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Mario Kart Tour beta hands-on: Microtransactions land like a nasty blue shell

<img src="https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/mario-kart-tour-beta-splash-800×450.jpg" alt="This is the only Mario Kart Tour closed beta image we’re officially allowed to share.”>
Enlarge / This is the only Mario Kart Tour closed beta image we’re officially allowed to share.

Nintendo’s first racing game for smartphones, Mario Kart Tour, is barreling like a red shell toward a free-to-play launch on iOS and Android later this year. But today’s kickoff of a closed-beta test (only on Android, only for randomly invited users) makes me wonder whether Nintendo and its development partner, DeNA, should tap the brakes in a huge way.

From a sheer gameplay standpoint, Mario Kart Tour is actually a pretty solid facsimile of the classic series, albeit with a couple of puzzling design decisions. But the game’s path to monetization is the most brazen yet applied to a Nintendo smartphone app.

Don’t look! Don’t you dare look at the leaked videos!

In good news, Mario Kart Tour plays much like the series’ past 25 years of home and handheld versions. Race on go-karts through cartoony racetracks while picking up and using weapons (turtle shells, banana peels) and boost items (“nitro” mushrooms, mostly). In this version, your kart automatically accelerates, so use your fingers to steer left or right, tap weapon items to activate them (with a forward- or back-flick to direct them as needed), and pick from one of two drifting options to trigger “micro-boosts” in speed.

We’d love to officially show you how MKT looks—because that’s the best part of the game—but Nintendo has expressly forbidden screen or video capture for anybody who landed an invite to the game’s closed beta period. (To clarify: I’m the only Ars staffer to win the random-draw lottery for this beta period, and we didn’t get any special press treatment in terms of access.) But we can’t stop you from seeing what other users have captured and anonymously shared in the beta’s first 12 hours as a live service.

A video we found on YouTube of, uh, something. Though embedding doesn’t work, click to have the video pop up in another tab

On my personal smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S9, MKT renders Wii U-caliber 3D imagery quite well. The game’s usual characters, go-karts, and lively racetracks all look remarkably detailed and bubbly, with 3D geometry benefiting from a handsome polygon budget, while my tests have run at a fluid 60fps refresh in apparent 1080p resolution, with nary a stutter.

Additionally, every racetrack appears to be a port of an existing, classic series track—a great idea to keep costs down and keep fans happy for a free-to-play game, in my opinion—but that exposes the game’s weirdest design restriction. Most Mario Kart racetracks benefit from a wider field of view (FOV) so that players can keep an eye out for upcoming turns, hunt for shortcuts, position themselves for item pickups, and aim weapons at opponents. Yet MKT mandates that players hold their phones in “portrait” orientation.

I’ve played my fair share of Mario Kart split-screen content, particularly modern two-player modes that split the screen in half horizontally, yet even that ratio at least adjusts the camera angle for maximum track visibility. MKT, for some reason, puts its camera pretty tightly behind racers. As a result, if you haven’t memorized a track or get stuck behind a random obstacle (like a giant dinosaur’s stomping feet in MK Double Dash‘s Dino Dino Jungle), expect to be flummoxed by this camera limitation.

How does Nintendo make this easier for players? By making it impossible to fall off racetracks, or by having karts auto-drive through near-wall collisions. I frequently cheated my way toward hard-to-reach shortcut paths by driving headlong into walls, only to have my kart automatically veer into a shortcut. It’s an inelegant solution to an inelegant problem. (Rudimentary AI doesn’t help; though the game shows “real-life” usernames on karts, they’re all controlled by bots.)

I’m also not entirely enchanted by MKT‘s take on drifting, which is by default set to a weird “turn for long enough to start drifting” setting. I had to go into the settings menu to toggle “manual drift” so that the instant I started turning, I could get a time-shaving drift maneuver started (and even pull off a “snake” maneuver to chain mini-boosts over and over by dragging my finger back-and-forth across the screen). There’s simply no other way to effectively rack up drift boosts.

However, that meant I can no longer optionally tap to the left or right for finer-tuned adjustments, which are nigh essential to guiding a racer towards a shortcut, a boost pad, coins, or other elements littered on an average Mario Kart racetrack. With a widescreen ratio, I might have had more screen real estate to activate this as a button-press. There is a motion-sensing option, which allows you to tilt your phone for small nudges while otherwise drifting using your fingers, but I detest its current beta implementation, which triggered too many false turn attempts.

