Super Mario Run Review

It's a-me, Mario. To go!

Super Mario Run

After what seems like years of gossip, rumors, and debate, Nintendo has finally done what one time seemed unthinkable: they've brought Mario to mobile.

Super Mario Run is Nintendo's first fully-fledged game to release on smartphones and tablets, and much to our surprise, the results are kind of a mixed bag. There's a lot of what we love about Nintendo games in there, from the familiar to the experimental—but there are also some potentially wrong turns that make the game feel awkward at times, like an ill-fitting pair of plumber's overalls.

There are better platformers to be had on mobile, and no shortage of great Mario games on other devices—and yet Super Mario Run offers enough of that classic Nintendo charm that you'd be a fool to pass it up.

World Tour

Your introduction to Super Mario Run will feel immediately familiar, like stepping into an old shoe. And yet that shoe doesn't fit quite like you remember it. This is World Tour—the main mode in Super Mario Run that features 24 different stages spread out across six different worlds.

If that sounds like a small number for a Mario game (compared to other releases, it really is), Nintendo makes up for this shortfall with both variety and replayability. Stages vary with staggering intensity, offering a mix of everything from grasslands and ghost houses to airships and castles in just the first eight stages.

What's more, the game seems to borrow a page from another great mobile platformer, Chameleon Run, in that it offers collectibles that only unlock after completing a previous set of collectibles in a level. And collecting these requires players to think about different approaches for each set if they want to get them all. So while there may only be 24 levels, you'll need to ace each of them three separate times in different ways to really say you've beaten Super Mario Run. And considering the number of attempts such a feat will take, you'll more than get your money's worth before you finally put Super Mario Run down.

Playing With Power?

The strangest thing about Super Mario Run isn't how much they tried to make it a Mario game, but how much of Mario Nintendo was willing to surrender in order to create something truly suited for mobile. For the first time ever, Mario is an auto-running hero. You won't have any control over when he moves; just control over when he chooses to jump.

As a mobile formula, this works really well. But when looked at in the context of a Mario game, there are some definite frustrations here. Constantly moving to the right means that Mario can no longer move left—so if you missed a coin or didn't hit a question block, it's gone for good. And since so many of Super Mario Run's better objectives require sharp eyes and timely reflexes, you may find yourself repeating stages over and over to get every special coin.

The strange thing is that, once you get used to this limitation, you can see how brilliantly the levels are designed around it. Stages are finely crafted to play with the idea that Mario can only move to the right. Sometimes you'll have special blocks to hold Mario still, so you can time your run through a wall of fire sprites, or perfectly time a leap to a moving platform. Ghost houses have doors that keep moving you around, helping you to explore more of the level than you otherwise could. The stages are clever—and an absolute blast to play—but first you have to get used to the notion that this isn't the Mario that you're used to playing.

Enemy encounters no longer function the way you'd expect, either. Many enemies, like goombas and koopas, fail to do any damage to Mario. He can walk right up to them, doing a little hop automatically to pass by without harming a hair on their heads. Yes, you can stomp on them if you want to, but it's no longer an essential part of the gameplay. And yet the same isn't true of all enemies, so you'll need to treat each first encounter as a learning opportunity in this mobile Mushroom Kingdom. 

Super Mario Run's biggest changes can be embraced after a few plays, but when it comes to other elements, it's hard to deny that some of what we love about Mario is missing. There are no costume changes that lend power-ups, and no pipes leading to a brief underworld filled with coins. Super Mario Run has streamlined the experience to keep things one-touch simple, and some of what was lost in the process can't help but feel like questionable sacrifices.

Toad Rally

While you might have expected the World Tour portion of Super Mario Run to be where things really shine, it's the multiplayer Toad Rally mode that really managed to sink its Bowser-sized claws into us. Using the stages that you've unlocked in World Tour, Toad Rally pits your skills against the ghosts of other players to see who can collect the most coins and impress the most toads in a set amount of time. 

The ghosts of other players (not to be confused with Boo) are represented by a sticker version of Mario. Mario knows a thing or two about stickers already, but in the context of Super Mario Run, this sticker will show you the path taken by your opponent in a previous run. Competition isn't live, but asynchronous. In other words, you're looking at a score that somebody has already set on that level—and if you want to get better, a rematch in the exact same situation is just a click away.

And while a secondary goal of "impressing toads" might sound somewhat abstract, it works wonderfully in the context of Super Mario Run. Because Mario will automatically hop over low obstacles and enemies, you can time your taps to do big acrobatic moves whenever you come in contact with those things. Do something great, and you'll see a little pair of toad hands clapping. Earn enough of those (and coins), and you'll win the match.

Winning a match in Toad Rally awards more than just pride, too. You'll be given Toads to increase the population of your very own Mushroom Kingdom. This is Super Mario Run's meta-game, where players will spend coins to put up buildings and decorations, customizing their village as they unlock new options by growing the number of Toads under their rule. In the grand scheme of things it's a fairly silly feature—and yet the drive to grow that population is giving us incentive to return to Toad Rally time and again.

Social Shy Guy

Despite making the splendid social app Miitomo earlier this year, Nintendo has never been a leader in making their games conveniently social in an online setting—and Super Mario Run is no different. 

While the most appealing aspect of the game may be asynchronous multiplayer of Toad Rally, its potential is hampered by how poorly it integrates with your existing social circle. Yes, you can add friends from Facebook and Twitter (which is great), but directly adding a friend in any other manner requires the use of a 12 digit friend code that you'll need to cut and paste. This isn't the first time Nintendo has pulled something like this, and it's a lot less convenient than simply telling someone your username.

Even when you do add friends, you'll find that there's a lot less interaction here than you might have hoped. You can see your friends' scores in World Tour and check out their stats in the Mushroom Kingdom—but you can't directly challenge your friends to a Toad Rally race, or even visit their Mushroom Kingdoms to catch a glimpse of their growing town. Functionality like this is crucial to creating a social experience, so it's a disappointment that we've found the social side of Super Mario Run so lacking.

Worse yet, likely due to the inclusion of Toad Rally, Super Mario Run can't be played without a constant connection to the internet. So if you were hoping to play some World Tour on the subway to work -- even without challenging your friends -- you're totally out of luck.

On one occasion the random assortment of players I was offered to race in Toad Rally included one of my friends, so there's the chance that they're factoring some element of friend-vs-friend play in there. But if it's based on an algorithm rather than a player's desires, it's a shocking misunderstanding of what makes competitive gameplay rewarding for a huge cross-section of gamers.

A Different Mario for a Different Platform

Super Mario Run is a game that's left us with a weird mix of feelings. There's plenty of nostalgic joy to be found, but it's tempered by unfamiliar changes. The level design makes brilliant use of the game's limitations, but we're still wondering if those limitations were the right choice in the first place. Toad Rally is everything we love about competitive gameplay, except that we can't just square off against friends.

Super Mario Run is Nintendo's first real mobile game. As a mobile game, it's good. As a Mario game, it's ...unique. Whether or not that's a positive is truly hard to say, but there's no doubt that we're glad it's a thing that exists. If Super Mario Run is indicative of Nintendo's future plans on mobile, color us curious for what's to come.

Super Mario Run is available as a free download from the App Store. Unlocking the full game requires a single, one-time in-app purchase. In-app purchases are not shareable between shared family account.