Super Mario Run review

Game Info
Platform iOS, Android
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Nintendo
Release Date Dec 15, 2016

Super Mario Run brings Nintendo's star character to his biggest audience yet, but it may not be the perfect introduction players hoped for.

Across dozens of games, Mario has long demonstrated the incredible things that Nintendo's consoles, controllers and software, when designed in concert, are capable of. From the revolutionary Super Mario 64 to the beautifully refined Super Mario Galaxy games, Mario has blazed the trail for Nintendo, helping us to better understand why Nintendo sometimes zigged when other video game makers zagged.

As of today, we now know what a Mario game plays like when designed by Nintendo for someone else's hardware platforms. The platforms in question are Apple's iPhone and iPad. And Super Mario Run, the game bringing the franchise to non-Nintendo hardware for the first time in decades, only makes me appreciate Nintendo's usual approach to hardware and software design all the more.

we now know what a Mario game plays like when designed for someone else's hardware
Super Mario Run screenshot montage

Nintendo has made an admirable attempt at translating the gamepad controls of side-scrolling Mario games to taps on a touchscreen with Super Mario Run. Mario runs automatically from left to right, and players simply tap to jump — a move that allows Mario to stomp enemies, smash blocks and collect coins.

Super Mario Run's simplified control scheme generally works well, but after three decades of Mario's evolution, the experience often feels compromised by the lack of power-ups and precise control I've grown used to. That's understandable, given the limited inputs Nintendo has available to it on mobile platforms, but for a company that has made its share of incredible one-button games, it's a little disappointing.

Players will spend the bulk of their initial time in Super Mario Run in World Tour, one of the game's three modes. Similar to a traditional Mario adventure, World Tour spans 24 levels spread across six worlds. Players visit very familiar territory: ghost houses, deserts, the skies of the Mushroom Kingdom, and Bowser's castles and airships. They have the look and feel of a modern Mario side-scroller, and Nintendo's clean, colorful and charming art design shines through.

Super Mario Run screenshot

Super Mario Run is not an endless runner; each level is handcrafted and plays like a traditional side-scrolling Mario game. Run to the right, avoiding Goombas and Koopas and other threats, and reach the flagpole. But Super Mario Run plays with the established formula in some unexpected ways that might be a little tough for Mario veterans to get used to.

The biggest change to Mario's behavior is how he vaults over enemies. Running straight into, say, a Goomba won't hurt Mario. Instead, he'll push himself over it safely. If the player taps the screen while Mario vaults, however, he'll launch into the air, dispatching the enemy and boosting his jump. It's a major change to the Goomba and Koopa stomping we've grown accustomed to, and it tripped me up more than once, but the mechanic makes sense given Super Mario Run's one-button controls.

That's not the only change that makes Super Mario Run feel different from its forebears, however.

The game also does away with the traditional lives system from past Mario games. Rather than a stock of extra lives to draw from, Super Mario Run uses "bubbles" to give Mario another chance. If Mario falls into a pit or suffers an otherwise fatal blow, a bubble will ensnare Mario and return him to an earlier part in the level. The player has some control of when that bubble pops, however, and there were a few instances where I expected to be transported to a safe place, only to pop that bubble and ... fall into another pit. That said, having the option to manually summon the bubble to correct a mistake during a run is a welcome mechanic.

Kingdom Builder feels like a lengthy grind

Online only

One of Super Mario Run's more bothersome shortcomings is its online connectivity requirements. You'll need a network connection to start the game, and anytime you earn something or complete a level, Super Mario Run will access the internet. If you don't have a solid connection, the game will prompt you to find a better one. I learned how frustrating that can be while playing the game on the New York City subway and, having completed a Challenge Coin run, was unable to save my progress until my train emerged from underground. The fact that I won't be able to play Super Mario Run on a plane without paying for in-flight Wi-Fi is easily the game's most glaring flaw.

Super Mario Run's other main gameplay mode, Toad Rally, lets you challenge other players in races to see who can collect more coins and recruit more Toads. The asynchronous multiplayer mode pits players against a ghost replay of someone else's run of levels plucked from World Tour mode, and whoever snags more coins and attracts more Toads with their platforming skills will emerge the victor. Toad Rally is a faster-paced, more chaotic game mode than World Tour, and not as strong as Super Mario Run's main attraction. But players will be forced to spend ample time playing Toad Rally if they want to unlock everything the game has to offer.

The reward for playing Toad Rally is more Toads for your personal kingdom, which plays into a third mode, Kingdom Builder. Kingdom Builder lets you build your own personalized Mushroom Kingdom. Players can purchase buildings and decorative items to unlock new playable characters — Toad, Peach, Luigi, et al. — and special levels. In just a few hours with the mode, Kingdom Builder feels like a lengthy grind in service of unlocking mostly cosmetic items. You'll need to recruit hundreds of multicolored Toads to your kingdom to get access to new buildings and items like warp pipes and rainbow bridges. That means playing and replaying Toad Rally levels again and again, a component of Super Mario Run that already feels more like work than fun.

There's more interesting replayability in Super Mario Run's World Tour challenges. Each level in World Tour contains three tiers of Challenge Coins — pink, purple and, ultimately, black — that are increasingly harder to collect. If you manage to find and grab all five of the pink Challenge Coins, you'll unlock the purple ones. Collect all those and you'll get access to the black coins. The layout of some levels will change slightly as those coin challenges progress. Going after the bonus coins is where I found the most fun with Super Mario Run's platforming and became more impressed with its level design.

Wrap Up:

Super Mario Run captures some of what's great about Mario, but not enough

Super Mario Run is an enjoyable but imperfect adaptation of the Mario games for touchscreen devices. Nintendo's unmatched craft in creating platformers is evident during the best moments of Super Mario Run, but the experience is sometimes hamstrung by the game's limited control. The all-too-brief World Tour is its strongest pillar, but I wish there were more to the game beyond playing the same levels again and again. Mario may finally have a home on a much bigger platform than Nintendo's own hardware, but his best adventures remain elsewhere.

Super Mario Run was reviewed using pre-release, final iOS code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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7.0 iOS