I’m sure like many gamers of my generation, stomping on Goombas and Koopa Troopas with Mario was the first video game experience we had. Over 30 years later, Mario’s moves and looks may have been consistently upgraded, but the simple joy of jumping on an enemy’s head and running for the flagpole goal remains ever satisfying no matter the system. So, with Mario appearing over on a mobile platform for the first time ever in Super Mario Run, I’m sure a lot of us were more than willing to make the leap with him. While the game may have the look and feel of a proper Mario, however, there are enough questionable decisions here to have made this one of my least-favorite trips to the Mushroom Kingdom.

Like the start to almost every Mario adventure, Princess Peach invites Mario over to her castle, and Mario arrives just in time to see Bowser kidnap his beloved. Again. This time, Bowser also proceeds to lay waste to the entire Mushroom Kingdom, reducing it to rubble and scattering the Toad population to the winds before he escapes to his fortress.

The bulk of Super Mario Run is comprised of 24 stages across six worlds in the game’s Tour mode. The first three stages are free to everyone who downloads the game, which I appreciate because it gives you a pretty solid taste of the game before you decide if it’s something you want to drop $9.99 for—a steep price to pay when talking about mobile games usually.

As the name would suggest, the game is an endless runner—Mario never stops moving normally, and all you have to do as the player is tap the screen to make him jump. There are special blocks carefully placed in the game that will pause everything, but if Mario misses them, he just keeps running and jumping at your command. The only other time he’s not sprinting to the right is in certain Ghost Houses and Boom Boom battles, where a wall jump will start Mario heading in the other direction.

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Despite Mario’s legs always churning like a locomotive, a lot of the classic platforming challenge we’ve come to love from the series remains, and never being able to stop actually adds a new layer of difficulty to the gameplay. Of course—as Super Mario Run has more of a casual flair—there are no lives to lose or no real consequences for failure (unlike Mario’s console outings). Still, there is challenge here, since you need to beat a stage in order to advance. Timing your jumps on or over enemies becomes critical as moving platforms and other obstacles are added to each subsequent stage. And, in order to collect the three sets of five special coins (pink, purple, and black) that are scattered in each stage, you’ll need to use every trick the game gives you to grab them successfully. Since only one set of coins appears at a time, if you’re obsessed with collectibles, you know you’ll have to play through each stage at least three times to nab them all.

If collectibles aren’t your thing, then one downside to the full game of Super Mario Run is that even with the challenge steadily ramping up, it shouldn’t take you more than two or three hours to knock out all 24 stages. Drabbing all those aforementioned collectible coins does change the stages slightly (platforms and enemies move to make the new coins challenging to reach), but if you’re not a collectible fiend, you’re likely to end up disappointed at those coins being the driving force behind the main game’s replayability.

There are two other modes that do try to keep you coming back outside of the Tour mode, with the first being Toad Rally. In order to try to lure the scattered Toads back to the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario can spend a Toad Ticket—easily earned via a daily bonus and completing stages—to take on the ghost of another player in a particular stage. If Mario can outperform the ghost by collecting more coins, defeating more enemies, and just generally progressing farther than the ghost in the time given, then Mario will lure Toads back with his impressive feats and bolster the population of the player’s particular Mushroom Kingdom. If Mario loses, some Toads may leave your Kingdom, so there is a risk involved—but luring back more than you’ve lost helps level up your game, potentially leading to expansion.

Why would you want to expand it, you ask? Well, Mario can also spend collected coins to help rebuild the Mushroom Kingdom in Build mode, where you’ll use Toad Houses, statues, hills, flower fields, and other items to help bring the Kingdom back to its former glory. Build enough structures, and have enough Toads, and you can expand the Mushroom Kingdom via Rainbow Bridges. You can also unlock new characters this way, such as Luigi or Yoshi, and each handles a bit differently than Mario in the main game. If world building is something that appeals to you, Toad Rally and Build mode work together to offer an interesting alternative to just replaying all the levels again and again.

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Personally, though, I didn’t find this to be enough to make me want to keep coming back to Super Mario Run. World building really isn’t what draws me into a Mario game. I admit I could see myself grinding for all the collectible coins to get more playtime out of each stage, but Super Mario Run has some technical shortcomings that really came to be fatal flaws which would keep me from doing this.

The first is something that I’ve been noticing with more and more mobile games lately, and that’s the fact that they have trouble performing on older mobile devices. I originally started playing the game on my iPad 2, and the game would lag terribly and crash after every few stages. I talked with some friends who had also tried it on older gear, and they had the same issues. When I switched to my iPhone 6, however, everything changed for the better. The lag and crashing issues dissipated, but let this serve as a warning to anyone without a more recent phone or tablet to play on.

The other technical issue is absolutely unforgivable in my book, and really soured my opinion of this game: the fact that it requires you to always be online. I think Nintendo has gotten a lot of their priorities confused lately; Super Mario Maker for the 3DS doesn’t let you go online to share stages you’ve created, and then you’ve got Super Mario Run, a mobile game, requiring you to always be online. I even put my phone in airplane mode to double check, and sure enough, you can’t even get past the title screen if you’re offline—an error message just keeps popping up, even if you paid for the entire game and not just the three demo stages.

I understand that you need the online aspects for the Toad Rally mode and the ghosts present there, but the fact you can’t play the main game offline is puzzling at the very least. With the holidays coming up, I thought Super Mario Run was going to be releasing at the perfect time considering all the long plane flights and car trips I’ve got coming up, and I’m sure I’m not the only one traveling over the next couple of weeks. The fact that I can’t play the game in a car, subway, or bus if I’m using a device without cell service, or on a plane at all—places where people are most apt to want to play mobile games—feels like Nintendo shooting Mario in his foot. This is one of the worst examples I can find of always-online gameplay, and it really hampers Super Mario Run and the potential enjoyment of it tremendously.

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Super Mario Run has a solid core as a mobile game. The endless runner style is nothing we haven’t seen before, but adding Mario’s classic platforming challenge created an extra degree of difficulty we don’t always get with the genre. Unfortunately, this was the brightest spot for this game. Even with all 24 stages, the main game is short, and relies heavily on collectibles and side options like rebuilding the Mushroom Kingdom to keep you coming back for more. Couple this with the fact that it needs to always be online to even be playable, and I think Nintendo really misses the point of what mobile games are supposed to be. Super Mario Run isn’t the worst mobile offering I’ve seen, but it could—and should—have been so much better.

Publisher: Nintendo • Developer: Nintendo EPD/DeNA • ESRB: N/A • Release Date: 12.15.16
6.0
Super Mario Run does a nice job of capturing the feel of a classic Mario game. The fact that it needs to always be online in order to play deters me from grinding through its collectible driven-gameplay, however, since it limits when and where I can actually play the game—defeating one of the primary purposes of playing a mobile game in the first place.
The Good Challenging platforming that will instantly remind you of other Mario games from over the years.
The Bad The always-online aspect is infuriating how much it can hinder when and where you play.
The Ugly All the times I wanted to say, “that’s what she said” whenever someone mentioned you can play with it with just one hand.
Super Mario Run is available on iOS platforms and coming later to Android. Primary version reviewed was for iPhone 6. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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