Super Mario Run hit the App Store yesterday, months after the game was announced at the iPhone 7 launch event. At US$10 to unlock the full game, the first Super Mario Bros. game to hit mobile is fairly expensive. Is the continuous runner just a Nintendo/Apple attention grab, or does it merit the price tag and do the Mario franchise justice?
We half-expected a reiteration of a mobile game like Rayman Fiesta Run with a Mario coat of paint, and in many ways we were right. Your character is hurtling through a fantasy world collecting gold shiny things. You can bounce, jump and spin off of obstacles in one-touch moves.
Tap the screen to jump, while timing and placement make things more interesting. Do a spinning jump while hurdling enemies, or do wall jumps to scale up narrow vertical corridors. Tap longer to stay in the air longer – to a point.
But Super Mario Run does differentiate itself. Nintendo peppers each level with distinct navigational tricks that prevent it from becoming a garden-variety frenetic running game. There are blocks that pause or redirect movement when you go over them, plus the familiar pipes, springboards and moving platforms. All of these interrupt the non-stop movement in a uniquely Mario way.
While games like Rayman have a fast and furious feel and lean heavily on nimble maneuvering, Super Mario Run is a little more generous with the hurry-up-and-wait anticipation. In many spots, you can pause for a minute to come up with a strategy for clearing the row of spinning fire bars or erratic aerial platforms ahead of you.
Super Mario Run also has a favorable variety of level themes, gameplay and strategy. There are six worlds with four stages each, and dungeons, airships, ghost houses and deserts are all represented. Some demand quick reflexes, others require utmost stomping accuracy, and the puzzle levels leave you scratching your head.
All of the levels have horizontal scrolling, but Nintendo adds level-specific twists to keep you guessing. Some levels require extensive vertical movement, and there is even a ghost house wraparound level that makes a nod to much older games – you exit the right side of the screen, only to reappear on the left.
Super Mario Run has a few more features that keep it from slipping into one-note territory. In addition to beating each world, you can also play remote opponents asynchronously in "Toad Rally" mode: Complete a level better than they did, and you'll win more Toad fans to populate your kingdom. There's also a "Kingdom Rebuilder" screen where you can build and play bonus stages.
Overall, Super Mario Run is both intuitive and incrementally challenging. In graphics and presentation, the mobile game does a good job of resurrecting a beloved premise. It doesn't re-invent the wheel, and borrows many elements from earlier mobile games, but it's still Nintendo enough to please.
For those looking to indulge old-console nostalgia, however, I would caution that this game falls a little short. First, the mobile-friendly movement makes gameplay much less satisfying. While it's convenient that this game can be played one-handed (in fact, it can only be played one handed, and you must hold your phone vertically) in my mind, it's very different from mashing your thumbs into loud plastic buttons and the agility to skitter back and forth.
Super Mario Run is also new school in the sense that there are no "game overs", no lives lost, and by extension, no one-ups. If you jump into one too many para troopas or get munched on by a plant, you float up to the top of the screen in a bubble. Pop the bubble and go on your merry way. Hey, why don't you pick up the coins you forgot the first time around?
You get two bubbles per level. Mess up after that, and Mario will wince, and you will need to retry the whole level. I will stop short of a "kids today have it easy!" type of speech, but I also submit that the "dying" and "extra life" mentality add an excitement that is missing from Super Mario Run. The risk of dying makes beating a level so much more exhilarating, and nothing makes you feel as invincible as having 99 lives.
You can download and try Super Mario Run for free, so it's well worth it. If you enjoy it, a one-time $9.99 in-app payment unlocks the entire game. It's iOS only for now, with an Android version coming in early 2017.
App Store: Super Mario Run