I think I like Super Mario Run

Here’s my early review of Super Mario Run, less than a day after it was released.

I think I like it.

I have been waiting forever for Nintendo to finally accept the reality of modern mobile devices and make games for the iPhone. (No, Miitomo doesn’t count. And Pokémon Go doesn’t really, either, especially since Nintendo didn’t actually make it.)

There have been a ton of Mario-inspired platform games for iOS over the years, and while many have been of very high quality and creativity, none has stuck for me.

What makes the top-tier Nintendo franchises (and here I am thinking Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and maybe Pokémon) so great? These are the criteria:

  1. Engaging concept
  2. Attention to detail
  3. Playability
  4. Platform-optimized experience

Every would-be Mario surrogate on iOS has failed at least one of these criteria. And I expected that, if Nintendo ever did make an iOS game, especially a Mario game, when it finally did arrive it would be an unmistakably “Nintendo” experience because it would nail them all… and most likely differ from what I thought I wanted about the experience, because what I thought I wanted wouldn’t really work, and what I actually wanted was something I couldn’t quite imagine.

People have been saying it for years, but yes: this is how Nintendo and Apple are alike, and why I expected to be surprised, if not amazed, by what Nintendo came up with, even if it didn’t seem at first glance like it would be successful.

The biggest surprises for me about Super Mario Run when it was announced were a) how slow Mario seems to run, and b) that it’s essentially an endless runner with one control: tap-to-jump. It’s like the old joke before the iPhone came out that, if Apple ever released a phone, it would only have one button. Guess what: it did, and it changed everything.

Let’s explore the criteria, one by one:

Engaging concept. It’s classic Mario. The basic formula that has existed since Super Mario Bros. in 1985. More specifically, this game, visually and structurally, fits very much into the mold of the New Super Mario Bros. series that debuted about a decade ago on the Nintendo DS. Check.

Attention to detail. This feels like a Nintendo game, in all of ways, both good and bad. The good is where it counts — the actual game experience. The bad is the surrounding stuff, showing that Nintendo is still out-of-step in the online world. First, the bad: this game requires an always-on Internet connection, which seems a bit ludicrous. Apparently the primary reason is to prevent piracy, which I really don’t get. The only way to pirate iOS games is to jailbreak the device, and it seems like there would be easy enough ways for the game to detect that without an Internet connection.

Besides the Internet connection issue, there’s also the fact that the initial setup process requires selecting your country from a huge list (again, this is something the game should be able to detect automatically, especially since it has to be online to function) and a distracting Nintendo Account step. Then after a brief gameplay tutorial, you’re thrust into a black screen with a progress bar as the full game content is downloaded. I’m not sure if my experience was just due to peak interest at the launch, but it took forever to download… in fact, I tried over four sessions as I was out-and-about, jumping between LTE and WiFi in various locations, until I finally got the last 5% to download when I was at home several hours later.

So, that’s the bad, and it really kind of sucks. But the good is, once the game is actually loaded up on your device, it has all of the polish you expect in a top-tier Nintendo title. The design is flawless, the UI interactions are smooth as can be, and everything about it shows the same level of care that Nintendo puts into the best Mario games for their own systems. And because the iPhone screen resolution is so much better than on a DS/3DS, this looks much more like a Wii U game than a mobile game.

Playability. This is where I was really surprised. At first I was disappointed. Mario runs continuously, which makes sense for the one-hand — really, one-finger — control scheme, but he seems slow. This is not the “hold down the B button” running we’re used to in a Mario game. It’s about halfway between his usual walking and running speeds. But you quickly realize the speed was carefully calibrated for optimal playability. When you don’t have the ability to make Mario stop, you need just a fraction of a second longer to figure out how best to react to what’s going on in his environment. Before long you realize this speed feels perfect in conjunction with timing jumps, interacting with special blocks and avoiding enemies.

Speaking of enemies, when Mario is running and approaches an enemy, he automatically vaults over it. It’s a cute effect, but initially it made me wonder… is there any way to die in this game? Especially since it seems like even when Mario would die, such as falling down a hole, he instead goes into a bubble (as in New Super Mario Bros. U) and gradually floats backwards on the course? Well, yes. I didn’t immediately realize that you have to earn those bubbles, and they eventually run out. Plus, Mario only vaults over enemies if he’s running. If you’re mid-jump and he touches an enemy (other than landing square on its head), he dies just like in any other Mario game.

After a couple of easy screens, the complexity of the courses quickly catches up with you, and before you know it you feel like you’re just playing a regular Super Mario title, not a streamlined “endless runner” version.

