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Is 'Super Mario Run' Sacrilegious?

'Super Mario Run' is a Nintendo game that's not on a Nintendo console. The sky is falling.

by Leif Johnson and Emanuel Maiberg
Dec 19 2016, 12:00pm

Welp. I never thought I'd say this, but it's time to discuss Nintendo's first mobile game for iPhone, Super Mario Run, and as far as I can recall, the first Nintendo game that's not being published on a Nintendo platform of some kind.

This isn't some third-tier app by Nintendo, either, like Miitomo from last year. This is a Nintendo-ass Nintendo game starring none other than Mario, Nintendo's iconic plumber and the character that represents the company—and all of video games, really—more than any other.

I have to admit I'm a little shook by this historic development, so I emailed Motherboard contributor Leif Johnson to talk it out.

8:23 AM Saturday

From: Emanuel Maiberg

To: Leif Johnson

I want to say right away that my impression of Super Mario Run is based on the first three free levels. I didn't pay to unlock the rest of the game. Nintendo's bet is that I would buy it for $10 after getting a taste, and that's probably the most critical thing I can say about it: I didn't want to keep playing.

The other thing I should get out of the way right now is that I am old—old enough to have played the original Super Mario Bros. when it was at the cutting edge of video games.

Image: Nintendo

I can imagine younger people who haven't played as many Mario games as me having more fun with Super Mario Run. It's probably safe to assume for some kids this will be the first Mario game they ever play, and I can imagine that being really exciting, because it is still colorful and beautifully scored and mostly all the things that make Mario games good.

But I was a little burned out on the 2D Mario games before this thing even came along, and this iteration, while it has some hidden depth, is even simpler by comparison.

Leif, I'm going to dox you right now and reveal that you're an old man like me, so I'm wondering if you feel the same. Is there still room for this kind of Mario in your heart, and are you more or less likely to play something like that because it's on a phone that's always on you?

6:16 PM Saturday

From: Leif Johnson

To: Emanuel Maiberg

I am indeed an old codger. I admit I'm not as big on Nintendo these days as I was when I was a kid, but when the NES and SNES were in their prime, I played them until I knew the secrets of all of the major Mario games up to Super Mario World. As an '80s kid, I have a soft spot for platformers in general.

Strangely, for me, that was why I found myself loving Super Mario Run. Sure, there were a few oddities that took me a few minutes to get used to, such as the way it's okay to run straight into a goomba so Mario can roll over it with a parkour-style animation. (You can still jump on them and smoosh them, though.) Super Mario Run also takes a big cue from today's popular "runner" mobile games like Canabalt and Temple Run by automatically forcing Mario to keep running forward, although he can backtrack a bit by bouncing off of walls.

But it's a fine interpretation of classic Mario for an iPhone. The "always running" concept works well since it adds some verticality to the the familiar sidescrolling nature of Mario's 2D series. I also like that I actually *could* play with one thumb in casual moments, thus avoiding the convolution of multiple controls plaguing many other mobile games. I'm not averse to playing mobile games in general, but it's worth mentioning here that the only one I still play almost every day is still Bejeweled Blitz, which, too, can be played with only one finger.

Image: Nintendo

More importantly, it's actually challenging in spots. But here's the thing—you don't see that until you pay the full $9.99 after completing the third zone (although I felt the 20-second preview of the first castle with its more complex mechanics was enough to prove that greater challenges waited ahead). There's a major jump in level creativity afterward. The first level of the paid content aside from the castle sees Mario dodging ghosts and reaching the left side of the screen by going right in the tradition of 1983's Mario Bros., then bouncing up on special platforms that shoot him skyward to reach the tough spots.

I still haven't beaten it (mainly owing to a lack of time), although I keep hearing about how people have beat it within an hour or something silly like that. Maybe that's possible if you just speed through the 24 levels of the "Tour" mode with only the intention of reaching the end. But I think playing it like that's missing the point. Hell, even before the internet was a thing I knew how to beat Super Mario Bros. in 20 minutes. Maybe even less than that. And I don't remember thinking it was a shit game because of that.

But I believe collecting all the coins presents far greater and rewarding challenges, and the way it unlocks new, harder-to-reach coins for subsequent playthroughs encourages replay There are a lot of tricks involved, and truly finishing it requires some mastery.

I'll allow that maybe even eight more levels might have been nice for the $10 price tag, and I acknowledge that Nintendo seemed to have a hard time figuring out how to make the boss battles work with the running mechanic. But these are levels I can easily see myself playing again and again. I remember playing the Super Mario games over and over to find secrets like this, and thus for me, it soothes that nostalgic itch in a way I wouldn't have thought possible on my iPhone. I think part of the reason it works for me is that it captures that same type of action that made Flappy Bird so strangely appealing, but uses it to make a memorable game, complete with varying strategies for different environments. People seem to be expecting some kind of Mario game that plays like a Nintendo 3DS game with a D-Pad and action buttons, but you're always risking ease of use with the more stuff you try to sneak into a smartphone title. Honestly, I think it's a brilliant first start.

