Super Mario Run was released last week and, if you haven’t heard, it’s brilliant. But ace as the single player campaign, World Tour mode, may be, it turns out that Toad Rally is Nintendo’s secret weapon - a series of levels that remix and repeat sections, and are ran competitively against the ghost data of other players.
This mode takes the core Mario skillset and then asks you to execute it flawlessly over assault courses that, while sometimes familiar, are always something new. Where World Tour’s excellent coin-collection challenges have an element of learning the levels to them, here you learn certain configurations of blocks, pipes and enemies - then string them together on the hoof. And to be any good at it, with apologies to another cartoon mascot, you’ve gotta go fast.
There are two elements that feed into how Toad Rally scores players - coins collected and tricks performed (represented by cheering Toads) - but these are both so dependent on how you play the levels. Triggering Coin Rush is the first consideration, a meter that builds up as you bop enemies, collect coins, and execute fancy moves - and then makes the scenery explode in showers of coins. So the first question in any given rat-run is how do I get through at speed with as many flashy moves as possible - then even when Coin Rush hits, you're looking to eke out the seconds by adding fractional top-ups from somersaults and spin-jumps.
This is where Super Mario Run starts to move to another level. We all love playing through Mario levels anyway, but the motivation to repeat play them dies out after a certain number of perfect runs. Even though Toad Rally’s layouts start to become more familiar every time the random way that stretches are joined-together means that you’re never sure just what’s coming. Flawlessly hopping across three bullet bills, hovering through a coin cloud and then bouncing up to a purple coin off some poor Parakoopa’s back might be the dream scenario but, often, you’ll realise too late and settle for snaffling what you can at the edges. And make a mental note for its reappearance - the levels are designed so you see most sections twice in a single run, giving even Slowpokes the chance to score one optimal runthrough.
All of this would make Toad Rally merely an amazing mode. But the secret sauce is that, as you start improving, the number of Toads in your kingdom increases - meaning you get better and better ghost data coming over the airwaves. And as you lose to one or two of these you see new and better techniques, adopt them, and soon you’re going up against players who don’t make many mistakes at all. This is when chaining Coin Rushes and Starmen entered my life.
The most remarkable thing about Super Mario Run as a whole is that it distils Mario’s essential qualities into top-tier one-touch controls. The subtleties between an amazing jump at just the right arc and a flailing restart are a big learning curve, and Nintendo’s designers are exceptional in their use of the negative space too - always tempting players to touch too early, or too many times, when fractional patience can lead to exponential rewards. Delicate rhythmic taps with minor differences in touch time result in screen-spanning acrobatics from point to point, the tiniest adjustment making all the difference to a coin-swilling pirouette descent, and the momentum building with each perfect touch.
Hitting Coin Rush is a big enough moment: it puts Mario’s speed near the top levels and sees coins shooting from everywhere. Building it up is a matter of nailing enemies and tricky jumps, and soon enough you master it. But keeping it going with the same thing at top speed is another matter, and when reactions come to matter less than reflexes - the greatest tribute you can pay SMR is that, at these high-octane moments of precision, you never once feel that the mistake was the controls. Instead you come to respect and love the finesse that those Kyoto demons have somehow wrangled out of an interface that, with all due respect, still only gets ‘good enough’ treatment from most developers. This game is more like Ikaruga than the mobile port of Ikaruga.
And it’s why the chaining comes to feel like magic. Certain configurations have starmen in them and - because they’re going to repeat - you can more or less take a whole run at top speed in either Coin Rush or full-on invincible mode. And when you’re invincible, not only is the usual Coin Rush effect triggered but coins are sucked into your character when close enough - you become the lightspeed vacuum of all things shiny, barrelling forwards to glory. The Toads can’t get enough. A single mistake will end it, and often does.
And yet sometimes you make it, and a fat wad of Toads come home to your kingdom. The solo World Tour mode gears up towards the Black Coin challenges, which are again a brilliant piece of design but based in part on learning a single route perfectly. That’s fine - and as the NSMB series shows leads to bravura set-pieces from Nintendo’s best minds - but Toad Rally brings something different. Here it’s about learning the core Mario skillset anew, as it has been translated to touch, and then relying on instinct over memory.
Even then there’s another layer - it’s Nintendo, of course there is. You begin the game as Mario but soon unlock five other characters: Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Toad and Toadette. Each has a familiar ability but lacks others: Mario and Luigi can become Super and take an extra hit without Coin Rushes, for example, being interrupted; Peach can float over and past obstacles and through coin layouts; Yoshi has his flutter-jump, a beautiful tool that needs advance timing and split-second reflexes; Toad and Toadette just go really fast. Each moveset shares a core but branches from that and, with the level configurations being as expertly-engineered as they are, each has their dream runs and sinkholes.
I’m at just over 3,500 Toads after four days, have barely unlocked all the playable characters, done less than half of the World Tour coin challenges, and feel like I’m just beginning to stretch the old legs - those NES legs, those SNES legs - on Toad Rally. Beautiful Toad Rally, so snugly-integrated with the ever-expanding Kingdom Builder and the stream of new items that let you play Bonus Games and otherwise tool about. This is a plaything as well as a beautiful game, and Toad Rally feels like one hell of a jewel - one whose lustre could enrapture you, if not forever, for a good few months at least.
What a beauty this game is. Once you’ve put the hours in, and I am a Toad Rally master, it really puts the whining into perspective. It's ignorant. You don’t think this game is worth £8? No problem - enjoy your free dog food. Lap it up.
Let’s get real here. Mobile may be one of the biggest categories around but it’s also one of the most quality-poor. If you want to play King and Supercell games for the rest of your life then fine - and I’ve had some decent times with them too - but surely we can dream of a better tomorrow. Not one where Nintendo rules with Mario games, that’s not the point, but one where quality like this is recognised and a reasonable pricepoint is accepted without such base entitlement to the work of true professionals. No-one complaining about this game knows what this game is.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever and, after a great Toad Rally run, I especially enjoy the results screen. It’s another miniature Nintendo marvel, perhaps the heir to Super Mario 64’s squidgy face, whereby the two players’ runs are recreated on a horizontal line with coins and restarts and Coin Rush time shown. An addictive little show when left running, you can also furiously tap through it and feel an echo of the great moments just past, and at the end all the Toads come home. Your score is higher, as was destined, and your opponent’s Toads look downcast.
But only for a moment. The sun shines again, they shoot upwards to my welcoming top half of the screen, and a quick shift of scenery soon sees them shuffle up the pipe into my Mushroom Kingdom. Off you go, boyos. It’s a wonderful, rewarding ending to the pure skill game that is Toad Rally, as the multicoloured Toads fill your world and begin whirling around the buildings therein.
It’s only too perfect that, in the closest races, the votes of watching Toads decide the winner. The ones where you both played a blinder, but in that instant you snuck in an extra wall-jump - and one of them noticed. Who knows which but you’ve been a beautiful audience Reds, Blues, Yellows, Greens and particularly Purples. Thanks for watching - peace out.