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21st-Century Mario

Checking in on the iPhone’s troubled ‘Super Mario Run,’ the NES Classic, and the 3DS’s loopy ‘Super Mario Maker’

(Nintendo/Ringer illustration)
(Nintendo/Ringer illustration)

You have to admire Mario for holding out this long; for a no-collar, yes-overalls prole, he’s got awfully lofty artistic pretensions. For a decade he watched inferior specimens — Angry Birds, Candy Crush, the mythical Flappy Bird, them infernal Pokémon — dominate the smartphone video game market, rule the subways, and run quite a few drivers off the road. Hell-bent on confining its star attraction to their exclusive hardware, Nintendo’s brand suffered accordingly. Its outgoing flagship console, the Wii U, was an unwieldy bust, and its latest and long-running handheld system, the 3DS, is a mostly successful and pretty terrific little dude that is nonetheless one more computer than plenty of people are willing to haul around.

So, fine. You win, America. He joined ’em. Super Mario Run came out for iPhone last month, with the Android version forthcoming — both personally overseen by franchise super-genius Shigeru Miyamoto himself, likely the single most famous video-game-making human dead or alive. The first of its kind. It did Pokémon Go download numbers, at least at first, the worrisome caveats coming fast and furious. We’ll get to those. The game is wonderful and confounding. It also costs $10 to unlock in full and won’t work offline, so you’re at the mercy of subway Wi-Fi. These things are never easy. These things are usually worth it.

Nintendo specializes in stratospheric delight paired with bottomless frustration, which applies to all the latest ways you can play Mario games, old and new, in 2017. Should you require a primer, a refresher, a reiteration of What All The Fuss Is About, there is the $60 NES Classic, which packs 30 mostly bulletproof games from the Reagan era–defining 8-bit Nintendo into one tiny, almost twee package with an HDMI cord. It’s a delirious nostalgia bomb marred only by the facts that every cord (including the HDMI one) really oughta be, like, three times longer, and released only, like, 50 of these things for purchase so far, because Nintendo both loves you and hates you. The manufactured-scarcity aspect might be the most nostalgic thing about it given this company’s historical commitment to making your Christmas-shopping experience as harrowing and unsatisfying as possible. The eBay resale market remains maddeningly robust.

It was worth all the hassle to pull this sucker out a few days after Christmas and play through Super Mario Bros. for the first time in ages. Like I was 8 years old again. Like Prince and Michael Jackson were still alive. The sheer breadth of pop culture iconography birthed here — the mushrooms, the hapless Goombas, the pipe-borne piranha plants, the unbridled coin lust — is staggering now. The soundtrack is the second-most stirring piece of recorded music released in 1985, after R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction. (Please enjoy Oklahoma rapper TKO Capone’s delightfully terrible sample of the “Castle Theme.”)

The whole thing is elemental, perfect, and harrowing in its own way, genuinely difficult and galactically rewarding. Whimsy as menace as spiritual rebirth. Trawl YouTube and you can watch speed-run savants beat it in less than five minutes, but the best way to play it — or, in any event, the only way I can play it now — is slowly, carefully, wracked with terror, irritating all onlookers, obsessing over every jump, wincing anew at every screen-length fireball stick and hammer-tossing asshole turtle.

The NES Classic also serves up the discursive and historically convoluted Super Mario Bros. 2 and the wildly revered Super Mario Bros. 3, its scope enormous, its innovations equally profound. (Mainly, the gargantuan length and the giant floating pirate ships and the raccoon suit that lets you fly.) That soundtrack (and this especially) I will forever associate with bleary-eyed all-nighter sleepovers, childlike wonder and teenaged stupor. They all feel a little archaic now, slightly clunky and faded and quaint, but the bones are still good, the absurdist sense of joy something at least approaching timeless. Taken together, these are the first three Ramones albums of video games, the dragon the industry — and the ever-booming Mario franchise itself — has chased ever since, and occasionally even caught. Every new system, from the SNES to the Nintendo 64 to the Wii, birthing a new five-mics classic. Late pass aside, the iPhone version, you had to figure, would prove no different.

Super Mario Run is, by necessity, a pared-down affair, your agency reduced to a single function: Tap the screen to jump. It’s a forced-speed-run deal — Mario never stops moving. No dithering, no doubling back, no obsessing over every move, no obsessing over anything. It is, to be sure, hella stressful.