Platform-optimized experience. Speaking of that streamlined “one-finger” control: one of the most irritating problems with any iOS game, aside from the difficulty of using a simulated, on-screen D-pad for movement, is the fact that your fingers obscure part of the screen. Nintendo, of course, solved this perfectly. When you’re navigating the game interface, the full screen is used as in any other game. But during a run, the bottom 1/4 or so of the screen has no action… only a generic background design matching the style of the current course. That way, you can keep your thumb poised at the bottom of the screen ready to tap (or tap-and-hold for a longer jump) without covering up any of the action.

I would never have expected a one-control, endless-runner style Mario game to work as a real Mario game, but it does, and is probably the only way to make this work on an iOS device. But Nintendo not only defied most fans’ logic with this control scheme, they perfectly tailored the elements of the game to work with it. They removed standard elements of Super Mario games (like Fire Flowers) that simply wouldn’t work with this control scheme, and they added things that — while they maybe would work with a traditional control scheme — are only logical with an endless runner, like special blocks that make you change direction when you jump on them, and others that pause the action to give you an extra moment to decide how to proceed.

A couple of other realities of mobile devices that Nintendo acknowledged with this game’s design are the brevity of play sessions and the interest in online competitive play. The levels here are shorter than typical Mario levels, although they don’t feel especially short, but they work well if you only have a minute or two to play. And the Toad Rally mode is a great way to do online competitive play. You’re not actually competing in real time, but the game makes it feel like you are, by matching you up with actual previous runs by other players.

There’s also a reward system for daily play, unlocking both useful features like additional playable characters as well as more frivolous prizes like decorations for your Mushroom Kingdom, similar to some of the features in Miitomo. And of course, you can tie in your Nintendo Account so your Mii shows up throughout the game. (I assume some of what you do here feeds back into the Miitomo experience as well, but to be honest I deleted Miitomo off my iPhone months ago.)

Overall… yes, I do think I like it. This is not the perfect classic Super Mario experience I always thought I wanted on my iPhone, but… let’s be honest. There are enough other, really well-done iOS platform games out there that I have tried for a day or two and then abandoned that I realize a perfect classic Super Mario experience is impossible on a touchscreen device with no physical controls. What Nintendo has delivered is a new kind of Super Mario experience that feels 100% “Mario” but actually works on an iPhone.

Now, what I really want them to do is an iOS Zelda game. There are Zelda DS games that rely almost entirely on the touchscreen and stylus for all movement and action. It seems like a no-brainer that this experience would translate well to a mobile phone. But then, what do I know?

Just remember… If you see a stylus, they blew it.

A passable but imperfect solution for full-bleed background images on Android and iOS

I’m working on a site right now that has a fixed, full-bleed (i.e. background-size: cover) background image on the <body>. The content flows over it, mostly obscuring it completely, but the background is occasionally revealed in the spaces between content blocks. Some blocks have a semi-transparent background so you can see the fixed background as if through frosted glass.

Here’s the CSS:

body {
  background: rgb(255,255,255) url('../images/ui/body_bg.jpg') center center no-repeat fixed;
  background-size: cover;
}

It’s a cool effect, but it really, really does not want to play nicely on mobile. Various odd things happen on both Android and iOS, and they are completely different.

Quick side note: Yes, the background image is a JPEG. Normally I only use PNG or SVG images in UI elements, but I had good reason to use JPEG here: even though it’s only two colors (with some in-between colors due to antialiasing), the pattern in the background is incredibly complex, and a JPEG version of the file is about 1/5 the size of the PNG. And since it’s an illustration, I tried making an SVG version first, but the pattern is so large that the SVG was about 2 MB! So JPEG it is… which may be a factor in the issue I’m having on Android, but I haven’t tested a PNG version of the image to verify that.

iOS Problems

I’m an iPhone user, so I mainly test responsive sites on iOS. I do own an Android phone (a Motorola Moto E, which I highly recommend as a cheap-but-decent Android phone for testing), but I generally only break it out during the final round of browser testing prior to launching a site.

The issues with background images on iOS are well-known to most web developers. iOS has a number of rather arbitrary seeming limitations imposed upon the Mobile Safari browsing experience, generally for one of three reasons: 1) performance, 2) touch interface usability, 3) the whims of the ghost of Steve Jobs. In the case of background images, background-attachment is not supported. I’m not really sure how this would impact either (1) or (2) — although I think with the early underpowered iPhone generations, it did impact performance — so I think we’re dealing mostly with (3) here. At any rate, because you can’t have an attached background on iOS, I added this in my media queries:

@media screen and (max-width: 782px) {

  body {
    /* For background handling on iOS */
    background-attachment: scroll; background-repeat: repeat;
  }

}

Another quick side note: Why is my phone break point at 782 pixels, you ask? Because that’s where WordPress has its break point for the admin interface. I’m not exactly sure why the WP team chose that number, but why fight it?

