Review: ‘Mario Kart Tour’ is a simple, fun racing game with a troubling monetization platform

(Nintendo Photo)

I was never a big fan of Mario Kart on consoles, or racing games in general, so I was surprised by how much I initially liked Mario Kart Tour. It’s a simpler, more accessible free-to-play version of classic Mario Kart racing, made for iOS and Android, and it works much better than I thought it would.

(Mario Kart Tour Screenshot)

In Mario Kart Tour, you play as one of an assortment of trademark characters from the Mario series as they head out for a dangerous afternoon of go-karting. In Tour, which features an assortment of tracks from across the long history of the series, your go-kart is always accelerating without your input. You’re only left to steer, by swiping left and right, and to use any items you pick up by tapping the screen.

The steering is a little “floaty,” and I found myself doing a lot of accidental figure-S swerving until I figured it out, but I got there eventually. You’re often better off doing as little as possible to guide your go-kart, as it’s easy to overcorrect and end up out of control. As usual, the courses are full of alternate routes, sudden hazards, big jumps, ramps, and boost panels, along with the trademark arsenal of Mario Kart items. It’s a distillation of the classics, rather than any kind of innovation, and all in all, the game works.

Writing about it on launch day, however, Mario Kart Tour admittedly doesn’t have much else going for it. A genuine multiplayer mode isn’t in the game yet, so the only real way to compete online is to try to maximize your score and climb the leaderboards. Once you can actually race directly against your friends, I can imagine Tour being one of the go-to time-killers on your phone, as it’s designed for little two-minute bursts of gameplay.

Mario Kart Tour officially broke launch-day records for mobile gaming yesterday, with 10.1 million downloads worldwide. This knocks Niantic’s Pokemon Go down to No. 2, with 6.7 million downloads at launch, and more than doubles the day-one numbers for Mario’s previous mobile adventure, Super Mario Run.

It’s particularly impressive considering that the initial rush to download Mario Kart Tour crashed the game’s servers, so it took a few hours before anyone could actually play the game. Tour’s initial success can be attributed to both savvy marketing and name-brand appeal; Mario Kart as a franchise is arguably the most unequivocally successful series in Nintendo’s lineup, with more than 100 million units sold over the course of the last 27 years and no real weak spots in the core lineup.

(Nintendo Photo)

All that having been said, Mario Kart Tour is also woefully incomplete — for now, at least.

As of right now, the only racing you can actually do in Mario Kart Tour is progressing through the “Cups,” batches of three tracks with a simple challenge at the end. Each race puts you up against a field of seven AI-controlled competitors, most of whom are basically brain-dead. There are three levels of competition available in the base game — 50, 100, and 150cc — and I only got any degree of challenge from the last one. Even then, I was nonchalantly racking up first and second-place finishes without really trying. It started off entertaining despite that, but as I got further into the single-player racing circuit, it started to feel like a grind. (I almost said it was a drag, but that would’ve been a racing pun.) There are other options for gameplay, but you have to burn through a full seven Cups — 21 races and seven challenge stages — before you can unlock them.

(Mario Kart Tour screenshot)

That leads into the other real problem with Mario Kart Tour: its monetization scheme. Like most free-to-play games, Mario Kart Tour is set up to gently encourage you to put real money into it in a few different ways, none of which offer any particular value.

The primary reason you might want to spend money on it is for Rubies, which are the game’s premium currency. Most of the game’s roster of characters, karts, and gliders are locked behind a “gacha” system (named for “blind box”-style Japanese vending machines for collectible toys), where you pay Rubies to get a random prize. While you can get Rubies for free just by playing the game, they’re deliberately rare, in order to incentivize you to buy them from the in-game store.

You can also get Coins by picking them up during races, or by earning a big stack of them as a prize for completing a Cup. They come in slowly from normal sources (you can count on nine or so from a typical race, when the cheapest items in the store cost 100), but you can also spend Rubies to play a minigame called Coin Rush, where you have a chance to get a bunch of Coins at once. Coins can be spent in-game to unlock a limited, rotating assortment of goods, such as a new driver or kart.

If you’re really looking to go all in, you can opt to get a Gold Pass for $4.99 a month, which lets you take on special challenges for new rewards, display special Gold Badges to show off that you’re paying for the game, or most irritatingly, unlock the 200cc races for Cups. There’s an entire level of difficulty locked behind a subscription fee in Mario Kart Tour, which I can only assume is why the first three levels are all so easy. You’re supposed to pay out if you actually want to feel a sense of accomplishment when you play against the computer.

The issue, of course, isn’t that Nintendo wants to make some money off of their game. It’s primarily that it doesn’t offer the player a lot of value. You can’t buy racers or karts directly unless they come up as part of a random rotation in the shop; otherwise, you’ve got to drop Rubies to play an in-game slot machine with a hilariously low chance of paying out. The Gold Pass is only really good for bragging rights, and the subscription costs the same as the recently-introduced Apple Arcade or Play Pass, which just underscores how little you actually get for your Gold Pass money.

Mario Kart Tour has a decent set of bones, but right now, all it really lets you do is race against easily-beaten AI competitors in order to slowly accumulate currency which you can’t reliably spend on anything you might actually want, in order to entice you into spending real money, which you still can’t reliably spend. Buying Rubies for a slim chance to get the racers that I actually want is basically the same as a lottery ticket, with similar odds.

It’s a surprisingly naked cash grab, made doubly strange by the fact that this is Nintendo we’re talking about here. It has some of the smartest designers and most valuable characters on the planet. The company could’ve held back for a while, launched Mario Kart Tour with multiplayer, and steadily released more tracks and racers for a dollar a piece over the course of the next year or so. It would’ve been a license to print money, especially if they’d started bringing in obscure characters (Waluigi alone would’ve moved some units) or dipped into the Smash Brothers roster.

As it stands, there’s a fun little racing game buried inside Mario Kart Tour, but it’s hidden beneath a heavy coat of microtransactions. It’d feel cynical from a small-time indie company, but from Nintendo, it’s borderline exploitative. It’s worth downloading Mario Kart Tour just to play around with it for a while, but it doesn’t take long before it turns into a grind.

There’s a chance Nintendo could turn this around once the multiplayer mode makes its debut, so this isn’t a total loss, but right now, it’s an overall disappointment. I started off thinking this would be the game that finally got me into Mario Kart, but then I hit a paywall and my enthusiasm drained away.

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