I’ve been waiting for Mario to come to my cell phone since I first got one in 2008. Until today, though, I’ve always been disappointed. Sure, there are “Mario-like” knockoffs all over the app store — most of them unplayable — but there’s never been anything of Nintendo’s caliber for me to really sink my teeth into, to really capture the same kind of magic I felt when I was 10 years old and beating my brother over the head with a controller because he wouldn’t let me have my turn. (Our parents took the Nintendo away after that.) But all of that’s over now, because Mario Run is here to fill the nostalgia void in our hearts like nothing else could.
Of course, you may be skeptical (so was I). Because Mario has always been played with external controllers — and touch controls are notoriously bad — it makes sense to fear (FEAR!) that the gameplay wouldn’t translate. And when the trailer for the game first came out I was worried that because of the word “run” in its title, Nintendo’s biggest offering to the app store would be another completely unfair and greedy freemium game that would only serve to make all of us frustrated (while earning Nintendo major ducats because it’s not like we weren’t going to play.)
But hey, how bad could a Mario game you play with one hand be?
Super Mario Run (iOS)
If you’ve played any of the titles in the New Super Mario series then you’re already familiar with the art you’ll be enjoying in this game. And the cute, bright graphics make this a perfect game to enjoy on a day when it’s storming outside (like it is right now) or if you’re snowbound and just trying to get through the holidays with your family (what you’ll be doing next week). And because the settings change fairly quickly — the first four levels, for instance, echo the blueprints of the original Mario game by letting you take a stroll through the overworld, tour the underground, and then jump from giant mushroom to giant mushroom before plopping you into your first castle — you never really get bored of what you’re looking at.
As for story, there’s nothing really new here. The princess is kidnapped, Bowser flies around the screen menacingly in his Koopa Copter, and Mario — who was on his way to hang with her now-abducted highness — is tasked with getting her back and rebuilding the kingdom, which Bowser has helpfully destroyed. It’s nowhere near as deep as any of the Mario RPG games or the Paper Mario series, but that’s not really a problem here. We played the original games for hours despite the lack of story and we’ll play this one, too. In fact, the thin story may actually be kind of a plus for the game. How many times have you played a game for a while, given up for a few weeks, and then come back to realize you remember nothing and would need to start over? That won’t happen with this game. And because you’ll likely spend only a few minutes at a time playing it, the lack of an intricate plot line won’t faze you.
Remember some of the hardest levels of Super Mario 3? The ones in which the ground kept moving while you tried desperately to keep up? Did you ever think “hey, I’d like a full game of the most stressful part of the experience?” Neither did I! And yet, i was surprised with how much I enjoyed being hurried along as Mario raced through The Mushroom Kingdom. Even after falling into a pit for the tenth time I didn’t have any urge to throw my phone at the wall and utter curse words that would clearly exhibit that I am a terrible, terrible, human being. Why? Simple. This game is very forgiving.
Because Nintendo knows that you’re already going to be concerned about giving up some of Mario’s control, they’ve taken some pages from Kirby’s Epic Yarn and made dying a thing of the past. Fall into a hole? Get hit by a monster? The game immediately puts Mario into a bubble and throws him back. Then you just tap the bubble open and Mario’s back on his way.
Of course, even the bubble wouldn’t have been enough. While some run games give you only a few obstacles at a time, we know that Mario wouldn’t be Mario without droves of cute enemies storming his way. And since trying to jump over enemies, avoid obstacles, and grab coins while would be incredibly difficult without being able to stop for a second, Nintendo’s added another twist. Now, instead of Mario being hurt by goombas and koopa troopas when he touches them, he automatically vaults over them like he would over other small obstacles. This would be unfair, except the game gives you bonuses for jumping on enemies. If you stomp a goomba, great! Here’s some stuff for you! Mistime your launch and Mario sticks his hand on the enemy’s head and moves on. (This doesn’t work for flying enemies or the monsters that come out of pipes and used to give me numbers. Hit one of those, and into the bubble you go.)
