super Mario 64 heralded profound changes for the future of the game industry, Super Mario Sunshine set in motion the creative force of one of Nintendo's best designers, Yoshiaki Koizumi, the producer behind this E3's most celebrated game Super Mario Odyssey.

While he now serves as a deputy general manager at Nintendo, Super Mario Sunshine was Koizumi's first game as lead director following a 10-year apprenticeship assisting on a host of seminal games in Nintendo's catalog. Thanks to the insight of Mario strategy guides published exclusively in Japan (which frequently contain unguarded conversations with the games' creators) as well as the inexhaustible archives of Nintendo's Iwata Asks interviews, it's possible to trace the trajectory of Koizumi's historic rise at the company.

After graduating from the Osaka University of Arts, Nintendo hired Koizumi in 1991 as an illustrator and scenario writer for its instruction manuals. He distinguished himself with the rich mythology he brought to his work, significantly shaping the story of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Koizumi's "romantic" sensibilities caught the attention of Takashi Tezuka (the director of most of Nintendo's Mario and Zelda games at that point). Tezuka was particularly impressed by Koizumi's surreal story proposal for Link's Awakening, which featured Link washing up stranded on an tropical island conjured by the dream of a fish sleeping in an egg at the top of a mountain.

In addition to his work as an artist and scenario writer, as a private hobby after work, Koizumi would spend hours each night at home on an imported Commodore Amiga, experimenting with 3D modeling and animation. Occasionally, Koizumi would bring his progress into the office and show his creations to Shigeru Miyamoto, who quickly promoted him from illustrator to a prestigious position as an assistant director on the upcoming Super Mario 64. Because the general principles for creating 3D action games had yet to solidify, Nintendo was blazing a path into uncharted territory with Super Mario 64. Miyamoto and Koizumi put in long hours prototyping the game, staying late into the the evening, well after most of the development staff had gone home, working to perfect Mario's precise movements in 3D. At one point, Miyamoto sprawled out onto his desk physically pantomiming Mario's swim stroke for Koizumi to implement in the game. Ultimately, by the time they had completed their work on Super Mario 64, Koizumi had created 193 separate animation patterns for Mario, breathing an unprecedented degree of personality and embodiment into what had previously been a flat icon.

After the resounding success of Super Mario 64, Koizumi helped create the similarly well-regarded Zelda games Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, while also continuing to broaden his animation skill set. In August of 2000, Nintendo showed off a technology demo created by Koizumi at SpaceWorld, a Japanese video game trade show. The demo's purpose was to show off the power behind Nintendo's upcoming GameCube console, but the visuals on display, featuring Mario multiplying into 128 doppelgängers running across a sphere suspended in midair, caught the public's attention. It seemed like an exciting follow-up to the similarly groundbreaking Super Mario 64.

Privately, however, Koizumi voiced concerns that transforming "Mario 128" from a demo to a full-fledged game would require an impossible level of technical expertise. Koizumi was separately working on experiments and inspirations that would develop into an entirely different Mario game. When Koizumi first got his hands on the new GameCube controller, the sense of resistance he encountered when pressing the sensitive analog trigger reminded him of playing with water pistols as a kid. He wondered: what would it look like if he took the 3D exploration gameplay from Super Mario 64, and gave Mario a water pistol to interact with the world?

It was a radical idea to give Mario a permanent tool to wield, particularly one that resembled a gun. Koizumi's idea faced some internal resistance at first, but he continued to explore the mechanic's possibilities. What kind of world would Mario inhabit with his water pistol? If Mario could still use his wall jump from Mario 64, he might need tall buildings to bounce between. Maybe the buildings could be covered in mud and graffiti, and Mario could use the water pistol to clean them. Koizumi was always looking for ways to exploit the technology available to him at the time, and Miyamoto had likewise been enamored with the GameCube's capabilities to produce naturalistic liquid and water effects.

By honing in on the elements of childlike-play Mario could engage in with a water gun, Koizumi was eventually able to convince Nintendo to let him direct the next game in the Mario franchise. It was Koizumi's first time serving as the sole director of a Nintendo game, and given the importance of Mario in the company's roster of characters, he felt an enormous amount of pressure to deliver. Nintendo hoped to have the game ready within a year of the GameCube's launch, which meant they were aiming for summer of 2002. Given the water theme and the planned summer release date, it was a natural progression to give the game a tropical setting. Koizumi dreamed up an island in the shape of a dolphin called Isle Delfino, a nod to the GameCube's internal codename, Project Dolphin. He even fashioned a clay model of the island to use as inspiration during development.

He initially envisioned Isle Delfino as a resort island filled with human sightseers, but Miyamoto nixed the idea after finding the contrast between Mario and other humans odd. They conscripted the help of Satomi Asakawa, a new 3D character designer at Nintendo who had made her mark designing the wise old owl who assists Link in Ocarina of Time. In a 2005 Nintendo Power interview, Asakawa admitted to an affinity for creating weird chubby characters, and she populated Super Mario Sunshine with colorful creatures called Piantas that perfectly fit this mold. It would become a radical departure from the way Mario games were usually designed. Typically, Mario games were created by focusing first on Mario's movements and interactions with enemies. The trappings and themes of the game would follow afterward. In the case of Super Mario Sunshine, though, the game's unique island setting and the friendly characters which populated it set the tone for the designs that would follow.

