The news that Nintendo's globally-renowned mascot Mario would be starring in his own smartphone title was, for some, as earth-shattering as learning that the Easter Bunny isn't real. Nintendo entering the mobile arena was hard enough to stomach, but offering up its most famous son as a blood sacrifice for the baying, iPhone-owning masses felt like an affront – especially when the core premise of this new game was a simplified one-touch control system which you can play using just one hand. With so many video game development veterans all too happy to water-down their key console franchises in order to chase that elusive mobile dollar, you could say that the omens for Super Mario Run weren't exactly positive, but the finished product is a reminder of how foolish it is to doubt Nintendo's grasp of what makes a good video game – regardless of its platform.

Super Mario Run's title – and the proliferance of endless runners on smartphones – perhaps sets up unfair expectations prior to playing the game. It's not an endless runner at all, but instead retains the core structure seen in titles like New Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. There are six worlds divided into four stages, each with a beginning and an end. Thematically these levels borrow elements from previous Super Mario games, so we have lush hills, scorching desert stages, spooky ghost houses, floating warships and – of course – various lava-filled fortresses presided over by serial princess kidnapper Bowser, who acts as a boss whenever you encounter him.

When you're in one of these levels, things feel familiar. Enemies can be stomped on to remove them from play, and there are coins dotted around the stage for you to collect. While the onus is very much on getting to the flagpole at the level's conclusion, acquisition of coinage should be of prime concern as it is this metric by which you will be judged against other players. A surprisingly strict time limit exists as well, which – when combined with the fact that Mario runs automatically with no input from the player – gives the game a frantic pace.

Super Mario Run exhibits the sort of polished presentation that has become a given in the core console lineage. The 2.5D visuals are sharp and detailed, while levels have the same fidelity you'd see in entries like New Super Mario Bros. U. The only negative is that the bottom third of the screen is taken up by a textured panel which is presumably where your finger should naturally rest during play. It looks somewhat odd despite the sensible reasoning behind its inclusion, and as a result you always feel like your view of the action is being unfairly limited. Aurally things are beyond reproach; the iconic Mario themes are here and the sound effects – including those irresistibly chirpy voices – are absolutely spot-on.

Fears surrounding Super Mario Run's one-touch control system dissolve quite quickly. While it's true that some of the player's agency is sacrificed by not allowing directional control over the famous plumber, Nintendo has tailored the gameworld to suit this change. Special blocks stop Mario in his tracks (as well as halting the countdown of the clock), allowing you respite to assess your next move or time your next jump to avoid moving threats, while arrow blocks cause you to jump backwards and are handy for collecting missed coins and items. Using Mario's wall-jump skill you can bounce off solid objects and briefly alter your direction of movement, a talent which can also be used to pick up things you might normally miss. What's also interesting is how the game's designers have had to account for the fact that the player cannot control Mario's direction; some levels have single-screen rooms which wrap around themselves, so running off the right-hand side makes Mario re-appear on the left, a throwback to the Mario Bros. arcade game.

Despite the one-finger input system, you actually have quite a varied selection of actions at your disposal, many of which are context-sensitive. Holding your finger on the screen for longer results in a bigger jump, and while in mid-air a second tap will initiate a spin which can be used to alter the trajectory of your fall and slow your downward movement; performing the same move when in close proximity to an enemy will execute a spin strike. Running up to certain enemies will simply result in Mario causally vaulting over them, but a tap at the same time will trigger a vault jump which not only takes out the enemy and propels you skyward, but also grants a coin as a reward. Mario is capable of grabbing onto ledges if his jump falls short, and from this position you can perform a special climbing leap. Finally, jumping from roll – an animation which Mario automatically slips into when landing from a big jump – results in a rolling jump.

Other Super Mario hallmarks – such as switches which make blocks appear, keys which unlock doors and mid-level checkpoints – also exist in the game, strengthening its bond with the mainline series. It goes without saying that the power-up mushroom is also included, as is the invincibility star – however, none of Mario's other famous pick-ups appear. The protective bubble seen in more recent Super Mario outings does make the cut however; hitting a hazard or falling off the bottom of the screen costs you a few coins and places you inside said bubble. This slowly drifts backwards through the stage, giving you the opportunity to snag missed coins or items. You get two of these bubbles to use per stage and once they're gone you have to restart from the beginning should you die again.

Because the focus is earning coins, it's imperative to use all of Mario's moves to not only explore the entire level but also take out as many enemies as possible. While each stage is fairly linear there are still a few different routes you can take, some of which require precision jumping or the use of an enemy as a springboard in order to reach them. Dotted around the levels are five pink coins, each of which is worth 10 regular coins. These are usually hard to grab but getting all of them results in a different coin layout when you tackle the level again, with pink coins replaced by purple ones. These are secreted in even trickier places, but getting them all unlocks the third and final variant: black coins. The challenge therefore is to finish each level three times over and get all three coin types.

This incentive for repeat play is welcome, because it doesn't take long to complete Super Mario Run's World Tour mode. We clocked it in around an hour, although admittedly we were only going for the goal and not focusing on grabbing pink coins or uncovering hidden routes. If you consider that getting all of the pink, purple and black coins on each level effectively triples the size of the game, there's a lot more meat on the bones here than it seems at first; it's a shame that the stages don't undergo some kind of cosmetic change to make each special coin run a little more unique, however. Your overall coin score is compared with that of other players on your friends list – which we'll come to in a bit – and this provides additional encouragement to return to previously completed levels.

