This review is based on the iPhone version of Super Mario Run.
Super Mario Run is Nintendo’s first big foray into gaming on mobile phones, bringing their most iconic character to iPhones (and eventually Android) with an endless runner version of their classic 2D platform series. After focusing their portable efforts on the 3DS during the majority of the modern smartphone era, the game is under an incredible amount of pressure to deliver a huge install base, substantial revenue and critical acclaim to an audience used to a fire hose of free and very cheap games on the go.
At first glance, the game does quite a good job in capturing the look of the Wii U era Mario platformers with the bulbous spherical body of our protagonist, bevelled coin blocks, warbling enemies and upbeat sound effects mostly intact in the transition. Many of the classic level types such as the grassy field, spooky mansion and floating battleships made the transition and look vibrant on the retina displays of modern iPhones. For a moment, I thought it might turn out well!
That feeling does not last. Where Super Mario Run shows signs of trouble is a few seconds into the first level when it becomes apparent that Mario may look the part, but he doesn’t move or react with anywhere close to the level of precision that long time gamers are expecting. Jumps feel delayed when tapping the screen and more intricate sequences with multiple chained jumps or activating a sprint out of a pause block have enough latency to mess up the player on more challenging levels. The inconsistent controls are exacerbated by the baffling decision to pause Mario mid-air for a split second when he earns a coin collecting (not an invincibility) star, often at the worst possible moment when attempting a precision jump between platforms or timing an extended float while descending. Switching from Mario to Toad, Yoshi or the other unlockable characters is even worse, as latency coping mechanisms that get picked up with experience using Mario do not translate exactly to the others with their differences in movement behaviour. This should have been an easy win for Nintendo but it is deflating in its imprecision and inconsistency.
The game is available in a limited free version with access to the 1st world, with the rest unlocked through a one-time purchase that is substantially higher than comparable App Store games (price will vary by country). The free access includes the basic Goomba and green shelled turtles with the more exotic creatures such as Lakitu locked away behind the pay wall. There isn’t enough in the free version to stick with Super Mario Run for more than half an hour; grinding out a small selection of levels with varying difficulties of special collectible coins or making runs through Toad Rally is only entertaining for a few attempts each.
The aforementioned Rally is decent when it matches you up with equally skilled players to make its ghost challenge mode a fair contest, but it usually provides a list of significantly better or worse player profiles to race against. The controversial consumable ticket experience becomes a non-factor quickly when you have earned enough coins to deploy coin blocks in your overview world between the various collectibles, but it takes a lot of coin and toad grinding to buy those pieces.
Even designed for mobile first, Super Mario Run keeps Nintendo’s archaic friend system of generating codes to be passed around instead of requiring a Nintendo account login up front, leveraging Apple’s Game Center or another centralized system. Why does this legacy system still exist in 2017?
The series has always been about far more than running around to collect coins and take out enemies: the sense of wonder in discovering beautiful new worlds, precision timing to navigate intricately designed levels and nostalgic fun of encountering familiar Koopas are barely present in this game. It feels disappointing in the way that the direct to video Disney sequels in the 1990’s were to fans of the iconic originals, it pains me that Super Mario Run looks and feels like a stripped down Super Mario Bros. 3 on rails. The game is a decent runner but a serious disappointment as a Mario title, a series that deserves more respect and reverence than this provides.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars