Wow, has it really been five years since I've blogged about a Mario Kart game? Looking back at my review of Mario Kart 8 on Wii U I'm struck by how harsh and critical I was, but I think it stemmed from general fatigue as I had caught up on the series by playing a different Mario Kart game every year for some eight years. In between the long gap between Mario Kart 8 and Mario Kart Tour there were two DLC packs of Mario Kart 8, both of which were included in the "Deluxe" version of it on Switch. That version also included the multiplayer battle arena mode that the Wii U version should have had, and the Inklings from Splatoon. Despite my harsh criticisms, I've played both the Wii U and Switch versions of Mario Kart 8 a decent amount over those past five years as it's a good default party game and often makes an appearance at video game events at bars and pubs.
Which brings us to Mario Kart Tour. I along with most every other Nintendo fan was worried about the quality of Nintendo's smartphone games when they were first announced, but Mario Kart Tour continues the trend of Nintendo's standard, at least in terms of the presentation and smooth gameplay: this is definitely not a throwaway cash grab. It was pretty amazing to me when I first booted it up how great the game looks: seemingly on par with the Wii U version and on a smartphone! The way the game is set up is quite different from a regular Mario Kart game. For one, there's auto acceleration and so you're just responsible for steering, using items, and drifting. You're also automatically forced to stay on the track (which was an optional handicap you could turn on in MK8) and each race is only two laps instead of three. All of these changes make the game easier to pick up and play for a few minutes at a time.
The core race mechanics are are as enjoyable as ever despite the touch controls, and in the single player mode you race against CPUs, and as with the other games in the series you can choose a difficulty level (50cc, 100cc, or 150cc). Nintendo recently added a multiplayer mode as well, which seems to work just fine the few times I've tried it out. As for the paid aspect, here is where Nintendo follows trends rather than sets them as the game unashamedly combines dreaded gacha mechanics, a staple of mobile games, and a season pass mechanic, a la Fortnite, Rocket League, and many others. First of all, the gacha mechanics are the usual "roll to have a random chance of earning a driver, kart, or glider". These are mostly cosmetic, except drivers have an item that they use in their "Frenzy" mode, which they have a small chance of activating when they collect an item box on the course. As with all gacha games the chance you'll get the specific rare driver or kart part you want is extremely low, but the game does give you a rare item after 100 failed rolls.
Drivers and specific kart parts also factor into the scoring, which is the other main new element of the game. Each track divides the drivers and kart parts into tiers, which are not necessarily tied to their rarity. Tier 1 characters will be able to collect three items on that track, Tier 2 characters get two, and Tier 3 characters get 1. There are similar benefits for Tier 1 and Tier 2 karts and gliders, and all of them basically help boost your score. Each track has five possible stars you can earn based on your score, and earning stars moves you along the season pass milestones, earning you rewards along the way. As with other games with season passes, there's one set of rewards if you're playing for free and an additional set of rewards if you're on the subscription, including a handful of subscription-exclusive drivers and karts. The game has adjusted the difficulty of earning stars and the rate of rewards for F2P players, but where they've landed seems pretty fair. I've been F2P since the beginning and have built up a healthy roster of characters and parts by only playing one race a day for the most part, and in a season I'll earn a few gacha pulls and a free driver and kart.
As with other gacha games, the game introduces season exclusive drivers such as Halloween Rosalina or Chef Mario, and if you had your heart set on one of them you'd probably have to spend a good number of clams for it. In my case I don't really care too much about specific characters, so I've been hoarding my free pulls for the occasional character that I am more interested in, such as Bus Driver Waluigi from the limited-time London event. These rare characters have cycled back into the game already, and sometimes at higher pull rates than their original appearance, so even though I still don't have him, I'll probably be able to get him eventually without ponying up any real money (which I need to save up for Fire Emblem Heroes, haha).
Last but not least, I've been pleasantly surprised at how much variety there's been in the tracks. The game makes good use of the groundwork they laid with the randomly generated Excitebike track that was part of the Mario Kart 8 DLC. In that game the ramps would be in different places each time you raced, and in this game they take that to a much greater degree, with ramps spiralling upwards in some cases, or providing extra boosts for speed, or providing alternate routes. The upshot is that even though the base track may be the same Bowser's Castle we've seen since the SNES days, the ramps, incorporation of mirror mode (the track laid out in reverse) sometimes, and item box placements can make it feel entirely different. Each cup consists of three tracks plus a mission mode track (not seen since the DS game), and it would take consistent and focused playing to get five stars on every track in every cup during a season. Getting five stars pretty much requires having the top tier driver and kart parts for that track, so it's not that feasible for F2P players, but you can simply play through more tracks to earn more stars. A recent change makes it so that you can tackle pretty much any cup in any order rather than being forced to go through them all in order, which helps alleviate that issue (although hunting for the tracks that feature the drivers and kart parts you have as Tier 1 would take some time).
Phew! There's more I could write about the game, but I think I've hit all the main points. It took a little while to see how the game would work out in the long run, but overall I'm pretty satisfied with where it landed. Gacha mechanics and subscription services for F2P games have become a standard way for companies to earn a steady stream of income, and although it's disappointing that Nintendo has adopted this practice for their mobile games, overall it's not a huge deal to me as they've smartly kept these mechanics far from their core games on Switch. I can see Mario Kart superfans getting a good amount of enjoyment from the paid features, although I don't think I would ever cross that line myself, other than to maybe throw it a few bucks at some point to acknowledge the number of hours of fun I've had with it as a casual player. I've winnowed my play time with the game to the bare minimum, but it's a game that I would play more if I had friends who were into it and if I didn't already have a whole slate of other mobile games I had to check in on daily. Someone save me... ;)