Hands-on with the closed beta
The long and winding Rainbow Road to the release of Mario Kart Tour is nearly complete. After announcing the game roughly a year ago and immediately going into radio silence about it, Nintendo is finally giving some players a chance to see how it’s translating one of its most popular franchises to the mobile platform in a closed beta. Anyone with a My Nintendo account was able to apply to be part of it and, as luck would have it, I managed to receive an invite.
For the past four days, I’ve been diving into the game to see what it is all about. While the first day was riddled with connection issues, it’s been smooth sailing since, allowing me to really get a feel for what Mario Kart Tour will be like when everyone is able to play it. As it stands right now, I don’t see myself bothering with it when the full version launches later this summer.
And because I’m not allowed to share images or video from the beta — though that hasn’t stopped others from doing so — this article will instead use free stock photos of dogs from Pexels.com.
There is a lot to talk about with Mario Kart Tour, especially all the systems that come with it being a free-to-play game, but I think it’s better to start with the basics of how it plays. Like every other Nintendo mobile title, Tour is played solely in portrait mode and can effectively be played with just one finger. Your kart will auto-accelerate, so all you have to worry about is steering and using your weapons. If you don’t hold your finger on the screen, your character will drive straight. Sliding your finger left or right will send them into a drift that you can boost out of. When you have a weapon equipped, you can simply tap the screen to use it as normal or slide your finger up or down to choose which way you want to throw it.
The game is programmed so that it is nearly impossible to go off the track. There are also options in place that will help novice drivers do their best. While the game won’t play itself for you, you can turn on automatic drift which simplifies the drift process. You can also activate auto-item, which uses any equipped weapons all at once whenever you hit a new item box, as well as the driving guide, which places an arrow in front of your kart to show where it’s pointed.
As a Mario Kart veteran, I immediately turned on the manual drift option, which mimics the traditional drifting the series is known for. Not only does this allow me to somewhat snake across the track, it’s the only way the controls for this game actually feel tight.
Nintendo seems to have Frankensteined itself together some driving controls that certainly work but don’t at all feel great to use. Unless you turn on gyro controls, it’s difficult to make subtle movements with your kart. Every turn is treated as a drift rather than an attempt to position your kart as you want it. With gyro controls, you have a bit more freedom on the track, but using it in tandem with the touch drifting can be awkward and unreliable. The gyro steering isn’t as fine-tuned as it should be and it doesn’t help that, because Tour is programmed to keep you on the track, you actively have to fight with the game if you want to hit a jump that’s just off the side of the track.
I didn’t bother with the gyro controls for most of my races. I found that hitting those long, sexy drifts into ultra mini-turbo boosts was enough for me to take first place. However, as I quickly discovered, taking first place isn’t the end-all goal of every race. Rather, progress here comes down to points. Get enough points and you’ll get up to five Grand Stars. Collect enough of those and you’ll unlock new cups to attempt.
There are three ways to score points in a game. The first is to finish the race. The higher your place, the more points you get. First place alone can be worth 2,500 or more points, which is easily enough to unlock two Grand Stars for a particular race. Because each race is just two laps, there is not a lot of room for error and, in true Mario Kart fashion, you can expect a few blue shells to come your way right as you approach the finish line.
The second way is through actions. This is everything you do on the track. Use a weapon, hit a boost pad, take out another racer, score a turbo boost, or go off a jump and you’ll accrue points.
The final way to get points is through your driver, kart, and glider selection. At the start of each race, you’ll pick each of those options from whatever you have unlocked through summons or earned in gameplay. Each driver, kart, and glider has a point value that adds together to give you your base points for the race. So when you pick your three options, you’ll know what your starting points are. You’ll race and add on action points before topping it off with however many points you earn from finishing the race. All of those added together make for your final score and if it’s high enough, you’ll be able to grab all five Grand Stars from a single race in one go.
Early on, this is easy enough to do. With Toad, the first racer I unlock in the game, I’m able to grab all the Grand Stars from the opening cup of the game. Like regular Mario Kart, you’ll start with 50cc, but as you level up your profile, you’ll unlock 100cc and 150cc (200cc is not available in the demo). Each cup is divided into four events that include three races and one skills test, such as driving through rings or collecting a certain number of coins. Earn enough stars and you’ll unlock the next cup. All of the tracks currently in the game are from previous Mario Kart titles and they make repeat appearances in different cups because there is only a handful in the game right now.
It’s all well and simple for the first few cups of the game, but as the required point totals to get all five stars for a race grows, you may find yourself replaying the same few races, doing what you can to incrementally increase your score in hopes of passing whatever points threshold you need to crest. And this is where the random summons factor into your potential for success, as well as expose how Mario Kart Tour is pay-to-win.
If you want to get the most possible points you can, you don’t pick your driver, kart, and glider based on personal preference. Rather, you select whichever has an advantage on a given track. Each track will have its favorites and if you’ve been lucky enough to unlock one or all of those favorites, you’ll have an advantage over the other racers. If the track likes your driver, you’ll get three item slots instead of the standard one. If it likes your kart, you’ll get a speed boost over your competition. If it likes your glider, you’ll get luckier with the weapons you pull from item boxes. In other words, often times coming in first place and getting the most points has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with whether or not your opponents have been lucky enough to unlock the best equipment.
That isn’t to say you can’t win and get five stars with drivers, karts, and gliders the tracks don’t like. You can, but as you go on, it will be more difficult. I was at four stars for one particular track for two days until I unlocked Baby Mario and leveled up his point value high enough to where I could just squeak by the minimum 6,500 points needed to get that final Grand Star. As frustrating as that is in the beta, it will only get worse when people are allowed to spend money on summons.
Each driver, kart, and glider has two different levels attached to it. The first is its points level, that is, the number of points that a particular object will start you out with at the beginning of a race. As you race with them, that points number will grow. You can also use unlockable tickets to greatly raise their points value.
The second is its skills level. This is not raised through normal racing; rather, you can increase a driver, kart, or glider skill level through tickets or by summoning multiples of the same object. As the skill level increases, it will receive greater rewards. For drivers, let’s look at Daisy. At level one, she gets twice as many bonus points on a course that likes her, which for now is just Daisy Hills from Mario Kart 7. Pull enough Daisys to get her to level four and she’ll get three times the bonus points. Level seven gets her four time the points, and level 10 nets her five times those points.
That actually doesn’t matter too much as none of those give you advantages over other drivers. It does matter with karts and gliders because leveling those up will result in big boosts over your competitors. With karts driving on a track that likes them, you’ll get speed increases when you level them up. According to the skill overview menu, leveling up a kart to level 10 will result in a “Huge increase to kart speed” on compatible tracks. With gliders, the higher you level one up, the quicker you recover from hits. You also get quick access to your items — the item roulette goes on for far too long with races being so short — and rarer gliders will increase the item speed exponentially.
So the more you unlock, the bigger advantage you’ll have over other racers. And while you aren’t actually racing against other players — just the AI controlling the drivers, karts, and gliders they selected for a particular track — I can’t imagine there won’t be many situations where people who don’t spend money are falling behind to players who drop mad coin on as many summons as possible.
You can get summons by spending emeralds, which can also be earned in-game. That, as of now, is the only paid currency in Mario Kart Tour, but there are other free-to-play systems in place. There is an energy meter. Each race costs one heart and it takes 15 minutes for a heart to replenish. You also refill your hearts when you level up your profile. There are also coins you earn in-game you can spend in the shop on items of the day or tickets to raise the points level of a kart, driver, or glider. There is also, for some stupid reason, a timer attached to unlocking a new cup. It isn’t enough to acquire the necessary number of stars. The last cup I unlocked had me wait two hours before I could play it. My reward for waiting? The same three tracks I’d already driven multiple times before.
Mario Kart Tour certainly isn’t what I expected when Nintendo announced the game last year. It absolutely fits the company’s mobile strategy of taking its popular franchises and turning them into easily playable smartphone games. But like the other titles in its mobile portfolio, something was lost along the way. Mario Kart Tour isn’t a pure test of skill with a smattering of item box shenanigans, but rather a restrictive grind that favors those lucky enough to be flush with emeralds. Moreso than any other mobile game it’s released, Mario Kart Tour has the potential to be Nintendo’s worst offender of pay-to-win, and unfortunately, the base gameplay just isn’t fun enough for me to look past that.