Super Mario Run and Nintendo’s Mobile Future

By Andy Humphreys

When it was revealed Mario’s first outing on a non-Nintendo system to be what looked like a simplistic endless runner, not everyone was in agreement that the idea was a sound one. But when Mario supremo Shigeru Miyamoto talks, people listen. He’s been the creative force behind some of the most critically well received games of all-time, after all.

Miyamoto stressed that the reasoning behind Super Mario Run is that,  historically, the longer a series goes on, the more layers of gameplay are added, and thus the harder it is for a newcomer to dive in and get going. 

There are few series in gaming with the history of Mario, so it makes sense for this first mobile outing to be the sort of game that anyone can simply pick-up and play. After all, it would be pretty strange for Nintendo to make a big play for their broadest audience ever by releasing a game that only long-time fans understand.

SMR, then, is a game created with the guiding philosophy of introducing a whole new generation of gamers to the joys of Mario. As such, it’s the perfect game for Nintendo to dip their toes into the market and see just how much demand there is for their properties outside of their own consoles.

Despite being only Nintendo’s second stab at a first-party mobile game (the first was Miitomo, which was, just like SMR, developed in partnership with mobile specialists DeNA), you don’t really get the impression when playing the game that Nintendo is new to the mobile space. There’s very little naivety on display here, just a really high-level of polish -- exactly what’s expected from a Mario title.

There’s no feature-draught, either. The core game, known as World Tour, is where the endless run gameplay lives. Here, players guide Mario through six worlds in a format very familiar to anyone who has played one of the classic side-scrolling Mario games, especially the more recent ones such as New Super Mario Bros. The look and feel of Mario is all present-and-correct: Goombas to stomp, blocks to smash, and an end-of-level flag to hoist. All classic Mario.

The difference in SMR, of course, is that players’ control of Mario is limited to only a single tap. The plumber runs relentlessly from left to right, and you tell him to jump by touching the screen. Miyamoto talked about how he and Nintendo were inspired by speed runners -- players who would complete Mario games with maximum speed and style by never letting go of the run button and always going forward. Miyamoto said he wanted everyone to experience this, regardless of ability level. And it works. Even with the limited controls, clever and stylish maneuvers are possible. In any given level, you’ll find yourself jumping from wall-to-wall to grab more coins, stomping on enemies heads to boost your height, and sometimes selecting your path through the level based purely on timing -- all with the same simple tap.

This emphasis, on quick, elegant runs through the levels is emphasized in the Toad Rally game mode. Here you tackle levels in the same way as in Tour, only this time against an opponent, with the amount of flair you bring to the contest dictating whether you take the victory.

Away from the gameplay is a mechanic which, though definitely Mario-flavored, feels right at home in a mobile game. Coins earned through Tour and Rally can be used to purchase buildings, decorations and other fun things for your ‘kingdom’, a screen which also serves as your main hub. In other games, this would usually be where you’d find the microtransactions, with real world money used to bulk up your coin stash. SMR ignores this opportunity, instead opting keep the kingdom-building mechanic as simply an incentive to keep playing. This, coupled with the ability to replay levels in order to, for instance, collect every coin, grab all the special purple coins, or just achieve the best score, means that this little mobile game has a pretty decent life..

Bucking the recent trend, SMR follows a very traditional purchase model -- after a couple of introduction levels, once you pay for the game, you get the entire game -- no intrusive microtransactions. It’s refreshing, especially when compared to the free-to-play model which has become so commonplace. Though not everyone will be happy with the choice Nintendo has made here, the fact that the game’s not bothering you constantly to get you to pay for new content is a welcome relief.                                             

All things considered then, Super Mario Run a mightily attractive package. But this was never really about just one game. Just what exactly, then, is the significance here for Nintendo’s brave new mobile future?

Well, as far as the ability to release an accomplished product is concerned, Nintendo and DeNA have surely proven themselves. But perhaps more importantly from a business standpoint, this partnership will be much more lucrative than was the case for this year’s Pokemon Go, which is developed entirely by a third party (Niantic), and only licensed by Nintendo. Because Super Mario Run is basically a first-party developed game, the vast majority of the profits will will go straight in Nintendo’s coffers.

This fact didn’t escape the stock markets, and before release, Nintendo’s stock soared in a similar manner to when Pokemon Go was announced. This positivity has carried through to the critics, with the reception so far being largely positive.

That’s not to say the game is without its detractors. The relatively expensive price point ($9.99 in the US) hasn’t impressed, and there may be a point there. Despite SMR’s undeniable quality, the asking price is almost certainly inflated with a little ‘Mario Tax’.

The game’s rating on the App Store is currently at an inauspicious 2.5 stars, and much of the criticism seems to be leveled at the game’s requirement of an always-on internet connection. A far-from unique stipulation amongst today’s mobile games, but an inconvenient one nonetheless and a decision that seems less than consumer-centric.

Despite this, and most significantly, Super Mario Run has seen in excess of 40 million downloads in its first four days, the biggest launch in App Store history, according to Nintendo. Even the most tentative analyst would call that a success, and any doubt that Mario has an audience outside of Nintendo’s own consoles must now surely be completely dispelled.

It all indicates that Nintendo has a strong future in the mobile sector, but expectations will need to be tempered. The Japanese giant will need to work hard and get a number of big decisions right to build on this powerful start. It certainly won’t all be plain-sailing.

But if Super Mario Run has proven one thing it’s that, financially, it’ll surely be worth the ride.

You can follow Andy on Twitter @AndyJHumphreys