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Super Mario Run: Mario in the Time of Crisis

Super Mario Run released in 2016, a year that should send shivers down the spine of everyone who hears it. America was dealing with a rough election cycle and an even rougher election. I was fresh out of college, moving in with my girlfriend, beginning life in the workforce. It was an exciting time, draped in a layer of anxiety and uncertainty. But hey, at the end of the year, we were getting a mobile Mario game!

When Super Mario Run finally landed on iOS devices in December of 2016, it was met with some harsh criticism. Not so much for the gameplay, but for the cost associated. The free trial offers a few free levels, but then Nintendo had the gall—the absolute nerve—to charge for a video game. “It’s on the phone! It’s supposed to be free!” the world shouted, forgetting that they had always paid for video games. Granted, the “always-online” element didn’t help either.

The title screen for Super Mario Run

I played the demo levels on my sister’s iPhone and thought it was fine. I had to wait a while before Run released for Android and, at the time, I wasn’t sure I was willing to pay for Run either. It was a clever concept, with Mario constantly, and without input, running to the right, requiring only a tap to jump. Run built off this concept well, creating trials that required well-timed wall-jumps, enemy bounces, and deft mid-air twirls. But it was a phone game that required attention, something I didn’t have in 2016.

When the game finally released for Android in March of 2017, I downloaded it on day one, to the same general “meh” I had felt a few months prior. I can’t tell you exactly when I shelled out the cash for the full game, but at some point, I did.

My in-game records show I played the main game mode, World Tour, fairly thoroughly. World Tour is structured like traditional 2D Mario games, albeit shortened up, with six worlds consisting of four levels each. Complete one, the next opens. The developers scattered special colored coins throughout the level, in a clear attempt to boost replayability. Collect all of the pink coins in one run and you can do it all again with purple coins.

The World Tour Level Select screen in Super Mario Run

Also available at launch was Toad Rally, an online race against other player’s ghosts. You’d race for as long as you could, using the game’s mechanics to pull “tricks” while bouncing off Goomba heads and walls. When the timer ran out, the level ended, and Run tallied your points. Depending on how well you played, you either took Toads from your opponent or lost your own Toads to them.

I avoided this mode like the plague. The base game could be challenging, but I didn’t feel like I was losing something by failing a level. Toad Rally punishes losses by taking Toads away from the player. It sucks to lose what you’ve worked hard for and I get that enough from day-to-day life. I don’t need some dude running off with my Toads while I’m trying to relax.

On September 28th, 2017, Super Mario Run released Remix 10. Remix 10 didn’t drastically change the game, didn’t revamp controls, or even offer any real improvements. It simply took preexisting levels, chopped them into smaller bits, threw in a couple new, exclusive level snippets, and gave you 10 of these snapshots to play through before dumping a different 10 in your lap. Once you finished a set, it was gone. If you were a free player, you got to go through Remix 10 once every eight hours. If you bought the full game, you (essentially) never had to stop. Remix 10 stripped away the classic Mario design sensibilities and turned it into what it should have always been: a mobile game. One I desperately needed.

Around this same time, my general anxiety about the world was slowly growing. America’s new president was doing his thing. There were some genuine underlying concerns about a nuclear war with North Korea. The Brexit vote had just passed. Also, climate change. For the first time, I started to worry that the world was not going to come back from this. I was finding it harder and harder to sleep.

World Tour and Toad Rally required some degree of focus to play. World Tour has the coin challenges that my lizard brain just can’t ignore. If I’m playing World Tour, I just have to collect the coins. Missing those meaningless colorful coins frustrates me. Toad Rally would take my hard-won Toads from me, leaving me in a worse state than if I had just never played Run at all. It seems silly to get worked up about either of these things, but I was looking for something to relax with, so when the (fairly easy) Mario Run would tell me I failed, I took it out on myself.

Remix 10 was different. The base difficulty was just enough to engage me, but never enough to frustrate. There were extra collectible coins to gather, but if you missed one, that was it. There was no way to return to that level to try again. You could only move forward. And at the end of every set, you got a reward box with a decoration for your personal Mushroom Kingdom in it. I didn’t so much care about the decorations as much as seeing that little X/149 go up. It gave me a goal, superficial as it was.

The reward screen for Remix 10 in Super Mario Run, showing a collection of 148/149 items
That 148/149 will haunt me forever.

And so, as I would struggle to sleep, I would turn to Remix 10. It was a simple, dumb thing born from an imperfect and strange game that offered me exactly what I needed. I’d play through a few sets, each one clearing my head a bit more than the last, before I would eventually drift off to sleep. Soon, I found myself playing it during the day when I needed a break. Put some music on, crank through a set and I’d feel a bit better. And the little reward of getting a decoration I didn’t have before made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something. The ideal lie.

Eventually, I drifted away from Mario Run. I’m not sure when, and I’m not sure why. Maybe spring was breaking, and the sun helped push away some of the Ohio winter blues. Maybe I felt the world was getting a little better, at least for a bit. Maybe I just found solace in something new. No matter what it was that dragged me out of my anxiety-fueled slump, it left me with a strange appreciation for Mario Run.

Occasionally, when I talk to my friends about anxiety, I still recommend Run. It’s not a perfect game. It’s not even a great game. And yet, in anxious times, it’s at the forefront of my mind, offering up a small bit of serenity when everything else seems to be spinning out of control.

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Written by Sean Mekinda

Sean Mekinda is a fan of all things auteur and weird. He's currently one of the hosts of Beating a Dead Horse, a podcast all about death in media. The first movie he remembers loving is The Iron Giant. The first movie he remembers hating is Alien VS Predator Requiem. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his girlfriend and two needy huskies.

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