Thursday, December 5, 2019

Mario Kart Tour (iOS, AND) Review

Mario Kart Tour revved up its engines and roared onto mobile devices several months ago. Now, that the exhaust has settled, it's time to take a deep dive into the game two months after the game's launch. Has it improved? Is it a worthy title to spend time with? Let's get behind the steering wheel and race for the finish line with SuperPhillip Central's review of Mario Kart Tour!

More of a Tour de Farce than a Tour de Force

Nintendo's mobile offerings haven't exactly set the gaming world on fire. They're meant as more of a sampling--a tease, if you will--to get mobile players gaming on Nintendo systems by providing them with a taste of what will come from buying, say, a Switch or whatever. Between Miitomo, Super Mario Run, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Fire Emblem Heroes, and on, Nintendo's found varying degrees of success, but mostly less than satisfactory results. Nintendo hopes to change that with one of its largest properties, and instead of bringing but a small tease of Mario Kart to mobile, Mario Kart Tour is pretty much a valid Mario Kart experience in phone and tablet form. However, as we'll see with my review, a valid Mario Kart experience on mobile has plenty, and I do mean plenty of bumps in its road.

The main draw of Mario Kart Tour is its seasons. Each season in Mario Kart Tour is comprised of multiple cups of three main races and a Mario Kart DS Mission Mode-like event. The latter can be things like time trials, passing through rings, defeating as many Goombas as possible, avoiding damage, and so forth. The actual racetracks featured in Mario Kart Tour are throwbacks from Mario Kart 7's selection of new tracks and retro track selection. Few of the returning tracks from past Mario Kart games come from anywhere but Mario Kart 7, such as Mario Kart Double Dash's Yoshi's Circuit.

With regard to Mario Kart Tour's various seasons, it's not just about getting first place in a race (though that's somewhat important as is); it's about getting enough points to pass thresholds to acquire Grand Stars, which open up new cups in a given season. You earn points from doing all sorts of tasks--hitting opponents with items, performing tricks, collecting coins, and gaining hang time from flight sections of racetracks. Chaining actions together is paramount in achieving high scores on tracks. All of this adds up to a grand total, which determines how many Grand Stars you earn for that particular race.

However, Mario Kart Tour implements a system where even players who race more than adequately and cross the finish line in first place may and probably will still not have enough points to earn five Grand Stars in many races. Each track in a cup has a specific character, kart, and glider that gives different benefits for using them. The most egregious example of this comes from all tracks needing a specific racer to earn the ability to get three individual items upon driving through an item box. This can also result in a "Frenzy" when you get three of the same item, allowing you to enter invincibility and use as many of that item as you like until the effect wears off.

If you aren't fortunate to have the driver a specific track wants you to have (which you generally won't), you might be stuck with a racer who can only hold two items at once, or worse off, just one--which puts you at a severe disadvantage both race placement and point-wise. Using track recommended karts and gliders also helps in adding a bonus multiplier as well as increasing the amount of time your chain multiplier lasts. Seeing as the characters, karts, and gliders you unlock to use are mostly luck of the draw from pulls that require the use of expensive and hard-to-acquire Rubies, it can be darn difficult to stay competitive in the game.

I say "competitive", but outside of weekly tournaments where you compete against your particular tier of twenty players to see who can earn the most points in a specific cup for prizes like gold and Rubies (good luck if you don't have the "right" racers for the chosen tracks), there is no multiplayer to speak of in Mario Kart Tour. Yes, the racing series synonymous with multiplayer fun with friends and family does not yet have this feature. That said, the feature is coming, but I worry how balanced it will be (or not be) if the same rules for single player play out in multiplayer.

Of course, it wouldn't be a freemium mobile game without microtransactions and a Gacha system. Nintendo has unfortunately satisfied both conditions to be a freemium mobile game with its repulsive pricing and downright scummy odds with driver, kart, and glider pulls. Rubies are handed out like candy at first in Mario Kart Tour, but soon they become like water to a Koopa in Dry Dry Desert--incredibly hard to come across. Considering every pull in Mario Kart Tour--that is, launching a reward out of the pipe for a chance at earning something new--whether that's a new racer, kart, or glider--costs five Rubies. The odds of getting one of the featured items of each season is disgustingly low, but the odds of pulling multiple copies of characters, karts, and gliders you already possess are frustratingly high. Yes, duplicates of already possessed goodies do eventually level up your drivers and such to make them earn more points in races, but it can be absolutely deflating to make ten pulls and have nothing but lame, low rarity items to show for it.

