Super Mario Run's Highest Hurdle on Smartphones Is Pokemon Go

Nintendo's Big Day: Super Mario Run Tests Mobile Strategy

Nintendo Co.'s Super Mario Run is one of this year's most anticipated smartphone games. That's due in part to the breakaway success of Pokemon Go earlier in 2016.

For the iconic plumber, who will be jumping over obstacles in the new game, Super Mario Run is a chance to leap beyond consoles and DS handhelds. With 1.46 billion smartphones projected to be sold this year, it's a much bigger market. The game became available on Apple's iOS devices on Thursday.

Nintendo's new game Super Mario Run. Source: Nintendo Co.

Nintendo's new game Super Mario Run. 

Source: Nintendo Co.

While Pokemon Go was a collaboration led by partner Niantic Inc., the new Super Mario game was mostly developed by Nintendo (with some help from DeNA Co.). The differences between the two games offer hints as to whether Nintendo's new title can clear lofty expectations.

Pay to play

Free-to-play rules mobile. All of the highest-grossing titles, from Clash of Clans to Candy Crush, have embraced the business model, which generates revenues from in-game purchases (versus buying the game outright). Pokemon Go was the fastest-ever game to hit $600 million in the category, reaching that threshold three months after its July launch, according to market researcher App Annie.

Nintendo is taking a different approach. The first three levels of Super Mario Run are free to play, and the company is gambling that they will be compelling enough to convince players to dish out $9.99 for the full 24 levels of the game. The high price tag (most apps cost less than half  that) could turn away users. It’s a risky bet, but one that Nintendo appears willing to make.

Classic to a fault

In Super Mario Run, you tap the screen to jump. The control scheme is easy to learn and so simple you only need one hand to play. Pokemon Go took a completely opposite approach, compelling users to seek out real-world locations in search of virtual pocket monsters. Niantic, whose chief executive officer helped lay the groundwork for Google Earth, spent four years honing the technology that makes use of the smartphone's location feature.

At its most basic, Super Mario Run can be played while standing on a train or waiting in line, while Pokemon Go pushed people to explore their surroundings.

Going viral

Pokemon Go managed to become a global sensation with very little advertising. Its players were highly visible and tended to congregate in public places at all hours. The game's augmented reality feature also let users take and share pictures of Pokemons in the real world. That helped to spark a media storm, fueled by stories about a Norwegian politician getting busted playing at work, some gamers breaking into a zoo in search of monsters and others falling prey to petty criminals.

While Mario's smartphone debut isn't lacking in media coverage, it probably won’t trigger a viral feedback loop. While it’s easy to spot someone playing Pokemon Go, it’s harder to tell whether someone is playing Super Mario Run or surfing the web.

Social

One of the things that made Pokemon Go such a phenomenon is the sense of community. By urging people to collect virtual pocket monsters and head to gyms to pit them against each other, the game promotes multiplayer battles and teamwork. That led to an unprecedented level of engagement, with App Annie estimating its users spent as much time playing the game as the next 19 titles combined.

A woman plays Nintendo Co.'s Pokemon Go augmented-reality game, developed by Niantic Inc., on their smartphones at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, Japan, on Sunday, July 24, 2016. Nintendo shares plunged by the most since 1990 after the company said late Friday that the financial impact from the worldwide hit Pokemon Go will be limited. Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

A woman catches Pokemons at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.

Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

Super Mario Run's road rally lets you compare your performance to that of friends or strangers by chasing their ghost-like avatars through a level, although not in real-time. At its core it's a solo-player game, and even more so because of its migration to handheld displays from screens in living rooms.

World building

Super Mario Brothers pioneered storytelling in video games at a time when shooting aliens out of a sky was considered a good-enough narrative. Fast forward three decades, and the Mario-saving-the-princess story line looks stale, while Pokemon Go is set in a world that revolves around a rich ecology of monsters.

Still, there's no doubt Super Mario Run will be a hit. The question is how big, and whether it will surpass Pokemon Go. Super Mario Run has already garnered rave reviews from gaming media after Nintendo made demos available at Apple Stores. The franchise has one of the most loyal followings that ranges from kids to adults who grew up watching Mario transform into a pop-culture icon.

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