Super Mario Run review – Nintendo gets serious about mobile

by Brandon Russell | December 20, 2016

It’s been more than thirty years since Mario came to the NES, and he’s showing no signs of aging.

From the Game Boy to the Wii U, the iconic mascot has remained a constant figure for Nintendo spanning several console generations, most recently featuring in Super Mario Maker 3DS. We’ve seen him explore galaxies, tropical islands, and even race go-karts. Now, he’s coming to your pocket.

Super Mario Run marks the first time in Nintendo’s history the heroic plumber is available to mobile devices—something we never thought we’d see. For years, Nintendo has used the character to demonstrate what the company can do when its software and hardware work in harmony. How can we forget Super Mario 64? Or Super Mario Galaxy?

Super Mario Run shows what Nintendo can do when developing for another company’s platform.

After sinking several hours into the game, I’m hopeful for Nintendo’s future in mobile. The game isn’t perfect, and many people have criticized the $10 price point. But Super Mario Run features the same level of quality, polish, and charm fans are used to, which bodes well for future Nintendo-developed titles.

The same but different

Consider Super Mario Run a bite-sized version of New Super Mario Bros., a side-scrolling platformer released for the Wii in 2009. The same level of artistic quality is on display, from the clean, colorful design to the charming music. Everything about Mario’s mobile debut is top notch, a sign that Nintendo and creator Shigeru Miyamoto put a lot of time and effort into ensuring the game was up to the company’s standards.

But it’s not entirely like the Mario games fans remember. Rather than give players full control of the plumber’s movements, Nintendo has made accommodations suited for the smartphone form factor. Similar to games like Jetpack Joyride, Super Mario Run is an auto-runner that sees Mario constantly run from left to right until the end of the level is reached.

By making Mario automatically run, Super Mario Run can be played with one hand—on a train, while eating, while changing a diaper—utilizing simple touch controls that allow players to perform jumps, twirls, and more. It’s very easy to pick up and play, but don’t be fooled: Super Mario Run takes a lot of skill to master.

The constant momentum can be frustrating if you prefer to stroll through levels. You don’t have the luxury of stopping before an obstacle, so dying is par for the course, especially when you’re doing the coin challenges. Thanks to meticulously-crafted levels, however, you’ll eventually learn each level’s quirks and build a nice flow. And each level offers a surprising amount to see and do.

There are special coins to collect, along with blocks that speed Mario across large gaps, make him jump backwards and even stop him in his tracks. All of these elements are familiar to Mario fans and they’re implemented beautifully in Super Mario Run.

Three for one

Super Mario Run is comprised of three games in one, so even if you do blow through the main game’s 24 levels, there’s still plenty to do. There are pink, purple, and black coins to collect, and there’s even a multiplayer component, which is both fun and frustrating.

World Tour challenges players to get through the different levels—from haunted mansions to floating ships—without dying. If you run through them unconcerned with the special coins, you’ll probably beat the game in about an hour, probably less. Each level takes about sixty seconds, give or take, and the fact that Mario doesn’t stop running only adds to their brevity.

The special coins scattered around each level, however, are what makes an ordinary auto-runner into such a difficult game to master. Collecting the coins presents players with an addictive hook that extends the life of Super Mario Run quite a bit. Once you figure out the exact locations of each coin, you’ll have a blast trying to collect them all.

For casual gamers, there isn’t much incentive to collecting the coins, but hardcore gamers will appreciate the challenge. I’ve been at it since the game launched on Dec. 15 and still haven’t collected all the black coins (I’m getting close).

There’s also multiplayer

Toad Rally is Super Mario Run’s multiplayer component, offering players the opportunity to challenge others in the community to asynchronous races. The goal is to get through these races as stylishly as possible. That includes doing fancy jumps, collecting coins, and avoiding pitfalls.

When the game thinks you’re doing a good job, the different colored Toads will start to cheer you on. The more Toads you impress, the better. At the end of each rally, the game will tally your score and if you win, Toads will join your kingdom, which is the third part of Super Mario Run (more on that later).