Besides the background attachment, there’s also the issue that background-size: cover on a phone is going to make the background image huuuuuuuuuge because it’s scaling it to fit the height of the page content, not the screen size. I initially solved that with background-size: 100%;, since we’re now allowing the background to repeat. As you’ll see, however, that led to problems on Android, so I ended up scrapping it.

Android Problems

Yes, Android has problems. Don’t even get me started! But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I opened the page in Android, and, although the background image was displaying as I expected in terms of size and attachment, it looked… awful. The original source image I am working with is a generous 2400 x 1857 pixels, enough to look reasonably sharp on most displays, even at high resolution. And it looks great on my Mac, great on my iPhone. But on the Android phone it was splotchy and low-res looking… like it had been reduced to 200 pixels and then upscaled (which is maybe what Android is doing, somehow… and here is where I’m wondering if the image being a JPEG is a factor, but that’s just a stab in the dark).

I tried a number of possible solutions, the most obvious being to set exact pixel dimensions for the image. I tried 1200 x 929, basically a “x2” size for high-res devices. Still looked like crap. I even tried setting it to 2400 x 1857, the actual dimensions of the image, and it looked like crap… and I don’t mean pixel-doubled, which is what it actually should be; I mean the same splotchy weirdness I had been seeing at other sizes.

And then I discovered David Chua’s solution:

html {
  /* For background image scaling on Android */
  height:100%; min-height:100%;
}

Yet another quick side note: Here I am not placing this inside a media query. We don’t want to only fix this issue on phone screens. Granted, the iOS solution above needs to work on iPads, too… something I haven’t really solved here. I’m workin’ on it!

This change for Android worked perfectly! By this point I had, temporarily at least, removed the iOS workarounds I mentioned above, so on Android the background image was not only perfectly scaled to the browser window, looking sharp and clean, but it was even fixed-position, just like on desktop!

But… the image was back to being huuuuuuuuuge on iOS. Apparently this html trick for Android does absolutely nothing on iOS, so you’re left trying to find another solution that won’t simultaneously break Android.

An uneasy compromise

It’s not perfect, but I found that if I put both of these tricks together, everything works… the only thing we lose is the fixed-position treatment that Android allows but iOS does not. But the background looks great on both platforms and most importantly, behaves consistently on both.

Here’s the complete code I’m rolling with, for now:

html {
  /* For background image scaling on Android */
  height:100%; min-height:100%;
}

@media screen and (max-width: 782px) {

  body {
    /* For background handling on iOS */
    background-attachment: scroll; background-repeat: repeat;
  }

}

As noted above, this doesn’t really address iPads. A simple solution would be to change the media query to @media screen and (max-width: 1024px), but a) that doesn’t account for the larger iPad Pro and b) it also means a desktop display will lose the proper background effect if the window is smaller than that size. I don’t really have a solution; an adaptive treatment using either server-side or JavaScript-based browser detection would be a consideration, but I don’t really like resorting to that sort of thing for something as basic as this.

It doesn’t help that I recently gave my iPad to my daughter so I don’t currently have a tablet of any kind for testing. That’s about to change as I have a newly ordered Kindle Fire arriving today, but of course that’s not going to give me the answer for an iPad. I can try Responsive Design Mode in desktop Safari, but that’s not always a perfect representation of the quirks of an actual mobile device.

Still… this combined solution for phones is an improvement over the default behavior in both cases.

It’s totally crazy, but I think I want to buy an iPhone 5c… now

topic_iphone_5cNext Tuesday, Apple will be announcing the iPhone 6. Supposedly they’re also announcing an “iWatch” or whatever. The latter is still shrouded in mystery but it really seems like we already know everything there is to know about the iPhone 6.

And honestly… I’m not sure I want it. Thinner? Yes, that would be great. That’s always great. But it’s not like my iPhone 5 is “thick.” Bigger screen? I guess. I’m fine with the size of my iPhone 5 screen, and I don’t want a larger slab to carry around in my pocket. Faster processor? Who would say no to that? Although to be completely honest, my iPhone 5 seems perfectly snappy to me.

So, yeah… I’m pretty happy with my iPhone 5. In fact, there’s only one reason I’m even interested in getting a new phone at all when my contract runs out this month. About a year and a half ago, I dropped my iPhone 5 on asphalt, and dinged the corner right by the camera. Since then, the inside of the camera lens has gradually accumulated dust, to the point where my photos are noticeably blurry, washed-out, and occasionally infested with weird splotches.

