I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Mario is someone we can call a multi-hyphenate. Although Nintendo’s mascot is most recognized as a plumber across his extensive games history, Mario has jumped across different careers ranging from a painter to an athlete for several different competitive sports. More recently, he is juggling his time as both an architect and a construction worker at the same time! But ultimately the most baffling endeavors in Mario’s work history is his doctorhood. Who knew he had time at all to get a medical license?
Dr. Mario is a falling block puzzle game in which players must destroy viruses — albeit, cutely designed viruses — that populate the screen with colored capsule pills provided by Mario — well, Dr. Mario. A research experiment has gone awry at the Mushroom Kingdom Hospital, and the facilities have become flooded with the gosh darned things. Players have the ability to manipulate and move around the capsules with the goal of lining them up with the viruses of the same color. The capsules are basically two-color blocks, and lining them up to create at least a three-blocked row of the same color with a virus will eliminate it. Other elements such as coins and obstacles can appear in addition to the viruses on the screen, which can either impede or help players. Players progress by fulfilling the goal established per level, which is usually clearing the screen entirely.
As it stands, the Dr. Mario series is reasonably popular and has had consistently positive feedback since its inception. Several elements from the game would cameo across other Nintendo titles and the Dr. Mario character would appear as a distinct, unlockable character from Mario in the Smash Bros. series with his own moveset. The series spawned several remakes and ports across Nintendo’s resume of consoles but the last, original title to the series was Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure for the 3DS in 2015. Releasing even a day earlier than anticipated, Dr. Mario World will be the first entirely new contribution to the series of this generation. It was only about time!
In Dr. Mario World, a pandemic of sorts has broken out and viruses are now running rampant across worlds. For some reason, Mario and friends (AND enemies?!) are the ones that face the obligation to hunt the viruses down to end this madness once and for all. (So it is now apparent that anyone in the Mushroom Kingdom can put on a lab coat and call themselves a doctor. Mario’s credentials should be questioned, but at this point, times are desperate and resources are limited.)
Gameplay follows the same formula as other Dr. Mario games. Use the quantity of capsule pills provided in order to match up colors and get rid of the viruses. Straightforward! World also normalizes elements right off the bat that were only introduced in later Dr. Mario games, such as the option to use items and power-ups. The game also has a versus mode to compete with other fellow doctors and special challenge levels in which difficulty is ramped up to yield potentially higher rewards.
Besides having a spiffy, new interface design suited for smartphones, one of the additions introduced to the game is the ability to select characters. Players will endure being Dr. Mario for much of the game’s first, essentially tutorial, stage, but afterwards, a choice is given to select between him, Dr. Bowser, and Dr. Peach — the latter, funnily enough, having higher credentials than her colleagues based on her Nurse Toadstool persona in past Dr. Mario titles. However, this choice is locked in until players unlock more doctor versions of other recognizable and iconic Mushroom Kingdom citizens. The different doctors have their own unique set of abilities between story mode and versus mode, and players must build up the skill meter as they score in the levels to be able to use it. Players are also able to collect and “hire” allies which, similar to items boosts, can provide substantial aid with abilities of their own.
Ultimately, the most noteworthy difference between the original series and World is how gameplay itself is presented. Whereas all of the Dr. Mario games follow a falling block layout as capsules drop top-down, World has players control the direction of the capsules from the bottom-up. Similar to the drag and drop, touch mechanics of the DS and Wii U titles, players use their finger to lead capsules to the right direction and orientation on their phone’s screen. This may be jarring and hard to adjust to for older fans, but personally, this feels natural and appropriate on a smartphone.
Since many utilities and apps on phones involve the limiting motion of swiping and scrolling up due to its vertical format, it is only appropriate that Dr. Mario World adapts. As opposed to sticking to its classic formula, World adjusted gameplay for the typical mobile phone user, which is indeed based on movement from the bottom-up. This layout opens up the window to create new gaming strategies, distinguishing it even further from other puzzle games that would otherwise be more static. With the guidance of an overeager Toad, the game is otherwise welcoming to newcomers, more than willing to hold players’ hands as evident in its tutorial levels. If veterans of the series were interested in pursuing the game on their phone in the first place, they likely would welcome this new mechanic and max out its potential. Unfortunately, where the game succeeds in its gameplay, it currently struggles in its presentation.
