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.

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.

iPokédex update

Back in early 2008, I set up an iPhone-optimized Pokédex web app. I pulled information from some of the usual suspects in the online world of Pokémon compendia.

A few people have asked me why I didn’t build it as a native app I could then sell in the App Store for boatloads of cash (because, you know, there’s a huge untapped market for… this).

Well, that’s a good question. A few answers:

  1. The App Store didn’t exist at the time I created it, and I had no interest in either jailbreaking my iPhone nor in supporting the jailbreak “community.”
  2. I didn’t (and so far, still don’t) have a developer account with Apple, and I didn’t (and so far, still don’t) know how to build a native iPhone app. Web apps, though, are second nature to me.
  3. It seemed clear to me that Apple wouldn’t (or, more accurately, shouldn’t) approve such an app. The entire contents of the app would be in violation of copyright, and there’s no way (that I could see) that Nintendo would license the content under the circumstances.

As far as I was concerned, that was pretty much it. The only way a Pokédex could live on the iPhone was as a web app. I’ve since learned that, whatever criteria they do employ in approving apps, copyrighted content does not appear to be a “dealbreaker” for Apple. I think it’s safe to say that Apple wouldn’t approve an unauthorized Pokémon game for the iPhone, but there are currently four Pokédex apps in the App Store.

Anyway… my iPokédex web app lives on. I just finished some updates: mostly some minor bug fixes, but also some visual refinements. Overall the improvements are slight, but I’m still pretty pleased with how well it works and how useful it is, especially considering that I essentially created it in an evening.

If you haven’t checked it out (ever, or lately), take a look now… especially on an iPhone!

http://pokemon.room34.com

Nintendo DSi vs. iPhone/iPod touch as a portable gaming platform

iPhone vs. Nintendo DSiThis is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, but only now (as of last Friday) that I own a Nintendo DSi, in addition to my iPhone 3GS, do I feel I’m in a place to write an informed piece about it. The iPhone (and, to a lesser extent, its phone-less cousin, the iPod touch) has been the focus of much techie attention for the past couple of years, but most of the time (other than on game review sites) its capabilities as a portable game system are only peripheral to the discussion.

I owned a Nintendo DS Lite for a couple of years before I got my first iPhone in March 2008, but even though I knew both were, amongst their other (limited or not) features, portable game devices, I never really thought of them as being in the same league. This was mainly due to two factors: 1) their control schemes and 2) their methods of game distribution.

The DS Lite was an “old school” gaming handheld. Sure, it had limited WiFi features, could be made to run a rudimentary web browser, and offered plenty of titles that were not typical video game fare, but essentially it was the latest descendant of the venerable Game Boy, and in many ways even reminiscent of the much earlier and technologically primitive Nintendo Game & Watch systems of the early 1980s.

The iPhone on the other hand was, at least on the most superficial marketing level, a cellphone. A smartphone, to be sure, and one that would reinvent the category and an entire industry. But it was not, foremost, a gaming system. It didn’t have a D-pad or a cluster of buttons, and it didn’t accept cartridges, discs, SD cards, or any of the other, increasingly minuscule physical media upon which games are typically delivered via retail outlets for prices usually ranging between $20 and $40. Instead, Apple brought us the radically different App Store, an entirely online (and even entirely wireless) means of selling and delivering software, at such low prices that $10 is not only the high end, but is often decried as “ridiculously expensive” by customer-reviewers in the App Store.

So, pardon the lame pun, but the DS vs. iPhone was an apples-to-oranges comparison. That is, until Nintendo recognized the potential of the iPhone and iPod touch to eat its portable lunch, and delivered the more iPhone-competitive DSi, a revamped DS Lite that loses the Game Boy cartridge slot (and, sadly, backwards compatibility with a huge and highly appealing game catalog) in favor of slightly larger (but same-resolution) screens, a pair of low-resolution digital cameras, and an enhanced OS with the ability to access an “app store” of its own, the DSi Shop. And with this salvo, Nintendo suddenly made the inclination of gamers to compare these two systems head-to-head much more apt. But are they keeping themselves relevant, or shooting themselves in the foot? That’s what I aim to determine here.

