The Mario franchise has managed to spread from arcade cabinets to homes all over the world, the titular character being just as recognizable as Earth’s favorite mouse, and Mario’s slew of core games have been almost universally acclaimed. With the recent release of Super Mario 3D World, the franchise is showing no signs of slowing down, but this on his path to victory, Mario did fall into one pit: Super Mario Sunshine. Though considered a decent game it remains the black sheep of the Mario series for one main reason: FLUDD. The sentient water pack was the framework around which the whole game was designed and was responsible for Sunshine’s bipolar reception. More importantly however, the inclusion of FLUDD taught Nintendo valuable lessons going forward in the creation of Mario games, and the fans’ reaction made it clear just how carefully a company must manage its franchises.
“I am F.L.U.D.D., a Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device. I hope to be of assistance.”
To begin analyzing how FLUDD has affected the Sunshine’s design and the future of Mario series, the first question that must be answered is: What is FLUDD? “I am F.L.U.D.D., a Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device. I hope to be of assistance,” it robotically relays upon first meeting the plumber. FLUDD is a water pack that assists Mario on his adventure through the tropical Isle Delfino. The divisive device’s distinguishing feature is that it gives Mario the ability to spray water like a hose, allowing him to clean up all of the goop that was painted across the world by Shadow Mario. It gave him a variety of different nozzles, each of which changing gameplay in a unique way. The Squirt Nozzle allowed him to spray water in a controlled stream. The Hover Nozzle allowed him to hover for a short time. The Turbo Nozzle allows Mario to run quickly across land or water. The Rocket Nozzle gives him the ability to launch himself straight up into the air. The choice to include this tool fundamentally changed the gameplay possibilities, therefore the focus and appeal of the game.
The idea of a water pump was actually the first idea acquired from development. The game’s director Yoshiaki Koizumi had stated that even before Mario was determined to star in the game, “When [he] was wondering what we could do with the Nintendo GameCube controller, the water pistol idea came to [his] mind first.” (Nintendo Online Magazine) The base concept came from the fact that the Gamecube controller’s shoulder button had both analog and digital input (resulting in a satisfying trigger-like click upon pressing). Sunshine’s design was a direct product of the Gamecube controller, as opposed to Super Mario 64, in which the game’s development had instead influenced the design of the Nintendo 64 controller (Pixelatron). The original idea for a squirt gun was the seed from which all of Sunshine grew. Koizumi explains:
I tried to imagine what Mario would be like on the Nintendo GameCube, and, from the very beginning, I let him have a water pistol. This is where I started. Then, I built upon that to imagine why Mario might have a water pistol; what kind of actions he would have. Then we came up with the graffiti-like elements. (Gamercubicle)
The goop cleanup mechanics came from the decision to create FLUDD. The tropical island setting was a result of FLUDD’s water based mechanics. The enemy design is based around Mario’s ability to spray water. FLUDD was scaffolding for the entire game.
This change in mechanics due to the addition of FLUDD however, resulted in a ripple that overhauled the feel of the entire game. A common complaint is that Sunshine doesn’t feel like a Mario game. Of course, much of this sentiment results less from the gameplay but in fact from the theme and art in the game. Fran Mirabella III from IGN in his review said that:
The characters and defining art style we've all come to love are mostly removed. Instead, we have a lot of new, fairly unmoving character designs and beach-themed visuals. Some might argue that this should be well received as injection of something fresh, but we would not. Mario is very much about nostalgia…
The beaches are a surprising departure from the blocky, shroomy aesthetic that Mario has generally explored. Sunshine’s setting, however, is a unified aesthetic, and perhaps one of the most cohesive that Mario has ever seen. Isle Delfino was one of the first ideas presented by Koizumi to Miyamoto, as a clay model of an island in the shape of a dolphin.(Gamercubicle) All of the different locations meshe together well. Delfino Plaza, Rico Harbor, the various beaches, and the rest of the resort-based environment all feel like they are a part of the same location. This is further solidified by the fact that the levels are not isolated; when in one level, the player can see the other levels in the distance giving the player a sense of these levels’ relative locations in the world. These levels have all been thought up around FLUDD, as each is inundated with and based around water so that Mario is always able to refill his new gadget. Gone are the disconnected worlds of grass, desert, water, ice, and fire, replaced by a new island that would otherwise feel like a distinct and tangible game world, had Super Mario Sunshine not been a part of the illustrious Mario franchise. The complaints that Sunshine doesn’t feel like a Mario game are accurate, however; Mario belongs in the Mushroom Kingdom and this was something that Nintendo had overlooked. In the creation of this new world, tying it tightly with the new character/mechanic FLUDD, they had managed to completely alter the aesthetic of this Mario game in a way that made Mario alien in his own game. No gamer will insist that they are opposed to unique ideas, but what one thing still stands: Mario is about nostalgia.
