It’s fair to say that Nintendo’s forays into mobile gaming have been a bit of a mixed bag, partly because none of its fans can really agree on which of its efforts have struck the best balance between fun and funds. Originally reluctant to even get into mobile gaming in the first place, Nintendo has struggled to settle on a monetisation method that hasn’t annoyed at least someone.

Super Mario Run’s ‘one single payment to unlock everything’ idea wasn’t as successful as Nintendo had hoped. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp started well, but then added expensive fortune cookies and gardening tasks that were nearly impossible without spending money. Dr. Mario World’s energy system makes playing in small bursts a necessity for solo players (though the multiplayer is fantastic), and some were uncomfortable sharing their information in Miitomo (RIP) in general. And so on, and so forth.

Step forward Mario Kart Tour, Nintendo’s seventh attempt at nailing mobile. This time, as well as the tried-and-tested gacha (i.e. loot box) system, it’s also introducing another pay mechanic it hasn’t tried before: a monthly subscription service. The game has only been available for a matter of hours and already social media is up in arms about this, but as is often the case, the level of outrage isn’t proportionate to reality; the subscription service is indeed a bit rubbish, but it’s absolutely possible to enjoy the game without it.

Let’s look at the basics first, though. Mario Kart Tour is based on the modern Mario Kart games and were it not for its insistence on being played in portrait mode (you can’t turn the screen sideways for this one) you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a straight mobile port of Mario Kart Wii, 7, 8 or the like. Once you start playing it, though, it’s immediately clear that this is a very different Mario Kart experience: for starters, its controls are very different to what you’re used to.

Your kart accelerates automatically, and is controlled by swiping your finger left or right. There are two variations on this: a beginner control scheme where swiping simply turns in that direction (essentially acting like an analogue stick), and an advanced one where swiping makes your kart hop and start powersliding in that direction. This means the advanced set-up is the only way to get speed boosts by sliding round corners, so naturally it’s the best one to go for if you want the best chance of winning races.

The only issue here is that the controls can take a little longer to get used to than other Mario Kart games. Because this advanced method uses power slides and nothing else, moving slightly left or right can be tricky since a power slide usually starts with the kart swinging out in the opposite direction. The result is a feel similar to Mario Kart 64 in a way, where the best way to collect something that’s slightly to the right of you is by actually moving left. It’s initially counter-intuitive (and one of the main reasons you may be seeing people online saying it controls terribly) but stick with it and after a couple of hours it becomes a lot easier to handle. It’s never going to be as intuitive as a normal controller, of course, but it’s passable enough to win races.

It’s worth pointing out that tucked away in the options is the ability to turn on gyro controls for devices that support them. You can even combine them with the advanced controls, meaning theoretically you could use the touchscreen for powerslides round corners then tilt your device to make smaller turns to collect items. We say “theoretically” because in reality we tested the gyro controls on both a Google Pixel 2XL and a 2019 iPad Air and they were awful on both. Take our advice and stick with the touch controls until you get the hang of them.

Not that you’ll need to worry about competing against other players who’ve adapted to the controls quicker than you, mind. Each race puts you against seven other ‘human’ opponents, which are based on real players and their actual profiles, but you aren’t actually racing against them: you’re racing against AI racers representing them. In many ways this is actually preferable, since it means you’ll never have problems with lag, people dropping out or never being able to find a race.

Racing against CPU opponents also ensures the three speed settings of 50cc, 100cc and 150cc have suitable AI difficulty too, meaning you can spend some time in 50cc getting used to the controls without having to worry about the possibility of experts dropping in there and smacking shells around. For those who crave such anarchy, Nintendo promises that an update is coming that includes proper online multiplayer, so we’ll see how that goes when it arrives.

The game’s split into a series of ‘tours’, each of which is based on a real-world city and lasts for a number of weeks. The first is the New York Tour, which consists of 16 cups (each with four events). The aim isn’t necessarily to win the races in these cups, but to hit a certain number of points. While finishing in first obviously nets you a healthy helping of points, you can also gain points for practically anything else: pulling off powerslides, hitting enemies with weapons, gliding in the air, and so on.

Each character, kart and glider also has their own points value, which are added to the points you get during the race. On top of this, each race has favoured characters, karts and gliders, and if you choose any of those you’ll get extra weapon slots or points multipliers. It’s a good way of making sure the player doesn’t just use the same character over and over again... though obviously they have to get extra characters first.

