Would it be fair to say Mario Kart was not only one of the more anticipated mobile games to come from Nintendo but also the one with the biggest chance for large-scale success? I’d say so. When you’re translating the massive success of the Mario Kart franchise, whose most recent Switch release is the best-selling title on the platform with over 17 million units sold, and putting it onto a device that almost everyone has in their pocket, it should, in theory, be an instant success. With racing games having also found success on mobile platforms, all that Nintendo would need to do is bring the experience found in older Mario Kart titles to mobile devices and you have a game that brings together fans old and new alike (and makes a lot of money in the process). It’s knowing these facts that makes this release so frustrating, as a series of missteps on the part of Nintendo handicap the launch of Mario Kart Tour and lead to a game that feels exploitative of its user base while also just not being very fun.
In the console sphere, Mario Kart 8 is arguably the most welcoming and accessible game in the series to date, and the game with the most amount of content to boot. With 48 tracks after factoring in the DLC (DLC which is included in the Switch’s ‘Deluxe’ release) and a huge range of new and remade tracks, there’s a lot of content on offer, while accessibility features like assisted driving make it accessible to people of all skill levels. Arguably, it’s the perfect Mario Kart game, a culmination of everything the series has built on up until this point, while it’s certainly my personal favorite game in the series, and it should have been used as a basis for Mario Kart Tour.
While visually it borrows from the successful entry into the series, that’s about the only thing this game has in common with the other titles in the series. The big selling point of Mario Kart Tour is the ‘tour’ itself, with brand new tracks available on a rotating basis which are based on real-life locations. For the launch, this is New York City, reimagined in a Mario style. While this is a neat idea, and it certainly looks the part, this and all other tracks in the game aren’t enjoyable because, as a player, your input doesn’t feel like it matters too much.
The game is played in portrait mode as your character drives around the tracks in 2-lap races, aiming to get the highest score. This could be an interesting way to set it apart from other Mario Kart titles, with scoring from chaining combos of boosts and tricks, air time and hitting other racers with items all combining to raise your score, these scores factoring in to prize payouts and cup unlocks within the game. The issue is, it never feels like it matters too much since the points scoring is still overwhelmingly weighted towards end-of-race rankings to the point where a first or even second or third-place finish completely defeats the purpose of aiming to score as many points as possible. If you finish in those places, you’ll receive maximum stars on a race almost every time.
Had the points been more important, therefore encouraging players to tackle races in a different way that maybe didn’t even prioritize a first-place finish, it may be easier to overlook the simplified racing mechanics. Auto-accelerate means you have no control over kart speed and it is all-but-impossible to drive off the track, while you either have a choice to only drift or only turn around corners before a race from the settings due to the simplified controls. Karts are controlled by swiping left and right on the screen with items fired by flicking forwards or backwards. Turning never feels all that responsive, however, and the auto-acceleration and lack of consequence, if you are about to drive off the track, leads to an experience where your input to the game never feels like it matters all that much. In fact, putting this idea to the test, I was able to finish 4th and receive maximum stars for my performance without even touching the screen or having any input into the experience, and at that point, it makes the gameplay, the one thing that’s always been the selling point of a Mario Kart title, feel boring and unfulfilling.
That would be a disappointment on its own, were it not for the other areas of the game where it falls short as well. Ignoring the small track selection, the choice by Nintendo to launch this title without multiplayer feels like a massive mistake on their part. Multiplayer is a defining characteristic of the series, yet the option in the menu to access this mode only informs you that the feature is coming in a future update. Challenges, which take 7 cups to unlock, should help to mix up the races by trying to get players to achieve certain goals during a race, yet most can be obtained whether a player tries to do it or not, so has disappointingly little impact overall.
Then there’s the most egregious area of the title, monetization. The game employs loot boxes as its primary form of making money, something I have a major issue with in any title due to the predatory nature of such mechanics. Through loot boxes, you can earn new drivers, gliders, and karts. While many can also be purchased through the rotating in-game shop, many are exclusive, including the special drivers who are available at very low odds in the loot boxes and are only available for a limited time (at the moment, it’s a musician suit Mario as well as Pauline).
On top of both of these, however, is a gold pass subscription service that adds features to the game and boosts rewards from races. For $4.99 a month, alongside boosted rewards, players will gain access to 200cc races, essentially locking the highest difficulty behind a subscription service. With the boosted rewards also including the in-game currency used for the loot boxes, however, its a subscription service whose purpose is to encourage a player to spend even more money. The subscription also just feels like terrible value, especially when the launch of Mario Kart Tour coincides with the launch of Apple Arcade, which for the same monthly price offers a huge range of full-length games free of microtransactions and adverts. If I had to choose between a large variety of games or a few extra shots at a loot box and a faster racing mode, I know which I would choose
Mario Kart Tour is, to summarize, a disappointment. Translating Mario Kart onto mobile devices seems like a sure-fire win, yet by failing to carry over the fun of the original experience while overloading the game with monetization that represent poor value to the player, there’s not really a way I can recommend this game to anyone. Over the last few days since it launched I’ve played a few races here and there, each time hoping I can find a redeeming element to the game which I enjoyed, and each time I struggle to even get through a single cup before quitting out and doing something else. You may enjoy it if you’ve never played a Mario Kart game before, but if you have, all this experience does is make you wish you were playing one of those games instead. If you’re desperate to play some Mario Kart on the move, you would do much better by just booting up a Nintendo Switch and playing Mario Kart on there instead.
Mario Kart Tour is out now for iOS and Android, and you can find out more about the game over at its official website.