Industrial Design

I haven’t lined up the Nintendo DSi next to a DS Lite to compare their sizes (though others have), but from my tactile memory of my old DS Lite (now property of my 6-year-old son), I sense that the DSi is ever-so-slightly larger. It still manages to fit, not necessarily comfortably, in a jeans pocket — at least while standing — but it’s not really the kind of device you’d carry around loose in your pocket. The iPhone and iPod touch, on the other hand, are expressly designed to be carried in this fashion. Any cellphone that can’t fit in your pocket these days would be pretty worthless, and I find that the iPhone’s form — its dimensions, rounded corners, and smooth surfaces — slides easily into a pocket and is quickly and comfortably forgotten.

A significant market has grown up around both devices for accessories like carrying cases, although ideally both should do well in a pocket without one. I’ve found my iPhone 3GS is actually less prone to scratches without a case than with one, and both devices work better in a pocket without the extra bulk that even the slimmest of cases adds. But the DSi, at least the “metallic blue” model I own, is made of the kind of matte, metalized plastic that collects and shows every fingerprint, smudge, or slightest of scratches. Why anyone would design a device, largely targeted at pre-teens, out of this material is beyond my comprehension.

Winner: iPhone, by a wide margin.

Technical Capabilities

That both Sony’s PSP and the iPhone have far more processing and graphics horsepower than the Nintendo DS has been well covered, but as with the Wii, Nintendo has proven it’s not waging a war of raw tech specs. Nintendo’s angle in this generation of systems is to provide unique gameplay experiences via unconventional control mechanisms, be they the Wii’s motion-sensing controller or the DS’s dual screens (one of which is touch-sensitive) and innovative ways of incorporating its microphone and, now, camera(s) into gameplay. Sometimes these new schemes seem more like gimmicks than innovations, especially with the DS.

The iPhone changes the game (sorry) here, though, because not only does it have more impressive raw technical specs than the iPhone, but it incorporates technologies that allow for the innovative control schemes of both of Nintendo’s systems. So even if you take Nintendo’s side in the argument that it’s not about specs, Apple pretty much has this one covered.

Winner: iPhone, slightly.

Interface

This is the aspect of the DSi that most compelled me to write a review comparing the two systems. It’s obvious, when comparing the original DS interface to that of the DSi, that Nintendo took lessons from both the iPhone interface and its own Wii in designing this new DS user experience. The new DSi interface is pretty slick, but cheesy-looking icons and bad text anti-aliasing only serve to highlight the DS screen’s low resolution (even lower on the DSi than on the DS Lite, because the screens are larger without adding any pixels, meaning the overall perceived resolution is worse than before). The DSi’s interface looks not just second-rate, but last-century compared to the iPhone.

Winner: iPhone, by a mile. Make that a light-year.

Gameplay Experience

Here’s where Nintendo shows its strength. For all of the “innovative” control schemes possible with the DSi, the thing I like most about it is its adherence to the old school D-pad-and-buttons controls. Take a look at the number of iPhone games with on-screen “virtual D-pads” and buttons as control mechanisms, and you realize just how important this is. And unfortunately, no matter how well iPhone developers implement these virtual controls — and they’ve gotten much better at it over time — there is simply no way that the iPhone will ever be able to replicate one critical aspect of the DSi’s controls: the tactile sensation of the buttons under your fingers. You never have to look at the controls to know your fingers are in the right places on a DSi. Not only is this lack of tactile feedback an inherent problem with the iPhone’s controls, but the ergonomics of holding the smaller iPhone’s form and pressing these on-screen “buttons” are a recipe for wrist strain.

The thing is, there’s no reason you’d have to use a D-pad for controls on the iPhone, and I’ve found that most of the D-pad based iPhone games I’ve tried, assuming I’d love them because they’re like the DS games I enjoy, have just left me frustrated and disappointed. Some of my favorite DS games include venerable franchises like Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda. Translating these kinds of games to a virtual D-pad just doesn’t work. But there’s no real reason why these types of exploration/action games need you to move your player around with a D-pad. Dungeon Hunter is a great example of an iPhone game that takes a new approach — you can simply tap on the screen where you want your character to move. It works much better than the D-pad, but it affirms the one aspect of touch-based controls on the iPhone that Apple will never be able to work around — you have to obscure your view of part of the screen in order to control the game.

