I’ve been playing Nintendo’s latest addition to the Mario Kart catalog for a couple of months now and I have come to the realization that it’s not a great game. It’s not even a good game. Hell, it’s hardly a game at all. Mario Kart Tour, though flashy, fun, and colorful, exists solely as Nintendo’s attempt at extracting money directly out of your mobile wallet and into their literal pockets.
Ok that sounds a little harsh, right? Other mobile games have been running on “freemium” models for years and have still received good reviews. Even Candy Crush still attracts nearly 10 million users daily, and they practically invented freemium. But Mario Kart Tour is different, more unabashed, and I’ll tell you why.
Sorry, this will be long.
This will be the shortest section. Scroll through any reviews of Mario Kart Tour on the internet or app stores and it averages 4/5 or 7/10 stars depending on the scale. The reason for this is simple: the gameplay. It’s excellent. Nintendo has managed to capture that classic Mario Kart thrill in the palm of your hands. It’s fun, addicting, and will always leave you thinking, “one more race…”
This is where things get a little wonky and a lot expensive. I’m going to break this down into one section of how the game works (Tour) and four sections of how it doesn’t (Tiers, Coins, Rubies, Gold Subscription, and Multiplayer).
The “Tour” of Mario Kart Tour consists of rotating courses and challenges that swap in and out every Wednesday. Each “Tour” has a main city course that the drivers, karts, and gliders revolve around (more on that later), and will pepper in visual goodies depending on the nearest holiday. Currently it’s Paris for Valentines Day. Also, new drivers/karts/gliders are introduced weekly to add to the ever expanding catalog of unlockables.
Every week there is also a certain cup that is ranked among your peers. Old school Mario Kart players will know that a cup is 4 courses that take all of the points year earned each race and total them up at the end. In Tour, it’s three races and a challenge, and the ranked only accounts for the three races.
Each course in the Tour requires a driver, a kart, and a glider. This is nothing new forpeople who have played recent Mario Kart iterations. When you go to select your driver/kart/gliders, they are separated into three tiers. For example, a tier one driver only allows you to get 1 item per Item Box while a tier 3 driver allows you to get 3 items and the potential for a frenzy (unlimited number of one item for a short period of time). Similarly, a higher tiered kart gives you a combo point boost, and a higher tiered glider gives you more time to rack up combos.
In my opinion, this system is textbook great game design. It keeps players like me coming back with newly unlocked drivers/karts/gliders to try and beat my previous scores.
But over time you begin to realize that a lot of the tier 3 goodies are either a) obtained with pure luck, or b) purchased for an insane amount of money for a mobile game. Currently, you can purchase a pink Shy Guy along with a few coins and rubies for $20. Twenty dollars! For a single driver! And who knows if that driver will even be useful as a tier 3 the following week?
Collecting coins is part of the foundation of every Mario licensed product. In Mario Kart Tour you are allowed to collect 300 coins per day from races, and a handful more for completing weekly/daily challenges. You can also “buy” more coins by spending very valuable rubies (more on them later) if there is something you can’t afford.
Pricing for the shop works as such: Drivers/karts/gliders are priced based on rareness and/or value. They come in silver, gold, and pink with pink being the highest value. Silvers you can purchase for 500-800 coins, golds are 2000-3000, and pinks are a jaw dropping 12,000 coins. (In my entire time playing I have never amassed 12,000 coins at one time in my bank.)
To add to the frustration, there are only 9 available items in the shop on any given day and, though I can’t prove this, they RARELY turn out to be the things you need for the week’s ranked cup. If you need one more Baby Mario to level up your current one, don’t every count on it showing up the next day.
Using an in-game currency is great for casual and serious players alike, but the thing I want everyone to realize is that if there is a WEEKLY ranked competition, and you can only collect a guaranteed 2,100 coins if you get the max every day, then how will you ever afford to be competitive?
Rubies are the lifeblood of this game. Without them, you don’t advance. You can slowly earn them in various ways, but, if you’re a casual player, I would say you can only count on receiving 45 of them every two weeks. Here’s why that’s important.
For 5 rubies, you can pull a tube (heh) that will shoot out a completely random driver, kart, or glider. For 45 rubies, you can shoot out 10. That’s a buy 9, get 1 free deal. The only way to receive nearly all of the unique tier 3 characters that are released every week is via tube, and there’s no guarantee you’ll even get them.
This is frustrating because the only realistic way to rank high is to have a tier 3 driver since they are the only ones that can have frenzies. On the ranked course Paris Promenade 2T this week (Jan 29 – Feb 5), there are two available tier 3 drivers. One can be obtained by the tube of chance, and one can be purchased for an insane amount of real life money.
So just how valuable are rubies, you might ask? Well, 3 of them are $1.99, 23 are $12.99, 93 are $49.99, and 135 are $69.99. That means that 135 rubies has the exact same cost as purchasing Mario Kart 8 for the Nintendo Switch. Plus Nintendo doesn’t even sell them in groups of 5 so you are forced to buy more if you need a specific amount.
And finally, the subscription. For $5.00 a month you receive 1-2 more items from gift boxes (rewards for completing so many courses) than usual. I currently pay for this and have noticed two benefits.
- I now get about 45 rubies every week instead of every two weeks.
- I get what are called Skill Tickets which allow me to upgrade a driver/kart/glider of my choosing. I get one of each type and of each color (silver, gold, pink) per week.
But here’s the rub. For $5.00 a month, everything is still not available to me. There are still limits on how many coins I can acquire and there are still essential drivers/karts/gliders that can only be purchased with real money. Because of this extra ceiling, I am cancelling my subscription after this period.
As of today, you are still unable to play with your friends.
You might think I’m being unfair. That Mario Kart Tour is a fun freemium game that can be played casually for fun. And you might be right. I acknowledge that there are other ways to get coins, rubies, and drivers/karts/gliders via challenges and such. I also acknowledge that you can level up your D/K/Gs to slightly level the playing field. But I also challenge you to play this game for a solid straight month and not shake your head at the fact that you must purchase something to get first place.
At the end of the day, Mario Kart Tour only succeeds in providing me with false hope. I want to be competitive, but despite my commitment to paying for the Gold Subscription and completing my challenges every day, I am always five, six, or seven rankings behind the person who drops $100 per week.
And this is really where Nintendo missed the mark. The reality is that nearly everyone has played some version of Mario Kart in their lifetimes and with that comes expectations. I want to unlock cool and unique drivers/karts/gliders, I want to do a bit of grinding for my rewards, and I want to race my friends. But for the cost to compete in Mario Kart Tour, you might as well purchase a Nintendo Switch.
*Side Rant* Has anyone else noticed that if your driver/kart/glider is a teir 3 on certain courses one week, that they are not always a tier 3 on the same course the following week?!