Gaming Editor Sam Nason gives Mario Kart Tour a speed check – does the game finish first, or does it suffer from a false start?
I have not visited a single university house that doesn’t have a Nintendo Wii with Mario Kart hooked up to it. A legend among students, the game proves monumentally fun under any circumstances, whether that be a cheeky 3pm drive or a booze-fuelled party game. The release of a free Mario Kart game on mobile, then, appears a godsend to those who want a different experience on the convenience of their phone. Enter Mario Kart Tour, released last month for mobile devices.
A difference to traditional Mario Kart games is that the objective is not always to win. Tour is mostly about gaining points in order to reach point goals by the end of the race and earn Grand Stars. In that sense, not placing first doesn’t necessarily mean that you haven’t ‘won’, and there is an added emphasis on performing tricks, using items and boosting in order to clear each track.
However this also means each track has no replay value once you’ve achieved the goals set out before you, which usually happens on your first or second attempt. This kills one of the defining elements of Mario Kart – its wacky tracks – by having them simply be used as solitary ‘levels’ rather than experiences. Focusing so heavily on points detracts from the trademark mayhem Mario Kart is known for and gives an early inclination that the game might not be all it seems.
This sense of deception rears its head even before the first race begins. Bizarrely, Mario Kart Tour in its current state has no multiplayer capabilities whatsoever, be it with friends or strangers online. Yet once you enter a race, the game performs a network check as if it were seeking opponents from across the world; what this amounts to are simply bot characters with player-like usernames.
In a game franchise known principally for its competitive gameplay, the decision not to launch with multiplayer (especially after the numerous delays the app has faced) is truly perplexing. This article begun with the premise of multiplayer for a good reason – that is the most popular mode in the franchise by far. Such a choice cuts the replayability of the app and relegates it to a mediocre single player experience. Nintendo hasn’t commented on when multiplayer will be available for the title.
One of the first things noticeable when driving in Mario Kart Tour is its stiff controls. Tapping your finger on the screen causes you to drift, which is often tough to coordinate with using items, which is also tapping. This means a badly timed press can jeopardise your position at no real fault of your own.
Using the vertical gyroscope to steer is both a blessing and a curse; it makes the game widely accessible given that only one hand needs to be used to play the entire thing, yet eliminates the emphasis on steering Nintendo have placed on the franchise since the Wii. One would imagine a mobile Mario Kart game would, naturally, use the phone sideways, as if it were a wheel. This is not the case and, given the fact it isn’t even an option, is a sorely missed opportunity that I imagine would have made controlling your character much easier – and a more fun experience.
The verticality of the game is an issue that transcends controls, however. For those unfamiliar with the courses, you have very little peripheral vision to understand each track’s layout and anticipate which move you will have to make next – especially when your thumb is already obscuring half the screen.
The choice also doesn’t do the game justice graphically. To its credit, Mario Kart Tour is very impressive to look at, and this is reflected in its track design. Most are throwbacks to older titles (particularly Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS for some reason), but some of the mobile-specific tracks especially look like great care has been taken with their aesthetic. Obviously descaled to fit on a phone screen, the game maintains a look that is still faithful to its console counterparts, especially on a device that has severely less power. Yet the vertical display of the title dictates that the majority of the screen will be filled with either the ground or the sky, rather unappealing when such vibrant scenery is plainly present as you are driving around these familiar courses.
The initial roster of characters is pitiful. To begin with, you are relegated to only about two characters for the first hour of the game, these being freebies you get upon starting it in the first place. Subsequent drivers are then unlocked through ‘firing the pipe’ (in other words, spending the game’s premium currency ‘rubies’ to randomly obtain an item in a gatcha-like style) or buying them from the shop with coins (which requires relentless grinding to even unlock one character). Neither option is ideal and highlights the monotony of the gameplay where characters are not unlocked by skill, but simply by chance.
Mario, the titular character, is unavailable to play as at the start. He, too, is locked behind the unpredictable unlocks, further exemplifying the game’s drive to sell you more rubies or simply buy the characters yourself. Luigi isn’t even in the game – one can only imagine this is a shallow attempt to profit off of his inclusion in a future update. Nintendo’s attitudes towards its character roster is the perfect analogy for the greed and avarice that consumes Mario Kart Tour.
But what do I know? The game has been doing well and, according to research firm Sensor Tower, has been downloaded over 20 million times since launch day. On top of that, it was reported to have grossed over $1 million within its first 24 hours available. Evidently this model is monetarily successful; the frustration, however, delves from how it is incredibly consumer unfriendly, and how progress is stifled to exploit those who wish to experience Tour like a traditional Mario Kart game.
Mario Kart Tour is a game you will play for fifteen minutes, but forget about once you realise there are richer and more accessible games out there that you could actually play together with your friends. Nintendo (being a company usually rather consistent with updates) may heavily change the app according to criticism from many of its users; it remains to be seen whether the game’s appeal would shift once multiplayer or an easier way to obtain racers was added. But right now, Mario Kart Tour suffers from its single-player exclusivity and its lack of heart. I think my house will stick to the Wii.
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