Mario Kart Tour has been in closed beta on Android devices for the last few weeks and I was lucky enough to be selected to participate. After having spent a ton of time with the game, here’s what I have to share:
This Marks a Shift in Nintendo’s Approach to Mobile
Nintendo was originally very reluctant to get into the mobile marketplace and, to this point, have generally tried to use their smart phone games as a means of reinforcing their IPs and onboarding people to the more full-featured console experiences. This strategy was outlined by the late President Iwata:
...my understanding is that, on smart devices, the main demand is for very accessible games which smart device users can easily start and easily finish. These are not necessarily the characteristics that people demand from games for dedicated video game systems. Actually, this is one of the reasons why we believe that we should not port games for dedicated game systems to smart devices just as they are because doing so will not fully satisfy the needs of the smart device consumers. In other words, even when multiple systems can run games, I believe the entertainment experiences that the consumers demand vary from system to system.
And this tracks with what we have seen from the company so far. Super Mario Run, Animal Crossing Pocket Camp, and Fire Emblem Heroes are great mobile games but they are essentially very paired down versions of their console equivalents and come nowhere close to being ports.
Mario Kart Tour shows a markedly different strategy. This isn’t Mario Kart-lite. It’s just Mario Kart... for smart phones. The game surprised me in just how much its visuals and gameplay match up with the console versions of Mario Kart. This is, by far, the closest Nintendo has gotten to making a smart phone port of one of their games. There is a wide selection of racers, carts, and gliders, lots of tours to race in, tracks from previous games, fun bonus challenges, stars to collect, online multiplayer, etc. It’s all exactly what I want in a Mario Kart game.
I’m not sure what exactly changed Nintendo’s mind about their mobile approach but I would guess it is a combination of the success of the aforementioned smart phone successes and the death of the 3DS line. Since the release of the original Gameboy, Nintendo has functioned as a two pillar company with both a home console and handheld console line existing concurrently. While the Switch promised to unite these two parts, I think that Nintendo may actually still exist as a two pillar company, but with smart phones as that new pillar. The most interesting question is where the company goes from here, especially given the long rumored Legend of Zelda smart phone game on the horizon.
The Controls Are Great
Anytime you are talking about translating a console gaming experience to smart phones, controls are going to be at the heart of the conversation. Thankfully, Nintendo continues to prove their skill at making games work without traditional buttons.
The main concession that Mario Kart Tour makes is to have acceleration be automatic. While I’m sure plenty of Mario Kart pros would prefer to control their speed manually, I didn’t really mind this as I usually just hold down the acceleration button the entire time I play anyway.
Steering the cart is done by just moving a finger across the button of the screen. To help with this, a translucent arrow in front of your cart shows how this adjusts your trajectory. This isn’t quite as intuitive as using a real analog stick but it is far easier and more accurate than tilting the screen or any virtual joystick I’ve used. To drift, simply make a sharp turn and it will initiate automatically (there is apparently a manual option too but I didn’t try it). Items are used by tapping and can be sent backwards by swiping down. All of this feels very intuitive and responsive and I really don’t have any complaints with the control scheme. Playing Mario Kart on the phone just works.
The Microtransactions are Bad but Not Deal Breaking
So, here is the part you didn’t want to hear. The game is using a free-to-play model and has a lot of microtransactions in order to monetize the game. No, these are not cosmetic options you can pay for. The microtransactions very much affect the rate at which you will progress through the game.
The good news is that, if game balance is kept as it is in the beta, you can absolutely play the game and never spend money. Everything you need will be rewarded to you just by playing. It will take you longer than those who pay for it, but it doesn’t require any crazy grinding either.
The most worrying part going in was that certain racers, carts, and gliders gain advantages on certain tracks. While this has the trappings of a pay-to-win gacha model, it actually isn’t a big deal. You are given enough of everything that you can pretty much always select something that puts you in the first or second tier of advantage for that component. I’ve also seen plenty of people win races using a setup that doesn’t give them advantages over people who did have the “correct” loadout.
There is also a “hearts” system where once you race enough you have to either wait or pay some money to get back in the game. This is the part I am most hoping Nintendo does away with or at least tones down. Still, I rarely found myself waiting so its current implementation is fairly forgiving.
Ranked Play is an Addictive Challenge
I’m generally not a competitive person but I found that competing for the top spot in the weekly rankings was actually my favorite part of the game. Having that perfect run that grants you a ton of points and moves you to the top of the pack is a rush and I wanted to stop at nothing until I was ranked #1.
I fully expect Mario Kart Tour to be one of the most successful games on mobile to date. Since the beta ended, I’ve been anxiously waiting until I can log back in and get back to racing. This game is going to be huge and it makes me excited to see where Nintendo goes next on mobile.