As the gameplay evolved, Koizumi placed a greater emphasis on Mario exploring the nooks and crannies of the strange island, with a slew of offbeat activities to engage in, ranging from kicking fruit into baskets, repairing out-of-control ferris wheels, dragging overheated chain chomps into hot springs, and even investigating a haunted toilet. If Super Mario 64 was an open sandbox to roam around in, Sunshine became a series of tightly nested dioramas with surprises around every corner. Its density of ideas would become its biggest asset as well as its largest liability.

The fluidity the GameCube's analog controls unfortunately made Mario's acrobatic maneuvers more unwieldy when he was forced to navigate narrow spaces teeming with objects and ideas. Mario's water-pistol would eventually evolve into FLUDD, an anthropomorphized water pack with interchangeable nozzles, one of which gave Mario the ability to momentarily hover in the air, aiding his ability to land on precarious platforms. But with an impending deadline and the pressure to fill a barren software lineup for the Gamecube's first year, Super Mario Sunshine ended up lacking the polish of most major Mario titles. Challenging platform sections that would normally thrill proficient players became buried beneath layers of fiddly navigation sections, leading to lengthy and frustrating bouts of falling off ledges just for the opportunity to fail once again at discovering Mario's actual goal.

Super Mario Sunshine's design team also struggled to implement a suitable camera system for the game. They feared a fixed, automatic camera which followed Mario's movements throughout the island would lead to motion sickness, so they turned over complete control of the camera to the player, leading to a much more flexible system than Super Mario 64. But given the intricate and shifting landscapes Mario needed to navigate, manually resetting the camera during stretches of intense platforming challenges proved too tall an order for many players.

It's hard to tell if these mistakes were due to a rushed development schedule or Koizumi's oversized ambitions, but the resulting game lacks the consistent sense of joy players expect from a Mario game. There’s certainly amusement to be found, such as Bowser Jr.’s disquietingly Oedipal dalliance with Princess Peach in a celestial hot tub, Mario darting through perfectly crystallized sections of platforming prowess suspended in a star-strewn void, or even performing underwater dentistry on a cavity-ridden eel. But too often, these bursts of zany creativity are hidden behind layers of tedium, resulting in a game that seems anathema to Nintendo's philosophy of functional fun.

In rare moments of candor, Nintendo employees have publicly expressed their reservations about Super Mario Sunshine. A year after the game's release, CEO Satoru Iwata (who died in 2015) said at a pre-E3 press conference that Super Mario Sunshine's sales did not live up to expectations, speculating newcomers found its complexity off-putting. Miyamoto even urged players who had trouble enjoying the game to at least play it for three days in a row so they could eventually discover its charms. He also bluntly stated at a roundtable press conference in Japan, "We should have designed the game differently, but we couldn't." To Miyamoto's credit, his confidence in Koizumi's potential as a designer never wavered. Years after Super Mario Sunshine's release, when Koizumi had completed the experimental yet masterful Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Miyamoto urged him to dream big for his next project, greenlighting him to return to the spherical Mario 128 prototype that had enamored Nintendo fans.

With a longer development cycle and a brilliant central conceit, Koizumi was able to overcome many of the problems that plagued Super Mario Sunshine as Mario 128 transformed into Super Mario Galaxy. The sphere featured in the demo would become planets suspended in outer space. Navigating a planet's circumference essentially allowed Mario an endless runway to perform his agile flurry of acrobatics. It also became difficult to get lost when running in a straight line quickly returned Mario to his point of origin. Super Mario Galaxy allowed for a near infinite amount of design leeway, each tiny planet its own miniature world bursting with ideas and challenges, while simultaneously streamlining the clutter of Super Mario Sunshine. We'd see a return of Sunshine's void levels, recontextualized as optional challenges that were difficult to beat, and yet simple for players to access and practice. After a indirect gestation period lasting over seven years, Super Mario Galaxy released a year following the Wii's launch. It would become one of Nintendo's most highly regarded games, with Koizumi promoted to a producer role for its equally lauded successors Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D World.

Elements of Super Mario Sunshine occasionally pop up in Nintendo games. Bowser Jr. of course lives on, Starshine Beach (replete with Pianta statues) appears in Super Mario Galaxy 2, and Isle Delfino's airport even serves as a race course in Mario Kart 8. Yet Sunshine's biggest legacy remains Koizumi himself, who has emerged as a powerful force in Nintendo, continually revitalizing Mario, maintaining the franchise's relevance when so many of video game's foundational characters have been relegated to also-rans.

As a producer on the forthcoming Super Mario Odyssey, Koizumi has now evolved into the mentor role Miyamoto once played, passing the torch of exuberant inventiveness to director Kenta Motokura, a longtime colleague who also began his Mario career as a character designer on Super Mario Sunshine. It's no coincidence that Koizumi and Motokura are finally returning to the sandbox playstyle they collaborated on in Sunshine. After a decade and a half of refining their sensibilities in the laboratory of goal-oriented Mario games, they've now completed the circle, once again setting Mario loose in an intricate open world filled with secrets to discover. This time, they may have nailed it.

And so Mario continues to transform, projecting his essence out onto the whole of creation, his spirit now possessing dinosaurs, taxi cabs, rocket ships, and Christmas trees. Mario grows and changes, losing himself in exploration without losing the resonance of his personality, wherever life takes him. He contains the tantalizing promise of endless possibilities, becoming something different than we've been in the past, turning failures into triumphs. It's telling that once you make enough progress in Super Mario Sunshine, a beach-dwelling Pianta bestows Mario with a pair of sunglasses. We couldn't tell at the time (maybe the tinted lenses were too dim) but his future was so bright he needed those shades.