Nintendo’s expansion into the mobile gaming market has gone over pretty well so far, between well-received social app, Miitomo launching around the start of the year, and augmented reality-driven mobile gaming sensation, Pokemon GO being gradually rolled out and updated since this past Summer. Miitomo serves as the first app developed under a five-app deal between Nintendo and Japanese mobile distributor, DeNA (Pokemon GO doesn’t count, as its development and maintenance was outsourced to Niantic Labs), and the second, Super Mario Run, has now released on the App Store for iOS devices as a timed exclusive, with plans to expand to Android devices in 2017.
Unlike Miitomo, which is more of a social app than a game, Super Mario Run is a proper Nintendo game designed for smartphones. Its central marketing hook is that it’s a Mario game that you can play with just one hand. True to its title and this pitch, that means it’s another auto-running style platformer designed for mobile devices, sort of akin to Ubisoft’s highly successful Rayman Jungle Run and Rayman Fiesta Run games, which are also games that took a platformer franchise originally designed for dedicated gaming hardware, and successfully translated it to the mobile gaming space.
Runner games are particularly rampant in mobile gaming storefronts, and by this point, they have become rather old hat as far as smartphone gaming is concerned. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see that Super Mario Run stands considerably above most other runner games that you could get for your smartphone. The price is a bit steep, on the negative side, especially here in Canada, where Super Mario Run commands a mean $13.99 CDN sum to purchase, compared to the more modest $9.99 USD price of the U.S. If you enjoy playing games on your smartphone however, and have been looking for another high-quality experience to dive into that will keep you busy for a while, Super Mario Run is worth its high price tag, providing lots of enjoyable and addictive entertainment that anyone can pick up and enjoy.
As with most any mainline Mario platformer, the game kicks off with Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach, and running off with her, leaving Mario to rescue the princess once again. The initial Super Mario Run download is free on the App Store, essentially containing a built-in demo portion that lets you try out the first couple of stages in the main Tour Mode, as well as Toad Rally, which lets you spend consumable Toad Ticket items to challenge other players’ scores on stages you’ve completed. This is a pretty smart system, deviously hooking players in with the fun and well-polished familiar Mario gameplay that can indeed be enjoyed with just one hand in Super Mario Run. Before the final stage of the first world in Tour (there are six worlds total), that’s when the game prompts you to drop the $9.99 USD/$13.99 CDN fee to access the rest of it. This cost stings at first, at least by mobile gaming standards, though as I said, Super Mario Run is worth the price for smartphone gaming enthusiasts, especially since the entry fee is keeping microtransactions firmly out of the experience.
When partaking in the main gameplay, Mario runs to the right automatically, with players having to use simple touch inputs to guide him around obstacles and enemies. Mario jumps when you tap the screen, with his jump height dictated to a point by how long you hold your finger down. This is necessary to traverse pits and platforms, though Mario also automatically vaults over small obstructions and more benign enemies upon touching them. Making your way through the various stages often involves careful taps to have Mario bounce off of enemies and carefully time both leaps and falls, with experienced players finding that they can clear stages in record times and with a huge haul of valuable Coins. A few stages get trickier, namely the Ghost House stages that loop Mario from right to left, as well as challenge him to use backflip blocks that send him leaping backwards when the player jumps off of them, though the game is never complex to play, even at its most challenging.
Super Mario Run is all about replayability as well, especially when the game has a huge selection of rewards to earn. Sprinkled throughout each stage are five special Coins, which can be earned to unlock gradually more challenging special Coin placements to track down. After you find all five Pink Coins, a more challenging placement of five Purple Coins will occur, ending with an extra-challenging placement of five Black Coins when you accrue all of those. You haven’t truly mastered a stage in Super Mario Run until you’ve not only beaten it, but also found all of the Pink Coins, Purple Coins and Black Coins within it too. The Pink Coins are fairly reasonable, though the Purple Coins will put you to the test, and the Black Coins will beckon true masochists, demanding outrageous manipulation of the game’s physics and precision platforming to attain even a single one of them. There’s no reward for getting any less than every single special Coin in every single stage, but tracking down these special Coins is often an addictive and rewarding challenge by itself, and one that nicely compensates for the mere hour or two that you’ll spend fully completing a quick run through all six worlds in Tour Mode.
Another big incentive to play well and accomplish challenges in Super Mario Run is the litany of hidden characters that you can unlock, which possess altered gameplay capabilities, such as some running faster and some jumping higher. You’ll start with the evenly-rounded Mario, naturally, but as you accomplish tasks in Tour and Toad Rally, you can unlock more personalities to take into each Tour stage. Some are simple, such as unlocking Toad for merely linking your My Nintendo membership information to Super Mario Run, though others, such as Toadette, require a massive amount of success unlocking Toads and expanding your kingdom, which is primarily done through success in Toad Rally. You’ll need Toad Tickets for each go of Toad Rally you attempt as well, and those have to be scored by playing the core Tour gameplay, or accruing certain other bonuses from kingdom expansion. It’s a clever feedback loop that suits the mobile gaming space well, rewarding players for even a few moments of gameplay whenever they have some time to kill.
