Mario Kart Tour could not have come out at a worse time. A week ago, the surprisingly excellent launch of Apple Arcade reminded people just how good mobile gaming could be when developers no longer had to worry about squeezing in ads or in-app purchases. In a mobile market almost completely dominated by free-to-play games that constantly demand time and money, Apple Arcade was a breath of fresh air. Mario Kart Tour, meanwhile, is a stark reminder of those dark days.
At its most basic, Mario Kart Tour is what it sounds like: a simplified Mario Kart you can play on your phone. It looks like Mario Kart, albeit with slightly sterile graphics, and you’ll hear familiar tunes as you race. Power-ups like red shells and banana peels are still present, and if you’re in first place you’ll still need to be wary of blue shells.
The biggest change in terms of gameplay is that the entire experience is controlled via touch. Your kart will drive automatically, but you’re able to control it by swiping left or right to turn. There are a few deeper mechanics — you can drift for a speed boost, for instance — but it’s mostly very simple, and the controls are frustratingly imprecise. One good thing: using items is fairly intuitive, requiring a simple tap on the screen.
You progress through the game as you would in a typical Mario Kart game. There are a series of cup events, each of which involves a handful of races, and once you earn enough stars you’ll unlock the next cup to play through. The tracks take place in familiar spots like Cheep Cheep Lagoon and Rock Rock Mountain, but, like the controls, they’ve been extremely simplified. Whether you’re speeding across a city or an underwater course, everything is straightforward. There’s none of the inventive, manic creativity of Mario Kart 8 on display here.
That core is bland and inoffensive, doing just enough to feel like Mario Kart. The problem is so much of the game feels designed around monetization, as opposed to just being a fun game. This is particularly apparent when it comes to unlocking new characters and karts. Like so many of Nintendo’s recent mobile efforts, Mario Kart Tour utilizes loot boxes. Spend a few rubies — the game’s premium currency — and you can have the chance to get a random character or vehicle. Even worse, they’ve turned the warp pipe, an iconic symbol of Super Mario, into a giant cannon that shoots out your mystery prize. There’s also a store that cycles through different characters each day, which you can buy with coins collected during races or in a special mode that costs rubies to play.
This is generally par for the course in mobile gaming today, of course. But it feels particularly irksome in a game series so full of unabashed joy like Mario Kart. The mobile iteration even goes a step farther by offering a $4.99 monthly subscription — the same price as Apple Arcade! — that gets you access to gold-tier items and a high-speed racing mode. It’s sort of like Fortnite’s battle pass, only a much worse deal. This all turns one of the best parts of Mario Kart — winning races to unlock new stuff — into a costly enterprise.
The sad state of Mario Kart Tour is part of a steady decline in Nintendo’s mobile efforts. Things started off promising, with an iPhone version of Super Mario designed by none other than Shigeru Miyamoto, one that was sold in its entirety for $10. After that proved to be a failure, Nintendo pivoted to free-to-play with Fire Emblem Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. They were fun, Nintendo-quality games with mechanics like loot boxes tacked on — and they made a lot of money. Things have since taken a turn for the dire. In addition to Mario Kart Tour, earlier this year Nintendo launched a puzzle game that was essentially Dr. Mario-themed Candy Crush, and both games are aggressively monetized to the point that the actual game feels secondary.
This doesn’t mean Mario Kart Tour won’t be successful. In fact, early signs point to the game having a record-breaking launch. But that success isn’t because the game is good, and it’s especially disappointing from a company that prides itself on quality. Mobile aside, Nintendo is at a creative high point, regularly launching major Switch games to near-universal acclaim. They’re games that sell hardware and help players think differently about what games can be. On console, Nintendo sets its own pace; on mobile, it follows.