Nintendo’s mobile efforts have been divisive to say the least. Since the launch of Super Mario Run in 2016 it has struggled to combine its traditional quality of gameplay with mobile’s monetization in a fair and effective way. Few people seemed happy with Mario Run’s premium price of $10, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp’s dearth of content made it less than exciting to invest in, and Dragalia Lost, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Dr. Mario World all used familiar but frustrating microtransaction tactics that worked against the gameplay. After racing through the early hours of Mario Kart Tour, it seems Nintendo is still struggling with this difficult hurdle in this free-to-play version for iOS and Android. The price tags next to Tour’s microtransactions are surprisingly big, but the actual driving works well and often feels impressively similar to a traditional Mario Kart game.
Similar, but definitely not equal to. The racing is more restrictive and simpler making it an undeniable downgrade from Mario Kart 8, the most recent (and arguably best – fight me) Mario Kart, but the transition to mobile devices is handled well. Classic tracks have been tweaked and redesigned to take advantage of the vertical perspective and the single-input touch controls work well. You can choose traditional turning controls which are recommended for newcomers, but I went with the drift controls option which locks you into a drift as soon as you start turning. It took some getting used to, it didn’t take me long to feel comfortable sliding around wide turns to build up boost. Swiping up to launch weapons forward works well, as does swiping down to drop them behind. I did run into some trouble making my way down winding paths, but during those moments where I was speeding down the track expertly launching turtle shells at my opponents I felt like I was playing a real Mario Kart game – an impressive feat on a phone.
One of the smart elements of Tour that accounts for the mobile platform is the brief time commitment of each play session. Tracks are short and races are only two laps as opposed to the typical three, and I liked getting through a race in just a few minutes. Likewise, a full cup is only three races, capped off with a unique mission involving hitting a certain number of jumps or racing through a certain number of rings, as a pair of examples. I like these special bonus races at the end of each cup because they let me use racers and karts I had not yet unlocked, and they also teach specific mechanics like how to take full advantage of the boosts awarded for hitting a jump. They’re also quicker than driving a full race, which again helps the pick-up-and-play nature of Mario Kart Tour.
Given the history of the Mario Kart series it’s kind of crazy that Tour has launched as a single-player-only game. Despite having an icon on the main menu for multiplayer, it’s currently grayed out with a note saying it’s coming soon. Even so, Mario Kart Tour seems to want you to think you’re racing against other people, which is very strange. As you’re racing through the assorted cups, the other racers on the tracks have what appear to be people’s screen names over their heads, but all evidence points to those just being A.I. characters. You can flip on airplane mode in the middle of a race, completely cutting your phone off from the internet, and you’ll keep on going. You can even skip all the perfunctory race-introducing cutscenes and jump right into the race. If other players were present, you would think at least one of them would let the whole scene play and prevent you from skipping.
The resulting races are still fun and enjoyable even if you’re not playing against real people, but I can’t help but feel as though I am being fooled. Looking through the various in-app manuals and FAQs, it doesn’t imply anywhere I am playing with others, but it also doesn’t talk about racing against A.I., at least not anywhere I could see.
Reached for comment on multiplayer, a Nintendo PR representative said: “We have nothing to announce on this topic.”
I’m still making my way through Mario Kart Tour, but you can expect the full review to go up early next week.