Mario Kart Tour Closed Beta Impressions - One (middle) finger play

Screenshot 1.jpg

When I heard Nintendo was looking for beta-testers for the first mobile entry in the beloved Mario Kart series, how could I say no? I grew up with these games, after all, and the polished Super Mario Run gave me some hope that Nintendo would be able to maintain their standard of quality whilst limiting the typical glut of pay-to-win mobile game microtransactions.

Here's the rub: Nintendo’s been dicey about porting their flagship titles to mobile devices, and for good reason: unlike most of their competitors, they typically like to use their software to move their hardware. So it wouldn't be smart, business-wise, for the Big N (whose flagship console is a hybrid handheld, no less) to provide a perfectly adapted mobile experience of their best titles and incentivize players away from their big $60 console releases... that is, unless they can milk their fans on the micro-transactions.

I hope this helps put into perspective what Mario Kart Tour was created to accomplish: it's a stripped adaptation of the Mario Kart formula that maintains the series' quality track layout, roster, and satisfying kart physics, but sacrifices a bit of that trademark precise control in order to make the experience work with a single finger, all the while gating your progress at every step by limiting your playtime and forcing you to level up drivers, karts, and gliders via multiple races (or real currency), in order to artificially prolong the experience. In other words, you'll be putting in more time and effort to get results you can earn (although perhaps not consistently) with raw skill in Mario Kart 8.

Screenshot 2.jpg

You know what really grinds my gears? The grind.

Leveling up is nothing new to mobile gaming, but Mario Kart Tour also limits the number of races you can do at a time. Each race costs one of five maximum hearts, and it takes about twelve minutes on average for each heart to replenish. So it's tough luck if every time you play a track where characters who specialize in Bob-Omb or shell items are favored, you get blasted over and over again when they side-swipe you while drifting through turns with little warning, and no time or flexibility to react.

On a more unfortunate run, you might get knocked down multiple times by an opponent popping their Frenzy (a souped-up item that functions like an overpowered Super Star while allowing you to temporarily spam a random item - and yes, it's as chaotic as it sounds and then some), fall behind, and never regain your momentum. Or you might catch a break in 8th place with the Bullet Bill or Super Mushroom items, only to have them automatically take you into an off-road shortcut, leaving you stuck in the grass without a mushroom boost. The game's constant desire to automatically position karts was a constant thorn in my side. Mario Kart was never meant to be played on-rails.

I consider myself an above average Mario Kart player, and these kinds of issues happened to me far too often - now, normally decent AI opponents are praiseworthy, but when your field of vision is locked into a limiting portrait mode, the 180 reverse view button is tucked away in the upper corner out of reach, and without a mini-map, you have little to no sense of where the other racers are in relation to you except for the occasional flashing indicator arrows, it can be a challenge just keeping from losing one's cool.

What game balance?

Progress can feel slow if you're stuck on one track, trying desperately to get, for instance, 8000 tour points for that fifth extra Grand Star. The game is addictive enough that you’ll be drawn back, time and again, to do your best, but all too often I felt held back by bad odds more than anything - the kinds of bad odds, I’m sorry to say, that stem from an inherently flawed game design.

Each of the tracks favors certain combinations of drivers, vehicles, and gliders, so you can't just pick whomever you wish (not that individual stats/skills matter all that much, aside from each driver's signature weapon). On almost all the tracks, for instance, Baby Luigi is rated with no bonus, making him fairly useless, as he's limited to only one item per item box, but on the Luigi's Mansion DS track, where he's rated ++, you'll be granted a whopping 3 items at once (there's also +, which gives you two items). While drivers determine how many weapons you get per item box, karts determine your top speed, and gliders increase the probability of getting decent items.

That may all sound great in theory, but even with a ++ glider, you'll only get decent drops if you're trailing behind. I could get into all the mechanics of how probabilities work in this game and how busted they are, but here's just one example of a course I played with a ++ driver, kart, and glider as a control group: between several runs, I either got no Frenzy drops, two Frenzy drops (and won), or was in first, second, or third most of the race, and thus ineligible for decent items, until I got sideswiped near the end of the race and couldn’t recover past fifth place.

It's like you're forced to race badly on purpose in the first lap in order to get the best items and sabotage your foes, or your first place win will be swept from under your wheels by several AI Frenzy attacks on the last stretch that you can literally do nothing about. In other words, getting the early lead is painting a huge target on your face, and climbing the ranks later is a matter of sheer luck of the draw. It's frustrating to get sideswiped again and again, with little to no chance of recovery, since Frenzy attacks can really tip the balance and, say, litter the track with banana peels or fire off a dozen or more blue shells. I don't consider that fun.

Screenshot 3.jpg

Too Much Reliance on Chance

I have to thank the Mario Kart Tour Beta for several things - first and foremost, it has enlightened me to the fact that despite the polished physics and presentation, Mario Kart, at its core, is a dance with lady luck. It's a series of dice rolls to the wind, resulting in euphoria or, more often, fury and frustration, at any number of factors out of the player's direct control.

Yes, you might say that pretty much any arcade/kart racer with rubber-banding might be subject to the same criticism, but Mario Kart in general, and this game especially, is about as close to spinning a roulette wheel I am willing to tolerate for the sake of otherwise decent gameplay.

The other thing I have to thank it for is turning my stomach at the thought of pay-to-win micro-transactions in a Nintendo game. I never want to have to see this again.

I also have the game to thank for curing me of my Mario Kart addiction. Hitherto, I've been the kind of racer who wouldn't stop until all of the mirror cups, staff ghost time trials, and unlockables were locked down. Now, I'm not even sure if I'll be downloading this game on release. It feels like such a step backwards for the series that I’m almost sad that they spent so much time recreating the wonderful tracks from yesteryear (such as the N64’s Koopa Troopa Beach and the GCN classic Dino Dino Jungle) for a mobile game rather than additional DLC for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (which, I'm sure, would sell millions). Of course, this was just a closed beta. Who knows? Maybe the issues I had will be ironed out a little upon the game’s release. I’ve got my fingers crossed.