Super Mario Run is a surprisingly robust game, considering its humble position as the most accessible Mario platformer Nintendo has ever designed. As I said yesterday, don't confuse it with the cheaper or cheesier endless runners you might see on the app store. It's much better to think of Super Mario Run as a proper Mario platformer that you just happen to always be holding the B-button on (like any good Super Mario Bros. 3 player does anyway, you need that P-power.)
Though the operations are simple: You tap the screen quickly for a short jump, hold it longer for a mighty leap. Despite the limited input, Mario has a fairly rich moveset here. The key is context. Depending on the situation, your little taps (and long taps) might result in a wall jump, a brief pause, or that perfect hop to nail one of the elusive challenge coins.
All of this is down to deceptively brilliant, understated design—thanks to the team that has been making core Mario games for thirty years. They know what they're doing, and they employ heavy use of experimentation, playtesting, and iteration in their process.
That's always been the case, and the team at Nintendo EAD has never been shy about picking up good ideas years after their initial exploration. Super Mario Run's roots actually lie with the very beginning of the Nintendo DS.
"Dating back to the days of Nintendo DS, we kind of hit the reset button with game design," famed Nintendo designer (and Mario creator) Shigeru Miyamoto told me, after a demo with the game. "We thought about what we could do to bring [games] back to their roots, and design them in a way to appeal to a broader, more casual audience," he said, noting that smartphones represent an even broader platform for our era.
"Following in those footsteps, as we were developing the New Super Mario bros. series, we experimented with the idea that all you do is jump," he said. "The core element of jumping is probably the most fun and appealing thing for the broadest audience. So, as we started to look at bringing Mario to iPhone, we began to experiment with some different ideas around that, and we really settled in on this idea of tapping to jump as the core mechanic for Super Mario Run."
The team was tempted by the almost ever-present swiping motions that so many mobile games employ, but instead kept coming back to jumping and tapping, designing the rest of the game entirely around those actions.
"By focussing so tightly on that style of jump, it allows people to focus on the core fun of [this style of] action game, timing your jumps and plotting your way through each of the courses."
I was most impressed by the spookier levels in the demo. Boo-themed stages have always been a staple in the Mario series (from Super Mario World on) for tricky, puzzling design. The team approached the ghost (and castle) levels here with extra care, given Mario's automatic running.
"It's very true that the boo levels were originally designed in a way for Mario games to add some puzzle solving [elements]. We expanded on that this time, with three different styles of boo levels in Super Mario Run," said Miyamoto.
In those spooky stages, "There's a mechanic where you're able to pause Mario, and those tempo changes become very important in solving the boo levels."
He described several variations on the formula, including a tall tower wherein the player needs to swap Mario's direction to make it to the top, as well as trickier levels where you need to constantly maneuver Mario to brief pause blocks in order to figure out the layout. Those ghost doors aren't going to open themselves.
I was interested in seeing how Super Mario Run, with its new approach to Mario platforming, will inform the small army of armchair Super Mario Maker course designers. So was Miyamoto.
"I think that the beauty of Super Mario Maker is that it's up to the player to decide how they want to leverage that toolkit. Certainly, I think there may be people who see something of a hint in the course design of Super Mario Run that gives them an idea for something they might want to do in Super Mario Maker, " he told me.
"It might be fun to create a Super Mario Run mode in Super Mario Maker! That's a good idea!"