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'Super Mario Run' brings vaunted franchise to mobile phones

This week sees the return of two vaunted pop-culture landmarks that reigned during the 1980s. “Super Mario Run,” the latest spin-off of the “Super Mario Bros.” series now available on Apple’s mobile devices, is poised to be one of the biggest games of 2016. 

It’s landing at a time when “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is set to own the holiday box office. Like all things “Star Wars,” Mario  also endures. 

Generations, now three of them, come and go, and yet Mario continues running, jumping and consuming mushrooms of questionable origin. Times change, but there is Mario, a proudly plump plumber helplessly watching his princess get kidnapped by a dinosaur-like turtle, only to then bounce through dozens of obstacle courses to get her back. 

“The entertainment value that Mario-themed games have given people over the past three decades is hard to underestimate,” said Lewis Ward, a video game industry analyst at research firm IDC.

And while today we may prefer our princesses to kick butt rather than require rescuing, Nintendo’s hero gets away with being a little old fashioned. Credit the design of master developer Shigeru Miyamoto, a man whose body of work also includes “Donkey Kong” and “The Legend of Zelda.”

Miyamoto and Mario have some new tricks up their suspenders this week with Thursday’s “Super Mario Run” debut on Apple’s mobile devices. (Nintendo has not said when the Android release will follow, but observers in the industry note most Apple exclusivity deals run 90 days.)

With “Super Mario Run,” Nintendo is bringing its timeless brand to a device that lives outside of its own ecosystem, and it just may be Mario’s most simplified, accessible adventure yet. Some are predicting the game will  accrue more than 50 million downloads, and initial reports pegged its first-day downloads at just under 3 million. 

“We view video games and interactive games as being incredibly fun,” said Miyamoto via a translator. “Certainly when people have an opportunity to experience them, we’ve seen over the years that they agree with us. I think where we’ve had challenges lately is more and more people are having fewer opportunities to come into contact with our games.” 

Thus “Super Mario Run” is what many consider a long overdue acknowledgment from the Japanese tech giant that, while Mario is still by and large the same jolly guy in a red hat and blue suspenders, the way we game is changing. Mobile has put games in our pocket, and in the case of “Pokemon Go,” another Nintendo-affiliated property, mobile has brought game characters into our world.

While Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One have their dedicated supporters, long gone are the days when every kid on the block had a Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo learned this lesson with its Wii U, which had the dubious distinction as Nintendo’s worst-selling console at 13.6 million units sold worldwide. 

“For many years the first gaming device that a kid would touch was a Nintendo system,” said Miyamoto. “Now we’re starting to see more and more that the first gaming device that kids touch is their parents’ iPhone. Obviously, with kids playing games on iPhones now, we wanted to make sure they had an opportunity to come into contact with our games and the Mario character.” 

Miyamoto’s treasures emphasize simplicity and fluidity. Rare, for instance, is the Miyamoto game that needs to be taught — their worlds unfold intuitively. In the case of Mario? Press a button, and jump. Watch out for that Goomba. 

Mario remains an unlikely but lovable hero. Mustached, portly and happy in the face of adversity, the “Super Mario Bros.” games represent the industry at its most colorful, weird and bright. In a business saturated with violence and gunplay, Mario is a goofy everyman — an underdog who never stops running and hopping to achieve his goals, and sometimes even turning into a raccoon or a cat. 

“Super Mario Run” switches the formula — albeit slightly — while getting back to basics. In the game, Mario usually runs automatically. If past “Super Mario Bros” games allowed the characters to scroll through a world and explore it horizontally and vertically, “Super Mario Run” is more of a high-energy rush to the right.

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Designed to be played with one hand, there’s only one control for users to master: simply tap the screen, and Mario jumps. When it comes to small jumps, Mario can handle those automatically, but bigger hurdles require more precise timing.

The goal was to welcome novice players, said Miyamoto, “without feeling the control frustrations of past Mario games.”

“In previous Mario games when Mario ran into an enemy, Mario would lose,” he added. “But this time, because Mario is running automatically to the right, we had to come up with some solutions for that. We added in this layer of auto-actions Mario does. He’ll run to a small gap and sort of automatically hurdle over it or run to the enemy and vault over the top of the enemy.”

Like all Mario games, it’s deceptively simple and decidedly trippy. It’s 24 levels are shorter than the console counterparts, but it’s not uncommon to take a big leap and suddenly discover a whole new part of the world. How to get up there? Keep playing, and find ways to parry off walls and somersault backward. 

Some of the more vertically inclined levels are the strongest, especially those set in haunted houses with doors that lead Mario in circles and ghosts that hover on and off the screen. Sometimes Mario is dodging saws, other times anthropomorphic rockets, and expect to literally run into Mario’s longtime foil, Bowser, quite a few times. 

If the players’ goal is to collect coins, avoid falls and find the princess, Nintendo has a grander plan in mind. Next March, the company will release the Nintendo Switch, its next-generation console that works with a home television or as mobile gaming unit. 

The company in early January will showcase it for the media and public at an event in New York. Miyamoto is counting on “Super Mario Run” to have a positive effect on the Switch, noting that “Pokemon Go” led to a bump in sales for its “Pokemon” games on the Nintendo 3DS.

“We’ve seen this with Pokemon Go,” he said. “Even though it’s not a traditional Pokemon game, people are playing ‘Pokemon Go,’ they’re learning the names of the Pokemon, they’re encountering Pokemon for the first time, and as a result of that there’s many more people interested in the 3DS games.  … Similarly, by releasing ‘Super Mario Run’ on iPhones, our hope is that people will then be interested in our next system, Nintendo Switch.”

 

 


“Super Mario Run”

Developer: Nintendo

Platforms: Apple’s iOS devices; Android release to follow in 2017

Price: Free to download, but $9.99 for the full game. 

Todd.Martens@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens

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