Toad Rally is a lot of fun but also Super Mario Run’s most frustrating feature. For some reason, there’s no way to challenge friends though you will occasionally see them pop up in your feed. That takes a lot of competitive fun out of the game; I’d love to play against people in the office. In World Tour, you will see how many coins friends have collected in a particular level, but doing the Toad Rally challenges is more exciting.

The multiplayer aspect is also hindered by the game’s UI elements, which wind up being hugely distracting when Toad Rally races begin. Onscreen at any given time, you’ll have the “ghost” of the other player, Toads cheering you on, and a coin rush meter, all seemingly conspiring against you to mess up your flawless run.

That’s in addition to all the Bullet Bills, coins, and other elements on screen. If you’re playing on a smaller iOS device—I have an iPhone 7—you really have to concentrate on what’s going on. Otherwise, you’ll die and die and die and die, and Toads won’t cheer you on, and you’ll have a sad kingdom with no residents.

I do enjoy how competitive Toad Rally can be, but not being able to challenge friends strips it of some of its charm, and the UI can be a mess at times.

Build your kingdom

Toad Rally plays into Super Mario Run’s kingdom builder mode, which is a very light riff on Sim City. The more color-coded Toads you impress in Toad Rally, the more will want to live in your kingdom. And you can’t live in a kingdom without decorating it with buildings, mushrooms, and other special items.

The yellow coins collected during World Tour and Toad Rally accumulate so you can afford to buy stuff to put in your kingdom. Everything is pretty inexpensive, so you’ll have your kingdom looking dapper in no time. However, actually unlocking items is another matter entirely; you’ll have to attract a lot of Toads in order to get everything.

Speaking of unlocking items, you can unlock new characters if a certain number of Toads decide to call your kingdom home. Luigi, for example, will only come live in your kingdom when a certain number of green and purple Toads live there. (What an a-hole.) You can use these characters in the main game, adding a bit of variety to how Super Mario Run plays.

Kingdom Builder is my least favorite part of Super Mario Run but for people who want to unlock every single item, it’s a surprisingly robust feature that requires a lot of time and effort. None of the items really do anything save for making your kingdom look cool.

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A change of heart

Nintendo has famously rebuffed the smartphone market in the past, choosing instead to focus on the venerable DS (and later the 3DS). For a while, everything was hunky-dory. Since the DS went on sale in 2004, these handhelds have sold nearly 100 million units combined.

But thanks in part to the rise of smartphones, along with Nintendo’s nonexistent mobile strategy, interest in the company’s hardware has waned. The Wii U, which came out in 2012, has barely surpassed 13 million units sold worldwide. Hardly the success of the Wii’s more than 100 million units sold.

You’d think Nintendo would have seen this coming. Instead, the company was willful in its ignorance.

Back in 2011, Nintendo’s then president Satoru Iwata made it clear the company was not considering smartphone games development.

“If we did this, Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo. Having a hardware development team in-house is a major strength. It’s the duty of management to make use of those strengths. It’s probably the correct decision in the sense that the moment we started to release games on smartphones we’d make profits. However, I believe my responsibility is not to short term profits, but to Nintendo’s mid and long term competitive strength.”

It’s quite remarkable how stubborn the Japanese video game giant has been, especially as other rivals, like Square Enix, were actively converting its most popular franchises into smartphone games.

After increased pressure from investors, however, Nintendo’s course started to shift, and in 2015, the company unveiled its first smartphone “game,” known as Miitomo. That was more of a social experiment than anything, and didn’t feature any of the company’s most famous characters. But it was a start.

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Then, in April of this year, Nintendo announced it would bring Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing to mobile devices, seemingly a sign of things to come. Turns out, the company had even bigger plans than that, and at an Apple event in September, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto officially took the wraps off Super Mario Run.

The importance of Nintendo’s new game cannot be understated. It signals, hopefully, a sign of things to come from the Japanese video game giant. And if done right, it could prove to be an ingenious way to garner interest in its properties while reaching an all new audience.

