When Nintendo has talked in the past about designing new gaming hardware, it discussed having ideas for games and designing tech around being able to bring those visions to life. It gets an idea for a set of mechanics it’d like in a game, then design technology to make that game work. From there, Nintendo is often the master of taking a unique control scheme that other developers might find limiting, and creating well-designed games around those limitations and options.
It is in this regard that Super Mario Run succeeds. I am generally not a fan of non-stop runner games, but Nintendo found a way to take the idea of “single hand tap playable game where protagonist is always running and the phone is held vertically”, and create some truly ingenious puzzle designs from that starting point. Nintendo applied its usual level of level design and presentation polish, and ended up making me finally appreciate the potential of non-stop runners as a genre.
Nintendo applied its usual level of level design and presentation polish
So, how do Nintendo manage to make non-stop runners interesting? Nintendo’s level design choices regarding how to make Mario into a vertical non-stop runner work well mainly relate to the challenge of exploring that verticality, as well as figuring out out how to explore areas behind the path you’ve autorun down. Mario will automatically vault over small enemies and obstacles, as well as run over small gaps, but jumping during vaulting animations not only kills enemies and grants you a coin, but launches you considerably higher than the maximum height of your standard jump. Wall jumping throws you backwards along the path you came from. New block types, if used correctly. can speed you forward through the air on a wide horizontal arc. and certain blocks launch you in preset directions. Alongside a series of blocks designed to momentarily pause gameplay and give you time to plan out moves, Mario Run becomes a quest to find pathways to seemingly inaccessible areas on the hunt for increasingly better scores.
The level design also introduces challenges based squarely around vertical avoidance of horizontally-moving obstacles, forcing you as a player to explore vertical space with limited time to react. The vertical screen orientation limits your awareness of incoming threats, so a lot of the challenge comes from swift reactions to the sudden appearance of threats.
If you’re only aiming to complete each level once, Mario Run is damn short.
If you’re only aiming to complete each level once, Mario Run is damn short. There are six worlds, each with four levels, and each with a 100 second time limit. In theory, all of the levels can be played through very swiftly. However, I would argue this is skipping over the main appeal of the game’s design; Mario Run’s levels are almost explicitly designed with replay in mind. Attempts to collect all five special coins in a single run, exploring multiple paths hunting for which yields the most coins, finding secrets and exploiting tricks to reach new paths is the true joy of Mario Run’s gameplay. I found myself playing each level numerous times in an attempt to squeeze every drop of experience out of them.
Let’s talk about why Mario Run, a game with a single player campaign like most other Mario platformers, requires you to be online at all times while playing. There’s an additional mode called Toad Rally that allows you to compete with your friends over who can get the most coins and perform the most stylish run within a time limit on a given level. This mode records ghost data for your playthrough, uploads it for your friends to challenge, and rewards you for success with in-game currency used for upgrading a home base.
While this mode is cute, it’s certainly not the core of the game and I would have happily taken the ability to play offline knowing it would make this more inaccessible during that time. I really do not believe Toad Rally justifies the always online requirement the game carries, and find myself frustrated that its existence is why I can’t play Mario Run on a short tube ride or a flight. The game is the perfect short-form length to play on public transport, but the online connection requirement creates a barrier to that use case.
In terms of the game’s available demo, which allows players to try the game’s first three full levels and a 20 second preview of the fourth level, many of the most interesting things the game does are not showcased. The game undoubtedly gets more interesting and challenging as it goes, and I wish the intro to the game showed that better. The full set of levels can be unlocked with a single in-app purchase of £7.99, and in my experience that’s a totally worthwhile use of my money.
Ultimately, I came out pleasantly surprised by Mario Run. It’s a cute little non-stop runner that showed me why the genre was worth the time of day thanks to its superbly layered level and gameplay design. I found myself putting countless hours into working through its selection of content. I easily got £7.99 of enjoyment out of it, and would love to see more Nintendo games like it on Mobile. Just don’t force me to be online to play single player content.
Platform: iOS (reviewed)
Price: Free Demo, £7.99 full game unlock.
Release date: Out Now
- Strong level and gameplay design
- Makes smart use of control scheme
- Perfect for repeated short play
- Required online connection stops me playing on the tube
Nintendo made me appreciate the joys of a non stop runner, but also failed to understand how limiting single player play to online only would limit the cases in which this short simple game could be played.