Timers, loot boxes, a zillion currencies, and pay-to-win issues

Now for the very, very bad news. I’m going to list the beta’s current smartphone-nonsense issues with a few caveats. First, you can’t use real money in the game’s beta period. Second, any of the below issues could change between now and the game’s public, free-to-play version coming later this year. With that out of the way:

MKT has timers. Your ability to play the game is gated behind a “hearts” currency. Every start of a race costs one heart, and your default meter maxes out at five hearts. It takes roughly 12 minutes for a single heart to refill, while the game’s opening portion constantly refills hearts as part of the early leveling-up process. It’s unclear at what point this ample heart supply runs out and players are stuck either waiting on timers or spending an “emerald” currency for more hearts, which can either be earned in-game or (eventually) paid for with real-world money.

Additionally, the game’s progression system to access new racetracks, through a single-player campaign, is hard-gated by its own set of timers. As I type this, I’m waiting a full hour before I can unlock the game’s “Toadette Cup” of three racecourses, even though I’ve otherwise met its requirement of other progress. There’s no way to pay in-game currency or real-world money to speed that unlock up.

MKT also has loot boxes. The game’s aforementioned emeralds are required to access the game’s loot. Spend five emeralds (no idea how much that will cost in real-world money) to get a single, random unlock of a mascot character, a go-kart model, or a “glider” accessory. Unlike past games, differing characters and karts don’t appear to come with standard control trade-offs like strength, acceleration, top speed, and so on.

Instead, each of these pickups vary in “rarity”… and that rarity indicates how much they affect major racing factors, including: top speed, coin-earning rates within a race, likelihood of picking up mid-race weapons and items, ability to hold multiple mid-race items at once, and multipliers for your “driver points” (DP) total at the end of a race.

That last one is the real kicker, because progress in the single-player campaign isn’t about getting first place. It’s about gaming MKT‘s DP system, which is affected by your end-of-race standing but also by mid-race actions (number of items used, number of mini-boosts triggered by drifting, number of jumps) and by the DP attached to whatever character you bring into a race.

This part gets confusing. Each character, kart, and glider has a numerical DP value that you bring into every race, and if any of those are higher in rarity, they start out with a higher value by default. But they can all have their DP raised by grinding through more races. Which, after a while, will require managing that hearts currency. And you’ll need to bring in as many DP as possible at a race’s start once you get further into the campaign, because your DP total at the end of a later race must be quite high to accrue its “total completion” DP boost. Getting total completion of a race instance doles out “stars,” and you need stars to access more of the game’s cups of courses. (You can only claim each race’s stars once, though you can replay each cup’s three races over and over if you want. So long as you have enough hearts, anyway.)

Oh, and here’s an unwelcome new Mario Kart twist. MKT doles out further boosts and bonuses if you pick the “correct” racer for each course. You’ll pick a track within one of the game’s “cups,” then be told that certain characters, karts, and gliders are enhanced, but only for that track. Most of them appear in the interface grayed out, as if to remind you, “Gosh, it sure would be nice if you owned more of these ‘plus’ and ‘plus plus’ options, wouldn’t it?” Worse, this pre-race selection screen includes a one-touch shortcut to the “shop” interface to remedy this restriction.

Pick a side, Nintendo

MKT endlessly needles players about its assault on the structure of classic Mario Kart games—as in, pick a favorite character, freely race through familiar courses, and unlock new stuff by way of standard gameplay mechanics. With that paradigm blown up by an obnoxious blue shell of in-app economies, and no apparent way to access multiplayer with either friends or strangers, I’m pretty disappointed by MKT’s current state.

The best I can say is that it presents the very core idea of Mario Kart pretty clearly, and its simple touch controls are just good enough to show total novices why the series might be a blast to play on traditional consoles. But as a possible time-killing option for anybody who takes Mario Kart the slightest bit seriously, I’m at a loss. Players might be willing to forgive sloppy, imprecise controls, or shrug off the smartphone world’s need to monetize free-to-play games. But having both issues in the same product is too much.

As DeNA and Nintendo put final touches on this app, I suggest the developers pick a side: Attach an annoying economy to a deeper control scheme and more legitimate online options, or make it cheaper and less obnoxious to watch Mario drive himself.

ARS T

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