None of those extras would be worth it if the level design wasn’t up to scratch, but as you can expect with that special Nintendo polish, Super Mario Run is a very well-designed auto-runner. The game is short, even for Mario standards, but each stage is wonderfully crafted, being easy to learn and hard to master. You’ll move between normal ground stages, high-up platform stages, desert stages, cavern stages, castle stages and airship stages, and all of them offer superb enemy and obstacle placement that provides a smooth difficulty curve, without suddenly overdoing the challenge, nor making the game too easy. The familiar New Super Mario Bros.-inspired soundtrack also sounds great from smartphone speakers or earbuds as well, complementing each stage design with fun and familiar Mario tunes to hum and bop along to, especially with a few touch-ups done to certain compositions that make some of them sound even peppier in Super Mario Run.
The graphics, by contrast, are pretty simple, running New Super Mario Bros. U assets through the Unity Engine. This makes Super Mario Run look like a recognizable Mario product, and its sharp, vibrant and bright visuals look pretty good on any recent model of iPhone or iPad, with its bubble-style menus also looking appealing, if kind of simple. Even when scaling up for play on an iPad though, Super Mario Run’s graphics hold up well on the larger screen, ultimately being a small downgrade from the Wii U-tier visuals of New Super Mario Bros. U in terms of visual flourishes especially, though also a clear cut above the 3DS-tier visuals of New Super Mario Bros. 2. Performance is also consistently smooth and reliable on any compatible model of iPhone (iOS 8.0 or higher is required to play Super Mario Run), though the game is noticeably less optimized for an iPad, not only forcing the smartphone-esque vertical view on a tablet, but also sometimes suffering chugs and stalls on a lower-end compatible iPad as well. It’s pretty clear that Super Mario Run is designed with a smartphone in mind.
That’s fitting as well, since Super Mario Run, like Pokemon GO before it, is a mobile game that works as both a quick time-killer or a more extended play experience. In lieu of microtransactions, you can earn rewards in-game with a pseudo-achievement system that grants you Super Mario Run-themed My Nintendo Coins, which can get you additional rewards in Miitomo, as well as some unlockables in Super Mario Run itself, and that’s not even counting My Nintendo Coins from purchasing Super Mario Run that can be saved to your My Nintendo profile for separate rewards like Nintendo eShop discounts! The game’s My Nintendo ‘Missions’ are very simple, tasking you with easy objectives like adding a few friends to the game, trying out the various modes, and, naturally, linking your My Nintendo account to Super Mario Run (this can also carry over save data, rankings and your proven purchase from the cloud, should you switch mobile devices and want to play Super Mario Run again), but they offer some easy ways to accrue Super Mario Run Coins that can be spent on things like more in-game Coins and Toad Tickets.
The biggest element that lends itself to extended play is developing and expanding your Mushroom Kingdom, which begins as a run-down area that Bowser ends up devastating during his initial kidnapping of Princess Peach. As you accrue Coins from playing the main Tour stages, as well as recruit Toads from playing well in Toad Rally, you can combine these things together, with no microtransacation option sullying the accomplishment, to rebuild and revitalize your Mushroom Kingdom. By spending Coins, you can unlock decorations such as flowers and familiar Mario objects to place around your Mushroom Kingdom, while Toads can be used to unlock more hidden characters, as well as construct buildings that offer incentives like bonus minigames. This is great, as developing your Mushroom Kingdom gradually shows a solid reflection of how much time and effort you’ve put into Super Mario Run, with the main menu area constantly being able to be upgraded and improved further for all the more satisfaction and fun side distractions.
The tight, polished gameplay foundation of Mario platformers has been translated pretty much flawlessly to the mobile gaming space here, and there’s not really anything major to complain about with Super Mario Run when it comes down to it. The only larger downside to the experience is that it does sadly force online DRM protection into the mix, so you need to be connected to the internet to play Super Mario Run. If you have a cellphone provider with spottier service, are in an area with poor cellphone reception, or run out of data and aren’t near a wi-fi hot spot, you’ll be kicked out of the game. That can be very annoying during more tense gameplay runs, especially if you’re taking on an ambitious Toad Rally or hunting down Black Coins, so be sure you have a stable online connection, and at least a small supply of data, before you play Super Mario Run on the go. Fortunately, as with the majority of mobile gaming experiences, Super Mario Run is pretty easy on your data if you play it outside of wi-fi spots.
As I mentioned, there are no shortage of runner-style games available for mobile devices, but Super Mario Run stands apart from the pack with aplomb. It certainly won’t provide any kind of replacement for even the oldest of proper Mario platformers, which are still more fully-featured and fleshed-out in every way on dedicated Nintendo gaming consoles and handhelds, but as a mobile game that can easily hold your attention for more than a few minutes, and easily keep you coming back, Super Mario Run comes highly recommended. The initial $9.99 USD/$13.99 CDN investment may be steep for an iOS game, and the same will be true when Super Mario Run expands to Android devices next year, but the consistent replay incentive, complete lack of microtransactions and steady stream of rewards make the initial price worth it.
Mario’s handful of ventures outside of Nintendo’s own dedicated gaming hardware have been pretty shaky in the past, which is likely why Mario has stayed firmly within Nintendo’s own platforms over the past two decades until now, but fortunately, the portly plumber’s first foray into mobile gaming is a big success. It’s also further proof that Nintendo’s expansion into the mobile gaming market is possibly the best thing that ever happened to it, at least for those who are looking for an excuse to start taking the mobile gaming scene seriously.
- Accessible, fun Mario gameplay that only requires one hand
- Vibrant, authentic Mario-style presentation
- Extensive suite of additional challenges and rewards
- Online connection mandate is annoying and unnecessary
- Canadian price especially is a bit steep
- A few optimization issues on iPad