For a company that has helped shape the landscape of the modern video game industry, Nintendo's steps into the mobile gaming space have been tentative. Since 2016, the company has only published a small handful of smartphone games to modest success, with two more--Mario Kart Tour and Dr. Mario World--on the way this year. We recently had an opportunity to go hands-on with the latter, and it could be Nintendo's best mobile game to date--provided it avoids the aggressive monetization practices other free-to-play puzzlers employ.
Just as in previous Dr. Mario games, the object in World is to clear the field of viruses by matching them up with their corresponding capsules. However, while the fundamentals remain the same, some aspects of the series have been tweaked in the move to mobile devices. This time around, the capsules drift slowly upward from the bottom of the screen rather than raining down from the top, and you'll need to drag them with your finger to arrange them around the play space. You also only need to match up three objects of the same color to clear them from the field, as opposed to the traditional four.
On top of these changes, Dr. Mario World introduces a handful of new gameplay wrinkles that add some satisfying variety and complexity to the experience. Certain stages, for instance, feature Koopa shells; match these up with capsules and they'll take out entire horizontal rows of viruses. In other stages, some of the viruses will be encased in bubbles, forcing you to first pop their protective casing before eliminating them. Some levels even impose different clear conditions; one that we played tasked us with collecting a certain number of coins rather than eliminating all of the viruses. After becoming so accustomed to the traditional Dr. Mario gameplay, having to mentally readjust to the new objective proved to be more difficult than anticipated. The arrangement of the viruses gets increasingly more complex as you progress through the game as well, and even from the handful we've sampled, it was clear that later stages will get deviously challenging.
Being a free-to-play mobile title, Dr. Mario World also features many of the elements that are part and parcel of this type of game. As in many other mobile puzzlers, you're only allotted a certain number of capsules per stage, rather than having an unlimited supply as in a traditional Dr. Mario game; fail to clear all of the viruses with the given amount and you'll need to restart the level, which will take up stamina. From the handful of stages we've played, it appears the game does always provide an ample amount of capsules, but we still found ourselves occasionally running out during some of the later, trickier levels, so you'll need to carefully consider how you arrange your capsules. However, Nintendo assures that players should always be able to complete a stage with the allotted number, provided you use them skillfully enough.
Stamina in Dr. Mario World takes the form of Hearts. You need to expend a Heart each time you play a stage, even if you have previously cleared it. Your Hearts gradually replenish over time, but you can expedite the process by purchasing more with Diamonds--Dr. Mario World's premium in-game currency. Diamonds can also be exchanged for other helpful items to use during a stage, such as additional capsules, and you have the option of spending a Diamond to continue a stage you failed rather than restarting completely. However, you can only continue once per stage, and if you fail again, you'll need to expend another Heart to retry it from the beginning. This is Dr. Mario World's potential sticking point; it wasn't clear from our hands-on time how many Hearts you'll begin with or how quickly they'll replenish, so it remains to be seen whether or not the stamina mechanic will hamper your ability to enjoy the game.
Dr. Mario World also has its own gacha mechanic of sorts. You can spend either Diamonds or the coins you've accumulated from clearing stages to summon additional doctors, each of whom has their own special ability that can be unleashed once their skill gauge has filled up. Nearly every major character from the Mushroom Kingdom moonlights as a physician and can be added to your staff, from Peach to Yoshi to even Bowser, and their special skills run the gamut from clearing one random column of objects from the field to eliminating three random objects. Fortunately, unlike other gacha-heavy games like Fire Emblem Heroes, there aren't different rarity versions of the same doctor; each one initially comes at level 1, and any duplicates you summon will level your existing doctor up. You'll also be able to summon "assistants"--minor characters from the Mario universe who will add some kind of passive benefit to your team, giving you another variable to consider as you play.
Of course, much of the Dr. Mario series' appeal stems from its competitive multiplayer, and World continues the tradition with its own real-time Versus mode. While we didn't get to sample the mode during our hands-on session, it appears to be much more akin to a traditional Dr. Mario game than the single-player portion, pitting you against one other player in a head-to-head race to clear all the viruses in your field. Along with their special skills, the various doctors you can summon also boast different attack, defense, and speed stats, which determine how many viruses they can send to the opposing player's side. Outside of the versus mode, you're also able to send and receive Hearts from players on your friends list.
Dr. Mario World's success ultimately hinges on how intrusive these free-to-play elements are in the full game, but from what we've sampled of it, the title seems like a promising mobile take on the series embellished by some smart new gameplay elements. It also appears there will be a lot of content right out of the gate; Nintendo says there will be more than 200 stages at launch, with more on the way in the future. The company will also introduce new doctors and assistants to the game post-release. You won't have to wait too long to try it out yourself; Dr. Mario World launches for free on iOS and Android devices this Wednesday, July 10. You can pre-register for the game now on the App Store and Google Play.