Fun gameplay; game modes have great synergy; decent replay value
Not a ton of content; recycled New Super Mario Bros. assets have worn out their welcome
It’s really weird playing a Mario game on non-Nintendo hardware. I’ve been playing Nintendo games since I was about four or five; one of my earliest memories is of playing Tetris in my uncle Michael’s apartment on NES. I grew up in the middle of the Nintendo vs. Sega playground battles of the early and mid-nineties. To say that I’m used to Nintendo games being on Nintendo systems would be an understatement — it’s a rule of the universe akin to gravity and taxes, as far as I’m concerned. Yet here we are, in a world where Super Mario is bounding across my iPhone screen. For some fans, it’s borderline sacrilege to think of Nintendo’s premier mascot being on an Apple or any other device, and I can respect that. Indeed, some might go so low as to say Nintendo has “sold out” by bowing to the pressures of expanding beyond the walls of its own hardware.
As much as I can sympathize (and maybe even empathize) a little bit with the sentiments of fans unhappy with a game like Super Mario Run existing, I’ve come to conclude that there’s no need to be so offended. Nintendo has insisted that its upcoming slate of mobile software is meant to steer players toward its dedicated game machines, and in that sense I think Super Mario Run is a resounding success. Rather than try to shoehorn in a proper Super Mario platformer experience on iOS, Nintendo has instead embraced the limitations of mobile hardware to create a game that whets the appetite for a proper series installment while still scratching the Mario itch on the go. Instead of making its hardware redundant, Nintendo is utilizing the mobile space to remind players of its number one franchise, which is a concession that I’m willing to accept.
In a nutshell, Super Mario Run is an abridged Super Mario platformer. Mario runs, jumps, bops baddies, and breaks blocks, but in a much more streamlined way. The game is an autorunner, so Mario is constantly moving forward. The plumber also autonomously vaults over any enemies or obstacles directly in his path, and he’ll even leap small gaps without prompting, too, which frees up players to focus solely on timing Mario’s jumps. All of Mario’s actions are completed via taps of the touch screen, which makes controlling him perhaps easier than it’s ever been in the past. Some might argue that this setup sounds too simple, but thankfully there are tricks that Mario can pull off which spice up the action. For instance, touching the screen will make Mario jump, but if a consecutive tap or taps are input with the right timing, he’ll do extra acrobatics, like his signature New Super Mario Bros. flutter and more. These tricks allow Mario to rack up greater height with his jumps (and Toads in Toad Rally — more on that later) and for seasoned players to test their skills in what’s an otherwise fairly easy campaign.
The game’s Tour mode is comprised of six worlds to conquer, made up of four stages apiece. There are a handful of secrets to discover, too, all unlockable by playing through the main campaign, Toad Rally, and Kingdom Builder. The stages are fairly short, but littered throughout each one are sets of five colored coins to collect. There are three colored sets per stage: pink, purple, and black. Collecting all of one set in a stage will unlock another, and so on. These coins are invaluable to more hardcore players who want a challenge; for most it will be taxing to collect them all, as they tend to require some tricky maneuvering to snag. While the stages themselves are slightly altered depending on which coin set is trying to be obtained, the differences are very small. It’s an artificial means of adding some replay value to the experience, but overall this is one of the shortest Mario games I’ve ever played.
Thankfully, there’s more to Super Mario Run than just Tour mode. All three of the game’s modes nicely dovetail together, with one lending to the experience in the other. For instance, Kingdom Builder allows players to obtain assets like pipes, mushroom houses, coin blocks, and more to create a custom Mushroom Kingdom of their own. It seems shallow initially, but the more players expand on their kingdom the more things become unlocked, including new characters who can be used in Tour and the last mode we have to cover, Toad Rally. In this mode, players compete against the ghosts of others running through stages trying to accumulate the most coins and Toads before the timer runs out. The more Toads gathered in Toad Rally, the more come to populate the world the player has created in Kingdom Builder and help to further unlock things in the game. It’s a nice bit of synergy at play here in Super Mario Run that made the title much more fun to play.
Still, as fun as Super Mario Run is and as much as it makes an effort to beef up the experience with extra modes and things to discover… ultimately it’s still too light on content. Competing for Toads and high scores is really the only remaining draw once everything has been unlocked, which won’t be enough for most fans who are used to much longer Mario adventures. It’s astounding to me that Nintendo was able to get so close to the precision of Mario’s usual games (though even Nintendo can’t overcome the imperfection of an iPhone screen for gameplay), but well-crafted as the play control is, it’s not enough to elevate this title anywhere near the legendary games that preceded it. Also, although I understand why Nintendo likely chose to recycle so many assets from the New Super Mario Bros. titles, at this point I’m really getting worn out on that series’ look and sound. For the purposes of luring in new players to play a Mario game for the first time, it’s a safe move, but for established fans this aesthetic needs to be retired for a while.
Before I sign off on this review, I’d like to point out that yes, it’s possible to play Super Mario Run for free, but doing so only unlocks a pitiably minute handful of stages. It’s essential to pay the $10 unlock to be able to enjoy the game. Please note, I never factor price into a review score; a game lives and dies by its gameplay, period. What I will say about the higher price for Super Mario Run is that there is an argument to be made that it’s overpriced at $10 (I’d be happier with a $5 price point, myself), but for what it offers there’s enough here to warrant a purchase. Overall, this is a solid debut for Mario away from the Nintendo ecosystem of consoles, but it’s nowhere near the heights of gameplay that the plumber is known for. Longtime fans might balk at playing a Mario game on iOS (and soon Android, too), but as of now there isn’t much to be worried about. Nintendo wanted to make a mobile Mario title that would offer just enough for players to have fun and want to buy a proper series installment, and I think that the company has succeeded in doing just that.