If anything is more core to the Mario identity than his home in the Mushroom Kingdom, it’s his signature game focus, jumping and platforming, and it is here that FLUDD did the most damage. The inclusion of the Squirt Nozzle shifted the gameplay away from the traditional platforming gameplay in favor of challenges based on aiming, attacking, and cleaning. There still are levels that give Mario room to stretch his legs, and though FLUDD does impose himself, Mario’s jumping skills are as responsive and fun as ever, but there are also a variety of objectives that simply bog down the traditional Mario platforming experience. Many objectives task Mario with cleaning up a whole area, and there is much more emphasis on precise, squirt-based combat. The new additions are inherently less fun than Mario’s traditional jumping action, with additional irritating side-effects like having to scour levels looking for the one remaining spot that needs to be cleaned, and puzzles solved by simply “squirting the thing.” This is not to say that FLUDD’s squirt feature is completely negative, as it allowed for much more creative boss design, and some unique level features, but even when it works in the game’s favor, FLUDD still seems out of place in the Mario franchise. Mario is not a stranger to tools, brandishing a hammer in his debut, but generally, these additions are power-ups, temporary and thrown in just to spice up the gameplay. Super Mario 64 stuck to this formula, giving items just once in a while for Mario to use like the wing cap that allowed for unique level design and mechanics. In striving to provide an interesting change for the Mario franchise through FLUDD however, Nintendo forgot the purpose of the power-ups. While not providing a unique quality to the game per se, they made level designs more interesting, allowing for new mechanics to be introduced gradually and to be built upon, as well as giving the added bonus of an extra hit. FLUDD managed to do the opposite: changing the gameplay radically, but failing to create internal variety. Many level types were repeated, like the Shadow Mario levels in every world. In an effort to please fans by keeping the series from going stale, Nintendo decided to shake up the formula, and unfortunately, as with the environment design, they had found that it was not this kind of originality that players wanted in their newest entry in the series. When deciding to create something new, what is preserved, and what is improved upon is an important choice.
The Hover Nozzle, as a positive example, changes the gameplay in a way that is complementary to the series’s gameplay. Miyamoto acknowleges how FLUDD’s hover addresses a very serious problem with 3D platformers:
Making precise movements, such as jumping, are [sic] not easy in 3D games. I will be 50 this year and I am an ultra-good player for my age. Still, it is not easy for me to manipulate characters in 3D games. Hovering contributes to the smooth play. It is like a jump game in zero-gravity space. It is very comfortable.
Games in a 2D plane will always be more precise than those in 3D space, simply due to the fact that 3D games must be projected onto the 2D plane of one’s television. Depth perception and the greater control of movement necessary for moving on 3 axes have made 3D movement both slower and easier to mess up. In order to deal with the jumping imprecision in Super Mario 64, the developers gave Mario his various attacks so that players wouldn’t become frustrated in failing to jump precisely on the heads of the enemies. The jump, however, remained unmodified, and because of this, the game’s formula had to be tweaked so that the precision and quick movements required in the classic mario games were no longer a part of the gameplay. FLUDD allowed Sunshine a different approach. The Hover Nozzle gives Mario a safety net, so the platforming can be more precise and quick, because if you misjudge a jump you can always right yourself with the hover. In response to this better precision and further travel abilities that mario had gained, the developers were able to significantly expand size of the levels, especially vertically.
The cliffs and towering spires of Super Mario Sunshine’s Noki Bay exemplify the greater heights Mario which able to reach with his jetpack.
