Though I minced no words in my dislike of Mario Kart Tour during a discussion on the NXpress Podcast, that doesn’t mean that plenty of gamers aren’t having a good time with Nintendo’s latest mobile offering. Many have no problems with the swipe controls, and though there seem to be few fans of the monthly subscription service to gain access to 200cc races and some rewards, it has been rightly pointed out that this feature is purely optional; if you don’t want it, don’t pay for it (and that includes rubies), and there is still plenty to do with the game’s main features. However, Mario Kart Tour doesn’t just exist to make money (despite that pricing structure); in theory, this game can be a way for Nintendo to brings new racers into the fold by giving them a bite-sized taste of of a console meal. Does it work?
As with all speculative questions, it depends on who you ask. No doubt many will point out the crisp, colorful visuals and abundance of tracks — including Mario Kart Tour-specific ones — as enough of an approximation of the main series to be successful in recruiting new players. And there’s no question that Tour nails the look of modern Mario Kart, popping off the screen with wonderful detail and Mushroom Kingdom charm. It’s also true that there between the many Cups, 50-100-150cc tiers, and mini-challenges sprinkled throughout, Mario Kart Tour shouldn’t end up disappointing players with a lack of content, a la Super Mario Run.
However, despite that surface-level appeal, does Mario Kart Tour really get at the crux of what makes the franchise so popular? Is it a good representation of what it’s supposedly advertising for? I have some experience being convinced by a mobile game into giving a console franchise a try: before Fire Emblem Heroes put miniature versions of those strategy RPG battlefields in my hand, the series had never even been on my radar. However, the plethora of distinct characters and distilled — yet representative — grid-based clashes tantalized enough to warrant dipping my toes into the larger waters of Awakening and Three Houses (the latter of which especially cemented a new obsession). That mobile ploy worked by keeping to the same path, if only narrower. Mario Kart Tour, however, seems to go off-roading a bit.
Another reason players are drawn to Mario Kart is for the characters. Unlocking the multitude of Mushroom Kingdom personalities is a ritual that gives additional purpose to the races, inspiring players to fully explore each track and mode, as well as start that coin collection. But the gacha-like nature of Mario Kart Tour has little to do with rewarding such accomplishment, and instead substitutes performance-based rewards for loot boxes. Now, this isn’t some rant against loot boxes per se; Fire Emblem Heroes employs a similar mechanic. However, the premise of bringing literally hundreds of heroes from several franchise games — which themselves involve recruiting — all into one mini-celebration seems a more appropriate use of the tactic. Also, the Orb currency used in the game is doled out often enough that even players who aren’t whales should still have a good chance at pulling great characters.
The first thing that causes concern is the gameplay. While the franchise has seen its share of cries of unfairness due to its famous rubber banding, Mario Kart has long given players tight steering and precision sliding with which to control their fates. It was always going to be difficult to translate that multi-button experience to touchscreen mobile devices, but Mario Kart Tour‘s swipe actions and auto-steer don’t feel like the right solution to approximating the fast-paced swerving and weaving of the main games. Much of the thrill of kart racing comes from always being just on the brink of losing control, but Tour has no such danger; in order to make the game manageable (and presumably friendly to a wider variety of users) it is impossible to fly off the edge of a cliff when attempting an ambitious slide, or difficult to cut across a patch of rough grass without the steering correction interfering in the shortcut.
The result is something practically on autopilot, neutered of much of the fun, and makes one’s first experience with Mario Kart Tour feel borderline infantile. Granted, 50cc has always been pretty easy, but at least the driving mechanics of the console entries enough to keep players engaged as they test out a variety of maneuvers in a more forgiving environment before tackling the increased challenges.
Mario Kart Tour is thus far is less generous with its rubies, but more importantly, this element of chance when it comes to racers — not just the racing — doesn’t seem to jive with what the franchise is about. Unlocking everyone is usually a formality; yet here, Mario isn’t even available at the start. Also, players may not even necessarily pulls characters when spending those hard-earned rubies, as karts and gliders are part of the same pool of chance. On top of that, each character has special abilities that can enhance player prospects on certain tracks. With no guarantee of ever pulling these characters, many will simply have no chance at competing on the leaderboards, which is pretty much the only reason to play this game outside of collecting.
Again, fairness and Mario Kart are rarely are spoken in the same sentence, but this is on a different level, and denies certain experiences based on luck of the draw, not through attempts at manufacturing parity. To those who are familiar with the franchise, none of this will likely matter; they’ll always pick up the latest iteration of the console entries, knowing full well that Mario Kart Tour isn’t really representative of the real deal. But players for whom this is the first impression of something they’ve either heard a lot about or were completely oblivious to, that “taste” seems like it’s for a different meal — and a less nutritious one at that.