Super Mario Run isn't really an endless runner.
In its worst (and all too common) examples, the endless runners use tricky or cheap design, putting more focus on the amount chaos that a designer can can throw onto the screen, rather than the tightly-crafted level design more often associated with the Mario franchise.
Thankfully, Super Mario Run actually plays and feels like a 2D Mario platformer, not a cheesy imitation of one. It features the same general design ethos of modern New Super Mario Bros. style games: fun obstacles, a cheerful aesthetic, and a balanced approach to pathing that leaves most levels relatively easy to finish, with plenty of challenges for those that want the real taste of the team's design chops.
Sure, there are some differences: Mario always runs in the game—typically from left to right—and you just need to tap the screen to jump. But levels are cleverly designed around timing and rhythm—and there's an appreciable depth to the height and length of Mario's leaps, just as in the main games. Short taps give you little, precise hops, but "holding" tap for longer gives you a nice, long leap—sort of like the Z-jump in Super Mario 64. Mario wall-jumps.
Importantly, the level design around these mechanics is top-notch: I played stages that recalled the old Mushroom "towers" with springboards and falling platforms, spooky boo stages with twisty puzzles and secret doors, and underground caverns with multiple paths obvious from the get-go.
"This game is made by the Mario brain trust," Nintendo of America President and Chief Operating Officer Reggie Fils-Aime told me, after I had some hands-on time with the game. He name-dropped legendary Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto (who we also had a chance to speak with—watch for that later today), along with Takashi Tezuka and Hideki Konno, who were all involved in making Super Mario Run. "These are some of the most talented developers that Nintendo has. So, making a game that is intuitive and easy to get started, and yet challenging at the same time, is really due to their capabilities."
When asked if the team took any cues from the relatively few games that have successfully translated from console to mobile (specifically, Hitman Go and the other Go titles), Fils-Aime offered this: "I will share an interesting story about our developers."
"They take inspiration from a range of different places. But, interestingly, not so much within the game space itself. For many of our developers, they've been making games, you know, for thirty years, he said. "So, for them, looking across the existing environment of games is a little less interesting to them, than looking across all the different things that can be done."
Super Mario Run is something of a statement for a company that's just beginning to test new waters. Before this year, Nintendo didn't seem interested in releasing its games on anything other than Nintendo Machines. It protects its IP like a hawk, sometimes overreaching. But the house that made Mario is dipping its toe into previously unimagined territory here.
"We are in the middle of a number of tentpole launches," said Fils-Aime, listing the news that Nintendo will partner with Universal theme parks to create attractions, the upcoming Switch launch, and the Super Mario Run's launch on iOS. All of these initiatives, he said, are "all focused on putting smiles on as many faces as possible, using our IP."
Super Mario Run—which is "free to start," with the option to pay $10 to unlock the full game (there are no microtransactions)—is the first game for Nintendo's new mobile initiative. Fils-Aime says that strategy is an opportunity to "leverage the literal billions of devices out there, devices that are available in markets where Nintendo dedicated systems aren't available" and create games that are truly accessible, especially to folks who may not be able to purchase a home console (or a ticket to Universal, for that matter).
"To engage with these consumers, really in a way, to get them to be fans of our IP."
It's very smart—Nintendo has a brand that hundreds of millions of people recognize,many of whom may only have access to a smartphone for their gaming needs. And the company has some success with the gateway drug approach.
"We've seen this strategy work," Fils-Aime said, "when we launched Pokemon Go, not only was that an unprecedented hit with half a billion downloads, but it had a tremendous impact on the sales of legacy Nintendo 3DS games. All of a Sudden, Pokemon X and Y, and Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire jumped to the top of the sales charts, even though they were out literally years before. "
They're calling the free to play version of Super Mario Run "free to start," and you can play a variety of levels, get your feet wet in the village building mode, and dip a toe into Toad Rally, the competitive head-to-head mode where your coin score and "style" score go up against other people's plays of the same level. But the full game is $10, and from there, there's no extras or microtransactions to fiddle with (or have your kid rack up a massive bill on).
"It's called Super Mario Run, not Super Mario stop and pay. " - Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime
"The choice to have the consumer pay one price was a considered choice," said Fils-Aime. "It's called Super Mario Run, not Super Mario stop and pay. " He continued. "We think that's the right choice for this particular application, but we will make the decision on the payment approach app by app."
There are other Nintendo mobile titles on the horizon: Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem were among the franchises Fils-Aime listed, although, naturally, the company is starting with their leading man (and his weird family: Yoshi, Luigi, Toad, and others will be playable in Super Mario Run.) The game will be out on December 15 for iOS and later—at an undisclosed date—on other mobile devices.