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'Mario Kart Tour' is a simple racer surrounded by free-to-play complexity

So many currencies, 'gacha' pulls and EXP systems.
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Mario Kart is a gloriously simple video game. Yes, there are some advanced techniques -- rocket starts, drift braking and the like -- that are borderline essential if you want to play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe online. For the most part though, it's an approachable racer for the masses. With Mario Kart Tour, the first installment for mobile devices, Nintendo has managed to simplify the control scheme even further. In this touch-friendly version, your racer drives forward automatically. Swiping horizontally will cause them to turn or drift, depending on the control scheme you've chosen, while dragging up or down will fire the item they're holding forwards or backwards.

It works surprisingly well. Admittedly, you don't have the same level of control as console entries. There were times, for instance, when I couldn't tighten my turn despite dragging my finger to the edge of the screen. Still, it's mostly effortless to drift around corners with the speed and poise of rally driving legend Ken Block. If you do end up struggling, there's a whole host of assistive options including Smart Steering, Auto Item and Gyro Handling -- the latter of which lets you steer with motion controls -- in the settings. In short, there's a control scheme that should suit every player regardless of their skill level and experience with prior Mario Kart titles.

Nintendo has wisely streamlined other parts of the racing experience, too. If you drive over a ramp, for instance, your racer will automatically perform a stunt -- no button press required -- and get a burst of speed upon landing. It's also impossible to completely fall off the track and go out of bounds. Some turns and bridges have no railings, hinting at danger, but they either lead to a lower part of the course or have an invisible barrier.

Mario Kart Tour

For a mobile game, the tracks are gorgeous.

It's a shame, then, that the rest of the game feels like an Excel spreadsheet. Mario Kart Tour is a "free-to-start" title (*shudder*) and, therefore, riddled with different currencies, stores and experience point systems.

Let me try to break it down: the game is broken down into "tours" (the first is based on New York) that will be periodically swapped out. Each tour has a linear set of unlockable gifts and cups that contain a mixture of races and challenges. Completing races will net you EXP for your chosen driver, kart and glider. You will also be given points depending on your final position and the number of tricks you performed, as well as the driver and equipment you chose to race with. Those points are then converted into Grand Stars which are required to unlock the next gift or cup in the tour.

Like most free-to-play mobile games, there are "soft" and "hard" currencies.

Races will normally net you some coins, too. These can be spent in the shop to buy characters, karts, gliders and single-use goodies such as Item Tickets, which let you re-roll the items you picked up from a box. Need more coins? You can spend rubies to take part in a special Coin Rush mode. Spending five, 15 and 25 rubies on the mode will multiply your coin total by two, six and 10 respectively at the end. Rubies are occasionally handed out as "gifts" during the tour, but you can also buy them in various bundles with real-world cash. At the time of writing, the largest pack costs $69.99.

So yes, like most free-to-play mobile games, there are "soft" and "hard" currencies in Mario Kart Tour.

Rubies can also be spent on the "Pipe" which gives you a random character, kart and glider. The Pipe has a temporary theme, too, that throws special rewards into the mix. At the moment, for instance, there's a chance you'll unlock Pauline from Super Mario Odyssey, as well as a classic yellow taxi and Fare Flier from New York City. You don't "open" anything, but the pipe is undeniably a lootbox system. Or should I say "surprise mechanic?"

Mario Kart Tour

The Shop, Gold Pass and Ruby Purchase screens.

You can ignore these systems and race with the "free" driver and equipment you received at the start of the game. Drivers, karts and gliders have "favored" courses, though, that increase your item slots -- helping you to place first -- and the equipment-specific points you receive at the end of the race. Together, they make it easier to acquire Grand Stars, progress through the tour and ultimately unlock new gifts and cups.

But wait, there's more! Mario Kart Tour has a built-in subscription called Gold Pass, which unlocks 200cc racing, special Gold Challenges and the chance to obtain Gold Gifts. It costs $4.99 per month which, as The Verge points out, is the same price as Apple Arcade. Yes, the admittedly iOS-exclusive service that contains a lootbox-free Sonic Racing game.

There's fun to be had with Mario Kart Tour. The tracks are gorgeous and it's always thrilling to hit someone with a perfectly-timed green shell. It's just a shame the crisp visuals and simple control scheme have been paired with such a joyless web of free-to-play systems. After roughly six hours with the game, I'm not sure I have the patience or interest to endure them.

Mario Kart Tour is out now on iOS, iPadOS and Android.

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