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

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.

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.

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