I feel pretty confident saying that Super Mario Run (Free) is the most hyped game release in the history of iOS. It has had the full marketing weight of two of the biggest giants in the industry behind it since its announcement, with Apple even going so far as to introduce a new notification system to allow players to pre-order it. That hype is there for good reason, of course. This is a historical moment for the video game industry. It’s the first time a Mario game developed by Nintendo has released on non-Nintendo hardware since, I think, the original Mario Bros. back in the early 1980s. The legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto took a direct hand in the development of Super Mario Run, something he hasn’t done for a Mario game since Super Mario Galaxy back in 2007. While the concept of Miitomo (Free) felt a bit underwhelming, Super Mario Run is Nintendo committing to mobile with unexpectedly fierce intensity.
All of that leads to expectations, and those can be tricky things to manage. For most, it would be impossible to live up to those twin spires of hype and history, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be Nintendo. I wish I could tell you that they did it. I would rather be writing a completely beaming review of one of the finest games to grace the app store, a game that through sheer quality justifies all of its hoops and irregularities relative to the rest of the App Store. I love Mario. But that’s not the review I’m writing today. Today, I’m writing about a pretty decent runner, polished to a shine, that just happens to feature one of gaming’s most famous icons. For many, that’s probably going to be enough to merit picking up Super Mario Run, but I can’t help but think this could have been better.
Super Mario Run is a stage-based auto-runner that sees the plumber doing his usual bit to rescue Princess Peach from King Koopa. The game includes three modes and gives you a fairly small slice of each for free before asking you to pay a single IAP to unlock the remainder. The mode that will likely be of immediate interest to most players is the Tour Mode. Here, you’ll run and jump your way through 24 stages spread across 6 worlds. I use ‘worlds’ simply in the grouping sense here, as unlike other Mario games, there’s no real theme to each world. Each stage takes a couple of minutes to clear, which makes for a fairly short game on initial playthrough. Collecting all of the special coins in a stage will unlock another set of coins along with some new enemy arrangements, and if you manage to snag all of those, there’s one more set waiting for you. Figuring out how to reach all of the coins and executing the necessary maneuvers helps extend this mode past the one or two hours it’ll take to rescue Peach.
Making your way to the somewhat anti-climactic final battle with Koopa isn’t too difficult. The game is quite forgiving for those who just want to make their way through. Not only can you collect Super Mushrooms to buffer our hero against a hit, you also get Bubbles to help you come back from what would otherwise be a lost life. If you take a fatal hit or plummet down a hole, Mario will bubble up and start moving backwards through the stage, allowing you to drop down wherever you feel most comfortable. This effectively gives you three chances per stage on top of any Super Mushrooms you might collect. You also have unlimited lives in the classical sense. Failing when you run out of bubbles forces you to start the stage from scratch, but there’s no running count of lives or anything like that. You can try as many times as you need to. The challenge is largely built into the coin hunts, which do a good job of catering to more skilled players.
Once you’ve gained your satisfaction from Tour Mode, you’ll probably want to check out the other two modes. The Kingdom Mode lets you build your own Mushroom Kingdom by placing buildings and decorations in fixed locations on the map. Some of these buildings give you special bonuses every so often when you tap them. These include a variety of mini-games, free Rally Tickets, and so on. A few very special buildings will unlock new characters to play as. You’ll have to pay for these buildings with the coins you’ve collected in other modes, but the prices are quite fair relative to what you’ll be bringing in. But coins aren’t enough on their own for most of these trinkets. You’ll also need a particular number of each color of Toad among your population. This is where we get to the bit that’s meant to last you a while, I think.
The third mode is the Toad Rally. In Toad Rally, you’ll play against another player’s ghost in timed stages built from looped sections of stages from the Tour Mode. Collecting coins is the top priority here, though there are lots of ways to add big bank to your total. You’ll want to keep an especially careful eye open for Super Stars, as if your opponent grabs one and you don’t, you’ve basically already lost. Performing stylish moves will attract Toads to cheer you on. They’ll contribute to your total when the scores are tallied as well. If you win, you’ll gain a bunch of Toads for your Kingdom, with the colors depending on the stage you challenged. If you lose, well, you’ll lose some of your Toads. It’s kind of a crummy feeling to lose, especially since a streak of losses can really set you back on your road to unlocking things.
