Whatever one might think of Super Mario Run, it's reasonable to assume that Nintendo will have hoped for more. Not in terms of downloads perhaps, where Mario's mobile debut has been no slouch. Or even in terms of immediate revenue, with a $14 million three-day return likely eclipsing its total investment in the product to date. But after a year in which Pokémon Go had done so much to improve Nintendo's standing in the stock market, it may well have expected a warmer reception from Wall Street.
Outside of formal reviews of the game, much of the dialogue around Super Mario Run in the tech and business media has been concerned with a 15% drop in Nintendo's share price. Rather than a moment of triumph, driven by a combination of unprecedented support from Apple and the evergreen appeal of gaming's most iconic single character, Super Mario Run has apparently eroded investors' faith that Nintendo was really cut out for the mobile business they had long urged it to enter.
The root of that concern isn't found in the arcana of the financial world, but in a substantial perceived backlash among the game's players. Stories marvelling at the wave of negative user reviews hitting the App Store have appeared on influential organs like Bloomberg, Techcrunch and Recode. According to the analytics firm Mobile Action, which shared its data with Recode, the majority of Super Mario Run's tens of thousands of amateur reviewers awarded it just a single star, with the average coming in at a little over two.
A survey of the many reports on this phenomenon reveals three common complaints. The first is the game's requirement of an internet connection, which undermines some popular use cases for mobile games like Super Mario Run - a baffling oversight, but one that will likely be corrected in future releases. The other two are more problematic, both from Nintendo's perspective and that of its investors: in simple terms, a large proportion of users believe that too little of Super Mario Run's content is available before they are required to buy the full game, and a similarly large proportion believe the $10 asking price is far too much.
"For all its hesitance embracing smartphones and tablets, Nintendo seems to have had no trouble designing software for them"
Nintendo has often articulated a desire to avoid devaluing its products by giving away too much content for free, and it exudes a general distaste for free-to-play monetisation techniques. It may have believed that an IP as powerful as Mario would be enough to challenge a market where both are the norm - as suggested by Rob Fahey in this article from September - but, in the wake of Super Mario Run's launch, investors seem to be losing what faith they had that Nintendo's belief was correct.
In the background, reviews of Super Mario Run from the games press have been largely - if not entirely - positive. At the time of writing, the game has an average of 77 on Metacritic after 45 reviews; a very respectable figure that is mainly remarkable for the number of articles on which it is based. The vast majority of iOS games don't make it to Metacritic at all, and even the most high-profile releases will draw an appraisal from only a dozen websites - most of them specialists in mobile. In a sense, the gulf between Super Mario Run's Metacritic average and its user reviews speaks to the distance between professional game reviewers and the mobile market. Almost a decade on from the launch of the iPhone, the specialist games press still hasn't found a way to understand and address the mobile audience, its rushing stream of products, and the vast number of people play them.
Time is perhaps the most effusive in its praise of Super Mario Run, declaring it not just "an authentic Mario escapade" but "one for the ages." There are a few sentences on the problem of that "always on" requirement, but otherwise there are compliments paid to pretty much every decision and every detail.
"It's smart less-is-more design that plays to the strengths of touchscreen gaming while sacrificing none of a gamepad's precision. For all its hesitance embracing smartphones and tablets, Nintendo seems to have had no trouble designing software for them... You can blast through Super Mario Run's World Tour levels in an afternoon, but then that's true of most Mario games. Isolating all the collectibles, then pulling off the finger kung-fu necessary to grab everything in a single pass? Good luck."
"The game is fine... It's well-polished, the controls are responsive enough, and the level designs are acceptable"
Polygon is perhaps more representative of the general tone of the critical response, awarding 7 out of 10 to what it regards as an "admirable attempt at translating the gamepad controls of side-scrolling Mario games to taps on a touchscreen" while retaining the "look and feel of a modern Mario side-scroller, and Nintendo's clean, colorful and charming art design." However, it spots issues where Time sees none, particularly in the game's linked Toad Rally and Kingdom Builder modes; making the most of the latter, it observes, demands "playing and replaying Toad Rally levels again and again, a component of Super Mario Run that already feels more like work than fun."
Where users take against Super Mario Run's price and the amount of free content available, many professional reviewers are more concerned with this "lengthy grind" at the core of the game. For Touch Arcade, which also awarded 7 out of 10, that issue is essential to the sense of disappointment that outlasts the game's obvious strengths.
"If this weren't Mario, if this weren't Nintendo, if this didn't have all the hype, expectations, and nostalgia behind it, what would I think of this game?" the reviewer asks. "If I do that, all I can say is that the game is fine. It's well-polished, the controls are responsive enough, and the level designs are acceptable. But it also feels quite lean in terms of content, and insubstantial on the whole. That's the last place a paid auto-runner wants to find itself in, especially on iOS.
"Super Mario Run is a decent game. It accomplishes the fairly difficult goal of feeling like a proper Mario game while also bowing to some of the trends of mobile gaming. But with the likes of Rayman Fiesta Run [$2.99], Wind-Up Knight 2 [Free], Punch Quest [Free], and countless others competing at a high level in this genre, decent isn't really good enough. A grindy town-builder isn't exciting enough. A couple of hours of fun with only coin-hunting to keep you busy afterwards isn't substantial enough."
The fact is, though, that Super Mario Run will both benefit and suffer from expectations depending on who you ask. For professional critics, who tend to focus on design and aesthetics over value and longevity, Nintendo's mobile debut appears one way. To the mobile-first gamer, for whom even a $5 price tag is a rare beast indeed, it appears another. And for analysts, who see Nintendo's IP stable as the potential source of a river of free-to-play revenue, Super Mario Run is perhaps destined to disappoint.