REWIND: Super Mario Sunshine

By Monica Wang

Super Mario Sunshine was one of my first forays into video games. While that definitely groups me into a certain generation of gamers, I feel like this was one of those games that is just as classic as some of the first games released on the Nintendo 64. For me and so many of my friends and acquaintances, this was one of best video games we played growing up. Perhaps that opinion is partly because I originate from sunny San Diego, so the tropical paradise vacation with “perfect” weather and beaches always reminded me of the essence of home. However, I feel that bias does not detract from the fact that the music from this game is especially unique when compared to the rest of the Super Mario series.

I absolutely love the soundtrack of Super Mario Sunshine. One of my biggest complaints in video game music is that while it is versatile, adaptable, and immersive as a whole, sometimes when I am listening to the soundtrack by itself, it can feel a little one-note. This is also a feeling I sometimes get when listening to film scores/soundtracks, so perhaps it is a personal nitpick. However, with Super Mario Sunshine, the music never leaves me wanting more. I never think, “Oh, if this were live, the dynamics could build more so there would be more contrast in sound,” or “I’m not really digging the balance of instruments here”. Instead, I am left in awe of the perfection that is every piece of this soundtrack. I could probably listen to the “30-min Delfino Plaza (Yoshi ver.)” in its entirety…and on repeat.

Each song only has a few instruments to build from, but the music created from these combinations are emotive and distinct. Take “Delfino Airstrip”; the instrumentation is sparse in that it is rhythmically simple, but the builds a full sound by keeping the melody at the forefront and adding moving notes towards the end of phone. (Fun Detail: in the transition between the A section and the B section of “Delfino Airstripphrases to create suspense. This works within the game’s context, as Mario, Princess Peach, and the rest of gang are arriving at the Delfino Airstrip at the beginning of the game only to find trouble of unknown origins; the piece makes the adventure sound just as fun as it looks visually when playing. The cowbell and shakers combine with the walking bassline to create a very curious but catchy tune…one that almost makes you want to dance. In fact, as I was listening to it the other day, my friend sitting next me started grooving along even though she was on her ” is a little melodic sample of a funky, syncopated “Underground”, the classic Super Mario theme.)

Furthermore, one of the more interesting and awesome aspects of this soundtrack is the consistent use of a wide range of percussion. Its integration and placement is not only something that I love and appreciate because I am a fan of having percussive rhythm and funky beats driving songs forward, it also helps the music stand out from among other Nintendo soundtracks, where percussion is either added in the background of an orchestral sound or not there altogether. The instrumentation and musical styling in this game is really varied; there’s synth bass, steel drums, strings, piano, guitar, EDM-esque noises, and so on. What holds it together is the constant percussion in the forefront of the game, which glues all of those other instruments together without being abrasive. Shadow Mario’s EDM-influenced leitmotif and heavy bass doesn’t displace the brass in the rest of the soundtrack, or the soothing strings used in the Noki Bay songs.

On the subject of Noki Bay (my favorite location of the game), one of the most wonderful things about Super Mario Sunshine is that it is basically one large expansion of all the water/underwater levels that are so very popular in video games prior to this one. The OST only reflects this water theme. The use of steelpans makes for a wonderful addition in more than half the tracks, creating a Caribbean twist and a relaxing atmosphere in several of the game’s locations. The use of shakers and marimba emulate the sounds of waves, shifting sand, and rippling water. The sliding steel guitar in “Sirena Beach” emulates the music of Hawaii. “Hotel Delfino” combines the steelpans and steel guitar in an interesting mix of island music that I am quite sure I have never heard elsewhere (also the use of wood blocks of clackers to emulate wooden windchimes is extremely unique and fantastic addition). As someone who loves the ocean, beach, and swimming, I love how the music is almost as in your face about the watery elements of this game as the gameplay design is.

Of course, there are levels that contain little to no water in order to add variety. Though the location of Bianco Hills is a village near a very large and beautifully programmed lake (seriously, the water visuals and sound effects in this game are amazing), the music takes a very noticeable and cognizant turn away. “Casino Delfino” takes on a very jazz club/ragtime sound, though all the slots and games played with water. The acapella rendition of the “Secret Course” theme is also particularly different as the Secret Course levels are a throwback to the older Super Mario games and are usually designed so that you must complete the platformer level without F.L.U.D.D. (Mario’s water device that is a central figure in the game). I would even say that though the song “Ricco Harbor” is created for an almost entirely water location, its music is reminiscent of busy city ports with its main brass melody and guitar riffs in the B section. There is some faint steelpans in the background to pull some connection to the fact that Ricco Harbor is a water location, but surprisingly, the music is more jazzy or marching band than tropical.

The only aspect that I find rather odd is the instrumentation for “Pianta Village”. As much as I find the piece enjoyable to listen to (it is just as quirky as the rest of this soundtrack), the jungle drums and not-quite-an-ukelele are very strange choices for a song that represents a hot spring location, as hot springs are usually associated with tranquility and more soothing sounds. However, the place is vibrant and more tropical than most hot springs in real life (I mean…it is a video game aka virtual reality), so I find I cannot really hark the composers for their choices. Perhaps if a live arrangement/performance was made, the piece would sound a little less strange, since the sound samples used in the piece are very electronic/synth-like in texture.

As done in most video games, most of the tracks are written so that there is no clear ending, as the music is meant to loop/repeat as long as is necessary in-game. A few of the tracks are short little jingles for moments in-game. However, I would classify most of this soundtrack as ambient or mood music. There are so many idiosyncratic features in the composition of the music, though the melodic themes are not as diverse as other Super Mario video games. Yet the music in this game is just as if not even more engaging as the others. I would definitely recommend you go check both the game and the music out if you have not yet.

Some other key notes:

  • The opening title track sounds like literal sunshine.
  • All the “Yoshi” variations on many of the main location themes just add to variety of percussion, as Yoshi’s leitmotif seems to be variations of certain syncopated rhythm on some sort of bongo drums. 10/10
  • The shine sprite sound is not included in the soundtrack. Is there someway I could get it so I can make it a ringtone option on my phone? Those bells are the best and so nostalgic.
  • I really miss the GameCube and am still bitter about the switch to Wii.
  • Be sure to note the varying instrumentation on all the “vs -insert Miniboss here-” songs, even though it is essentially the same track/musical theme over and over again. I really dig it.
  • My personal favorite tracks are “Noki Bay” and “Deep Sea of Mare”, but the acapella sound-bite rendition of the original Mario theme in “Secret Course” is also up there.
  • Speaking of which, is “Secret Course” not the coolest arrangement of the iconic Mario theme?!