Retro courses, the pseudo-return of missions, and good one-hand controls make Mario Kart’s mobile debut enjoyable.
I didn’t expect to be as engaged with Mario Kart Tour when I geared up for the invite-only Android beta going on right now. The gacha-heavy, good-looking game captures a lot of the feel of Mario Kart in a mobile, bite-sized experience. Controls, which optimally use one finger on the touch screen, work far better than they should and the progression, while definitely firmly a free-to-play mobile experience, is a decently engrossing hustle and grind.
But let’s back up to the basics: Mario Kart Tour is Nintendo’s forthcoming mobile game based off the everlasting racing franchise. The private beta out to select players now can be discussed, but not shown, so let me paint you a picture. This looks like Mario Kart in portrait mode. It vaguely smells like Mario Kart. It mostly feels like Mario Kart. It even has easy/medium/hard difficulties split between 50cc/100cc/150cc (with a 200cc not available in the beta). More so, it’s visually reminiscent of Mario Kart 7, which adds up since the tracks available are mostly from the 3DS release or were retro tracks in that release.
Controls are simple, helped out by an on-by-default arrow that can be turned left or right with a thumb press and a drag as you auto-accelerate. Hold it into a turn and you’ll start to drift automatically; release your thumb to unleash the boost. Potential for snaking seems rampant as you can drift while going somewhat straight. Items are activated at a tap of the screen. Importantly, you don’t need to constantly hold you finger down. As a matter of fact, I don’t advise doing it down straightaways. Items are, by default, automatically deployed when you hit a new item box. It’s a weird choice but helps the pace of races out. As they are cued up, items are automatically held behind you, which is great for bananas and maybe a little frustrating for bombs (as you can blow up when hit) or mushrooms (as others can steal them).
Tilt controls are optional but not great. I do recommend turning on manual drifting in the options. By default, it’s set to automatic. With manual, it feels a little more like regular ol’ Mario Kart and also gives you another level (those lovely purple sparks) of boost.
The controls aren’t perfect; I had more than a few camera maladies and turning problems. However, they work well enough, especially as a slightly more passive mobile experience. This doesn’t replace Mario Kart 8; it doesn’t have to. It complements it though, while managing to feel enough like the console thing to engender nostalgia and affection.
What helps that is all the courses in the beta are retro tracks, with a smattering from past releases, though nothing from the Mario Kart Wii or 8 so far. As far as I can tell, they’ve rather true to their original incarnations (or more recent remakes, where applicable). Here’s the full list:
- SNES Choco Island 2
- SNES Mario Circuit 1
- SNES Rainbow Road
- N64 Kalimari Desert
- N64 Koopa Troopa Beach
- GBA Bowser Castle 1
- GCN Dino Dino Jungle
- DS Luigi’s Mansion
- 3DS Toad Circuit
- 3DS Mario Circuit
- 3DS Daisy Hills
- 3DS Shy Guy Bazaar
- 3DS Rock Rock Mountain
Each cup, which includes three tracks, ends with a distinct challenge that evokes the Mission Mode from Mario Kart DS. Outside of an appearance in downloadable challenges on the Wii (which can’t be accessed anymore), that has been dormant in the Mario Kart series for more than a decade. It’s welcome to see them come back, even if most of the ones in the early cups of Tour are more tutorial than challenge. The Vs. Mega Bowser level is essentially a boss race, which is welcome to see. Hopefully more of those lie in wait in the endgame.
Like most mobile games, you reach a point where progression is semi-gated behind throwing money to upgrade your characters or get rare drops. You can’t put money into the beta, but the game is somewhat generous early on with giving you emeralds to use for drops. You can get duplicates, though that does boost your existing racers, karts, and gliders. I generally play a mobile game until it starts demanding money, and then I either drop it or idle for a while until I can freely earn some currency over a few days. This seems to fit into the average of my experiences.
The tracks repeat often through the cups, which is a bit of a bummer, but each one is only two laps long, which makes for a quicker pace. I’ve reached a point where I have to grind to move forward, which isn’t as much as the early stages of constant unlocks, but I enjoy hopping in for a few races until my stamina hearts (each race costs one heart; currently I have five) run out, and then coming back an hour later to play a little more.
Part of the reason why I enjoy the grind is you have a variety of characters and karts to choose from and level up through races. To start each race, you pick a racer, a kart, and a glider. They’re split into three tiers, unique for each course. For example, Mario will get the most benefit for Mario Circuit, and Daisy for Daisy Hills. Sometimes you’ll be unlucky and not have anything available for the higher tiers, which can make earning the required points for progression difficult.
Tiers for different characters and parts work as follows: the higher the tier of character, the more items you’ll draw at once, from one to three. The higher the kart, the faster you’ll go. The higher the glider, the more item luck you’ll have. Additionally, every racer has a signature item, every kart a benefit (e.g. longer jump boost), and every glider a potential starting item.
Here are the available characters:
- Donkey Kong
- Metal Mario
- Koopa Troopa
- Shy Guy
- Baby Mario
- Baby Luigi
- Baby Peach
- Baby Daisy
- Baby Rosalina
- All the Koopalings
- Dry Bones
- Dry Bowser
- King Boo
The karts and gliders include a lot of recent staples for the series with nothing too shocking. You got your regular ol’ Pipe Frame kart and stuff like the Koopa Clown, Barrel Train, and Super Blooper. The gliders range from parachutes and traditional gliders to the Swooper and the Wario Wing.
Earning points is the key to progression. In theory, you don’t have to come in first place to earn the high scores for races, though coming in first place is generally a sizable point bonus. Points are earned by doing stuff during the race. Hit a boost? Get points. Hit an enemy with a green shell? Points. Collect a coin? Points. Be in first at the end of the first lap? Points. Much like the core Mario Kart game, even a flawless race can end in tragedy. One of my highest point accumulation races did indeed end with a blue shell near the finish line, dropping me into fourth place and a missed high score.
Currently, I’m at the eighth cup out of 16 available ones. I’m trying my best to try to get the last couple high scores to unlock the ninth cup, but it’s becoming tough. I don’t begrudge the difficulty, but only time will tell how long this will keep my interest, especially since there doesn’t appear to be any sort of friends list or multiplayer options. You do compete on leaderboards and with other named racers, but it’s all pulled randomly and AI-controlled. When the game fully releases, I expect to at least go through the same early progression before fading off. I don’t think Mario Kart Tour will be the one mobile game to surpass Nintendo’s financial expectations, but it seems to be one of the better ones they’ve put together from this early look.