Would I be happy replacing my iPhone 5 with another iPhone 5? Yes. I’d be perfectly happy with that. But they don’t sell the iPhone 5 anymore. Instead they sell the iPhone 5c, which is basically the exact same phone but in a cheaper-to-produce (and possibly more resistant to the kind of damage mine suffered) plastic casing. And it comes in bright colors.

I want one. I want the obnoxious yellow one. And I’ve wanted it almost since they came out. For me, the only thing the iPhone 5s had going for it over the 5c was the A7 processor. But, again, I haven’t had any problems with the performance of the 5’s A6 processor.

So, I am left with a strange quandary. I am sure any of my fellow Apple fans will think I am an idiot (or worse) for seriously considering buying an iPhone 5c (actually, two of them) right now, on the cusp of the big iPhone 6 announcement. But here I am.

Apple always has three iPhone models available: the latest-and-greatest (currently the 5s), the last-year’s-model (in this case the 5c, a modified 5), and the two-years-old-model (the 4s). I am wondering what Apple is going to do with their new low-end phone after next Tuesday. Right now it’s the aging 4s, which will be discontinued. That would generally mean it’s time for the 5c to drop into that spot. If I wait until then, I might be able to get a 5c for “free” (“subsidized” by the carrier)!

But… the lowest-end model has only ever been available in a 16 GB size. I’ve learned over the years with iOS devices that I can’t really get by with less than 32 GB of storage. Right now the iPhone 5c is available in 16 and 32 GB models. But after next Tuesday, assuming it becomes the low-end model, the 32 GB version might disappear.

And what of the mid-level model? Will the 5s be downgraded to colorful plastic and renamed the 5sc or some other strange appellation? Would I want that instead? (Yes, I probably would, especially since it would most likely still come in a 32 GB version.)

At the moment I am considering hedging my bets, and buying two 32 GB iPhone 5c’s right now. Yes. Buy them. Keep them in the package. And for the love of all that is good in the universe keep the receipt. Then, wait and see. If I actually want something that gets revealed on Tuesday, I could return the 5c’s. If not, I have them.

Am I crazy?

The Outside Scoop: Thoughts on Android Wear and a possible iWatch

The big news in tech today is Google’s announcement of Android Wear, a version of their Android OS specifically optimized for “wearables” like watches.

The tech media is erupting with ridiculously titled blog posts that refer to this as Google’s “answer” to the iWatch, a product that Apple has not announced, nor even acknowledged working on.

Surprisingly, for the first time I actually found one of these wearables mildly interesting, the Moto 360. But I am still skeptical of wearables in general, smart watches in particular, and especially the idea that Apple is working on one. But I’ve learned from my past mistakes, when I was convinced Apple was neither working on a smartphone in late 2006 nor a tablet in late 2009. So, in my world at least, my adamant belief that Apple is not developing a watch should probably be my biggest clue that they are.

So where is Apple’s “iWatch”? Aren’t all of these competitors eating Apple’s lunch (before it’s even cooked)? Perhaps. But consider this:

Remember the original iPod. It came into a market that already existed (but sucked), and delivered a radically superior user experience, and was a huge hit. Remember the iPhone. Once again, it came into a market that already existed (but sucked) and totally revolutionized it.

The thing is… a smart watch market doesn’t really exist (or didn’t when rumors of an “iWatch” first started to circulate). It almost seems like Apple got the wheels of the rumor mill turning deliberately, to goad their competition into creating the market, thinking they were beating Apple to the punch but in fact creating the exact environment of suck Apple needs to release a product into.

Nintendo: 2 Darn Stubborn?

Since the newly announced Nintendo 2DS (yes, you read that correctly) is obviously targeted at a young audience, I censored the title of this post. Kotaku already won the battle for best title anyway.

Source: NintendoMy first reaction, upon hearing the name “2DS” was “What the hell?” My second reaction, upon seeing a picture of it, was “No, seriously… what the hell?”

I have been a Nintendo defender for a long time. I love Nintendo. My kids and I waited in line outside the Richfield Best Buy last fall to get a Wii U at midnight when it was being released.

Now, a few fun games aside, all of us think the Wii U itself is kind of a P.O.S., but that’s not even the point. Except, it kind of is.

Nintendo used to be the king of the video game world. They dominated the late ’80s and early ’90s. After faltering a bit, they roared back in the mid-2000s with the original Wii. But then the world changed on them. The iPhone happened. And suddenly Nintendo was Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. Except when they looked down, they didn’t suddenly realize the ground beneath them was gone. They just kept right on running… into a strange world where all known laws of physics no longer apply.

