I’ve tried writing this review of Mario Kart Tour like a jillion times. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing over the years, if it’s hard to start writing about, it doesn’t bode well for the product being reviewed. It will usually end up bringing the score down. Much like my enthusiasm for Pokémon Shield and Sword, my enthusiasm for Mario Kart Tour took a nosedive from announcement until now.
I wanted to like Mario Kart Tour. I really did. It’s an awesome franchise and being able to play it on my phone? Well, that seemed like it would be a hit. And I wanted to write a fair review detailing the great things about it and at the same time offer a measured criticism about the bad things. That’s how I’d start every revision, start with the good and then talk about the bad. But I kept wanting to write about the bad stuff because it’s so prevalent and constantly shoved in your face in subtle and not so subtle ways.
The best way I can describe this game is this: Mario Kart Tour is (almost) all of the things you liked about Mario Kart layered with all the things you hate about mobile gaming: microtransactions, subscription pay wall, daily limits, “deals”, loot boxes, and the constant reminders to buy stuff. The only thing it doesn’t have are interstitial ads and offers to earn currency by watching more ads.
The microtransactions offer rubies in exchange for cash. There are packages too which offer rubies with a kart and a driver, kind of like a fast food joint’s combo meal. Rubies can buy more coins which in turn can get you drivers, karts, or gliders. You can earn coins in game but there’s a daily limit to the ones you can get picking them up in races. You can also get coins from unlocking achievements. Rubies can also be used to fire off the warp pipe cannon, Tour’s version of a loot box. Random stuff shoots out of the pipe at the cost of 5 rubies per shot, or you can purchase 10 shots for a slight discount at 45 rubies. To be fair you can earn rubies in-game by completing achievements, leveling up, or from the daily log in bonus. Or you can buy some rubies outright; packages of rubies range from for $1.99 for 3 and can go all the way up to 135 for $69.99.
That’s just straight up GROSS.
There’s a whole science behind these microtransactions and how to string a person along to get them to spend more and more money. The warp cannon/loot box mechanic is directly tied into that along with the “deals” and bundle offers. I fell victim to such dopamine-fueled games some years ago. I forced myself a clean break from those games and can now safely stay away from them. Seeing that same mechanic find it’s way into a Nintendo mobile game is offensive and, in my opinion, really tarnishes the brand.
The subscription is another gross point. For a monthly fee of $4.99, you can gain additional items when you unlock gift boxes. You’ll also be able to access the fastest class in the game, 200cc. That’s right. You can race 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc classes on the free mode but have to pay a monthly fee to race in the fastest class.
One aspect of the game that’s wildly different from the console versions of Mario Kart is that the drivers, karts, and gliders can be leveled up in two ways. There are the base points that determine your starting point amount at the beginning of a race. At the end of a two-lap race, depending on how well you did, you would earn more points, which translate into stars. Five stars is the most you can gain and the thresholds go higher and higher the more cups you unlock. There are also skill levels that provide a passive bonus to the amount of points earned in a race. Skill levels are earned by either winning/purchasing duplicate drivers/karts/gliders or by using a skill level up ticket. Those are different from the point level up ticket. Confused yet? Yeah me too. It took me awhile to figure out what all the tickets were for but I finally figured it out. It’s way convoluted but that’s not really the worst of it. The worst part is there’s a daily limit to how many points you can earn. Thankfully you can play as many cups as you want and keep unlocking them and progress in that way. But leveling up is crippled, so if you want level up and try and get more points per race, you’ll have you to use tickets, or spend coins to buy tickets or items, or spend gems to buy coins to buy tickets or items, or spend money to buy gems to buy coins to buy tickets or items.
The whole point in leveling up your equipment is to earn more points and get as high of a rank as possible in special weekly events. Because the better you do the better rewards you can get. And the thing is, not every driver, kart, or glider performs the same way on every course. Each item has specific courses where it is top-tier and when you’re just starting out, you won’t have a lot of top tier items. But… you could always buy them…
And really, if you look at it that way, just about every design decision was made to remind you that to play unhindered and get the most out of the game, you’re gonna have to spend money. If you want to try and get some of the top-tier drivers, chances are you’re gonna have to spend money. Just unlocked a present? You can get more out of that gift box if you spend some money. You want to add this new variant of a character you already have to your roster? You just might have to spend some money.
To be fair, you CAN play it without spending a dime though. I’ve done just that since the day it came out and I’ve assembled a pretty good selection of drivers, karts, and gliders. Unlike some other mobile games that make it impossible to earn one type of currency without spending cash, you can stockpile rubies pretty easily. It’s feasible to get enough rubies to purchase 10 shots at the loot pipe within a couple of weeks. It’s definitely a grind though.
All the bad stuff aside, this game does play pretty nicely on my iPhone 11 Pro Max. The framerate is butter smooth but there are instances of slowdown. Each track is limited to two laps instead of the three laps you’d be used from the console games, perfect for quick sessions. Controlling your kart has been simplified so that the game can be played with one hand: acceleration is automatic, there is no braking, and drifting can be triggered by a quick back-and-forth swipe motion. Item usage is done by either a tap or a swipe of your finger in either the up or down direction to throw an item forwards or backwards, respectively.
The game is played with your phone locked in a vertical orientation which is conducive to the one-handed gaming approach. Still, I’ve often found myself manipulating the game with two hands and wondered if a horizontal layout was ever considered. It would certainly give a more traditional look to the game.
I hoped that this game turned out more like Super Mario Run. Super Mario Run is a free-to-start game. You can play for free up to a certain point, and then pay a one time fee to unlock the full game, also known as pay-to-play. But I recognize now that games like that are not the norm. Mario Kart Tour is more of a pay-to-win set up if you ever want to feel and be competitive. The majority of games on mobile want you to keep coming back on a daily basis, impose limits on what can be earned, and give you enough of a peek of how much better your drivers and equipment are if you just hand over some money.
In this day and age of Apple Arcade, Mario Kart Tour feels like a relic. It’s the same business model found in other microtransaction-riddled games, but with just a different paint job. Sure the actual Mario Karting is fun despite it’s compromises in gameplay, but dealing with and fighting off FOMO and the manipulation tactics are exhausting. It betrays what Nintendo asked its mobile partners to do, or not do as is the case.
When my friends asked me how I liked Mario Kart Tour, I said it’s okay and that it’s a great game to play while on the toilet. Because, honestly, that’s where it belongs. I’m deleting the game from my phone as soon as I hit the publish button on this post. My mental health is more important to me than trying to figure out ways to get more rubies without spending money. I’m giving this game a 2 out of 5 stars. The actual karting is fun, but as a whole Mario Kart Tour was not what I was expecting; what we ended up getting is worse. The only reason I didn’t give it a 1-star score is that it did not have interstitial video ads. That and I gave Dr. Mario a 2, so it seems only fair that I give it the same score. But looking back now, I feel like I was being overly generous.