The higher heights Mario explores evoke the sense that each jump in Sunshine matters, just like in the original Mario games, because if you fail, you will have to climb back up. In Super Mario 64 the stepped level design prevented Mario from falling too far if you missed a jump; in Sunshine each fall is like a death, recalling the pits in 2D Mario games. Luckily, at the bottom of each stage is water, so you can refill and try once again, making sure you jump well to conserve your safety net for when you get to the higher areas of the map. This use of FLUDD is more fun and well-designed than the Squirt Nozzle, but more importantly it succeeds by keeping the spirit of the series in mind. It doesn’t change or distract from the Mario formula, but supplements it.
Unsurprisingly, however, the stages in which FLUDD is whisked away and Mario is forced to fend for himself in traditional jumping fashion were the best received part of Super Mario Sunshine. Miyamoto, in his effortless understanding of his own franchises, stressed the need for simple action stages, saying that, “That is the basis of the Mario series. Though the freedom of action seems to be the essence of Mario games nowadays, simple mission are very important for Mario games.” (Gamercubicle) These straightforward platform sections allow Mario to showcase just his jumping skills free from FLUDD in a more linear challenge course. While received well, many found these levels incredibly difficult, as they had become accustomed to the safety net. Nintendo learned from these challenge courses, and one can see how Super Mario Galaxy could easily have evolved from these simple levels.
Super Mario Galaxy is the culmination of Nintendo’s experimentation with Mario in 3D. They took the lessons learned by including FLUDD in Sunshine to make Galaxy one of the most polished and well-received games ever. The first and most obvious lesson they learned was that fans did not like FLUDD, and in fact preferred the action stages over any other offerings in Sunshine. Omitting the talking pump entirely, the developers modelled the game entirely around the experience found in the FLUDD-less courses. The focus of the platforming was no longer on exploring a large 3D area, but reaching the end of an obstacle course. The hated Squirt Nozzle, which did little but interrupt the traditional Mario gameplay was no longer present, though vestiges of the Hover Nozzle remained. Realizing what a boon the jump corrections could be, allowing for much faster and higher stakes platforming in the imprecise 3D landscape, its design was refined to become the Super Mario Galaxy’s spin attack. Mario’s spin gives him a small boost (a weak double-jump), which strikes a balance between the Hover Nozzle’s long hover time that made gameplay too easy, and the FLUDD-less stages that many found frustratingly hard. The environment too was no longer based around Mario’s watery friend, and though not set in the Mushroom Kingdom, the new setting feels like it was tailored to match Mario, the theme of gravity perfectly meshing with Mario’s core engagement: jumping.
Sadly, despite all analysis and examination of details, the main reason that FLUDD was a bad idea from the start was that he did not have a place in a Mario game. The initial idea of Mario with a squirt gun, from the inception of Sunshine, was created with disregard for how out of character and strange that would be in Mario’s world. In his retrospective on Super Mario Sunshine, Chris Schilling wonders, “whether Galaxy's about-turn represents an evolutionary dead-end. I certainly don't think I'm the only one wondering what Nintendo could do with a Mario that learned from Sunshine's mistakes instead of walking away from them.,” not realizing that Nintendo indeed had learned from Sunshine’s mistakes. The Mario franchise is well-established, and unfortunately, the lesson that Nintendo learned the hard way is that people would prefer iteration to deviation. FLUDD, symbolic of the radical departure from traditional gameplay, is nowhere to be seen in the new games, and neither is the same level of wild change. The most recent games have not strayed far from the Mario formula, those being New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario 3D series. Foregoing the unique landscapes from Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy, the environments are now mostly composed of basic block structures made just for platforming, reminiscent of those found in the early 2D Mario games and Sunshine’s challenge stages.
So why the uninspired and old level designs? They were able to improve or at least shake up the Mario formula with Sunshine by ensuring that the essence of Mario was there in the Hover Nozzle and the challenge stages, but every new inclusion was a risk. In an effort to avoid another FLUDD fiasco, Nintendo realized what many major studios, of both games and movies, have: when franchises are involved, people don’t like change.
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