Cellphone in hand, I'm riding the train from Seattle to Tacoma, and I’m seething. Determined to complete as much of Super Mario Run as possible before spending any money on it, I’m tapping the phone’s screen with precision timing but the escalating challenge has gone from amusing to vexing.
Level 1-3: I’m trying to get all five of the black coins, a task that must be accomplished in one run. This is the third layer of coin collection to complete in each level, an addition clearly designed to encourage repeated playthroughs. The fun has worn thin though, as my repeated failures are growing infuriating. Luckily, I’m destined to run out of time when the train reaches my station, an outside intervention preventing me from throwing my iPhone across the crowded train car.
It’s then that it dawns on me: Super Mario Run is a Zen exercise. Let go of your desire for exploratory fun. Embrace the limitations of a single input. Your desire for the precision of physical buttons is an illusion.
Is that going a bit a far? Yeah, probably. This is, after all, just a mobile game. Runner games are a dime a dozen on mobile. Temple Run, Canabalt, Spider-Man Unlimited, Robot Unicorn Attack: the variety of runner games out there is truly endless. And while Mario may not have done a mobile game before, his closest analogue, Sonic the Hedgehog, already tackled this genre in Sonic Dash. So why would one expect much of this game?
Well, Super Mario Run made by Nintendo, for one thing. The Big N is traditionally very protective of their IP, especially Super Mario, essentially the face of video games at large. A “real” Mario game on smartphones is big deal. More importantly, while this app is free to download, unlocking the full game—all 24 levels of it—costs $9.99. Whether or not there’s actually enough content to justify the price tag, one has to acknowledge that 10 bucks is generally considered quite expensive for a mobile app.
And let’s get this out there right way: Super Mario Run is first and foremost a mobile game. It’s so mobile, in fact, it can’t be played without a cellular or wifi connection. Just boarded a 737 for a 5-hour flight? Well, enjoy this error screen!
In addition its regular levels and Toad Rush mode (more on that in sec), Run features a “Kingdom Building” menu map where you can compulsively build/populate/decorate and some Toad House mini-games that will “close” for a set amount time after visits. These elements in particular feel like mobile game territory: intentionally habit-forming, and completely disposable. Beyond unlocking other playable characters (there’s Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Toad, and Toadette), I’ve had zero interest in building a kingdom.
Toad Rush mode is Super Mario Run’s “endless” style game mode. Competing against the ghost of another player’s run, you race through a looping version of one of the normal levels, attempting to collect more coins and out parkour your opponent. You performance is judged by a virtual crowd of variously colored Toads, the classic citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom. If you manage to impress more Toads than your opponent, you take the whole lot of the fungi folks back to your Kingdom.
As your ranks of Toads increase, you are able to unlock more Kingdom Building elements on the menu map. Losing a Toad Rush though, means some of your resident Toads will bail and move on to greener pastures. So while repeated Toad Rush playthroughs will eventually unlock everything to see in the game, the speed of your progress involves a major element of chance and thus is hard to predict. I wonder if this risk/reward dynamic motivates people to play more Toad Rush or less. I personally found it aggravating, since my only real motivation in playing the mode was to try and unlock Luigi as quickly as possible.
I still haven’t unlocked Luigi...
Gameplay-wise, Run is essentially a New Super Mario Bros. game played with a single button...or touchscreen, I guess. The visuals, music, and mechanics are all lifted directly from NSMB, with the only original elements added in order to execute the tap-to-jump gameplay.
Obviously the biggest departure here is that Instead of controlling Mario’s direction and speed, he just runs straight ahead. Tapping the screen makes him jump, and depending on how long you hold down the tap, the higher his jump will be. Tapping while Mario’s airborne will produce a midair spin, a move that makes the plumber linger at the point for a moment, like a tiny hover. Now maybe I’m alone here, but I honestly don’t like the inclusion of this midair spin. I don’t really care for double-jumps (which seem to be included in every single game these days) and the midspan feels like a milder version of that. I realize that the spin lends more options and airborne control to the player—which sounds super necessary for a game with only a single input—but I think it’s a step too far. Wall jumps are great, sure, but midair spins just aren’t cool.
Nintendo has also added special panels/blocks to affect Mario’s generally automatic motion. There’s a block to stop Mario, one to jump backwards, one to long-jump forward…(Am I forgetting one?)...and they all add much needed variety to how levels play out. It’s actually quite impressive how much versatility the developers have teased out of a single input.
So when you’re like me—both a HUGE Mario fan and a diehard stickler for physical buttons—just how much fun is there to be had here? Well, Super Mario Run is definitely worth checking out, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily worth the $10 price tag. Quite frankly, Run doesn’t give you a proper Super Mario game; it gives you a runner game with Mario.
While this game is certainly a fine choice for burning a few minutes in the doctor’s office waiting room, I’ve felt zero desire to even open the app since I completed all 24 levels, which you could easily do in under an hour. And it’s not even the best runner game out there! (That would be Robot Unicorn Attack.) For the completionist crowd, they are those three levels of special coins to collect in each level, and there’s definitely some legitimate challenge to accomplishing that task. But if you do dive into it you’ll quickly find yourself lamenting Run’s omission of a Quick Restart button.
It takes a minimum of THREE CLICKS to restart a level. (And you can’t even kill Mario by running headlong into a koopa troopa, because he vaults over land-based enemies instead of taking a hit as he does in every other Mario game.) Repeatedly restarting any stage becomes a lesson in frustration. After Super Meat Boy, you would think developers recognize that short levels with steep difficulty absolutely demand an option to rapidly retry.
In the end, Super Mario Run is not a lazy effort by any means, nor is it the cynical cash grab it could have been. I applaud Nintendo for giving it the real Miyamoto try. That said, I do think their initial reluctance to port Mario titles to mobile platforms was the wiser choice. While I can definitely recommend downloading the app and playing the first three levels, I can’t recommend purchasing the whole game. My favorite Mario elements—exploration in particular—is simply not possible with this interface and are nowhere to be seen. Worse still, the mobile-focused features included to round out the product and encourage habitual, short-burst play leave a bad taste in my mouth.