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Mario Kart Tour Isn't Great, But It Has Some Great Ideas

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Mario Kart Tour is out, and it's already setting records. This shouldn't be surprising. Mario Kart has always been more accessible than the more technical sibling spin-off Smash Bros., and mascot racers are already popular on mobile devices. But while it is deeply odd in some ways--from its fake-out multiplayer to its aggressive monetization--it has certain redeeming qualities. The game itself is merely a passable facsimile of its console counterparts, but buried inside are a handful of ideas that Nintendo should migrate to the next full-fledged Mario Kart installment.

In most ways, Tour follows the blueprint established through years of Mario Karts. You pick one of Nintendo’s gumball-sweet mascots and race around a course while dropping hazards picked up from item boxes. It has made a few compromises in service of the touchscreen interface, including auto-acceleration and a generous auto-steer, and two equally awkward steering options: regular and drift. Regular strangely doesn’t manipulate the camera so you’ll find yourself making blind turns, while the more advanced drift control feels confusingly inverted. It also automates the use of some items. But it’s in the ways that it breaks out of its blueprint that set it apart.

Most significant is the use of a scoring system to determine course completion. Your placement in a race is usually the single biggest contributor to your point total, but you can add to your score through a number of other criteria--from selecting certain equipment for the race to completing stunts and boosts.

In part this is a concession to the game’s free-to-play model. It uses gacha-style mechanics to unlock various racers and kart parts, and it incentivizes you to grow a large collection by tying those bonus points to racers you may not have yet obtained. At the same time, it makes races more active and varied, presenting you with choices aside from the ones that will give you the best race position. Do you sacrifice a half-second to steer towards a jump for the bonus, or stay more confidently in the lead? Better yet, this system lets you have hybrid wins, allowing your trick points to help make up for the gap if you're passed at the last second due to a wild Blue Shell. In standard Mario Kart, your only recourse is to start over again. In Mario Kart Tour, you may come in 2nd place and still get the maximum score cap.

Selecting the correct racer for an occasion can also grant you more items or other advantages. This is again a concession to Mario Kart Tour’s F2P hooks, but at its core it's a mechanic that challenges you to try racers you might not otherwise. Every experienced Mario Karter has a handful of favorites, but that also means that the average player leaves 95% of the roster untouched. Why not give incentive to try out a wider array of characters, or even challenge players to finish races with characters or karts that make the course more challenging? It could add a more dynamic type of challenge to a series that otherwise relies strictly on higher speeds and increasingly cheap rubber-banding.

These tweaks wouldn't make sense outside the context of one of Mario Kart Tour's other new addition, seasons. The game takes all of the available maps and mixes them into set order for a two-week period. Mario Kart as a live game is a fantastic idea if it were well-implemented. It's too early to say if Mario Kart Tour's seasons are differentiated enough to keep players coming back, but there's no reason a proper console game couldn't implement a similar structure. Rotating maps with a mix of challenges would help give the game legs beyond scoring gold across each cup.

All of this is made possible by a constant reward structure, giving out badges, coins, and other items upon completing challenges. Finishing a certain number of seasonal cups entitles you to a reward package with some items and a new kart or racer, and you always know exactly which reward is coming next. This is vastly preferable to the opaque unlocking system of Mario Kart 8, and as the game progresses, the challenges and unlock order could shift with the seasons.

Mario Kart Tour is managing to maintain my interest, for the time being, thanks to these features. If it loses me, it will be because of the subpar steering controls more than any issue of presentation or monetization. But by that same token, it draws a roadmap that other Mario Karts could and should follow to make them more varied, challenging, and fun.

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