Mario’s Mobile Marvel
When Apple held its iPhone 7 event in September 2016, nobody could have guessed that Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto would come on stage to debut a new Mario game for smartphones. While Miitomo, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Niantic’s Pokémon GO signify visible steps for Nintendo’s mobile movement, witnessing the company’s most popular mascot grace the iPhone screen is still astonishing. Yet here we are with Super Mario Run, Mario’s take on the automatic runner genre.
If you’ve played an auto-run platformer before, you’ll understand the gameplay immediately. Mario automatically runs through the level, and you tap the screen to make him jump. You can tap multiple times to jump off walls or perform spin-jumps to give Mario extra air time. Otherwise, Mario independently chugs along on his own. Speed-altering blocks spice the game up, and unstompable deathtraps like Fire Bars prevent it from becoming a cakewalk. However, your role is simply to facilitate Mario on his tour to the flagpole. Fans of other sidescroller games may be hesitant based on that description, and their fears are merited. Super Mario Run is not a traditional Mario game in the slightest. If you go into it expecting Super Mario World, you may be disappointed. It’s better to think of it as an arcade game that utilizes traditional Mario elements to guide its direction.
As a huge 2D Mario fan, there were times when I felt that the game missed the mark. While auto-running is the main gameplay tenet, the lack of control is frustrating, especially when you want to go back and explore. There’s an option to go into a bubble to float backwards, but it uses up one of your limited “lives.” Equally disappointing is Mario’s momentum. Although you are always “running,” the pace is slower than a typical Mario title. This game doesn’t have to be Sonic fast, but the exhilarating sense of swiftness is lost here. As a result. Mario veterans may find the game a bit dull. Another unsettling discrepancy is that Mario automatically vaults over enemies when you get close. If you tap while he’s over the enemy, he stomps it and gains air. This design feels counterintuitive because you must resist the natural urge to jump before reaching an enemy.
You get the picture. This isn’t the traditional experience, but there is beauty to be found in the game’s unmistakable Mario elements. Negatives aside, this is a decent representation of what Mario should feel like on a controller-less platform. The jump physics are familiar and polished. Each hop feels satisfying and bouncing on baddies in succession is oh-so-gratifying. The level design is spot on for this new control style. Stages are more compact, so there’s a lot going on in each screen. There’s also a good variety of level mechanics, such as hitting P-Switches to produce a block path or navigating your way through the puzzling Ghost Houses. The game even somehow fits in vertical levels, a rarity for the auto-runner genre. Part of the series’ appeal comes from making precise movements, and Super Mario Run is all about timing. Making it unscathed through the carefully placed enemies is tougher than it seems. While I ragged on the game’s speed, I praise it for its flow. Mario must have practiced parkour because he hurdles over blocks and grabs ledges like a pro. These alterations to standard Mario mechanics show that the developers understood how to transition to automatic platforming.
Just as the game ramps up, it suddenly ends. With a scant 24 levels, the main World Tour mode doesn’t last long… unless you collect the special coins. Like the series’ Star/Dragon Coins, there are five pink coins hidden in each stage. You have to search carefully and choose the correct paths to find the collectibles, which can be annoying considering you can’t go backwards (without using up a bubble). Nevertheless, collecting the coins in one run provides a great challenge, and it’s interesting to see how your gameplay changes as a result. Your reward for obtaining every coin is doing it all over again with new coin placements, and then again after that. While I would have preferred more stages to playing each one thrice, the progressively difficult coin challenges were sufficiently entertaining.
Toad Rally and Kingdom Builder round out the package but aren’t as fun or developed. In Toad Rally, you “compete” against random opponents or friends to collect coins in looping versions of the levels. I use “compete” loosely because you don’t actually play in real-time. Rather, you’re playing against an AI-controlled ghost of your opponent as you would in Mario Kart’s Time Trials. When you collect a certain threshold of coins, you enter Coin Rush, a blazing event in which many more coins suddenly appear for a limited time. By chaining enemy kills and stylishly navigating the level, you also gain support from Toads who cheer you on and give you more coins. Whomever obtains the most coins by the end wins and gains Toads.
Toads are important for the game’s Kingdom Builder, in which you purchase and place buildings in your custom field. Some buildings offer great bonuses, like special levels and characters with desirable abilities. However, to get facilities, you must have a certain amount of coins and Toads, so winning Toad Rallies is crucial. This sounds like a fun loop until you realize how many Toads/coins you need. It’s not exorbitant, but with only 24 levels to choose from, you’ll be grinding the same levels over and over. Mario and grinding should never mix. It’s worth noting that you need tickets from the main game to attempt Toad Rally, though it’s easy to reach the maximum 99.
The graphics are fair, to say the least, reusing assets from the New Super Mario Bros. (NSMB) series. The music, on the other hand, consists of nicely remixed tunes from NSMB, which sound well-suited for a game in constant motion. As a final note, the app requires you to be online to play. It’s a bit silly, but as long as you have a connection, you should be fine.
Super Mario Run is a pleasant surprise. It thankfully lacks the microtransactions that plague other mobile affairs, and instead has a fixed, fairly low price tag. The amount of content is somewhat low but justifies the cost as long as you don’t mind playing through levels repeatedly. It’s not the Mario you grew up with, but it’s a great example on how to translate a game that still relishes in its roots. If anything, Super Mario Run shows Nintendo’s ability to adapt one of its core franchises to a new genre and platform.
Note: The iOS Version 1.0.2 was used for this review.