Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
History is littered with people who had great, successful ideas that later turned out to be horrible and misguided, like the guy who invented the Keurig and was horrified to realize that people actually like extremely convenient and cheap coffee (even if it does generate a shocking amount of garbage). I don’t know who taught Nintendo about the existence of “free to play” games, but I truly hope they someday have a similar epiphany about the negative impact their work has had on the world. Nintendo’s free-to-play games (mostly taking the form of the company’s relatively recent foray onto phones) haven’t been as brutal as some other publishers, with Super Mario Run offering a cheap one-time fee to access all content, and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp being so boring that nobody should feel the need to put money into it anyway. But it’s still a little nugget of darkness, one that could someday turn Nintendo into a miserable greed machine like Konami.
Nintendo’s latest free-to-play gambit is Mario Kart Tour on phones, and it has one of the most egregious monetization models that the company has ever used. The game is free, and you get most of the content for free, but if you pay $5, you get extra rewards with more regularity, as well as access to the 200cc speed. Sorry, no, that’s $5 a month, and you can pay real money to get premium in-game currency, putting effectively no cap on the amount of money you could hypothetically spend. And since your score in a race is largely dependent on which character you use, and the easiest way to get characters is with the premium currency, you really have to pay something if you want to get the most out of the game.
It’s gross and disappointing to see Nintendo be so desperate for money, but it’s especially frustrating because Mario Kart Tour is actually a really good approximation of Mario Kart for the smart phone set. If you were to strip all of that free-to-play crap out—or if you’re somehow so wealthy that you don’t care about yet another monthly subscription fee—it’s clear that a lot of care was actually put into the actual game design part of this game. It features a good amount of totally new levels that have never been in a Mario Kart game before (mostly based on real world locations, which is a fun gimmick), and there are redesigned classic courses that were seemingly created fresh for this, and not simply ported over from Mario Kart 8.
The roster on offer is huge, too, including some exclusive local variants of characters that have never been in the real games, like a New York-themed musician Mario (a suit from Super Mario Odyssey), and a version of Peach in a kimono with her hair in a bun. (They also have a bunch of unique special items to toss out on the course that are new to Mario Kart Tour.) It’s legitimately cool, and it’s hopefully an indication that some of this will make it into the next Mario Kart game on consoles—which, to be clear, should wait until after Nintendo has made a new F-Zero, please. The one design issue that Tour has beyond the monetization is the controls, with the game giving you two options: A very simplistic swipe that gives you a gentle curve when you turn, or a more dramatic “drift” version that puts you into a full powerslide whenever you tap the screen. The game pushes the latter as the more legitimate option for real gamers, but in practice it makes the game unplayable. Mario Kart is largely about little adjustments, whether you’re avoiding a banana on the road or trying to hit a specific ramp, and the drift controls made that impossible. Luckily, the simplified controls work just fine, and they’re basic enough that you can give Mario Kart Tour as little attention as you think a mobile game deserves.
That last bit might be a sticking point for some people, as Mario Kart Tour is generally very easy (except when it’s infuriatingly difficult, another nod to the real Mario Kart games), and the Apple Arcade library seems insistent that people like very elaborate games on their phones that they have to put on headphones for, and really pay attention to. However, if you are independently wealthy, and like phone games that you don’t really have to think about, you can do a lot worse than Mario Kart Tour. I downloaded it on release day about a month ago, and I’ve been at least checking in on it and getting my stupid daily rewards almost every day since… partially because I forgot to cancel the auto-renewal on the free trial for the $5 subscription, so I might as well keep playing and get my money’s worth. That being said, we reserve the right to take back every positive thing we’ve said about Mario Kart Tour when Nintendo releases a Metroid game where you have to pay for every missile, okay?