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Super Mario Run review: a fun but compromised Mario on iPhone

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Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Oftentimes Super Mario Run, the first smartphone game created by Nintendo, feels like a compromised version of the classic games. To work comfortably on a touchscreen held in one hand, Nintendo has had to change its proven formula. This isn’t new for Nintendo, a company that, particularly with portable gaming, has found creative ways to adapt its most beloved franchise. But Super Mario Run is, for better and worse, different.

While Super Mario Run may look like a traditional side-scrolling game, it’s actually an automatic runner, a genre popularized on mobile by Canabalt and Temple Run. On his own, Mario perpetually runs to the right of the screen; you control his jumps, though there’s some variation. Tap the screen for a quick hop, and hold your finger down for a longer leap. From this simple framework Nintendo has created a surprisingly robust experience. With a combination of taps and presses, Mario can perform wall jumps, catapult himself over enemies, flutter through the air, and grab onto ledges. Environmental features modify his behavior, like blocks that stop Mario from his endless skitter eastward, or other blocks that make the squat plumber perform backwards aerials. For a game controlled by a single thumb, there’s unexpected room for creativity and even exploration.

One of the most unusual twists on the Mario formula is the verticality: compared with past Mario adventures, more levels build upwards for Mario to zig-zag across the screen. In Super Mario Run you hold your phone in portrait mode — allowing you to play the game one-handed — and it often feels more like you’re climbing a tower than skipping across the long, open spaces of classic 2D Mario games. The haunted house stages are a particular highlight, maze-like structures that send you up and down and up again in search of the exit.

Super Mario Run’s main mode, called “world tour,” features 24 levels spread across six worlds. I managed to get through the collection in under two hours, so don’t go in expecting a lengthy campaign comparable to Super Mario World and its ilk. Long-term enjoyment of Super Mario Run will hinge on a tolerance for playing through the same levels many, many times. Each stage is designed to be replayed, drawn with multiple paths to explore, and littered with “challenge coins” that get progressively trickier to find. A secondary “toad rush” mode has you compete with friends asynchronously — so don’t plan on realtime multiplayer sessions — to complete the same levels in pursuit of the highest possible score. All of these modes and features encourage different play styles.

The game’s architecture is varied, from Super Mario Bros. 3-style airships to castles filled with fireballs and saw blades. And six different characters, each with a unique feel, can be unlocked. Still, there’s a lot of repetition here. As well-designed as the 24 stages are, I found myself wishing for new places to explore just a few hours after I started. The “toad rush” mode feels particularly unfulfilling when it comes to repetition. While it’s fine comparing scores with friends, I mostly played to grind for currency to use in the game’s kingdom building mode, a relatively simple city-building feature where you can place decorations and structures to create your own customized version of the Mushroom Kingdom.

At its best, the game evokes feel of 2D Mario games, but it is not one of those games. It’s a one-button mobile game, an inescapable fact in the boss fights that are more tedious than fun, burdened by such limited controls. Meanwhile, tweaks like Mario’s automatic vaulting over enemies will take a lot of getting used to for Mario veterans. I still haven’t.

On a technical level, Super Mario Run is also saddled with some of the worst aspects of mobile gaming. Unlocking content like new characters is a slog — though not a costly one, as there are no in-app purchases aside from a one-time purchase fee of $9.99. And the “always-online” requirement means that if your data connection or Wi-Fi gets wonky, the game will pause and not let you continue until the signal is stronger, which makes the game all-but-unplayable in a lot of places like airplanes or subways.

And yet the game still feels more like Mario than another automatic runner with a Mushroom Kingdom-themed coat of paint. Part of that is the look — a 2.5D visual style pulled from New Super Mario Bros. — and characters, items, and locations plucked from the NES and SNES era. But just as familiar is the specific sense of movement, the cleverly designed levels, the overall playful nature.

Super Mario Run is a small but promising start, which is to say Nintendo, for all its innovations and creativity on its own hardware, is following the mobile gaming playbook to a T.

Super Mario Run is available today on iOS.