Competitive play is at the heart of Super Mario Run's other game mode, Toad Rally. In this, you exchange Rally Tickets – earned in the World Tour mode – for the chance to challenge other players in a coin-grabbing timed dash. The winner is the player who has the most coins at the end, and harnessing the special Coin Rush feature is key, as when this is enabled you earn more currency and therefore increase your chances of being crowned the victor. Performing flashy moves such as spins, combination stomps and climbing jumps also earns you the adoration of watching Toads, and these are added to your kingdom at the conclusion of the stage, should you win the race. Losing means some of your Toads are handed over to your opponent. Enemies permanently level-up the more of them you defeat, and consequently are worth more coins when beaten in Toad Rally. This naturally boosts your potential score and is another solid reason to play for long periods.

The kingdom-building element of Super Mario Run therefore relies on your performance in Toad Rally. The more Toads you can attract the more objects you'll unlock, such as decorative structures, shops and houses. The castle in the middle of your kingdom also swells the more Toads you have, and it's possible to expand your territory once you unlock a special item. Toad Rally therefore becomes the main focus of the game once the World Tour has been truly bested; there are a surprising number of items to unlock (all purchased with coins collected in-game, of course) as well as additional playable characters to earn, such as Luigi, Toadette and Yoshi. Just like in the mainline series these individuals have special skills which make them play differently to Mario; Luigi can jump higher for example, while Princess Peach can use her dress to float for longer periods in the air. These differences alone mean it's fun to replay levels and find the perfect character for your own particular play style.

To reinforce the social element of Super Mario Run, an in-game friends system exists which is similar in scope to that used in Miitomo. While your in-game list is unique to Super Mario Run, you can link your Facebook or Twitter accounts to find people in your network who are also playing the game. It's also possible to send invites via text message or email to those contacts who aren't on social media. Finally, if you know your friend's player ID – a 12-digit reference unique to the game – then you can add them that way, too. Just like Miitomo, it's possible to link your My Nintendo account to save progress in the cloud, transfer your Mii for use as an icon in Toad Rally and unlock unique content – Toad, for example, is only accessible once you've linked your My Nintendo account. Super Mario Run also features rewards – such as playing it every day or winning a certain number of Toad Rally events – which earn you My Nintendo platinum coins which can be spent on special rewards, as is the case with Miitomo.

Much fuss was made about the fact that Super Mario Run would require a constant internet connection to play, and while this is will be a pain for those who live in an area with poor mobile signal, we didn't find it to be an insurmountable issue. The game only communicates with the server at the start and end of each level and not during gameplay itself, and while there were a few instances where we were told that a better connection would be required, it generally performed well even when our iPhone was in a poor reception area. For those in situations where network access is absent for prolonged periods of time – like being on a fast-moving train without Wi-Fi access, for example – the unfortunate truth is that Super Mario Run will be unplayable until the signal returns. How much this will impact your enjoyment really depends on where you intend to play, but most people should have web access on their handset for most – if not all – of the day; ultimately, for some this will be a minor to zero inconvenience, but it's an issue worth being aware of if your connection is a problem.

A rather more irksome complaint is Super Mario Run's cost of entry. While Nintendo has been adamant from the beginning that the game will adopt a "free to start" approach, what you've granted access to before you hand over the £7.99 / $9.99 is actually quite meagre. You can only play the first world – four stages, basically – and a small number of Toad Rally levels. You'll blast through these in minutes before finding out that the rest of the game is out of reach until you cough up some cash. This isn't a title like Pokémon GO where it's possible to participate fully without spending any money – it's a premium release which just happens to offer a short demo before you buy. Annoyingly, because the full game unlock is only accessible from within the app itself, you can't buy a single copy of Super Mario Run and then share it with your household via Apple's excellent Family Sharing system. Everyone will have to stump up the cash for their own copy.

This is where the biggest potential stumbling block exists for Super Mario Run; while the game offers many hours of entertainment and is incredibly polished, the asking price is high when compared to other iOS titles – some of which are arguably as playable and offer just as much gameplay for significantly less moolah. You're paying the Nintendo premium here, which many fans won't have an issue with – even more so when you take into account that the game is mercifully free of annoying adverts – but those who simply play Super Mario games for fun and aren't interested in challenging other users and bettering their score might feel short-changed, especially as you can comfortably finish the World Tour mode in a single sitting.

Conclusion

Super Mario Run is thankfully miles away from being the simplified disaster that many nay-sayers had feared; in fact, what's striking about this mobile release is how similar it is to traditional Mario titles in terms of gameplay and challenge. Despite having limited control over Mario there's still a strong focus on skill, especially if you want to grab all of those pink, purple and black coins. The brevity of the experience is an issue however – an average player should be able to finish an initial no-frills World Tour run in around an hour – and as a result Super Mario Run's social element becomes its long-term focus. Challenging pals via the elegant in-game friends system is addictive, and the Toad Rally mode – which underpins the kingdom-building meta game – is sure to soak up plenty of play time.

However, the way in which the game is sold leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth; while being able to sample a small portion is nice, we would have preferred a lower overall retail value and no demo – what's offered here isn't really "free to start" but a glorified advert for the main game which is over in a matter of minutes. For long-standing Mario fans the speed with which the main game mode can be finished could result in the feeling of being short-changed, but Super Mario Run is a game built for mobile; short-burst challenges with friends really bring it to life, and if you're willing to embrace that mindset then you'll realise this is a title which hides surprising depth behind its deceptively simplistic premise.