Gamers everywhere are lambasting Mario Kart Tour, Nintendo’s latest foray into mobile gaming. The Japanese company was late to the mobile market and has been trying to catch up for a while now.
Mobile games in general are looked down upon by large segments of hardcore gamers, and for good reason. With traditional games, you paid for them out of the box with everything included upfront. Nowadays you might pay extra for downloadable content a few months after release, but generally speaking you still get the core experience for the base price. DLC is optional.
That’s not the case with most mobile games. Mobile games have historically been full of ads, lootboxes, microtransactions, and other crafty ways to monetize themselves while milking players for all they’re worth. Sure, the microtransactions start out small. Who could argue with shelling out 99 cents for some simple items or costumes? But ask any parent whose child has had unfettered access to a smartphone and they’ll tell you that those microtransactions add up over time. Jack Black’s eight-year-old son famously racked up a $3,000 bill on a mobile game.
That’s one reason Nintendo has been a beacon of light. They don’t follow mainstream trends. Their conservative approach to developing games has usually led to a polished experience that preserves the integrity of their products and respects their customer base in the process.
While other developers slapped together barely functional mobile games full of in-app purchases, Nintendo did the opposite with their first major mobile title, Super Mario Run, a title that was worthy of the Nintendo moniker. The game was sold for the relatively small price of $9.99 – no microtransactions, no lootboxes. Pay the entry fee, and you got everything the title had to offer. The game itself was up to Nintendo’s high quality standard, too. So did consumers reward Nintendo with equally high sales? Nope. A year after release, Super Mario Run barely scraped in $60 million. That may sound like a lot, but compared to other mobile games it’s embarrassingly low. To put things in perspective, even the waning Angry Birds 2 app earned over $200 million in a shorter timeframe.
Nintendo slowly began to introduce and integrate in-app purchases and microtransactions with other mobile releases, such as Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, but they were pretty mild and non-intrusive. That game pulled in a little over $50 million.
The financially lukewarm responses to some of their hottest franchises must have been a hard pill to swallow for Nintendo. They tried to do right by the fans and the market as a whole, but it wasn’t paying off.
Finally, they decided to experiment with more aggressive free-to-play methods by introducing even more microtransactions with their original mobile title Dragalia Lost and mobile spin-off Fire Emblem Heroes. Those pulled in $100 million and $591 million respectively.
Let that sink in. A new and relatively obscure IP called Dragalia Lost earned more than gaming icon Mario’s first mobile game. If you were Nintendo, that would be a major red flag.
Now with the recent release of Mario Kart Tour, they’ve dropped any facade of social courtesies and taken off the gloves. No more Mr. Nice Guy. The Mario Kart app is full of in-your-face loot boxes and an obscene amount of microtransactions and paid subscriptions/upgrades. It has every gacha tactic in the book to induce players to spend money up the wazoo. Sure, it’s free-to-play. But what if you want a better kart? Or your favorite racer? Or to have access to exclusive game events? That’s how they get you hooked.
The gameplay itself, while decent, is stripped down to the barest of bones, tossing aside much of what built the Mario Kart brand over the years. Aesthetically, everything is here – but you can tell it’s nothing more than a soulless cash grab once you play it.
And yet, I find myself enjoying it. Not only that, but I find myself proud of Nintendo. They finally cracked the mobile market. They tried to be inventive and go against the grain with previous installments, but that didn’t pan out. Now they’ve shamelessly embraced the worst tendencies of mobile gaming. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re being rewarded for it. Mario Kart Tour beat Pokemon Go in day-one downloads with over 90 million players after launching. It earned over $1 million in less than 24 hours. If that trend continues (and there’s no reason it won’t), Mario Kart Tour will surpass the revenue of all Nintendo’s other mobile titles within a year.
Having watched Nintendo try to gain a foothold in the mobile market for years, I’m disappointed that they had to resort to a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mindset, but I don’t blame them. I understand. And I’m proud of them for trying to do the right thing in the beginning, even if it didn’t work out. Had Mario Kart Tour been their first mobile entry, I would’ve been offended. But now? I totally get it. Mario Kart Tour‘s success is a reflection of consumer trends in the mobile gaming market, not of anything sinister on Nintendo’s part.
And for the first time, Nintendo has released a mobile game that actually feels like a mobile game. It’s nothing more than it needs to be: a superficially Mario-themed time-waster you can play in brief bursts when you’re bored. That’s it.
For its part, it is very satisfying to pull down and release a pipe full of goodies, and unlocking new courses as you go through each cup is as addictive as ever. I will agree with its detractors that the in-game currency of rubies are overpriced. Actually, everything is overpriced. $2 for three rubies is beyond insane. If Nintendo is going to keep these lootbox elements, they should at least give players slightly more bang for their buck and not be so obvious about it.
Still, they know the market now. And for what it is, Mario Kart Tour is fine.
If you want the fuller experience without the money traps, there’s always Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch.