Drive me off a cliff
Last year, when Nintendo first announced it would be taking Mario Kart to mobile, I was legitimately excited about the prospect. Sure, its output at the time wasn’t an endless stream of home runs, but there was always the possibility it could bounce back and what better way to turn the ship around than with its always reliable kart racing series.
But since the time of that announcement, the quality of Nintendo’s mobile production has only eroded. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp deteriorated into an endless grind where the best items required undying dedication or ponying up cash, Dragalia Lost failed to rise above the other gacha games on the market (though it is generous), and I don’t know what the hell is up with Dr. Mario World. Surely Mario Kart Tour would be the game to turn it all around, right?
No, no it is not.
Mario Kart Tour (iOS, Android)
Released: September 25, 2019
MSRP: Free-to-play w/ microtransactions
Earlier this year, Nintendo gave mobile gamers a taste of the Mario Kart Tour experience when it hosted a limited-time beta for select players of which I was lucky enough to be a part of. It really did not impress me, leaving me a bit cold to what Nintendo was pushing out. Now that it’s officially launched, I can say with certainty Mario Kart Tour is not the same game it was during that beta. Well, it’s mostly the same.
Mario Kart Tour is still a gacha kart racer like it was back in May, one where player preference takes a back seat to idiosyncrasies of the game. Your options for drivers, karts, and gliders are limited to what the warp pipe shoots out at you. Every track has its own set of preferences for each of those and if you end up with characters a track doesn’t like, you face a disadvantage to those lucky enough or wealthy enough to get good pulls.
The game is divided up into cups that consist of three different races and a challenge course. Score enough points in each race to collect Grand Stars, which are the key to unlocking further cups and gift boxes. Points are the culmination of your actions in a race with everything from the level of your racer, kart, and glider to what place you finish in adding up to give you your final score. As I repeatedly found out over the past two days, you do not need to take first place in a race to land all five Grand Stars. Players who are able to nail enough actions on the track — hitting an opponent, pulling off a drift boost, nailing a jump, gliding a great distance — will rack up enough action points that could put them over the required amount to land all five stars.
Securing high scores is actually easier to do now than it was in the beta thanks to the new combo system. If you pull off enough actions in a row, you’ll start a combo that can significantly increase your score. Level up your glider skill by grabbing duplicates in the gacha pull and you can increase the amount of time a combo can last. Some tracks, like Rock Rock Mountain or Toad’s Circuit T, are exceptionally easy to land massive combos in.
That glider level bonus is another change from the Mario Kart Tour beta. Originally, leveling up your glider skill would give you better luck with items that could lead to an unfair advantage in races. Now it only affects your final point score and the same goes for your kart skill level. Raising that now just increases the bonus points you earn. Raising the skill level of a racer does give players a greater chance of starting a Frenzy, which actually can prove advantageous in the heat of a race, but it’s really not much different than landing a Power Star.
A far more noticeable change from the beta is the lack of an energy meter. Limiting players in this way is a largely outdated concept, one other free-to-play games have managed to avoid as it’s just smarter to always keep people playing. Unfortunately, Nintendo found new ways to place limitations on players.
First of all, in addition to the skill level you have for your kart, racer, and glider, each item in the game also has a points level which dictates how many points you have at the start of each race. Raising your points level is now limited to a certain amount every day and it only took me about 90 minutes each day to hit that limit. There is still the player level you can seemingly raise without limit, but once you stop being able to increase the number of points you have at the start of each race, the more difficult it becomes to nab that final Grand Star you’ve been struggling to get.
Tour also limits how many coins you can earn each day. This affects your buying power in the shop, forcing players to save up over many days if they want to afford the gold-level or higher items available. You can earn more coins in the Coin Rush mode, but accessing this costs rubies which are far more valuable. If you’ve played Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, it’s as expensive as accessing the quarry and ultimately just as useless.
A far more positive change from the beta is found in the tracks. Since announcing a release date for this game, Nintendo has been pimping out the fact it’s created some brand new courses specifically for Mario Kart Tour, including a New York track, a Paris track, and a Tokyo track. Right now, the game is hosting the New York Tour which not only affects the available items you can pull from the gacha pipe but also limits the availability of these new courses to just one.
Unlike the other tracks, which are straight ripped from previous games in the series, the New York track was clearly designed with the limitations of the controls in mind. It certainly doesn’t measure up to those found in previous Mario Kart titles, but its easily the most pleasant course to drive in the game so far and the music for it is fantastic.
I look forward to seeing what Tokyo and Paris hold — here’s to hoping they’re not just reskins of New York — but it is a shame Nintendo is seemingly limiting itself to just creating three new tracks for the game. One of the great joys of any Mario Kart title is seeing what types of new courses the developers have designed and that joy just isn’t present in Tour. I will say though, Nintendo has done a decent job transforming existing tracks in ways that make them feel like new.
As you advance through the game unlocking cups, you’ll encounter tracks that run in reverse, tracks with more jumps and ramps scattered throughout them, and some that are a combination of the two. It certainly varies the experience to a greater degree than the beta did but there is still a bit of disappointment when you wait a day to unlock a new cup only to find it’s Daisy Hills again.
Nintendo may have removed the energy meter from Mario Kart Tour but it still forces players to wait until they can advance. Right now, there are cups that are between one to five days from unlocking. No matter how well I do collecting Grand Stars, I’m going to have to wait. Couple this with the limitations on collecting coins and raising your points level and it’s clear Nintendo has devised a way to nearly eliminate the possibility of grinding in favor of pushing players towards spending money on the various items Tour has for sale.
Right now, there are several ways to spend your money in this free-to-play game. There are rubies you can buy to use in the gacha pipe pulls. Each pull requires five rubies, which costs about four dollars to get. Rubies can be earned in-game through challenges and in gift boxes, but Mario Kart Tour is overly stringent in how often it doles these things out. In the beta, I was almost drowning in rubies. Now I hoard them like ink ribbons in Resident Evil.
The reason for this, I can only speculate, is Mario Kart Tour doesn’t exactly have that much to unlock. There are only a handful of characters in the game right now — Luigi isn’t even available yet — as well as a small selection of karts and gliders to collect. Because you are guaranteed to get all spotlight drivers, karts, and gliders within 100 pulls, Nintendo is doing everything it can to force me to spend money.
Tour also has a special offer going on right now that that nets players a couple of star tickets, enough rubies to do 10 pulls of the pipe, and Mario as an available racer. Finally, there is the Gold Pass subscription service. For $4.99 a month, you get access to gold gifts from the gift boxes, gold challenges that can land you more Grand Stars, and the ability to race in the 200cc class. In addition to gold badges you can earn, certain karts, characters, and gliders appear to be limited to the Gold Pass.
Nintendo has tried its hand at several different monetization practices with its mobile games. Its most successful titles went the gacha route while it’s had less financial success with premium-priced games or the pay-to-continue strategy of Dr. Mario World. The Gold Pass represents a new frontier from Nintendo, one other developers have already found success exploring. Monster Strike, for instance, has apparently seen not only its revenue rise because of its Monpass but also how long players keep the app open. Considering all the steps Nintendo has taken to get you to stop playing Mario Kart Tour, creating more incentive for players to keep going is not a bad strategy. It’s just that the strategy is tied to a bad game.
Despite all the improvements Nintendo has made since the beta, Mario Kart Tour is still not fun to play. Like the other mobile games in Nintendo’s portfolio, Tour is played exclusively in portrait mode and can be controlled with just your thumb. There are three control options, none of which are completely sufficient. You can turn manual drift on and any time you swipe left or right on the touchscreen, you’ll go into a controlled drift that can grant mini boosts. Turn it off and you gain full control over your kart, able to swerve left or right as you please, at the expense of not being able to pull off tight drifts for big boosts. There is a gyro steering option, and I think the idea here is expert players will combine it with manual drift for maximum control of their karts. The only issue is gyro steering feels like you’re piloting a boat.
I alternated between all three different control options over the past two days and none of them ended up feeling right. Turning off manual drift is arguably the best way to play as you really need the ability to maneuver around the opponents attempting to steer into you, but the loss of a dependable drift mechanic hampered my ability to catch up with opponents if I didn’t have any weapons or mushrooms available. Using manual drift without the gyro controls left me susceptible to the shells or bombs other racers were dragging behind them as they wandered into my path. With gyro controls, I was able to sometimes avoid these collisions but not without going in a direction I most certainly didn’t want to be going in. It’ll be interesting to see what control schemes other players use when true multiplayer is added in a future update.
Tour‘s fatal flaw is it’s continually pushing players into ham-fisted situations where they have to spend money rather than creating a game so exceptional they’ll want to spend money. Hit my coin max for the day? Spend some rubies to try Coin Rush. Can’t get five Grand Stars on a track because it doesn’t like my racers? Spend some rubies in the gacha pull. Not earning enough rubies in-game? Spend some money on a monthly subscription. If the core gameplay was at all interesting I might be tempted to buy into it, but it’s so damn dull I can only laugh off these feeble attempts to try and pry my wallet open.
Mario Kart Tour is a blemish on the franchise it shares its name with. The genre-defining creativity found in past entries is completely absent here, replaced by a hollow experience that’s simply coasting on the name and goodwill of the games that came before it. I can only hope this is Nintendo’s mobile initiative hitting rock bottom, and that it’s all uphill from here. Because I can’t stand the thought of another one of my favorite series having its reputation dragged the mud in search of a quick buck.
[This review is based on a retail version of the free-to-play game.]