When Nintendo announced that their new Mario Kart title was going to be a free-to-play mobile game, kart racing enthusiasts the world over were understandably hesitant. Would it be fun? Would it be the Nintendo quality we've come to expect? Would the game be rendered unfair by the presence of microtransactions favoring those with expendable income?
If you know me, you know I love Mario Kart almost more than life itself, so naturally when applications opened in late April to be part of the closed beta test, I had to apply. I, too, was eager to see whether or not this would be the first Mario Kart to break my heart. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be chosen by random selection, like my own little four-wheeled golden ticket.
The closed beta runs from May 22 to June 4, which means I've now had one day with the game. Keep reading for my early impressions!
Part of the agreement for participating in the closed beta is that players must not post any images from the game to the internet or social networking sites. So please excuse the lack of images; I've done my best to work around it.
Despite its mobile size, Mario Kart Tour is instantly recognizable as a Mario Kart game. Each cup (such as the Mario Cup and the Toad Cup) includes four courses: three races and one skill challenge (such as "Race through the rings" or "Do Jump Boosts"). So far, the included courses are recycled from previous franchise titles, like SNES Choco Island 2, 3DS Daisy Hills, and N64 Kalimari Desert.
Players steer by moving their finger left or right across the screen; when you don't touch the screen at all, the kart goes straight ahead. The steering took a short amount of time to get used to, but ultimately I thought it worked well considering the restraints of mobile devices. Karts automatically accelerate for simplicity, and drifts are ridiculously easy to achieve.
In a console-based Mario Kart, I'd be raging at having the game dumbed-down, but in a mobile game, I appreciate not having to think too much. The only downside is that you must tap the screen to use your box items, and this meant I often used them by accident simply by touching the screen again after driving straight ahead.
Karts, characters, and gliders are "favored" on their associated themed race courses, and using them gains you luck and item bonuses (for example, using Toadette on the 3DS Toad Circuit course earned me a "++: big item-luck boost"). Additional karts/characters/gliders can be unlocked with in-game currency or via the microtransaction route (more on that in a moment), but the more unlockables you have, the more advantages you'll get during races.
For most of the day, I had no problem accessing the beta. Race lobbies filled within two to three seconds, and everything proceeded very smoothly. Then later in the evening, I began getting the following error screen, "A communication error occurred. Please try again later. Support Code: 806-1300." After another hour, I tried again, only to receive a message that the game had crashed, along with a button offering to connect me to customer service.
I've tried at regular intervals since then, but been unable to access the game.
Even though this is a closed beta (which means Nintendo was in complete control of how many players they invited to participate), I assume these errors mean that too many people have tried to access the game at once. It remains to be seen whether this will be a quick fix or whether we'll see Anthem beta-level failure.
Completing races earns in-game rewards in the form of coins (which can be spent in the shop), stars (used to unlock new cups), and emeralds. Emeralds are the biggie; they can be spent on opportunities to fire the golden pipe, which is rather like a cannon. When you do, a random assortment of karts/characters/gliders will burst out, yours for the keeping. Some are rare, but most are run-of-the-mill.
If you don't want to earn emeralds the old fashioned way (you know, by racing in a racing game), they appear to be available for purchase in the game's shop, although this feature is disabled during the beta. Emeralds can be used to buy a whole host of other in-game advantages, as well--tickets to upgrade characters, tickets to play Coin Rush (a coin gathering course), tickets to get in-race items without having to hit a box, etc.
All of these buyable advantages raise extremely legitimate questions about whether the game will remain fair for everyone or whether it will become a pay-to-win nightmare.
But from a personal pet peeve standpoint, that doesn't bother me nearly as much as the timers. In true free-to-play fashion, the races in Mario Kart Tour are locked behind timers. Players start the game with three hearts, and it costs one heart to enter a race. Hearts can be replenished via leveling up (done by earning points during races) or by waiting out the timer. However, I assume the shop in the full version will offer to let you bypass this timer for a fee.
But even when I had enough hearts to enter a race and enough stars to unlock the next available cup, the game locked that cup behind a timer, as well. This, I thought, was exceedingly cheap. It's one thing to set in-game parameters for continuing gameplay (such as needing hearts), but it's something else entirely to gate-keep gameplay even when the player has met all the parameters.
Despite the problems with connectivity and the ominous presence of microtransaction gate-keeping, I had an absolute blast playing Mario Kart Tour today. Expletives were shouted, victory dances were rocked, tears were shed. The characters, colors, and sounds are all here, and while the graphics are admittedly a little rough around the edges during the actual races, it's by no means a deal breaker. In fact, I took about three dozen screenshots (which I won't post, Nintendo, I swear!) that I think will make really killer phone wallpapers.
Within its simplicity of play, this game has all the moments you know from the franchise. For example, stealing first place by firing a red shell/green shell double tap straight up an opponent's backside when they're mere inches from the finish line. Or being in second place and knowing you could catch the leader if only a box would give you something besides a banana.
Much more remains to be seen over the length of this beta, as well as when Mario Kart Tour goes live. There are a lot of questions and concerns that will need to be addressed. But if you want my honest early opinion, I can't wait to play again!