The appeal here — the appeal of every truly great smartphone game — is the brevity, the modularity. A level is typically 60 or 90 seconds long, a cheerful sprint over warmly familiar terrain: dank caverns, ghost houses, spiny-shell-infested deserts, verdant forests, sawblade factories. You scoop it up, pound it out, and toss it back down in one fluid motion. Buzz through a quick level to fill up bad-Tinder-date awkward silences! Coin lust reigns supreme, amping up the replay value for hardcore knuckleheads (like me). There is a janky online one-on-one mode and a kingdom-building sidebar where you just plant trees and flowers and Toad houses and whatnot, which I dismissed as twee nonsense until the main game got so panic-inducing I was gladly color-coordinating my symmetrical mushroom collection. It’s therapy, pointless and essential.

The whole package will inflame, and soothe, the faithful: The thrill of reeling off repeated quadruple-jump turtle-shell massacres is unparalleled. But at just 24 levels in the main game — only three of ’em available before you’re directed to fork over the $10 — the backlash has been fierce. Those Pokémon Go download numbers only apply to the free version, and the drop-off thereafter is perilously steep, and pissed-off casual dabblers have played hell with the App Store review situation. Furthermore, I must agree with The New York Times that “save the princess, who only wants to bake you a cake” is an awfully retrograde plot device these days, or oughta be. (Trivia: Super Mario Bros. 2 lets you play as the Princess, who can float gracefully in the air for brief spells, but also has poor upper-body strength and thus pulls vegetables/coins out of the ground super slowly, so call it a wash.)

What this comes down to is your appreciation for level design as a high art form. Let me try to talk you into this. Super Mario Run is that very singular and familiar combination of ingenious and insidious, every leap and slide and coin avalanche intricate and painstaking, piecing together a Swiss watch with giant white cartoon gloves. It’s a trade every bit as workmanlike as “plumber” and every bit as cerebral as “nuclear physicist.” The surface randomness of a Pollock disguising the painstaking detail of a Bosch. That you rarely think about it only proves how hard other people had to think about it. So, how’s this for a Peak Nintendo conundrum: The key to truly appreciating a $10 Mario game might be also buying a $40 one.

Super Mario Maker, for the terrific/underrated 3DS, also came out in December. (Down to $39.49 now!) It’s a handheld version of a 2015 game for the Wii U, but, as noted, the popularity differential there is vast: As of September, Nintendo has sold about 13 million Wii Us, compared to 61 million 3DS units in various sizes. In Super Mario Maker, you build your own Mario levels, from scratch, with, over time, the full palette — brick by brick, hill by hill, question-mark block by question-mark block, Goomba by Goomba. It’s Minecraft, basically. It’s bonkers. It seems easy and very emphatically is not. It makes you cherish the very few digital artistés who do it well. The Wii U version, discouraging words aside, inspired some truly and impressively nightmarish user-generated levels, and also Lonely Koopa, the single most gorgeous and heartbreaking piece of visual art released in 2015 other than Carol.

The game includes a lengthy level-building tutorial, cohosted by an edamame-munching pigeon named Yamamura, which is only a hint as to how surreal things are gonna get. Advice ranges from the vague (the goal is “thinking up new ways to surprise and delight the player”) to the specific (use coins either as a means of pulling someone through the level or as diabolical misdirection). Unlike the Wii U version, alas, you can’t browse or trade levels online — only physically, person to person, with someone else who owns another 3DS and another copy of the game. Nintendo! Get it together, man.

The draw, then, if you’re unwilling to spend hours upon hours crafting your own ghost house, is the 100-plus premade levels, which, verily, are surprising and delightful and loopy in the extreme, Pollock and Bosch giving way to Dali. “Reach the goal as Weird Mario” is a typical instruction, and Weird Mario is very weird indeed; at the gnarlier end of things, for most people, “collect all 300 coins” is not a pleasant directive. Coin lust has its limits; the scariest word there is all instead of at least or something, implying as it does a total lack of margin of error.

But this isn’t about most people. The punchline is that a new 3DS XL will set you back $200. Mario games have been, from the onset, quirky, Seussian dalliances that are actually deadly serious and colossally big business, a capitalist wolf in Lorax’s clothing. It’s a philosophical belief system every bit as labyrinthine as Scientology and nearly as expensive. To sell a legit game for just $10 is a major concession that doesn’t at all feel like one if you’re the hyper-casual, candy-crushing sort, an olive branch that’s poking plenty of people in the eye regardless. So: the NES Classic for the retro-fetishists, Super Mario Maker for the crazed futurist deconstructionists, and Super Mario Run a flawed but valiant sop to the flawed but valiant common man. Everyone loves Mario. But truly living the lifestyle will cost you.