Mario is great! Ever since I was a kid I've loved the Bros. series, hailing the NES classics as the console's premier platformers. Few games truly capture the inventive, high-energy spirit of a pure platformer like Mario does (Rayman and Donkey Kong Country are the only other franchises that immediately spring to mind), and I think it's because the 2D Mario series grounds itself in two complementary mechanics: exploration and momentum. The Mario games are chock-full of small secrets to uncover, and the emphasis on mastering your momentum for accurate landings is a simple yet constantly engaging way to control the plucky plumber. A game like Mega Man isn't engaging to play in a vacuum because there's no complexity tied to its movement; Mario requires an awareness of your running speed at all times if you want to rescue Princess Peach and earn that coveted kiss.
And this is precisely why Super Mario Run works so well.
To specify, what I actually mean is "this is precisely why Super Mario Run works so well on paper". I think the platforming part of the game is great and fully justifies its $10 asking price, but the overall package is a strange fit for the mobile scene. On one hand you have this pretty simple but entertaining game that works great as a downloadable title on the Wii U or 3DS, but attached to it are these needless Toad Tickets and community building features that try to imitate the more successful products on the market—who exactly is this app designed for? The shallow town construction isn't going to satiate those addicted to Clash of Clans or Mobile Strike, and Toad Tickets serve no practical purpose since they're not monetized; it's like Nintendo wanted to make a half-step between "typical downloadable title" and "typical mobile game" but ultimately made something that's difficult to pitch to either crowd.
Even for as clever as the multiplayer component is, it's another aspect that's ambivalent on its target audience. Racing against another player's ghost through a stage and trying to snatch more coins than they can is fine in and of itself, but the addition of item boxes and layout rearrangements prioritizes randomization over memorization, something that's far better suited for real-time, head-to-head matches. On top of this, there's no way to see a player's high score or how skilled they are before you pick an opponent, only being able to "guess" their proficiency based on the amount of toads they've collected. Since you need to pay ten dollars straight-up in order to access the remaining levels, why not try and cater to the hardcore and institute leaderboards? If I feel like I'm the best 2-4 player around, why do I have to add friends from online message boards to see how I stack up? And why can't you let me race their ghosts in the multiplayer, or let me bet my toads in a one-on-one race, or practice the multiplayer stages before hand, or "favorite" players that I face in Rally Mode, or... anything?
Since toads are commodity tied solely to the town building aspect, it was easy to overlook that part of the game and simply sink my teeth into what Nintendo does best: make some damn good Mario levels.
Auto-runners are far from an untapped genre, so while Super Mario Run doesn't feel like a fresh take on the genre, it actually feels fresh for Mario fans. I was kinda unnerved by my foray into the title, finding it wholly unnatural that I couldn't turn around to pick up those few coins that I missed, but the more time I spent with Super Mario Run the more I adapted to this new style of play. And honestly, it's a lot of fun! Casual players get a taste of what speedrunning is like as they're pushed to complete levels with the fewest amount of mistakes possible, puzzling out ways to grab the most amount of coins while simultaneously having to execute perfect wall-jumps, aerial twirls, and koopa stomps. Those two key themes I mentioned before—exploration and momentum—are thankfully kept alive, as there are plenty of tricky ways you can nab a lot of coins by leaping off a foe's back or wall jumping to a secret location. Only a few stages feel dependent on enemy behavior and/or luck—the majority of the game plays well provided you play well, which is usually the mark of a tightly designed game.
If I am to gripe about the stages in Super Mario Run, it's that the game doesn't really have a difficulty curve, especially when going for a single type of special coin. The first world is basically as difficult as the last, which is to say that the whole game is a breeze to complete if you're only looking to topple Bowser. If you attempt to collect all the special coins, you'll unearth the real challenge this game provides, which is fairly no-nonsense for even the most hardened Mario vet. Collecting the black coins and surviving the black coin special stage takes the game to a whole 'nother plane of pain, something I relished greatly as a platforming masochist. I wouldn't say the game is worth your time if you're only interested in a single playthrough, but for those of us that have 100%ed all of the past titles, this is a game that absolutely cannot be missed.
I like Super Mario Run a whole lot, but the catch is that I would like it just as much had it been on any of my handhelds. There is no need for the game to be tied to the mobile market, and in some ways it's worse for attaching itself to mobile trends, unnecessary bloating the game with insidious monetization pitfalls that aren't even monetized to Nintendo's benefit! In spite of this, Super Mario Run is a great game to pick up and play for a bit should you find yourself needing to fiddle with something on your phone, the single player mode standing tall alongside its excellent New brethren. I would love to see a second stab at this somewhere down the road, because Mario and auto-running is a match made in heaven.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I still have to
Other images obtained from: engardget.con, rollingstone.com