When Nintendo announced it was entering the mobile gaming space, die-hard fans hoped for the best. Core Pokémon titles and classic Mario Kart tracks on your phone did not have to be a dream (or illegal) any longer—the future was here. These hopes were soon built into high expectations as Nintendo announced Pokémon Go, a real-life Pokémon simulator that used augmented reality tech to bring childhood dreams to life. However, if you have played Mario Kart Tour at any point in the past month, you could probably tell that these expectations were, at least, eventually toppled.
Nintendo’s mascot suddenly seemed to turn into the money-grubbing Wario. USD$1.99 for barely half of the in-game currency it takes to purchase a single loot box? Is this a joke? Even Mario Kart Tour’s gameplay is sketchy thanks to the gacha mechanics that lay the foundation for a thinly veiled pay-to-win model. Nothing says Mario Kart like driving around with AI masquerading as real players by slowly moving your finger from left to right. To put it bluntly, Mario Kart Tour is just a terrible, terrible game… so why can’t I stop playing it?
Despite the game being little more than a free-to-play heroin needle, the answer isn’t so complicated. Open the app and see for yourself. The reason Mario Kart Tour coasted past the 100 million download mark has to do with the first text players see upon playing the game: Nintendo. Generations of video game players have grown up with a gallery of gaming icons that have only ever been treated with respect up to this point. The Nintendo seal of approval means something more than one of the dozens of other publisher logos that get slapped on to any and everything the past decade. Yet, Mario Kart Tour has proven to be a potential turning point, as it sits firmly in the middle of being a love-filled Nintendo product and a grimy cash cow.
While some of Mario Kart Tour’s cups are impossible to beat without certain characters, karts, or gliders, the content on display is impressive and continually growing. Driving feels nothing like the tight controls of a core title, but hearing racer Pauline periodically humming Super Mario Odyssey tunes during tricks adds a nice flavor of unnecessary polish that boosts the experience. Really, the animations, music, tracks, items, and characters are all just as polished as any $60 Mario Kart title—but that’s the problem. Nintendo seems so willing to throw its beloved characters under the bus (kart) for some extra cash. The publisher has no excuse for the gross microtransactions that plague the game’s storefront in the first place, but it seems to be OK with openly damaging its reputation to the tune of the Yoshi’s Circuit theme.
Things aren’t all bad, of course. Nintendo isn’t throwing everything away with its mobile ventures, as its core audience is still in love with the Nintendo Switch and its quality first-party library. Luigi’s Mansion 3 sits as the most recent proof of this thanks to next-level animations and endlessly satisfying game mechanics. I haven’t played a Nintendo game that feels this authentically Nintendo since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and who knows when we’ll get another game like it. Even Pokémon Go eventually found its footing and evolved into a game with an engaging audience.
Nintendo clearly still loves its characters, but its willingness to sell them out is concerning. As long as Mario and his subsequent tour-themed skins continue to be associated with loot boxes, special currency, and gacha mechanics, Nintendo is going to be damaging the good will it has built for the last few years. Eventually causing enough damage to permanently stain its legacy will take more than a single slip-up mobile title, but the potential is there. This age-old company’s safe house of IP has always been its crown jewel, so hopefully the trend of tying classic franchises to money begging ends with Mario Kart Tour.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few prize pipes to open.