Super Mario World is a legendary Nintendo game that took the original Super Mario concept from the NES and expanded it into a whole new evolution of the franchise that arguably laid the groundwork for what Mario games are today. Sadly, despite its name, Dr. Mario World — the upcoming mobile evolution of the original NES title — lacks the same pedigree, hewing closer to free-to-play mobile puzzlers like Candy Crush Saga.
To start, the base concept of Dr. Mario doesn’t even make it to Dr. Mario World. The game is a match-three game instead of a match-four, so any strategies or play styles that you’ve developed from years of Dr. Mario are rendered useless. That doesn’t really matter, though, because Dr. Mario World is more of a single stage-based, free-to-play experience than it is a serious puzzle game.
The game also exclusively plays like the alternative drag-and-drop “Virus Buster” mode from more recent iterations of the game. Instead of a Tetris-style drop of the capsules, players drag and drop them, and they can even continue to move half-capsules to a more advantageous place, should they match the first capsule. (Standard Dr. Mario plays more like a Tetris variant: players drop blocks down into a field of viruses, but there’s no added drag-and-drop mechanic.)
I had the chance to try out a few levels, and the game isn’t bad. The constantly moving nature means that you’ll have to think on your feet a bit more than some other puzzle games, and some of the puzzles are genuinely tricky. It just doesn’t really feel like a Dr. Mario game. There’s also a multiplayer component (which Nintendo has detailed here), but I wasn’t able to try it out in person.
Some changes are positive. The whole game board is inverted from the usual orientation so that players are dragging capsules up toward a waiting array of viruses, instead of the other way around — presumably, since players’ thumbs can more comfortably reach the bottom of a smartphone screen than the top. It’s a bit jarring at first, but it makes sense for the mobile and touchscreen nature of the game. It’s a similar ethos behind the changes made to the Mario formula for Super Mario Run, which similarly tried to adapt the classic gameplay for a more mobile format.
Instead of the more straightforward “clear the stage” gameplay, there are tricks seemingly pulled straight from Candy Crush: bombs and items scattered on the boards, blocks that must be destroyed (or that bar your path entirely), frozen viruses that must be matched multiple times in order to remove them from the board. It’s very much a stage-by-stage puzzle game, rather than the infinite gameplay of Tetris or the original Dr. Mario. But the added puzzle elements should help shake up the formula over time.
None of this on its own is inherently bad. Sure, it’s an evolution on the formula, and there’s a shift in focus to some of the alternative game modes of the series rather than the mainline puzzle mode. But it’s with Nintendo’s implementation of free-to-play monetization schemes that the cracks start to form.
We’ve come a long way from Nintendo’s initial idealistic approach to mobile games with Super Mario Run. Instead, Dr. Mario World follows in the footsteps of the more exploitative (and lucrative) Fire Emblem Heroes, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, and Dragalia Lost.
There are timers, limiting how much players can play at one time, although they can spend paid currency in the game to play more. There’s a randomized gacha system for unlocking new characters, assistants, and for upgrading your existing rosters. Players can either wait to accrue their earned in-game currency to pull the wheel or they can pay for premium currencies to try more often. Each character has different abilities (like clearing a random column or knocking out the top row of blocks), which can drastically change gameplay. Upgrading characters makes those abilities more powerful, but locking it behind a paid, random loot box system feels like shaking down players for real-world cash.
In other words, they’re the exact same strategies used by Nintendo in some of its other mobile games, which have all been extremely lucrative for the company. But it’s a little more disappointing here for some reason. Perhaps because Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing still resembled their original franchises despite the added monetization, or maybe because it’s starting to feel more like Nintendo’s monetization schemes are actually altering the gameplay of a classic title to squeeze more from players.
Again, none of this is really new at this point — for Nintendo or the mobile gaming industry at large — but it’s a bit disappointing. After all, if even Nintendo can’t figure out a way to make its beloved franchises work for mobile without sticking little price tags everywhere, what chance does the rest of the industry have?