Mario Kart Tour review: Mario Kart just doesn’t feel right on a phone

Nintendo’s mobile games always feel just a little bit … off. The games, like Super Mario Run, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, and Dr. Mario World, never come close enough to the polish and pleasure of playing a Nintendo game on a console or handheld. The same is true of the new Mario Kart for phones, a free-to-play racing game that looks and sounds like Mario Kart, but lacks the joy of its fully-featured counterparts.

Mario Kart Tour is unsurprising in how it plays. It features many of the karts, characters, and race tracks seen in Mario Kart 8, but strips down mechanics and controls to suit touchscreen devices. To play, I need only swipe left or right on the screen to steer and drift. I swipe up and down to throw items ahead of my driver or behind them. I can touch the screen to get a boost off the starting line, but otherwise the accelerator is pressed down automatically.

Steering and drifting can feel awkward at first, and Nintendo offers a couple control options if I want to focus on simplicity or a little more finesse. Sometimes, though, steering feels almost inconsequential, as the game can feel as if it’s playing itself. I’ve come in third place in 150cc-class races without steering or touching the screen at all, in fact.

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Currently, Mario Kart Tour consists of a variety of cups. Each cup contains three two-lap races and one challenge course, ostensibly designed to teach players a skill or gameplay mechanic. There are a huge number of cups, and the grind required to earn stars to unlock those cups is daunting.

Mario Kart Tour is a single-player experience. I race against bots — bots with what appear to be actual Nintendo Account usernames, initially giving the impression that you’re playing against real humans — and they’re easy to beat. It’s unexciting; I don’t feel compelled to keep racing against computer-controlled opponents to earn stars, unlock cups, earn gear, and spin the prize wheel (a warp pipe) to get a loot box.

Maybe it’s the monetization, so rote and familiar at this stage in mobile gaming, that’s demotivating me to play this particular Mario Kart. I can earn gold coins in races to eventually acquire something from the shop, or I can use rubies (a premium currency that I can earn a pittance of freely, but must buy with real money if I want a usable amount in a rational amount of time) to launch a random prize high into the air.

But I also have Mario Kart 8 Deluxe within reach, where I already have dozens of characters and kart parts unlocked. Grinding out currency to hope for a 0.3 percent chance to unlock Peachette is not reward enough for churning through a lesser Mario Kart experience against bland computer-controlled opponents.

Souring the experience somewhat is Mario Kart Tour’s bizarre Gold Pass, a $4.99 per month subscription fee that unlocks the 200cc racing mode and offers some gold-colored rewards. It’s optional, yes, and its value is highly questionable. But it feels like an outlandish purchase in the face of Apple Arcade, the game subscription service that seems designed to counter heavily monetized free-to-play games like Mario Kart Tour.

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Mario Kart Tour stalls right from the starting line. It lacks the competitive thrills of other Mario Kart games, focusing more on an endless series of unlockable virtual things to acquire.

But it appears that a full multiplayer mode is coming to Mario Kart Tour, which may provide more thrills than chasing AI-controlled kart racers and the daily drip feed of currency. For now, however, this is hardly a vital addition to Nintendo’s library of games, mobile or otherwise.

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