This is where Mario Kart Tour is going to divide opinion. As with many free-to-play mobile games, Mario Kart Tour has a pair of currencies: in this case, it’s coins and rubies. Coins are collected through normal play and can be used to buy specific characters, karts and gliders in the daily shop (the ones available change every day). These items are generally quite expensive, though, so you’ll need to save up your coins to be able to afford them.

Rubies, meanwhile, are the premium currency and can either be bought with real money or earned in-game at a slower rate than coins (you’ll get some rubies for things like levelling up, completing the occasional cup, as a part of daily login bonuses and the like). For 5 rubies you can use the pipe, which is the game’s gacha/loot box system. Pull the pipe and you’ll win a random character, kart or glider, though the odds on you getting the exact one you want are fairly low.

We’ve already seen people citing the appearance rates for this mode, but to be fair – and we aren’t often fair when it comes to microtransactions – that’s sort of the point of loot boxes. The game’s launched with 47 possible things to unlock in a pipe, so you’re already talking a little more than 2% chance of getting a specific one. Add to that the fact that some items are rarer than others and therefore some common items have a higher percentage (up to 5%) whereas others have a lower one (as low as 0.3% for the likes of Metal Mario and Peachette).

It’s rubbish to an extent, absolutely, but despite the outrage you may be seeing in some circles, it’s no different to any other game with a loot box system; it’s always nearly impossible to guarantee you’ll get the exact thing you want. A more sensible way of looking at Mario Kart Tour’s system is by splitting it into categories of rarity: you’re looking at a 75% chance of getting a ‘normal’ item, a 21.5% chance of getting a ‘super’ one (these have gold backgrounds and are generally worth more points when racing) and a 3.5% chance of getting one of the few ‘high-end’ ones.

Then there’s the Gold Pass subscription service, which will set you back £4.99 a month. This one’s a little harder to justify. Basically, as you hit certain star totals you’ll unlock set rewards: some coins, a new character, some tokens to let you level up your kart’s points value, that sort of thing. If you’re subscribed to the Gold Pass, you get extra gifts on top of that: usually a few rubies or the occasional unique kart.

The Gold Pass also unlocks some unique challenges (i.e. achievements) – which grant you extra rubies if you clear them – as well as the 200cc mode, which is frankly close to unplayable with this control system and doesn’t give you any extra points anyway. More than the gacha system, the Gold Pass is gaining a lot more controversy than it really should be, with some misunderstanding what it does and assuming this subscription service is necessary in some way. To be clear, it really isn’t, and absolutely won’t be of interest to 99% of the player base.

Those are the two main sources of monetisation, then: rubies and the Gold Pass. Thankfully, there’s no energy system here like there is in Dr Mario World or Fire Emblem Heroes, meaning you can happily replay races over and over again as you try to earn the full five stars on each. An energy system here would have been an absolute deal-breaker, but by not having one Nintendo has ensured that those not willing to spend a single penny on the game won’t ever feel the need to (as long as they can ignore the banners advertising the Gold Pass, obviously).

We can already sense how the comments to this will go, and we completely understand that by saying Nintendo’s mobile game isn’t any more predatory than most other free-to-play mobile games over the past decade we’re going to get hit with the ‘Nintendo Defence Force’ stuff. The reality is that everyone’s mileage varies when it comes to mobile microtransactions: those who play mobile games regularly will have by now accepted that they’re a necessary evil, and that this game in particular is nowhere near the worst example of it (not even among Nintendo’s own mobile releases). Those who don’t often dabble in mobile gaming, however, may be annoyed at the gacha system and the optional subscription service.

Ultimately, given that the game’s free-to-play, the best way to find out where your tolerance lies is to try it for yourself. Give it a couple of hours so you can adapt to its unwieldy control system, and if you’re like us you’ll find a competent little mobile version of Mario Kart which is made enjoyable by its complete lack of an energy system, which would have spun it out at the starting line.

Conclusion

Get used to Mario Kart Tour’s unconventional control system and ignore its overpriced and unnecessary subscription service and you’re left with a fun, free mobile take on the series. It was never going to replace Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but by not including an energy system and promising regular new content Nintendo is at least offering a decent alternative to pass the time when you’re out and about without your Switch.