When Pokémon GO was released over the summer, the popularity of Pokémon games on the 3DS went up. Meanwhile, when Pokémon Sun and Moon were released shortly after Pokémon GO, they were among Nintendo’s fastest selling titles in the company’s history. Now, with the release of Super Mario Run, Nintendo is hoping the game will raise awareness for other Mario games, including the one in development for the Nintendo Switch, which is scheduled to come out this March.

Nintendo’s move to mobile could pay dividends for the company. Apple has sold more than one billion iOS devices, while Android is the most popular mobile platform in the world. Since launching on Dec. 15, Super Mario Run has been downloaded more than two million times, according to app analytics Apptopia. Let’s pretend that 100,000 of those downloads have also purchased the full game. At $10 a pop, that’s a quick one million.

New challenges

Super Mario Run (and Pokémon GO) presents Nintendo with an unfamiliar challenge. While the games could garner interest in other Nintendo property, the company can’t forget the mobile market is a different beast entirely. There’s already been huge backlash to the game’s price, and people have criticized how easy it is.

Meanwhile, you can download Super Mario Run for free, but you only get access to the first world. After that, players are required to shell out $10 for the full experience, something Nintendo was very up front about when the game was unveiled. In a lot of ways, turning the game into “free-to-play” makes sense. People who don’t want to commit up front can download the game and then decide if they want to buy it later.

However, some would argue that the game should have been $10 (or less) from the get-go. The game right now has a lot of one-star reviews in the iOS App Store, and a lot of people have taken to social media to vent their frustrations.

Again, Nintendo made this clear up front but the company is rapidly learning how fickle mobile can be. If all you’re interested in is World Tour, the game’s 24 levels may not be worth the game’s relatively high price.

On the flip side, Nintendo does offer the full game for a one-time payment of $10, and it doesn’t ask users for money to buy items so they can rank up more easily. I appreciate Nintendo not going down that route, but others are obviously unhappy with Nintendo’s approach.

Over the years, mobile users have been conditioned to expect instant gratification. Todd mentioned Candy Crush in his critique of the game, which is the perfect example of what Nintendo is up against. For future releases, whether it’s a Super Mario Run sequel or a top-down Zelda adventure (I wish!), the company will need to figure out how to balance value and content.

In the immediate future, Nintendo fans can expect Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing on mobile devices, which the company previously said would release this fall. The fall season has obviously come and gone, so it’s unclear when these titles will be available.

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Is it worth it?

Having sunk several hours into the game since it launched last week, I’m happy with my purchase. Is it worth $10? That depends entirely on you.

I’ve had a blast trying to collect the special coins and like the competitive angle offered by Toad Rally. I’m less thrilled with Kingdom Builder, but a lot of people will no doubt find this feature to be a lot of fun.

Super Mario Run is designed to be a laid experience played in small doses. If you blow through World Tour with the goal of simply completing levels then, yes, you might feel cheated. But completing levels is just a fraction of what the game has to offer, so it comes down to what kind of gamer you are.

To get the best bang for your buck, you have to understand that Toad Rally and the special coins are part of the experience. Neither are necessary to enjoy Super Mario Run but they add a lot to the game’s replay value.

My biggest gripe with Super Mario Run is the game requires an internet connection. That means people who want to play the game offline are out of luck. For anyone who takes the subway or constantly flies across the country, that’s a really big deal.

Nintendo says a constant connection is needed to combat piracy, which is understandable, but there has to be a better way. Apple and Nintendo need to find a way to verify a purchase and allow people to turn this piracy check off. What if someone is playing on the iPad and Wi-Fi isn’t available? Too bad.

Super Mario Run is available on iOS for $9.99, with plans to launch the game soon on Android. Unfortunately, Nintendo says it has no plans for DLC, which means the game you’re playing now is exactly the game it’ll be twelve months from now.

Buy

Disclailmer: Brandon purchased Super Mario Run for this review.



Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...