Nintendo didn’t learn a single lesson from Super Mario Run. With Mario Kart Tour, it is once again damaging what is a potentially fun game with its ruthless monetization practices, locking a vital part of the game behind a surreal, completely out of touch monthly subscription fee. Labeling it as free-to-play doesn’t sound quite right, and free-to-start could be a decent moniker if it wasn’t plagued with microtransactions and a greedy gacha. Scratch that, it’s a “surprise mechanic.”
Mario Kart Tour feels like Mario Kart for dummies; a stripped-down introduction to the series that is fun if you’re not overly demanding, or if you’re a younger player. The control scheme is rudimentary, and the tracks, while iconic and faithful to the series, stick to this goal of oversimplification and reaching out to the largest number of players possible, with contentious results. And where is Luigi, by the way?
A Brand-New Kind of Single-Player Multiplayer Game
The greatest joy in the Mario Kart series is found when playing with friends. The unnerving banana peel, the infuriating green shell and other items contribute to the unpredictable races where both skill and timing play a major role, but random events also add to the mix.
In theory, Mario Kart Tour ticks all the right boxes. However, the game deceivingly wants you to believe that you are playing against other people when that isn’t the case. It took me a few races to realize that something wasn’t quite right with the other “players”, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. These opponents had names that sound like something a real person would choose, coming in different languages as if to hint at a player’s country of origin.
Surely Nintendo wouldn’t be trying to fool us into thinking that we are on a winning streak against real players, when it was none of the kind? After all, prior to starting a race, you see other players joining in under the “Entering race” message, something that doesn’t make sense if you’re playing against bots, right?
However, you are playing against AI-controlled opponents, or bots, if you prefer. Mario Kart Tour released without its most distinguishing feature, multiplayer, an option that is grayed out on the menu under the promise that it is coming soon.
After this realization, your astounding wins suddenly feel underwhelming because Mario Kart Tour lacked the emergent gameplay that only humans can deliver. You weren’t racing against players who are entirely aware of their surroundings, items, and ranking, with everything that they bring to any game – one player may be intentionally targeting you in a banana peel vendetta, while other will try to bash someone who just happened to be hot on your tail. Single-player and multiplayer are two very different things, but what’s mostly at fault here is trying to pass one as the other.
There are two control schemes, none of them feeling entirely satisfying. Both feature auto-acceleration, something that isn’t going to please everyone, but this is another step in the direction of mass appeal and simplification. Your interaction can be resumed to swiping left and right to steer, and tapping to use an item. Drifting is an alternative control option and a harder one, but none of them hit the sweet spot, feeling somewhat floaty.
It doesn’t help that you are confined to the track for most of the time. Unlike other Mario Kart games, you won’t be able to cut corners because you’ll bump into invisible walls. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re in Mario Pinball Tour, as you hit wall after wall, something that comes off as incredibly annoying in tracks such as SNES Mario Circuit 1. The races would greatly benefit from the extra freedom; instead, it pushes all racers together in an unnatural way, limiting their tactics.
One feature that spices up the gameplay is the combo system. Your initial setup gives you a predetermined amount of points to start with, and performing combos during the race adds to the overall combo score. You can string combos by drifting, jumping, gliding, using items, and more, keeping the combo multiplier going, and adding some cool flourishes to the races. This is important to aim for because you may end up earning more stars through combos than by finishing the race in the first positions.
Mario Kart Gold Pass Tour
Mario Kart Tour follows a simple template where you unlock cups one after another. Each cup consists of three races and one challenge, and your progress through the starting levels will be a breeze. However, it will soon turn into a discouraging grind where every star counts, forcing you to replay races in order to earn the coveted five stars. Each level that you climb gives you some rewards, including coins and the much-desired but extremely rare rubies, the premium currency that you can purchase with real money to use with the gacha.
While significant playtime may get you a decent amount of coins to use in some shop items, it’s the rubies that get you the best drivers, karts, and gliders. Or should I say, a shot at getting them, because the warp pipe here is just a pretty system for what is widely known as a loot box system. You have a minimal chance at getting Mario or any other character, with the duplicates serving to level up the respective skill level.
Mario Kart Tour offers races in 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc, but the meat of the game lies in the 200cc category, which incidentally is locked behind a paywall, and a shocking one at that. Nintendo is expecting players to pay a monthly subscription of $4.99 if they want to race in the hardest, and assuredly the most exciting difficulty level of the game. The value of this fee is hugely debatable, even more so if we factor in the current lack of multiplayer racing. But it only takes a glance at other services such as the Apple Arcade, which offers over 100 games for the same price to put the Mario Kart Tour monetization into perspective. Ironically, Sonic Racing is available in this service, reinforcing the notion that Nintendo has a lot to learn if it wants its mobile games to be as appreciated as its console offerings.
If you keep your expectations low and steer clear from the console versions, Mario Kart Tour can be a fun, unpretentious racer. The gameplay is charming, although the controls are dumbed down in order to best suit the mobile platform, a compromise that won’t please everyone. Steering feels floaty and takes some getting used to, but you’ll eventually come to terms with it.
Using a vertical display isn’t the best choice for a mobile racing game, as it narrows your field of view and forces you to memorize the tracks instead of going with the flow. Invisible walls also have no place in this game, with drivers bumping into thin air at the most unexpected of times, in curves that should allow for a little shortcut here and there.
Still, the worst offender is the concealed lack of multiplayer. When this feature releases in the future, the races are surely going to be thrilling and fun; as it currently stands, it feels like Nintendo didn’t want players to know that they are racing against shallow bots.
Mario Kart Tour doesn’t break any new ground, feeling like a fun but cheap knockoff of the console games. If you have Mario Kart 8 Deluxe sitting around, there aren’t many reasons to pick up this mobile version apart from sheer curiosity.
Learning Curve: 8/10
This is a game designed to be picked up and enjoyed in no time. The oversimplified controls and cup structure are easy to learn even by the youngest players, something that is truly convenient because the in-game store is ready and waiting for you.
Graphics / Sound: 8/10
It’s impossible to dislike the charming Mario crew, with its cute, round baby versions and colors bursting everywhere. The same can be said about the courses, with a few being brand-new, but most of them are recurrent tracks from previous games in the series.
The races are cheerful and lively thanks to the expected range of sound effects and character voices, with the usual bubbly soundtrack that may end up tiring after a while.
Value for Money: 5/10
While Mario Kart Tour is advertised as free-to-start, it could also be labelled as half-a-game, or as a gateway to a wondrous world of “surprise mechanics.” Don’t get me wrong, there is fun to be had with the content that is freely available, but this is far from being a robust offering. Keeping a whole category behind a paywall is a huge no-go, but the expensive monthly subscription required to unlock it sounds like a desperate plea to grab feverish Mario Kart fans.
Mario Kart Tour is Super Mario Run all over again. The potential for a great mobile game is there, but it’s overshadowed because Nintendo is thinking monetization first and player fulfilment later, shooting itself in the foot. While initial download figures may look substantial, most players are bound to leave as soon as they realize that the central piece of this Mario Kart game is a gacha warp pipe. And no future event starring Luigi will be enough to convince players otherwise.
Racing can be somewhat fun
Looks sharp and colorful
Combo system adds an extra layer to the races
Fools you into thinking that you’re racing in multiplayer
$4.99 monthly subscription for the 200cc category? Really?
Invisible walls are bothersome
Designed to lure you into gacha