There once was a time when Nintendo didn't do mobile. The company steered well clear, dodging the iOS and Android platforms altogether, instead deciding to maintain support for its own handheld device, the DS family of consoles (which is surely now in the December of its life). However, much like the Big N's decision to start exploring the wonderful world of DLC, there is now an acceptance at the company that the mobile market is just too huge to ignore, and no doubt their in-house accountants are still counting their gold coins with Wario-like glee following the success of the first round of releases (most notably, of course, Pokémon Go).
Which brings us nicely to the next Nintendo-published game to hit iOS and Android devices, Dr. Mario World, a built-for-mobile reworking of the original hit puzzler which takes advantage of touch screens to create an engaging and sometimes even enthralling puzzle experience that takes its time and rewards tactical thinking over its many levels. So far, so typically Nintendo, however, there are a few design choices that stop this being the best game that it could have been. You know where this is going.
Nintendo collaborated with LINE Corporation and NHN Entertainment to make a colourful and accessible match-three style puzzle game, and to that end, the collaboration was a success. Players must turn and drag coloured capsule-shaped blocks to take out viruses. These virus blocks explode when matched three-in-a-row, freeing or altering the blocks around them, which in some cases can then be moved and fill in other gaps and clear more blocks, with the aim being to remove all virus blocks before you run out of capsules. While there are timed levels, more often than not you can ponder your every move and really think about what you want to do to maximise the effectiveness of your actions, and it all works rather well for the most part.
Different doctors can be chosen, and each one has a different special ability to help you get out of a bind. We spent most of our time diagnosing our way through the levels with Dr Peach, who was able to clear entire vertical lines at a time with her special, but each doctor has their own special trick for you to experiment with. You can also unlock additional characters drawn from the Mario universe that when selected alongside your doctor can boost your abilities - you can unlock these over time until you've got a full collection, should you so wish.
Using these special skills, and additional helpful one-off abilities that you earn and can buy with diamonds (purchased with real-world cash), you need to clear your targets with some well-placed capsules, lining up specific coloured-blocks as cleverly as possible, using as few capsules as you can in order to clear the table. Sometimes it's super easy to complete a level, but it doesn't take long for the difficulty spikes to present themselves, especially when virus blocks start getting disguised behind bricks and you have to clear near-by viruses to create explosions that then reveal them.
If you fail you can go again, but only a limited number of times before you run out of hearts - then you've got to either wait for more, or you've got to put your hand in your pocket and pay the man for another go. This is far from ideal, but at least when this happens you can jump straight into PvP and kill some time against human opponents in a Tetris-like mode where clearing your blocks heaps pressure on your adversary until they can't make any more moves. The online matches are quick and fun, and we have to say it was probably our favourite part of the game, with players matched against similarly-skilled opponents via a ranking system that sees you earn and lose points based on how you've done in the previous match (also, you can play as much PvP as you want - no microtransactions required).
If you don't fancy competitive virus-bashing (either the aforementioned ranked mode or against a friend) then you'll have to venture back to the main game mode and either pay up or wait for your next turn (hearts return every 30 minutes). We played PvP until we could return to solo play, and once there tried our best to ignore the helpful distractions offered in-between rounds. That's the nature of the mobile beast, and it's not outrageously done here, but it's also clear that Dr. Mario World would be a better, sleeker game without microtransactions.
To make these paid-for boosts feel more relevant, they're everywhere, and just moving between levels in solo play requires a little extra tapping that takes some of the pace out of the experience. It's not a fatal flaw and we still kept plugging away, but it's also an unavoidable truth that the game has been saddled by its monetisation systems and a single-purchase option would have made for a superior experience. However, you can't catch whales with a one-time purchase, and kids won't pester their parents again and again for credit to advance past a tricky level if there's nothing to pester them for.
We're not going to grumble any more because it is what it is, and to blame Nintendo for the pitfalls of free-to-play gaming wouldn't be entirely fair. What is fair to say, however, is that Dr. Mario World is a good puzzle game held back by difficulty spikes and a free-to-play system designed to squeeze a few extra pennies out those who get sucked in. The thing is, we'd totally pay a few of our own hard-earned gold coins for a content-complete Mario-puzzler to play on our iPhone on the train. And that's a bitter pill that we'll no doubt have to keep on swallowing because it pays better, in the long run, to launch a game on mobile that says "Get Now" instead of one that offers a pure experience for a fair price.