What’s also great is that the game offers you more than one way to play each level, kind of the same way the original Mario game got harder as soon as you beat the whole thing. Instead of fighting to the flagpole at the end, Mario’s more concerned about collecting coins and beating the clock this time around. The goal is to collect all five pink coins in each level. Once you do that, the level is altered and purple coins appear in spaces that are not as easy to reach. Finally, when you get all the purple coins, they’re replaced by maddeningly out-of-reach black coins. This could have made the game frustrating, but because the levels are so short, it really doesn’t cost much to go back and replay them. And with taps doing more than just basic jumps — you can hold to jump longer or double-tap to do a twirl — it’s fun trying to figure out the best way to get all the coins in each level, not just the special ones. (Spoiler alert: you won’t.)
Unfortunately, the rest of the game isn’t quite as exciting. Because the campaign is 0nly 6 worlds long (four levels each) and you can’t die, you’re probably going to blast through the “tour” portion of the game fairly quickly. But the game also costs $10 so how does Nintendo justify it? By giving you two more things to do. The first, “rally,” allows you to challenge your friends and AI to replay levels and outshine your competitors by getting more coins and performing more “stylishly” than they do. Winning rallies, in turn, provides you with money and allows you to engage in the second non-adventuring portion of the game: “kingdom building.”
See, the better you do in the rally, the more toads come to watch. And if you win, those toads move into your kingdom, helping you level up and build all sorts of little bonus houses that give you small advantages in the game. It’s an interesting idea, and one that could have potentially been really fun, but here it just feels like an addition meant to beef up the game, and one that isn’t going to be particularly compelling for many Mario fans (although it might be to the casual gamer, which is the target demo here).
Despite its few shortcomings, Super Mario Run is really fun and absolutely hits right where it means to in the nostalgia department. You’ll squeal (or at least chuckle warmly) at the throwbacks and happily prow through the same castle again and again in order to get all the rewards. And because the mechanics of the game grow and change — there are blocks that make you pause, blocks that make you go backwards, blocks that launch you into the air — you can’t call the game boring. I especially liked the fact that it’s impossible to know exactly what you’re doing when you start a level for the first time. So when you go back several times and grab the rewards you’ve been aiming for, it really does feel like you’ve accomplished something. Plus, because Mario is always moving forward — unless you bounce him off something — it feels really cool when you figure out how to make him jump a certain way so you can bounce off walls to get to higher ground. And if you don’t get there? There’s always another try only seconds away.
I hate runners as a rule, so I wasn’t really expecting much out of this game. Nintendo, however, did something that other games in this genre (or near this genre, because this isn’t exactly your standard runner) couldn’t: they made a runner fair, interesting, and rewarding without demanding you spend every cent of your money to play the game for more than a few minutes a day. Sure, it’s a little annoying that bonuses show up on a timed schedule and you can’t access certain locations (also bonuses) more than once every few hours, but none of this takes away from your enjoyment of the actual game, so it can’t be criticized as heavily as something like Temple Run and all of its iterations would be.
You won’t wake up in the middle of the night because Super Mario Run wrenched the heart right out of you, but, on the other hand, you’ll also be playing this game far longer than most people play Pokemon Go. Because it’s so easy to pick up and play, it’s perfect for waiting in line, sitting on the bus, or zoning out for a few minutes when you just need a break.
Aside from the 10 bucks the game costs, there’s nothing else that you really need to pay for. Some, of course, will complain that $10 is way too high for a mobile game. But when you consider that Super Mario Run is an AAA title as far as mobile gaming is concerned, the price doesn’t seem too bad. Is it as robust and full-featured as a console game would be? Nope. But that’s why it doesn’t cost $59.99.
I love Mario, but I hate runners and in-app purchases. Nintendo could have really messed this one up. Instead, they gave all of us an innovative new take on Mario that we’ll be enjoying long past the winter doldrums.
Final verdict: Clear your calendar*
*Or, you know, a few minutes here and there. What I mean is that it’s really, really worth your money.