A few years ago, Nintendo was refusing to release mobile games for Android and iOS devices. Now they are all in with everything from Super Mario Run to Fire Emblem Heroes. Mario Kart Tour is just the latest mainstay franchise to take the dive.
Of course, just because Nintendo has fully embraced mobile does not mean that they should, especially when it comes to employing some of the worst offenses in the mobile game space. Indeed, Nintendo is putting a lot of goodwill built up over the course of decades on the line.
Seen through that view, Mario Kart Tour is quite a risky gambit. The free-to-play model risks not only devaluing one of their biggest franchises for a quick buck but also the loyalty of longtime fans.
And to that, I will say that the results are decidedly mixed. Mario Kart Tour is technically a free game, and it is not strictly speaking pay-to-win. But it is riddled with microtransactions and a ridiculous $5 a month “Gold Pass” that gives you special loot and the 200cc difficulty setting.
As I noted in my article “Five simple tips to get the most out of Mario Kart Tour,” you can unlock most characters, karts, and kart parts without using any real money, but you do have to pony up for 200cc and – oddly enough – the ability to play as Mario.
If you don’t want to spend real money, you’ll need to spend coins that you collect throughout races to buy items in the in-game store. This is a slow process, and that’s really the point. They want you to pay. And since there is no in-game advertising, they do need to make money somehow.
At least with coins, you’ll know what you are buying. With rubies, you trade them in to “fire off” one of the iconic green pipes from the Super Mario Bros. franchise. That sounds more exciting than it is. Basically, it’s just a random loot box.
Some items are more common than others. So if you’re using real cash for a random draw, it’s basically like playing a slot machine, except that you are guaranteed to win something. However, it is possible to get duplicates, which is annoying.
As far as the actual racing goes, Mario Kart Tour feels like a stripped-down version of Mario Kart. The tracks are all borrowed from past games, which I will admit look great. The objective is still the same as well: finish first place.
How you manage to finish each race is definitely different from a console version or even the 3DS. There is no accelerate button; your kart is always accelerating on its own. Using a single finger, you swipe left and right to steer.
While there are a few shortcuts, the game usually prevents you from leaving the track, unlike past games where you could go into the grass. Basically, it feels like most of the courses have what I’ll call guardrails, preventing you from leaving the course.
Since the controls are not terribly responsive, I suspect that these guardrails were put in place so that people wouldn’t rage quit. Oddly, though, there are a few spots where you can go off the track, including a few shortcuts where if you miss them you can completely fall off the course. The inconsistency here is perplexing.
Anyway, to say that the controls are unusual is a bit of an understatement. At least at first, most people will find them frustrating in the extreme. That said, with a few adjustments, I found the game to be enjoyable.
Be sure to turn on the manual drift option and then drift liberally. Drifting provides you with a crucial edge over opponents, helping to provide more control around turns and giving you a crucial boost once the boost is charged. The longer you hold the drift, the more it charges up.
Items are another important factor in any Mario Kart game. That’s no different in Tour. In fact, they are perhaps even more important here because there are only two laps to catch the leader instead of the traditional three.
I do need to mention that Mario Kart Tour automatically uses your items if you drive through an item box. This setting can be turned off, but it is turned on by default. Depending on the setting, this may change how you approach when and how to use items. Just keep that in mind when you play.
Okay, so we’ve covered how the races work. You’re probably wondering about game modes and how to play with your friends. About that…
Let’s get the bad news out of the way right here: there is no multiplayer yet. Yeah, I know, a Mario Kart game without multiplayer is basically blasphemy. There is a tile for multiplayer, but it says “available in a future version” when you try to tap on it.
Alas, the single-player mode will have to satisfy you for now. And the single-player experience is not bad – not a ringing endorsement, mind you, but it is good to pass the time at least.
It’s structured into various cups; each cup has four events. The first three events are standard races where you are scored based on your finishing position, the items used during the race, the characters, karts, and gliders that you equipped, and other factors. Depending on your score, you will either earn between zero and five stars.
The stars are used to unlock new cups, which in turn unlocks more events where you can earn more stars. It’s a virtuous cycle! Okay, not really since the whole randomized nature of unlocking items and paying to unlock more items is questionable, at best, but it at least feels like they aren’t bullies demanding your lunch money.
I will say that I found the challenges to be quite enjoyable. As I mentioned, the first three of four events in a cup are races. The fourth event is basically an oddball challenge.
One of the challenges has you take down giant Goombas using items. Another one gives you three balloons – the kind that you’d get in multiplayer if the game had it – and your goal is to avoid obstacles on the course. If you hit something, you lose a balloon. These are entertaining diversions, but they don’t make up for the lack of multiplayer.
Speaking of diversions, that’s how I would best describe Mario Kart Tour. It’s a decent diversion during a lunch break or a commute to work. It’s not something that you will play for hours on end. I found enjoyment in Mario Kart Tour but only in short bursts and unfortunately not with friends.