Nintendo has a pretty clear strategy for bringing its cherished franchises to mobile: make the core gameplay feel as close to the "real thing" as possible, but be sure to monetize the ever-living crap out of practically everything else.
This is the case with Mario Kart Tour, which is actually a pretty fun casual racing game to play in short bursts, but also forces you to slowly unlock every kart and character by progressing through each two-week tour, or by pumping money into buying loot pipes and gold coins and subscribing to a monthly Gold Pass membership. Yes, you can play the game for free, but you're really incentivized to spend cash to unlock the specific characters you actually want to race as. I'm coming for you, Yoshi!
Much like Super Mario Run, Mario Kart Tour is designed to be played with one hand. Your kart automatically accelerates and you simply swipe left or right to turn and swipe and hold to drift and build up boost in the corners.
Rather than letting you freely select which tracks to race on, everything is broken down into character-themed Cups with three two-lap races and a special challenge. New Cups are unlocked by collecting Grand Stars. There are five Grand Stars available for each race which are awarded based on your total bonus points earned during each race. Bonus points are calculated based on the character and karts you're using, your ability to link together boosts and skilled play during the race, and of course your finishing position.
The racing action is pretty good in spite of the limitations Nintendo has imposed here. That includes a very limited selection of tracks and restricting all races to just two laps, invisible bumper walls along the edges of each track that prevent you from careening going off course (I guess Laikitu was unavailable for his usual Mario Kart duties) and the auto-acceleration and steering assists that basically lets the game play itself.
Mario Kart Tour is a fine example of how free-to-play monetization tactics can spoil an otherwise great game.
Each Tour race makes it seem like you're racing live against other players, but I've taken a call during a race and returned to find the race in progress at the exact moment I switched away from the app. Any other mobile game that offers true online multiplayer would boot you from the match or race for leaving early, but here you're able to complete the match with absolutely no penalty. There is a dedicated multiplayer mode in the main menu but that only will be introduced in a future update.
There's a mix of strategy and randomness to each race with characters, karts, and parachutes getting special bonuses on specific tracks. The item box RNG is still the great equalizer that it is in every other Mario Kart title, and leads to the frantic craziness that we all love and hate.
There's a lot to collect and unlock here. The coins you collect during each race can be spent on characters and karts in the and there are also rubies which are earned by completing challenges and unlocking gifts — but you can also buy them via in-app purchases. Rubies are especially important for unlocking random characters through loot box mechanics (sigh) or, most likely, collecting duplicates of characters you've already unlocked (double sigh) which you collect to level up your characters for incremental stat boosts (infinite sighs).
Mario Kart Tour currently features 20 playable characters, with Wario and Luigi being notable exclusions at launch. Odds are they will be introduced as unlockable characters in future tours, or, more likely, locked away behind the $5 a month Gold Pass subscription.
Whether you think it's worth dropping your hard earned cash into Mario Kart Tour is up to you. The Gold Pass lets you earn more rewards and unlock exclusive characters (Metal Mario is the first Gold Pass character available), and you'll always be enticed to buy rubies to unlock new characters or participate in a Gold Rush race that fills the course with coins to collect.
To its benefit, Mario Kart Tour offers good variety of gameplay that's perfectly suited for mobile play and you're sure to have some good fun progressing through the cups. I ultimately wish this was a premium game that didn't rely so heavily on in-app monetization, but Nintendo has done enough to keep you checking back for new races and challenges to complete.
Game of the week
Mario Kart has finally arrived on mobile, but you're going to have to grind — or pay — to play as your favorite Nintendo characters in this free-to-play release.