The best smartphone games succeed when they do a few things right at once: Be accessible, have intense replay value, and give players a sense of accomplishment even if all we’ve done was waste 30 minutes on our phones. Nintendo’s first legit effort into smartphone gaming, Super Mario Run, is a tight $9.99 package (free to try) that fulfills all the aforementioned requirements with flying colors and also with surprising depth to its level design. It also has Toad Rally, which is easily one of the best and most addictive multiplayer features on smartphones today.
Super Mario Run is an runner that plays like a pastiche of classic Super Mario games with the NES buttons distilled to a tap. The core of the game, World Tour, is how players will primarily progress, but Toad Rally is where the real fun is at. While it can be considered the game’s multiplayer, Toad Rally features asynchronous races where you directly compete against the best performances recorded by other players. It’s like “ghost racing” as seen in Gran Turismo, but rather than the quickest time players play for the best “performance” to win over Toads (those adorable rascals from the Mushroom Kingdom).
Performances are based on an average of coins collected, bonuses, and well-timed jumps, often where players narrowly avoid getting hit. It’s here where Super Mario Run shows that depth; while the controls are just one tap, timing and awareness of level design are necessary to pull off the best performances. Compete against high-ranking players and you’ll see just how much can be accomplished with a single tap.
There’s no purpose to Toad Rally other than bragging rights and rewards to upgrade your Kingdom if that actually matters to you. Toads will abandon you if you lose, and participating in a race costs a Toad Rally Ticket (5 tickets may be redeemed for 150 Platinum Points, given after achieving goals and redeemed in the main menu). But your Mario won’t suddenly become slower if you keep underperforming. Still, the allure of competition is strong. The end of every race examines how each player performed, providing insight into where you kicked ass and where they fucked up and vice versa.
Social crossword apps are cute and strategy games satisfy those seeking complicated challenges, but Super Mario Run carries the experience of the arcade’s glory days in your pocket. Though it’s not a live race, it’s a real thrill to directly challenge another person’s “best” performance and see how well you actually measure up. It’s a shame there’s no outstanding reward when you’re on a hot winning streak, nor is there any real loss when you continuously blow it. Until Niantic adds Pokémon battles in Pokémon GO, though, this will do just fine. Nintendo achieved something special with Super Mario Run, and because of that, maybe we all win.
Super Mario Run is available now on all iOS devices.