Super Mario Run review

Stumbling at the starting line.

It's something most people never thought would happen.

Super Mario Run -- released December 15 on iOS -- is Mario's first appearance on Apple's iPhone, and the first game Nintendo has developed for mobile platforms.  Putting its properties on mobile devices is something that Nintendo, in the past, has denied that it would ever do, yet Super Mario Run now follows two other mobile games released this year -- Miitomo and Niantic’s Pokemon Go as the company that Mario built expands its gaming efforts into the mobile sphere.

Because of this, Super Mario Run will go down in Nintendo history. Unfortunately, it's not going to go down as a good Mario game. Super Mario Run is a short and not really fun entry in the Mario series, and far from the giant splash that Nintendo could have made on mobile. It's more Miitomo than Pokemon Go, at least in terms of how I see its long term-success in the space.

In Super Mario Run, Nintendo's mustachioed plumber has been reduced down to a simplified control scheme, and the gameplay is where the changes are most apparent. Mario now -- in titular fashion -- continually runs to the right of the screen -- something Miyamoto has said was inspired by Mario speedrunners -- an actually enjoyable change that reflects the fast paced run first and ask questions later approach I can have with platformers. Players can tap once to make Mario jump, and then do a longer, held press to impact the jump height. Another tap in mid-air gives Mario a little spin flourish.

The problem is that the controls never really gel: there’s almost a stiffness in Mario’s jump response. Especially with the continual forward momentum, it can be hard to judge exactly how to jump on a specific enemy or land Mario right where you want him. An awkwardly-controlled stall jump tries to alleviate this, but the game never directly tells you about it and it isn't an optimal solution, either. Mario can however now vault over enemies automatically, so you don't necessarily need to land directly on them, but I'm so calibrated from past Mario games, I just want to stomp on things.

Something also just feels off with having to adjust the height of a jump by holding down on the screen and having a gradient of possible jump-heights: Players shouldn't have to guess which jump they'll need at any given moment. I think part of it might be the disconnect between wanting there to be some type of tactical sensation -- like pushing a button further in -- for me to jump higher, but it never really felt right as a core-control mechanic.

In terms of content, Super Mario Run's main offering is Tour Mode. Peach invites Mario over for cake. Bowser steals the Princess. Mario saves the day. We've seen it before, we'll see it again, and it's all pretty rote, at this point. The Tour Mode consists of six worlds of four levels each, with the whole thing from start to finish beatable in under two hours. It's short, but far from sweet, and fairly standard Mario fare: There's really only one interesting new, unique concept that Mario fans haven't seen before – blocks that when jumped from propel Mario backwards -- with most everything else playing things pretty safe in a fairly unmemorable wave of seemingly randomly assorted levels drawing inspiration from Mario's past adventures. There are a few interesting uses of some of the new control, screen-wrapping, and constant running mechanics, but nothing really worth writing home about. 

To add a bit of replay value, each of the sparingly few levels does have special collectable coins, and upon collecting all of them in one play through, players can eventually unlock two additional sets of coins to collect. Right now though, the coins mostly feel like padding: collecting coins makes sense in a typical Mario game where you can walk back and keep trying to get coins you missed, but his constant movement really isn't conducive for exploration, requiring either dying or restarting if you miss anything.

The two additional modes are also fairly anemic. Toad Rally allows players to race against random opponents -- for some reason it doesn't let you directly pick from people you've added as friends -- to see who can collect the most Toads on each level. It's barely a departure from the main game mode, and simply has you racing ghost data from other players while trying to collect more coins and performing more "tricks" to impress the Toads. It's kind of fun and I am enjoying it more the further I dig into it, but it's still just another way of repackaging the same levels, and it repeats those often, at that. (I'm also curious how exactly the ghost data works, but that's neither here nor there.)

The more Toads you collect in Toad Rally, the higher your castle level gets (and the more items you unlock) in the final mode: Kingdom Builder. It's another meager offering that -- as the name implies -- lets you use the Toads found in Toad Rally (and coins in the main game) to build and customize your own little Mushroom Kingdom overworld area, complete with Toad Houses, pipes, and even some cool festive decor. It's an interesting addition, but seems to lack the depth or customization options needed for the mode to really take off.

In typical Nintendo fashion, the infrastructure of Super Mario Run is plagued by some odd decisions. The game cannot be played without an active internet connection, an idea that caused panic when Microsoft talked about it for the Xbox One years ago. Nintendo's official stance is it was put in place for security -- and given it’s a mobile game; the times that people won't have a connection are fewer and farther between than on a game console. But it's still something that I don't think should go unmentioned.

Nintendo also -- for some reason -- brought 12 digit Player IDs to Super Mario Run, and while it does allow you to add friends through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, it doesn't let you access your phone's internal contact list. Some steps forward, other steps back, I suppose.  There's some technical flaws as well: it crashed on me once, lags a bit when texts or phone alerts come in, and had some other random choppiness. Super Mario Run is also a battery drain: my iPhone 6's battery is pretty bad as is, but I've confirmed it with other players, as well. The game does have individual rendering and graphics settings that can be turned down to help the battery: turning these both to low did make a pretty significant difference in battery life, at the price of a minor drop in resolution, and what seemed to be an increase in stuttering.

In terms of pricing, players can download the game -- and play the first three levels -- for free, but after that have to cough up $10. It's a price tag that may scare away the more cost-conscious casual mobile crowd, and one that, given the dearth and unremarkable nature of the content, I think I'd have a hard time arguing Super Mario Run justifies.

And as Nintendo's first leap into a brand-new market, Super Mario Run is closer to a sluggish stumble across the finish line than it is the result of a champion sprinter in his prime. For introducing Mario -- and to some extent Nintendo -- to a mobile audience, Nintendo needed, and could have done, much better, and instead seems to be relying more on the Mario name than anything else. Super Mario Run needed to be a blaring trumpet blast announcing Nintendo's statement of purpose in a new market, and instead feels more like a muted whimper. Better run next time, Mario.

Verdict: No