Review: 'Super Mario Run' is a Charming, Gorgeous Grind

Review: 'Super Mario Run' is a Charming, Gorgeous Grind

'Super Mario Run' for iOS is free to download from the App Store and you get access to three basic levels. A one-time payment of $9.99 unlocks the full game Nintendo

Nintendo refines Mario to its essence and makes something magical for your iPhone

Nintendo refines Mario to its essence and makes something magical for your iPhone

Thinking of Super Mario Run as merely a "runner" is to do it a huge disservice. It's Nintendo's first serious crack at an iPhone game, and though it shares a handful of ideas with the likes of Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride, it actually ignores more of the conventions that these games established than it embraces. You're not fighting against the punitive scroll of the level, and it never feels like the game is trying to kill you for being too slow. This is a game that's more about precision and accuracy. Think of it as a refinement of the essentials of Super Mario, tailored specifically for one-handed play on your phone.

When we asked Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto what his fundamental approach to making a game for the iPhone was, he said that he and his team started with the question, "what if we made a Mario game where all you do is jump and everything else is handled automatically?" While that sounds delightfully simple, what it fails to communicate is just how nuanced Super Mario Run actually is. Miyamoto's description holds weight for your first five minutes or so playing it it. You download it for free, you play World 1-1, and you witness Mario run relentlessly to the right as you tap the screen to jump. The longer you tap, the higher he jumps, but otherwise, the game takes care of just about everything else. It works great. You might wince at how it seems to dumb down the essence of Mario games, but stick with it.

Unlike in other runner-type games, you'll notice that Mario will occasionally stop when he runs over "pause" blocks. This lets you assess how the patterns in a level are unfolding, and there are also some static levels that don't scroll at all. In other words, there's much more going on than in your typical auto-runner.

What's not immediately clear from the freebie is that while this gorgeous, charming game looks a bit like 'New Super Mario Bros.' and is deceptively simple to play, the real meat of it is in grinding the endgame.

You'll power your way through worlds 1-1 to 1-3 pretty quickly, but you'll soon start to notice that there's much more to do than you'd originally expected. There are multiple routes through courses, and you'll see collectibles in seemingly impossible to reach places – as is proper for a legitimate Mario experience. Just before you reach Bowser's first "Castle Hangout" in 1-4, you'll hit the first sign of the game's paywall. If you want to fight Bowser (and I use that term loosely – boss fights in this game are laughably simple) you'll have to shell out the $9.99 to unlock the entire game.

If you're not convinced yet, you can back out and try the game's other two modes: Toad Rally, which initially seems like competitive speedrunning through levels you've already unlocked, and Kingdom Builder, which at this point will seem like a throwaway town-building mode, with little substance. What's not immediately clear from the freebie is that while this gorgeous, charming game looks a bit like New Super Mario Bros. and is deceptively simple to play, the real meat of it is in grinding the endgame.

Once you've paid your $10 to unlock the whole thing, you can blast through the game's six worlds – each with three stages plus a simple boss fight – remarkably quickly. If you're pretty good at it, you can probably push through all 24 stages in a couple of hours. What will take you a lot longer is achieving everything that this mode really asks of you. If you want to have a "perfect" record on every World Tour level, you’ll first need to collect five pink challenge coins among the standard gold coins. Once you’ve collected those, you'll unlock the purple coins which are scattered throughout the same levels in much tougher locations. When you get all five of those, you’ll have to play through yet again to grab all the black coins, which are insanely tough to reach.

Things start to get interesting once you've unlocked every stage. Beating the World Tour unlocks Princess Peach, the first of the game's five additional playable characters. (You'll eventually unlock Yoshi, Luigi and Toadette, and you can grab Toad if you connect your MyNintendo account.) As in Super Mario Bros. 2, each of these characters exhibits different abilities: Toad can run faster, Peach can float when she jumps, and Yoshi can do that kinda-sorta flying thing he does. Leveraging these different abilities lets you reach special coins and areas of each stage more easily. Also – significantly – it gives you different ways to approach Toad Rally, which it turns out is actually the engine that drives this whole endgame thing, and provides a steady drip of pharmaceutical-grade enjoyment.

To enter Toad Rally events, you need to earn tickets, which are doled out like achievements for beating levels in the World Tour. So, in effect, you'll also need to keep grinding the Tour in order to have a constant supply of tickets. When you enter a Rally, you're racing other players' ghosts (or those of friends, if you connect Facebook and Twitter), but while it looks like a straight-up speedrun, the real competition is actually around style. How you move through the course dictates how many Toads of different colors appear to cheer you on, and the cleaner your run and the fancier your moves, the more Toads give you the thumbs up. Winning is a combination of getting further through the course and receiving more appreciation from the Toads. At the end of the run, the number that cheered for you is tallied and tracked as part of your profile.

This is where it all ties in with the Kingdom Builder mode. Different structures require different numbers of different colors of Toads to unlock, and once the criteria are met, they can be bought with gold coins, which is the basic collectible in every level of the game. The buildings you place unlock bonus levels, and they're also how you unlock the remaining characters. So, if you want to see everything the game has to offer, you have to keep grinding through the different modes, perfecting your technique to unlock the game's hidden depths.

As with any Super Mario Bros. game, practice is key. Far from being a chore, there's something genuinely satisfying about the way Super Mario Run rewards skillful play and practice. If you're predisposed to this kind of immensely satisfying, repetition-based play, this is a game that is going to consume a huge chunk of your time and a significant amount of your phone's battery life. It does a remarkable job of blending elements that make Mario games so charming and magical with the kinds of contemporary gameplay loops that make it feel genuinely modern. It's also definitely something that's been optimized for the short-burst way that people play mobile games – nothing in it takes longer than a couple of minutes to play through, making it the perfect coffee shop or (be honest) bathroom break distraction. Unlike so many other games on our phones though, it can sustain your interest for much longer if you want to give it the time it deserves.