Time: 12:35 PM Sunday

From: Emanuel Maiberg

To: Leif Johnson

I'm glad that you ended that email with that point about the D-Pad, the cross-shaped directional pad on the left side of Nintendo controllers, with which you move the character in most games. To those who don't know, Nintendo actually invented that button, patented it (which is why most other D-pads suck), and won an Emmy for it!

That's how foundational of a company Nintendo is to video games. Its best, most influential games, were Nintendo-designed software published on Nintendo-designed hardware. There's a Steve Jobsian, holistic quality to them. The iPhone worked where similar devices failed in the past because—as with most of its products—Apple controlled every part of the experience. Nintendo does this, too. For example, a lot of the best practices about 3D, third-person game design are based on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, which were designed around the joystick in the center of the Nintendo 64 controller.

Image: Nintendo

On a very basic level, games are about pushing a button on a thing in your hands to make something happen on a screen, and for 30 years Nintendo showed the world why this was fun by designing every component that's a part of that process. This is also why we expect Nintendo to innovate on a physical input level as much as we expect it to innovate with software: The Nintendo 64's joystick for the 3D era, the Wii's motion controls, the DS touch screen, Wii U's failed attempt at a second screen, and so on.

I accept your review of Super Mario Run. It is measured and well-argued and actually makes me want to give it a second chance. But it doesn't really change my opinion that there's something sacrilegious about it. Nintendo has finally relinquished control of the hardware. It's working within the input confines developed by Apple. It's probably the best runner game on mobile, and I expect no less from some of the best designers in the industry. However, Super Mario Run makes Nintendo just another mobile game developer. I feel like this is a bad move creatively and strategically. Sure, it will make a ton of money in the short term, but if the Switch doesn't work out, and Nintendo eventually becomes just a software company, it will no longer be able to create the same revolutionary experiences it's known for. It will have less control over its future. We would lose a major innovator in tech, and that to me is tragic.

I know this is a lot of baggage to load up on a little mobile game, but are you getting any of that. Does it feel weird to play a Mario game on a non-Nintendo device?

12:05 PM Sunday

From: Leif Johnson

To: Emanuel Maiberg

I can't really say it does. Sure, you can do some wonderful things with a proper handheld device like the 3DS, allowing for great games like 2011's Super Mario 3D Land. Playing one "feels" like playing a video game should. Even today I'll admit that I've never enjoyed Tetris more than when I played it on the new Game Boy in 1989, and I have fond memories of running off to the electronics section at Walmart where I'd play the display copy while my parents shopped.

But I really, really don't like having to lug around another device besides my phone. This extends beyond games. I love my Kindle Paperwhite, but I'll often even leave it at home in favor of the convenience of using the Kindle app on my phone.

Image: Nintendo

It's not just that. Everything about Super Mario Run—the aesthetics, the sounds, the annoying way the Nintendo server menus take too long to respond—feels very Nintendo in a way the colossally disappointing Miitomo did not. Maybe I'm in the minority with this one, but I associate Nintendo more with certain imagery, moods, and experiences than with hardware. I played the hell out of games on my NES and SNES, but in my memory I remember not the grey boxes but the sight of all those (at the time) breathtakingly detailed games coming to life on my crappy bedroom television that still had a black-and-white setting. It felt like the future, and it felt fun.

I feel a little of that with this. But, in your favor, I will admit I feel little of that keen sense of the future while playing, in part because Super Mario Run's design so heavily takes inspiration from its past. That's a shame in light of Nintendo's history of innovation, but I can't bring myself to say it isn't fun. I distinctly remember thinking in the first hour after playing that this was probably the most comfortable I'd felt playing on my phone in a while. I experienced none of the lag and framerate drops my iPhone 6 gets with, say, Hearthstone, and no annoying ads interrupted me while playing. Instead, it ran like something Nintendo had made for its own devices. Considering how long it took for them to make this first step, I think that's impressive.

3:19PM Sunday

From: Emanuel Maiberg

To: Leif Johnson


Okay, I guess we're both old but I get the dubious honor of being the bigger curmudgeon, because—while everything you say is true—the game just doesn't sit well with me.

I'll say this: Another thing Nintendo always knows how to do is capture a new, younger audience. Maybe this is what ultimately led them to publish a Mario game on iPhone. It's just where you need to go to acquire a younger audience.

I would hope that this audience would graduate to a dedicated Nintendo console or any type of game that isn't a mobile game, because I still find that ecosystem mostly shallow and deplorable due to various monetization and data collection schemes. Super Mario Run doesn't commit those sins, at least for now, and that's another thing I'll say in its favor.

I'll spend $10 to give it a fairer shake because you make great point but...let's just say I really, really hope the Switch is a success.

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