Over the past few years, Nintendo has released several of its key franchises on mobile. Nintendo has transformed Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem, and Mario into mobile adventures. Now they’re doing the same for Mario Kart. Last week, they launched a closed beta for Mario Kart Tour on Android, and I was chosen as a tester. I’ve spent 10 days with the app, and my experience is a bit of a mixed bag. Overall, it’s pretty fun! Unfortunately, it doesn’t take too long before you hit that pay-to-win grind.
Note: We’re not allowed to post images or video footage from the beta, so we have to use assets from past games for this article.
Mario Kart Tour: Off to the races
Let’s get the basics out of the way. Mario Kart Tour has a simple, but effective art style. It looks pretty good! It features many familiar tracks (no new courses yet) and similar gameplay to the core series. The biggest difference is that you’re always accelerating, and the game prevents you from going too far off course. These were both optional features in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but they’re standard for Tour.
Controlling your kart is as simple as sliding your finger left and right to turn and drift. For the most part, it works. Occasionally I have trouble getting a turn to go as sharp as I want, and items (used with a tap of the screen) aren’t always super responsive. But overall, it feels mostly how a Mario Kart game on phones should feel. It’s simple, easy to pick up and play in bursts, and a lot of fun. At least, that’s how it feels at first.
When the beta ends, Nintendo will release Mario Kart Tour for free. However, it’s pretty heavy on the microtransactions. It features numerous forms of in-game currencies and upgrade options. There are emeralds, coins, stars, hearts, and so many different kinds of tickets that I’ve lost count. At first, you can safely ignore these and just play. Unfortunately, after just a few days I found myself running into pay-to-win problems.
The pay-to-win wall
Mario Kart Tour‘s races are organized into cups. To unlock a new cup, you have to collect a certain amount of stars. You can earn up to five stars per track by getting a high score. As you progress, unlocking new cups requires more and more stars. After just a few days, this fact halted my progress. When this happens, you need to go back and replay any courses that you haven’t gotten a 5-star rating on yet. But it’s not as simple as just “getting good.”
Winning races alone isn’t enough to get you all the stars you need. Drifting, jumping off ramps, nailing opponents with items, etc. all contribute to your score. Getting first place gives you a bonus, but it doesn’t guarantee a 5-star rating. Conversely, you can get a 5-star rating without winning. Unfortunately, a big part of your score is pre-determined at the start of the race. If you’ve spent more resources upgrading your kart, you automatically start with a higher score. You can upgrade your kart naturally by leveling up, but this is an extremely slow process. It’s made slower by the fact that you can only play five races at a time before running out of “hearts” that replenish over time. The game frustrates you into submitting to a pay-to-win strategy.
Because of this, Mario Kart Tour compels you to spend coins on upgrades. Sure, you can earn coins just by racing, but upgrades are expensive. There’s also no guarantee you’ll be able to get what you need. Only a few items are available to purchase each day, rotating out after 24 hours. New karts often cost around 2000 coins, while tickets (which can be used to level up karts and drivers) cost a few hundred. In order to have that kind of cash on hand, you’ll need to play the Coin Rush mode, which requires you to spend emeralds. You’ll be able to purchase emeralds with real money when the game launches, but that ability isn’t available in the beta. It’s unclear how much they will cost.
Another factor that limits your ability to collect stars is your pool of racers. Each race has a recommended character, and if you use that character you’ll get big advantages. You might start with a good item or collect three items every time you hit a box. You can even get something called a Frenzy. When activated, you’re invincible, you can use items infinitely, and your boosts charge up faster. This absurd advantage is probably the most blatant example of pay-to-win options in Tour. As the game gets harder (later races on 150cc mode), it can become near-impossible to get a 5-star rating without the right character. You can unlock more just by playing, but it’s a slow, random process. That’s where the Pipe comes in.
By spending emeralds, you can use the Pipe to unlock new racers and karts. Unfortunately, this is a randomized process akin to loot boxes. You don’t know what you’re paying for ahead of time, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get something new. Anecdotally, I’d say around 40% of my Pipe rewards were duplicates. These duplicates help your racers and karts level up, but that’s a lackluster consolation prize when you’re spending money to unlock a character that you need for progression.
Mario Kart Tour is a good-looking, mostly-fun experience. My first few hours had me impressed, but that fun decreases over time. I’m still playing every day because I want to get as much feedback as possible for this beta. But I passed the point of frustration a while ago. I don’t really have the desire to keep replaying the same races over and over again for slight upgrades. And I certainly don’t have the desire to spend money for a small chance at getting the magic items I need.
Pay-to-win mechanics are pretty close to a deal-breaker. I hope the finished product is less of a grind-fest, but as it stands now I don’t see myself playing the game extensively when it launches in full. It’s a fun, pocket-sized take on Mario Kart, but it just can’t get out of its own way.