The brilliance of Super Mario has always been found in the portly plumber’s moves. The candy-coated levels he bounds through are built around his ebullient acrobatics; flips and wall-jumps, dashes and slides. There is a precision afforded to the player holding the controller that makes them masterful puppeteer, Mario responding at their fingertips.
So to remove an integral part of that control, as Super Mario Run does, is a bold thing. Mario’s move to iPhone, and Nintendo’s first ‘proper’ game on mobiles following the moderate success of social app Miitomo, precipitates a major change. This is an auto-runner, Mario sprinting automatically at full pelt through recognisable levels lined with pipes and patrolling Koopa Troopas. To make Mario jump, you tap the screen. And, mechanically, that is the sum total of your input. When revealing the game, creator Shigeru Miyamoto said he wanted you to be able to play one-handed, while on the bus, at home or, apparently, eating a cheeseburger.
Mission accomplished there (though I’m yet to try the game eating a cheeseburger, being able to tap away at Super Mario Run while cradling a sleeping newborn has been a great success). But the real achievement of Super Mario Run is just how much Nintendo have been able to eke out of that simple interaction, taking some of his classic moves and adapting them for the control scheme. You can wall-jump with a quick-fire tap as Marioslides down a wall; time it right as he bops an enemy and you will get a boost into the air. The longer you tap, the further he jumps, so you will often need to judge distance to leap over obstacles, or bounce between enemies to rack up your score. A second tap in mid-air sends Mario into a distance stealing spin.
Super Mario Run
Super Mario Run
None of this is especially new to mobile auto-runners, but Nintendo’s skill and sheen is obvious. It is simple to grasp its core, mobile-based mechanics, while still feeling very much like a Mario game. That is to say it is enormously good fun once it gets going.
Much of this is down to the level-design. As in any Mario, his playgrounds are tailored to his move-set. There are 24 quick-fire stages in the ‘Tour’ mode -ghost houses, flying warships and castles all making an appearance- and each add their own quirks to build on the move-set. Floating platforms that let you stand in place but disappear when you leap off, blocks that propel Mario backwards to perhaps reach an otherwise out of reach area, trick doors that send you back to the start. All add an extra layer that makes Super Mario Run simple to pick up, but with enough hidden depth to keep your attention the more you play.
You shouldn’t go in expecting a full-fat 2D Super Mario, however, with little in the way of power-ups and a reduced sense of exploration that has always added to Nintendo’s famous mascot. Most players will whizz through the basic levels in short order, with arguably too few on offer for the asking price. This is naturally stripped back for the mobile crowd, but it doesn’t stop Super Mario Run rewarding players that invest themselves. For the Tour mode this is done through the collection of coloured coins that are scattered around the levels, and where the game really comes into its own.
There are three sets -- pink, purple and black-- and once you have collected each set in one run you unlock the next set which are in different, more difficult, positions. This gives a chance to test your skills, throwing Mario around to reach each more devilishly placed collectible. How much you get out of Super Mario Run will come down to your willingness to replay and master stages to vacuum up each set of coins. Players that fall for it will fall hard and find the game transformed from a fun but brief time-waster into a challenging, compelling exercise that you can lose hours to.
Beyond the Tour mode is Toad Rally, an asynchronous multiplayer that tests your Mario mettle against other players. You are set against the ghost of an opponent as they race through a level, with the winner being the player that collects the most coins, You also gather Toad fans for your customisable Kingdom by performing skilfully, so a chained bounce off a group of enemies, flips and spins will all add to your total. Perform enough tricks and you will get a speed-boosting ‘coin rush’, with gold treats raining down. Toad Rally is even quicker and more manic than the World Tour, as you look to blast through each stage collecting as many coins as you can. Where Tour is about precision and mastery of individual levels, Toad Rally plays to more to twitch-based speed runs, though both skills are interchangeable.
It’s terrific and, while you could ask for a few more stages in World Tour, this level of compulsion and sheen more than justifies the £7.99 asking price. While this premium has seen a slew of complaints as the price beyond a free trial is obsfucated, dragging its review score down, this is one of the best and most polished games on the App Store. It is more expensive than much of its competition and the value judgment will be up to you, but rest assured you are paying for quality.
At least mechanically. This is every inch a Nintendo game in that the art of its play is peerless but some of its decisions in terms of service are baffling. Most significant is that you need a solid internet connection to play Super Mario Run at all times. This makes sense for Toad Rally as you download other players data, but I cannot discern any good reason for that to apply to Tour mode. Having worked so hard to develop the perfect mobile game in terms of its mechanics, to then hobble it as a game on the go is just bizarre. On a train? Better hope you don’t go through any blackspots during a tricky coin run. Out and about with no decent signal? Good luck. On the tube? No chance.
This also means that if you do find a decent roaming connection, Super Mario Run is happy to gobble your data as well as your battery. The game is good enough to play at home with a snug wi-fi connection, but that rather misses the point.
There always seems to be a caveat with Nintendo, but for me the quality of the game outweighs the concerns. In play, this is Super Mario making himself at home on mobile, and few can match our favourite plumber when he gets into the groove.