Then, there are the microtransactions. This is Nintendo kowtowing to investors who wanted the company to go all-in on MTXs because the prices on display here are hilarious in how bold and brazen they are. For example, Mario--the character that Mario Kart is named after--once was in a pack for $20. Yes, the main character of the game isn't even available at the very start of Mario Kart Tour. You either had to get lucky and get him from a pull like I did, earn enough coins to buy him from the shop, or just give in to the evil pricing strategies being conveyed here and straight up buy the pack.

That's not even the worst of it. There's also a Gold Pass that unlocks more rewards for players for going through the various seasons. You earn more Rubies, more Gold, more goodies like drivers, karts, and gliders--but the catch here is that the Gold Pass costs $4.99. Oh, I'm sorry. I left out an important piece of information. That is $4.99 PER MONTH, a price that is insane. While you can try the Gold Pass out for a two-week trial (just be sure to cancel it before you're charged a day before the two-week trial ends), you better believe that this isn't really worth the asking price. Not by a long green shell shot.

And that's a shame that Nintendo seems to be doing everything with its pricing strategy to turn people like me off from the game, as Mario Kart Tour is rather fun. There is no real stamina system to worry about, which would otherwise limit how many times you can race per day. Instead, the amount of coins you can earn is capped at 300 per day, and the amount of experience you can earn per driver, kart, and glider is also capped at a limit per day as well.

Pretty much all of Nintendo's mobile offerings have been poor man's versions of its popular franchises. With Mario Kart Tour, you pretty much get the full experience of Mario Kart on a mobile device. Obviously, unlike say, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch, with Mario Kart Tour you're able to play with just one hand, using your finger to slide from left to right on the screen in order to steer and drift. In order to launch an item, you swipe either forwards or backwards to fire off in the desired direction. That said, it's quite a bit of a challenge to properly aim an item in the direction you want all while negotiating a turn and especially a drift.

Mario Kart Tour constantly keeps you driving forward. There's some auto-steering involved and boundaries to make for a less frustrating experience. What I mean by the latter is that in Mario Kart games where it'd be easy to fall off the course, you automatically hug curves as if there's an invisible rail keeping you on the track. The only opportunity to plummet off a track is when you're hit by an item in midair while crossing a chasm, for instance.

It can be a bit frustrating to avoid items in Mario Kart Tour, especially because racers automatically hold whatever item they have on deck right behind them. This makes it all too easy to steer into it, making your character careen off course and lose precious podium and places and seconds of time. That said, it also makes it so you don't have to hold a button down to have an item trailing behind your character for safety purposes, so there's a pro and a con with this setup.

Mario Kart Tour's tracks forgo the typical three laps that the series has seen used since Mario Kart 64. Instead, Mario Kart Tour's races are two laps each. While the amount of total tracks isn't very high, and they do repeat a lot each season, the game cleverly alters how you race on them. There are four versions of each track--a normal version, a reversed version where you drive on it backwards, a trick version that has a multitude of ramps and other places to perform point-accumulating tricks off of, and a reversed trick version.

Additionally, the "Tour" in Mario Kart Tour refers to how many of the game's seasons sport a featured track that takes place in one real world location. So far, New York, Tokyo, Paris, and London have been featured as locales with unique tracks of their own, but these haven't been too exciting overall design-wise. They're certainly appealing to look at aesthetically, but they don't get the adrenaline driving as much as I would have hoped--particularly the Tokyo track, which was quite a letdown. Hopefully, Nintendo continues bringing new tours as well as new returning tracks into the roster of races to keep things fresh, in addition to new characters, karts, and gliders.

Mario Kart Tour's tracks look absolutely delightful and brimming with color and personality. This is a mobile game that looks really good, even if it is a bit too taxing on my iPhone 5S (thus resulting in a lot of crashes--one every four or five races--before and after races). It's also quite a battery hog, quickly taking down my phone's battery, though this is somewhat remedied with the power-saving mode that helps lower the depletion on my phone's battery but downgrades the visuals severely. Sound-wise, Mario Kart Tour takes nearly all of its sound and music directly from past Mario Kart games with the only new compositions coming from menus and the new tour tracks.

Overall, it says more about how much I love Mario Kart that I can put up with the slimy Gacha and microtransaction practices than it does my delight for Mario Kart Tour. While the game is structurally sound on a gameplay note, the systems designed to inhale all of the contents from players' wallets are just horrid and completely disgusting to me, especially coming from family-friendly Nintendo. For most players, I feel Mario Kart Tour makes for a stopgap as they wait for Mario Kart 9 to come out (whenever it does--maybe even Nintendo's next system at this rate), and even then, it's a poor one. You'll most likely find yourself wishing to go back to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. As for me, I see myself sticking with Mario Kart Tour for a little while longer, hoping I don't get to a point where I'll get truly repulsed and put off from playing the game for good--but deep inside knowing that I probably will.

[SPC Says: C-]

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