"A single-handed Super Mario." That's how a Nintendo rep described Super Mario Run during a presentation of the game. If there was one thing that they wanted to make totally clear during our hands-on, it was that this is not an 'endless runner' game, the genre to which this title has been associated ever since it was presented during Apple's keynote; it is not infinite, every level has an end.
Indeed, you only have to spend a few minutes with it to realise that instead you're looking at classic 2D Super Mario adapted for mobile platforms, and it's played without buttons. It's the lack of a d-pad with proper sensitivity that has led the developers to go for auto-run design, but that is not what defines the gameplay, nor the experience. On the contrary - it is fascinating to see the amount of tricks that the team uses to slow down that inertia and make Mario return to his roots, instead offering precision-based platforming.
In World 1-1, to give an example, the game begins and Mario starts running. Without any further instruction, he goes for the first Goomba and the only command you can rely on to survive is jumping, by touching anywhere on the screen. With a couple more touches you learn that the longer you press, the bigger the jump. Then you realise that you can also bounce off the walls or perform bigger jumps with combinations and chains. The curious thing is that the small enemies are automatically passed over, and they don't kill you, and it's only when you hit other obstacles like spikes or lava, or fall down a cliff, that you die. In this game losing a life is similar to New Super Mario Bros., with a bubble sending you a few steps back.
The first level is a cake walk, almost a tutorial, and you can complete it easily, however, it still is very useful to learn all of the possible moves, those that best demonstrate that this is not an endless runner but a platformer. There are red blocks on the ground where you can (or must) stop, and there are several paths, hinted at with arrows and coins. Arrow blocks also allow you to jump higher or even backwards, and ghost doors in Boo's mansion also make an appearance. The most important thing, though, is that there is an end, a flag post, an axe in Bowser's castle - whatever it may be, there's a conclusion.
All of a sudden the brain clicks, ridding itself of the presumptions you have developed, and you play as you have been for years. This first level is short, lasting less than a minute, but there's a handful of worlds with several levels each, and some of them are larger. World 1-2 takes you underground, of course, and then everything is narrower, more like a labyrinth, forcing you to bounce on the walls to go back and pull off combinations to escape piranha plants coming out of pipes. The fourth stage, the first Bowser's Castle, is a little harder, featuring fireballs and other obstacles, but it's still open to every kind of player (although it'll be easier for platforming experts).
In less than an hour the first two worlds were completed, sometimes even with all the purple coins collected, which awarded us with some tickets to invest in Toad Race mode. The progression seemed pretty rapid, but the team promised us more complex, tougher levels towards the end so that you progress at a slower pace. To be honest though, content shouldn't be a problem. The point here is replayability, because in Super Mario Run you don't play to complete stages, but to get more and more coins, hunting for high scores. Level design even changes a little bit every time you play (different coin locations, for example) to encourage players to replay stages. A better score means better online rankings and more options in other modes, and the simple gameplay is tempered by more than fifteen different interactive elements, with perhaps more coming in further on.
Every aspect of Super Mario Run proves that this is a Mario-for-mobile game, and the game modes are the main example of this. The Kingdom Builder mode is a small experiment to see what a FarmVille managed by Toad would look like, for instance. We could only manage a small map with a few objects that are bought with coins won previously, but this is sure to appeal to a certain crowd. Although there are no microtransactions, you can get some items such as a ticket to Toad Race.
The Toad Rally mode is the "competitive" Mario for mobile, because it's almost a direct head-to-head against other players. This is not a race or a fight, though, as you win by playing well on procedurally generated levels based, in part, on the simpler levels. A group of toads that appear during the stage and at the end of the game give their verdict on which player won, and if you make them happy they will follow the winner to his Kingdom, which is necessary as you need them to unlock more buildings and items.
Technically, the version of Super Mario Run we tested, which was not final yet, felt technically assured. The adaptation of the New Super Mario Bros. U style has been nailed on both iPhone and iPad. Movement and frame-rate are smooth and stable, as this genre demands for pixel-perfect jumping. It does lack a bit of life since the backgrounds are static and animations are limited, however.
The scepticism that Nintendo fans felt when this project was announced has been proved unjustified from what we've seen, and the company with more experience on platforming games than any other clearly (and unsurprisingly) knows what it's doing. Super Mario Run's gameplay has passed the first test with flying colours, and it is much better than we expected. The first levels are already a testament to the quality of the game and we only have doubts regarding the amount of content and its replayability, and whether those other modes that we have only seen briefly really add something. We will check it out properly in just one week, starting December 15 on iOS, and in 2017 on Android, but for now we like what we see.