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‘Super Mario Run’: Our first take

Super Mario Run' captures Nintendo's best traits, and the iPhone's worst

Super Mario Run is a fun Nintendo game buried under unnecessary layers of mobile game fluff.

Super Mario Run is a great idea for a video game. The “runner” genre, in which your character moves automatically, has flourished on phones thanks to its simplicity. And although Nintendo has almost never ventured off its own hardware like the Wii U and 3DS for game releases (barring some arcade games and old PC forgettables), the company’s fans are legion, and everyone has a phone.

For the most part, the first Mario game for mobile succeeds. But the developers at Nintendo have caved to the pressures of the platform, and did something they didn’t need to. They made a mobile game.

The levels aren’t broad, but they are deep

The act of playing Super Mario Run is every bit as fun, challenging and rewarding as Nintendo fans could have hoped for. It rivals Ubisoft’s Rayman “Run” series of mobile games (Rayman Jungle Run, Rayman Fiesta Run, etc.) for feeling, mechanically, like the full realization of this genre. It’s so good, in fact, that you may wonder why this genre is only found on phones. Running is such a chore!

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Seriously. Handing over control of your characters left-right movement does reduce your freedom, but it also turns a platformer into a more strategic experience. The best running games are essentially fast-paced puzzles that ask you to abuse or break the rule of forced movement to access areas that initially seem impossible. Super Mario Run understands this, and you’ll often find yourself facing tough, split-second decisions. Should you complete a jump quickly, to chase a string of coins that will disappear in a few seconds? Or should you wall-jump upwards, allowing you to back-track, and then leap to a ledge that holds a secret?

Mario Run’s levels are divided into six worlds of four courses each, for a total of 24 maps. That may seem light, but each level is a black hole of replayability. Scattered through each are five pink coins in often hard-to-reach places, and once you get those, the course changes to include five harder-to-reach purple coins, then five (hardest-to-reach) black ones. Even the pink coins are tricky, and most players will have trouble grabbing more than two or three their first time through a level. Obsessive fans will waste hours perfecting a path through each version of each course.

Level features and mechanics vary widely. Different blocks send you careening forward or backward, while jumping off enemies and chaining head-stomps together can let you reach high-up coins or paths. Enemy behavior — goombas, koopas, boos, dry-bones, and beyond — is as creative as in any normal Mario game. And the relatively small number of levels means Super Mario Run can keep throwing new tricks at you as you progress. Mario remains a fun platformer series because Nintendo knows how to remix the familiar, and Run is no exception.

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The first three levels are free to play as many times as you like, but the rest are locked behind a one-time $9.99 purchase, which seems fair for a Nintendo game, despite being high for a mobile game.

Good game, confusing design

It’s when you go beyond the thrill of playing Super Mario Run that things get complicated, and not for the better. The coins you earn while playing can go toward buildings and decorations (like trees and flowers) in your Mushroom Kingdom, which Bowser wrecked when he kidnapped Peach the first time you opened the app.

Super Mario Run has all the hallmark charm and fun of a Nintendo game.

The Kingdom takes up just a single screen initially, though it can be expanded. The game starts you with a “Red Bonus Game House,” which lets you play a brief mini-game you can access only every eight hours. Almost anything else you might want to build requires another currency in addition to coins. That would be Toads, the mushroom-headed guys that’ve long needed Mario’s help.

Toads can be acquired in the game’s other main mode, Toad Rally, a poorly explained multiplayer experience. You choose an opponent and compete against their runs to score better “style” points, and make more Toads show up to cheer for you. Some of them then come live in your kingdom.

It’s a fun concept, and the mode is as attractive as any of the main levels. Each rally is quick, and provides a way to compete with other players without each of you being online at the same time. However, the mode is poorly explained. It’s not clear what the game wants of you when it means “style,” or who’s winning while you’re playing. Though it’s called “Toad Rally,” which implies a race, it’s ultimately a competition to see who can score the higher sum of coins and Toad fans.

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Playing a round of Toad Rally requires yet another currency. Rally Tickets. These are earned for various achievements, including completing levels, gathering full sets of special coins (pink, purple, etc.), and more. The game seems generous with them, but if you become a Toad Rally addict, you may run out.

There is one other currency, too — “points,” which are confusingly represented by an icon that looks like a coin with Mario’s face on it, but which aren’t called “coins,” because there’s already a different currency called “coins.” These seem to be earned only one way. By completing “missions.”

These include daily, weekly, and one-time goals, like playing one Toad Rally match every day, or winning three Toad Rallies every week. One-time goals include things like linking the game to your Nintendo Account, which it also says you need to do so you can recover your in-game purchase of the full levels if you delete the app.

One extremely wise choice Nintendo made in Super Mario Run is to limit the in-app purchases — microtransactions — to the one-time $10 fee to unlock the full levels. On the other hand, the game bafflingly must be connected to the internet to function, which means no playing on planes, subways, or anywhere else you don’t have service.

There’s finally a fun Mario game for mobile

Super Mario Run accomplishes its mission. It brings Mario to iOS with the clever level design and quick action you’d expect. Anyone worried it might be dumbed-down to appeal to a broad audience shouldn’t be concerned. The game does pose a challenge, especially if you want to perfect each level.

It’s a shame, then, to see Nintendo embrace the usual mobile game shenanigans. Features like timed mini-games and multiple currencies are an obvious ploy to keep users coming back for more, but they’re a transparent attempt to cover the game’s modest collection of content. Most Mario games have well over a hundred levels; compared with that, 24 isn’t many.

The game is worth its $10 price, but like most mobile games, it’s best played for a few minutes at a time. Nintendo has learned both the best and worst lessons from the space — and applied them with equal vigor.

Highs

  • Filled with Nintendo charm
  • Super fun take on the “runner” genre
  • Dense, replayable, challenging
  • No micro-transactions after initial purchase

Lows

  • Extra features are confusing
  • Always-online requirement
  • Barely explained multiple-currency internal economy