Here we are at the tail-end of 2016 and Super Mario finally has an official mobile game. Call it unbelievable, call it perverse, call it inevitable. Whatever you want to call Super Mario Run, it's real. And, as you might expect from Nintendo, it's a wide step above the typical shovelware people associate with mobile platforms and marketplaces.
Super Mario Run for iOS (an Android version is coming in 2017) is billed as "A Mario game you can play with one hand," as legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto demonstrated by eating cake while playing Super Mario Run on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last week.
Can you actually play Super Mario Run one-handed? You sure can, though you might want to leave the cake in Peach's pantry. Does it actually feel like a Super Mario game, though? Well, that's a matter of opinion – though as a long-time mobile games reviewer, it's fascinating to see how Nintendo altered Mario's moveset and environment to suit the game's "always running" mechanic. For example, in most Mario games solving a Ghost House requires slower, more methodical movements. So how do you solve illusionary puzzles while constantly moving forward? Nintendo's answers are clever (if not sometimes frustrating. Protip: Learn how to backflip over Boos).
That said, we never learn why Mario recklessly runs forward in Super Mario Run. Is it ennui? Is it a metaphor? Is he just that desperate to rescue Peach from Bowser because he's getting on in years and his gradually-swelling prostate makes it harder to predict when nature is going to call? Your guess is as good as anyone's. Mainline Mario games aren't known for their robust stories, but even a minimal explanation would be nice, especially since Super Mario Run is Mario's mobile debut. Heck, tell me a story about a cursed pair of leprechaun shoes that force the wearer to keep moving. That's good enough.
Whatever his reasoning, Mario certainly runs from left to right without the aid of a control pad or joystick. When you tap the screen, he leaps. If you hit a red pause pad, Mario will stop until you tap the screen, but for the most part, he's on the move. You need to be on your toes to successfully dodge the pits, enemies, and other hazards each of the game's six worlds throws at you.
Conquering enemies is a little different in Super Mario Run versus other Mario games, however. When Mario meets a low-ranking enemy that matches him in height – say, Goombas, Koopas, and Dry Bones – he automatically leapfrogs over them if you don't stomp them or jump over them yourself. This odd mechanic takes some getting used to, since "Don't run into the Goomba" was the first video game lesson most of us learned. But it also prevents frustration while still rewarding people who jump on their foes and / or perform cool tricks while leapfrogging. After all, Super Mario Run isn't just about survival. It's also about racking up lots of coins by defeating enemies and pulling off fancy moves with the aid of Mario's forward momentum. Learning tricks and collecting coins is vital for the game's secondary mode, Toad Rally.
I had a good time with Super Mario Run's "Tour Mode," which sets Mario running across six worlds to rescue Peach. But Toad Rally makes me sweat, and keeps me coming back for more. This brutal battleground plays more like an actual endless runner. Mario and a ghost player race to collect coins within a time limit while Toads watch the competition. If your moves are good, you amass a Toad fanbase while the race endures. At the end of the rally, the number of coins you collect is tallied along with the number of Toads you impressed. If you score higher than your opponent, your Toad fans move into your kingdom – and so do the disappointed fans of your rival. However, if you lose, some of your Toad fans are let down and move out of your kingdom. Brutal!
Since Super Mario Run lacks in-app purchases (thank you Star Goddess Rosalina), amassing Toads and coins is your primary means of buying stuff in Super Mario Run's kingdom-building mode. Kingdom-building mode is a small diversion, but a useful one: It's where the game's alternate runners live, including Luigi, Princess, Toadette, and Yoshi. What's more, your kingdom gives you access to bonus games and coins. Also, the Toads that live there just sit on their porches and roll around in the grass, and that's honestly cute.
Between its tour mode, its Toad Rally, and its kingdom-builder, Super Mario Run has a lot of content on tap. It might not seem so at first since the tour mode can be finished quickly, but its collectables, challenges, and a varied playable character roster give you good reason to keep on coming back. You can download Super Mario Run for free, play its first four levels, and determine for yourself if the whole product is worth $9.99 USD. I'd personally say "yes," but I'm also someone who generally enjoys mobile games and believes retooling Mario for the platform is much, much preferable to making players use virtual d-pads and buttons. Nintendo set out to make a high-quality mobile game, and it succeeded.
If I have one Spiny up my butt about Super Mario Run, it's the fact the game requires an internet connection. Miyamoto offered reasons for the decision, including anti-piracy measures and communication issues between tour mode and Toad Rally. It's disappointing that Nintendo can't (or won't) think up a compromise, e.g. warning players that their tour progress won't upload to Toad Rally until they can access an internet connection. Super Mario Run feels good to play, and there are doubtlessly tons of people who'd be OK with just skipping through a level or two while riding the subway.
But Super Mario Run is altogether a solidly-built running game that demonstrates Nintendo understands the mobile platform despite its early aversion to it. I'm looking forward to updates, not to mention whatever Nintendo has planned for Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing mobile. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to win over some fickle Toads with some fancy jumps.
Unsurprisingly, the New Super Mario Bros style is used for Super Mario Run's tunes, too. The infamous "wah-wah" is gone, though.
The "New Super Mario Bros" style is back, albeit with some new character animations. Everything looks clean and nice, but the NSMB style is certainly getting worn out. Future idea, Nintendo: Retro graphic skins.
Super Mario Run's lack of offline play is a bummer, but otherwise it's an engaging experience that demonstrates Nintendo understands what makes for a good mobile game. Even if you're not a fan of mobile titles, it's worth a try: The initial download is free, and you can pay for the additional levels if you like what you see.