Even if players are not seeking to use its online features, like the versus mode, Dr. Mario World entirely relies on Internet connectivity or data at all times in order to play. In these days of the week since its launch, this has been hugely detrimental, as the game currently suffers from a lot of connectivity issues and drops. Weirdly enough, matching up and finding other players in the versus mode has been a generally quick and concise process. Otherwise, the game does suffer from absurd amounts of loading screens and stalls for an app that does not demand much memory. With extremely minimal, but still charming, visuals, it shouldn’t be clogging up the Internet, especially compared to a bulk of other puzzle apps.
As expected in this day and age, the game also has a microtransaction system and offers a premium option for a special currency to purchase things like items and allies. It tracks a stamina number that refreshes every day to represent the players’ daily gameplay limit. Items can be bought to speed up the progress of their game, but despite the generous plethora available, players will be cornered due to items lacking refresh rates, for instance. Sometimes, these items might be felt as necessary with inconsistent spikes in difficulty across levels. It all feels very intentional and predatory, something that would definitely coerce an impatient player to spend just to overcome their hurdles. There is no means of even earning this special currency in-game, so spending real money is the only way to acquire it. The gaming experience between a free player and a premium player will be inherently different. Dr. Mario World is outright free to play, but there are certainly many parts to it where one would be tempted to pay to win. (If this isn’t a poignant, although very unintentional, statement on the healthcare system, I don’t know what is.)
When Nintendo first tried their luck with Super Mario Run in 2016, reception was divided. On one hand, gameplay was praised, but it was also criticized for its ridiculous price point compared to other apps for what it had to offer. The game also had to constantly run on data to work – the latter being the same issue Dr. Mario World currently has. Fire Emblem Heroes would later end up outperforming Super Mario Run with a more “freemium” approach, in which the microtransaction aspects of the game are intended to be optional. Whilst Heroes remains to be one of the company’s most lucrative apps that they have developed currently in the market (although Nintendo has a share in The Pokémon Company, they have neither developed or have had any hand in publishing Niantic’s smash hit Pokémon GO under their name), Nintendo would continue stepping their toes into the world of Gacha games with Dragalia Lost and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.
Dr. Mario World was co-developed between Nintendo, LINE Corporation, and the NHN Corp. As Nintendo is scratching their heads in trying to figure out how to game the mobile games market, it is pretty deliberate of them to collaborate with the figures that dominate the industry the most. With LINE’s own comprehensive track record of online services and numerous other apps — largely simple puzzle games and more significantly, its eponymous messaging app — World feels like Nintendo took the backseat to let LINE drive. As the game currently faces the challenge of emerging in a market where puzzle games already prevail, World stands out from the rest of Nintendo’s current mobile titles for having the face of its IP but the feel of a different company’s game. Compared to other titles who have secured legacies in this market, World will not seem all that original or interesting. Even during the original game’s release, critics likened the game to being a clone of Tetris.
It is awfully bold for World to put price points on some of its gameplay elements while tons of other puzzle titles of similar stature don’t. For instance, Candy Crush Saga, debuted in 2012 as part of Facebook’s original game library before it’s move to mobile phone platforms. Since having grown into a franchise, it remains to be one of the most highest-grossing and most played apps. An analysis by the Guardian citing data from 2014 notes that only 2.3% of Candy Crush’s players have spent on premium content out of its roughly 356 million monthly unique users. Although that still means that a whopping 8 million players do spend money on the game, but that number is substantially low compared to the 348 million that do not. Of course, there are myriad other ways in which King, Candy Crush’s developer and publisher, are able to capitalize on their game’s success.
It certainly isn’t the spirit of the Dr. Mario games to be plagued with a bunch of shop ads in-game when the focus is about throwing drugs at a bunch of doofy-looking viruses. Nevertheless, the Dr. Mario series was ripe for a new title any minute now and World is still a generally worthy game to carry that on its sleeve. Fans should certainly give it a shot, but the game may honestly have a hard time standing out in an oversaturated market of mobile puzzle games if it weren’t for its Nintendo association. That said, players who will choose to indulge must be wary of the premium content temptations that will be inevitably pushed on them. As Nintendo aggressively experiments and prioritizes all the ways that they can yield a return out of mobile games, Dr. Mario World is unfortunately no exception. And for Dr. Mario lovers who hold the series near and dear to them, that might be a hard pill to swallow.