To make matters worse, playing the Toad Rally requires a Rally Ticket. The game hands them out like candy initially, but once you’ve exhausted that finite supply, you’ll have to rely on the daily trickle the game gives you. Backsliding on progress feels bad, but it’s even worse when you can’t even try to make things right until the next day. Combined with the slow Toad gains from winning and the high populations required for many buildings and decorations, this starts to feel like a nasty grind. Worse, it’s the kind of grind where you can easily slip and end up not moving forward in any meaningful sense for days. You can get more tickets by trading My Nintendo coins, but in a manner of speaking, those coins are also limited in terms of how often you can earn them.
The Toad Rally mode also shows the ugly side of the game’s mechanics. Unlike the tightly-designed Tour Mode levels, Toad Rally stages can sometimes get a little chaotic in how they’re stitched together. When every path, every bounce, every potential wall kick isn’t accounted for by a level designer, the curious collision detection unique to Super Mario Run can get unreliable in a hurry. There will be times where you were sure you bopped an enemy on its head, only to take damage. Even more confusing, however, are the times when you’ll barrel right into an enemy’s face and somehow take him out without a scratch. This is all tied into the new way Mario interacts with his enemies, but when tons of objects are flying around on the screen, it can be hard to make sense of it.
This is probably as good a place as any to talk about the controls. As promised, this is a Mario game you can play with one hand. That revelation isn’t all that remarkable for those of us who have been mobile gaming for a while, but it is something new for the character. Even in the few auto-running instances he’s been in before, such as special levels in New Super Mario Bros. games or the amusing hacks of the NES Remix games, Mario has never had to cope with only a single input. So, obviously, they went with jumping when you touch. Short touch gets a short jump. Long touch gets a high one. Touching again while Mario is in the air does his little waggle-pirouette that was introduced in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Jump into a wall and Mario will skid along it, with another touch launching him off into his usual wall-kick. These are all sensible choices.
Mario’s got a new move, though, and I don’t think it’s a good one. In other Mario games, Mario is only able to safely contact an active enemy from the top. In Super Mario Run, he can run headlong into some enemies and simply do a little flip over them. To jump off of them, you need to touch the screen as he scrambles over the enemy. Note that I said some enemies. This doesn’t work with every enemy. The rule seems to be that if it was okay to head-bop them in the other games, you’re okay to run into them here. It’s an odd extra step in the whole process that will surely mess with many veteran Mario players. It’s also the most likely source of the funky collision detection. I can only guess that Nintendo did this to make the game more forgiving, but I can’t help but feel the game would have been just fine using the usual Mario jumping rules.
There are also plenty of new elements to help facilitate the auto-running gameplay. Blocks on the ground will allow you to stop, move quickly, or flip backwards. It’s a pretty neat idea and vital for preserving certain traditions from the other Mario games, such as timing your run through curtains of Podoboos. It’s essential for bringing in the now-customary battle with Koopa, where you need to go over or under him to reach the axe and chop the bridge from under his feet. I think they have exciting potential for auto-runner level designs, too. But at least in the game as it stands, it never really does much exciting with them. You’re going to need to master them to get all of the coins, but one could imagine a lot of interesting applications that the game never seems to get around to. The level design in general feels kind of toothless and anti-climactic in its difficulty curve. They’re carefully laid out, to be sure, but until you start hunting black coins, it feels like the game is afraid to lay into the player at all.
In trying to evaluate this game fairly, I’m forcing myself to do a little thought exercise. If this weren’t Mario, if this weren’t Nintendo, if this didn’t have all the hype, expectations, and nostalgia behind it, what would I think of this game? If I do that, all I can say is that the game is fine. It’s well-polished, the controls are responsive enough, and the level designs are acceptable. But it also feels quite lean in terms of content, and insubstantial on the whole. That’s the last place a paid auto-runner wants to find itself in, especially on iOS. There are so many fantastic runners on mobile, that if we were to separate this one from its brand, it probably wouldn’t even be poking its head into the upper tier of quality. That’s not even counting the twin elephants of the relatively high price tag or required online connection sitting over there in the corner, both of which could be seen as reasonable deal-breakers for some players.
Super Mario Run is a decent game. It accomplishes the fairly difficult goal of feeling like a proper Mario game while also bowing to some of the trends of mobile gaming. But with the likes of Rayman Fiesta Run ($2.99), Wind-Up Knight 2 (Free), Punch Quest (Free), and countless others competing at a high level in this genre, decent isn’t really good enough. A grindy town-builder isn’t exciting enough. A couple of hours of fun with only coin-hunting to keep you busy afterwards isn’t substantial enough. If you want Mario on your iPhone, Super Mario Run does its best to approximate the trappings. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a top-shelf auto-runner to play, it’s-a not him.