The old saying is that familiarity breeds contempt but, in reality, there are many intervening stages. When I was a child a new Mario game was a rarity, previewed endlessly with the same images repeating across all the magazines, and they were invariably system-selling masterpieces. As the industry and Nintendo has grown, new Mario games have become more frequent, produced with as much love and craft as ever but yet - not quite as special, by simple virtue of the fact there’s more.
Super Mario Run made me fall back in love with 2D Marios or, to be more specific, it re-creates Mario around one aspect of those early classics, and drills-down on what it can do. Mario has been a joy to control ever since Super Mario Bros. gave the character momentum, allowing players to accelerate and build up speed for huge jumps - and with enough skill, sprint flawlessly through a deathtrap without stopping. Super Mario Run has chosen this feeling, the sensation of guiding Mario at top speed through a gauntlet, and staked everything on it being able to support a full game. Does it work?
Does it ever. It helps when re-configuring a classic to have brilliant designers and what is immediately obvious with Super Mario Run is that ‘endless runner’ doesn’t fit - this isn’t endless, each stage is precisely-arranged, and the running style is designed around fairly golden-era platformer ideas rather than long, monotonous straights.
Levels are filled with environmental tools, like the ‘pause’ block which stops Mario dead for a second - letting you take off with a tap at the right moment. So too is the architecture built around multiple routes and acrobatic feats - zipping up chutes with quickfire wall jumps, bouncing off a koopa for height and then lazily spin-floating to a higher level, or simply dancing over bullet bills and under parakoopas with fast, delicate taps.
Mario works in a new way: he runs automatically, vaults over ground enemies (which can be combined with a tap to launch off their backs) and small obstructions, and jumps according to how long you hold a tap. The biggest link to controller Mario is this jump, which captures the fine distinctions between different leaps absolutely perfectly - within seconds of starting I had total faith in the jumps, feeling my old sense of judgement reborn in a new context.
The Super Mushroom survives intact, letting Mario absorb one hit, but other than that there are no power-ups. The de facto replacement for this are the scenery elements that let Mario execute unusual moves or re-configure layouts - things like the p-block play a more central role throughout these levels than ever before, while a pad that lets Mario backflip offers a delightful new way to scare Boos.
This pad contains in miniature why Super Mario Run’s design is brilliant. When Mario backflips he shoots backwards and up, allowing the player to quickly hop back onto platforms or enemies they’ve missed - whereupon Mario immediately screeches to a halt and starts sprinting forwards again. But these decisions all take place over a second. You’re running forwards, see the pad, decide whether to use it, execute the jump, look at where you can go next, and then execute the next jump. It’s frantic stuff, your brain often struggling to space out and get the taps just right, and this sense of straining to keep up with Mario’s motion recurs throughout.
That’s not all - later stages like the wonderful Ghost Houses wrap the screen around, using Mario’s perpetual movement to build puzzles-on-the-go. Here the backflip block changes Mario’s direction of movement, allowing him to scamper back and forth while scaling these more vertical setups. The sheer utility Nintendo squeezes from each element of the world is why Super Mario Run holds together so well, and the fact this is all constructed from a single input is remarkable.
If it does anything, Super Mario Run uses this input to keep you moving. Other running-style games often have harsh failstates but these levels are built to be scrambled through - Mario can clamber up edges he’s just missed, wall-jump out of pits to recover, and even a hard drop just resets him in a bubble. The bubbles are limited and enemies can still kill a clumsy plumber, but restarting stages entire is rare. These are rat-runs built for freewheeling movement and the sheer joy of battering through in any old way - yes the stages are layered with repeat challenges but the first time through always has a seat-of-the-pants thrill.
Whether this works for you depends on what you think of as Mario. For me the great 2D Marios are Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, games I played through so many times that sprinting came to be my natural state. To this day I play 2D Marios at top speed, ever-stretching to recapture those Hermes-like memories.
The New Super Mario Bros. series that began on the DS has never held quite the same attraction for me, though I have friends who insist they’re the best Mario has ever been. I suspect it’s because I never had the time as an adult to play them over and over, discovering the layers of the design that reward repeat play - it’s something the main Mario games have always been great at, constructing levels that work for first-timers but can give pros their own challenges. It’s when you start sprinting through, with a vague sense of what’s coming, that Mario’s momentum is most irresistible.
Nintendo has re-created its flagship character for a new platform with a new input method, and by focusing on the bare principles of what make Mario a joy to control they’ve pulled it off. Compare this Mario’s moves to a traditional 2D Mario’s moves and you’ll see that the latter are always building up to the pace that Super Mario Run uses as default. This is not to say either is better. Super Mario Run is a much leaner game than traditional 2D Marios, lacking both leisurely sprawl and the experimentation inherent in power-ups. Those games are glorious marathons, while this is a sprint.
In another beautiful touch, this idea lies behind the online mode - asynchronous races against other players called Toad Rally. Here you run through a stage against the other player’s ghost, aiming to both collect more coins and play more ‘stylishly’ overall. Even better, you can build up to a ‘Coin Rush’ with great play and extend this by continuing to collect them, leading to unbelievable extended bursts of high-octane hopping.
This is a perfect fit for Super Mario Run’s highly-replayable levels and adds a serious motivation to getting better - it’s such a pleasure to sail past another player, albeit in the abstract, flipping forward through a perfect arc of coins and knowing that move will seal it. At the end of each race the Toad Tally (very good) determines the winner, who gets a bunch of new Toads moving into their Mushroom Kingdom.
The final layer of Super Mario Run is this buildable Mushroom Kingdom - which is more of a plaything than a fully-featured mode. As you play through and acquire Toads you can build more things and attract other Mario characters - as well as installing features that let you play bonus games or give up free coins. Oh yeah - every coin you collect in the main game and online feeds into your Mushroom Kingdom. This really is a tight production.
And people seem to me to be pretty tight about it. Players always say that we don’t want the endless penny-grubbing and grinds and bottlenecks of F2P, we’d rather pay a fair amount for a game that isn’t structurally compromised. Problem is that, in practice, consumer behaviour rarely seems to bear this out. And even before release there’s been a good deal of grumbling about Super Mario Run’s price: the game offers up three-and-a-bit stages for free, as well as limited versions of online and the Kingdom builder, but then it’s £7.99 to unlock the full game’s 24 stages and all features.
Satoru Iwata gave a talk at GDC in 2011 where he warned game developers generally about devaluing games. About creating an audience that has high expectations but resents paying for the product. It’s hard not to feel that with this, as with so much, Mr Iwata was unusually prescient.
£8 for a premium Nintendo game, the most venerable developer in the industry, should not be raising anyone’s eyebrows - regardless of platform. Other developers and publishers should be cheering them along, because a serious example is about to be set either way - will the mobile market pay upfront and en masse for high quality games? Or do we want Super Mario Run 2 as a F2P title that’s subtly gimped in various ways? Your call.
I’ve had ambiguous feelings about Miitomo and Pokémon GO, Nintendo’s previous forays into mobile development and publishing. Both were gimmicky in different ways and, while you have to respect GO’s success in particular, neither captured what I love about Nintendo games.
Super Mario Run is, in this sense, the first real Nintendo mobile game. It is not 2D Mario as we know it but this is most definitely Mario, reimagined for a new generation of devices and players. It is a wonderful video game and I can’t wait to see if and how it grows. One only hopes that, now Nintendo has built it, the audience will come.