Winner: DSi, for keeping it real, old school.

Software

Nintendo’s DS platform had a three-year lead on the iPhone, and in that time a lot of fun, engaging games have appeared, making the DS the world’s top handheld game system in the latter half of this decade. But the iPhone App Store has exploded like nothing before it. The fact that most iPhone games sell for 99 cents, and $9.99 is considered an absolute top end for premier titles like Madden 10, has made the prices of DS games — where even closeouts on shovelware typically run at least $14.99 — seem absurd. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to find iPhone games with the depth and polish of the best DS games, such as the aforementioned Castlevania and Zelda series, to say nothing of Mario and Pokémon.

But those top-tier franchises are just a small part of the DS picture. The most successful games on the DS platform, “casual,” puzzle-type games, are equally, if not better, represented on the iPhone platform as well, usually at a small fraction of the price. The good is overwhelmingly outnumbered by the bad on both systems, but the best of the iPhone is catching up fast to the quality of the best of the DS, and price is not a factor to be overlooked. (In fact, the somewhat higher price of the iPhone/iPod touch hardware is quickly offset by the relative costs of building up game libraries for both systems.)

Winner: toss up, but leaning more towards the iPhone every day.

Online Stores

No comparison. Apple’s iPhone App Store is revolutionary, and huge, and despite its increasing notoriety for the abusive way Apple treats developers, a rousing success. It’s well-established that there are over 100,000 apps for the iPhone, and even though most of those are buried beneath a poorly-conceived interface, they’re still there. Granted, games are only a part of that 100,000, but my anecdotal observations suggest that games are possibly as much as 40% of the total. But let’s be conservative and cut that in half. 20,000 games available on the App Store.

How many games are available for download to the DSi, via the DSi Shop? I decided to check for myself, and the number I came up with is 75. Not 75,000. 75. And that includes some non-games, like a web browser and quasi-productivity apps.

Winner: Are you kidding me?

Conclusion

When I first got my iPhone, I was a somewhat avid DS player. I own a few dozen DS games, and have logged hundreds of hours playing them. Initially, the weak selection of slapdash, shallow, awkward games on the iPhone kept me committed to the DS platform. But over time, as was to be expected, iPhone developers have learned how to take best advantage of the unique properties of the platform, not to mention the fact that additional time and the promise of serious profits have brought tremendous commitment on the part of some “big guns” mobile developers (such as EA and Gameloft). As the iPhone has become a lot more competitive as a gaming platform, Nintendo has responded with the somewhat ill-conceived and tepidly-received revamps of the DSi.

The DS Lite is still on the market, for $40 less than the DSi. After a few days putting it through its paces, not only do I think the additions to the DSi are not worth the extra money, but the loss of backwards compatibility with Game Boy Advance games makes the system a lateral move if not an outright downgrade. Meanwhile, the iPhone/iPod touch just keeps moving on up.

Winner: iPhone.

Reason enough (for me) to install Windows (and Google Chrome)

Sure, I own a real NES. Two, in fact. I also own a GBA Micro, Nintendo DS, and a Wii, with emulated versions of all of my favorite NES classics. And then, of course, there’s emulation.

But as a web developer, I just have to geek out on this: the very idea of a working NES emulator running entirely in JavaScript… wow. I’ve known about JSNES for a few months, but I hadn’t had the time and/or inclination to fire it up in Google Chrome (still Windows-only), the only browser so far that has a JavaScript interpreter efficient enough to run it at a decent frame rate.

The last time I tried running it was on the iPhone. Yes… it did run… at about 1.5 FPS. And, of course, there’s no way to access the controls. But in Chrome… it’s actually playable. A smidge slower than the real thing (which would be at 60 FPS), but as you can see, I got it up to 46 FPS. Not bad. Especially considering that I was running Windows 7 with Parallels Desktop on the Mac. Nice!

JSNES