The Wii U is a bit of a muddled mess, but its main failing is the poor user experience of its horribly designed system software. But it was indicative of the larger problem Nintendo currently has… it has become dangerously (to its own future) out-of-touch with how people are using not just video games, but technology devices in general. The 2DS seems like perhaps they have crossed a point of no return.

I “get” the 2DS. It’s designed to address a few very specific problems, all revolving around the fact that Nintendo’s core audience, especially for handhelds, tends to be young… single-digit young. The 3DS, Nintendo’s current flagship handheld system, has three problems with that audience:

1. It’s fragile.
2. It’s (kind of) expensive.
3. Its 3D effects can be harmful to young eyes.

Little kids break things. The delicate plastic hinges on the traditional clamshell DS designs are a perfect example. Parents don’t want to spend $150-$200 on a device their young child will break easily. And for ocular health, Nintendo themselves discourage use of the 3D effect on the 3DS for those under 7 years old. Parents can disable the 3D effect entirely, but it’s a cumbersome process.

Enter the 2DS: No hinge. Comparatively cheap at $129. And no 3D. Problem(s) solved, right? Except… targeting those specific issues has led to this monstrosity. Something that could only be created by a combination of focus group feedback and head-in-the-sand corporate executives, deliberately ignoring everything that’s happening in the world around them, denying the true source of the rot eating away at their company’s business model.

Set aside the Playstation Vita for a minute (since everyone pretty much has, amirite?)… there is one primary competitor to the Nintendo DS family for young portable video game enthusiasts: the iPod touch. There are plenty of reasons a parent might choose to get their kid an iPod touch, besides the obvious fact that the kid really wants one. But perhaps the most compelling factor is that the parents themselves already own iPhones. The iPod touch, after all, is pretty much just an iPhone without the phone. (And GPS, and a few other features, but you get my point.)

iOS is already familiar to these parents, so they can relate to their child’s experience. And more importantly, these parents understand the App Store, which is really the single reason why I believe Nintendo as it currently functions is doomed.

Let’s look at three more potential problem factors for the Nintendo DS family:

1. Its games are expensive ($30-$40 each).
2. Its game media can get lost.
3. Its games can only be used on a single device at a time.

True, the iPod touch starts at $229, a full $100 more than the 2DS. But buy just three games for the 2DS and you’re up to the price of an iPod touch. Granted, Nintendo has created an equivalent to the App Store for the DS line, but its selection of games is pitifully small compared to the iOS App Store, and many of those games are iOS ports! Even the best, deepest, biggest-budget iOS games rarely break the $20 barrier, and most are priced somewhere between free and $3.

Every subsequent generation of Nintendo handheld has seen its game media shrink in size, from the fairly large cartridges of the original Game Boy to the tiny SD-like cards of the DS line. They’re more portable, but in some ways smaller is worse… as any parent whose kids bring their DS on car trips will tell you, the games are incredibly easy to misplace, and at up to $40 each that’s an expensive scenario. And, of course, a physical game can only be played on one device at a time. Even Nintendo’s eShop is built around a ridiculous model where you can’t transfer purchases between devices.

Contrast that with the iOS App Store. There are no physical media to keep track of, anyone on the same App Store account can download (and re- download) apps to their device without re-purchasing, and you’re not limited to the single device you originally bought the app on.

So while Apple (and Android) reinvented the world of mobile gaming, what did Nintendo do? They continued to drift into this strange territory of weird proprietary hardware, trying to create a unique experience by building devices, and games around them, that would be impossible anywhere else. That’s great, I guess… if any of it really made any sense. And never has it been clearer just how little sense it all makes than with the 2DS.

What is Nintendo’s greatest asset? Not its “unique” game hardware. It’s the intellectual property of great franchises like Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Pokémon. For decades now, Nintendo has sustained a (more or less) thriving business by making these must-have games and then selling the only hardware anyone can play them on.

But times have changed. The video game landscape is so different now, that I don’t think these legendary franchises are enough to carry Nintendo’s increasingly absurd hardware business any longer. I’ve been saying for years that Nintendo needs to do what Sega did… get out of the hardware business and start putting their games on other companies’ devices. This will mean a leaner, smaller Nintendo, but I bet they could wring just as much or more profit from selling their games on other systems as from building and selling their own.

Put Mario, Link, Samus or (God help me) Pikachu on my iPhone, and I will buy it in a second. But this crazy new hardware Nintendo keeps dreaming up? I’m not buying it anymore. And, for the first time, neither are my kids.