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Mario Kart Tour – the frenetic kart racer goes mobile

Nintendo is back with another mobile version of a classic gaming franchise. Mario Kart Tour is on some levels strikingly similar to the beloved console game, and when it shines it delivers all the same thrills gamers have come to expect from the kart racer over the past 25 years.

But some significant changes – including the implementation of various freemium annoyances – could be enough to turn some players off completely.

Hey, it’s Mario Kart! On iOS!

Many changes are welcome, though – races are shorter now, perfect for killing a few minutes while out and about, and a satisfying combo system rewards points for every skillful action you take on the track. Mario Kart plays surprisingly well in portrait mode, and you can control everything with a single digit.

It’s altogether easier for newbies, too, with invisible barriers and an optional “auto-steer” setting to keep you on course. Literally – you can’t fall off the tracks anymore. A great help for little kids, perhaps, but it feels a little like bowling with the bumpers up.

Classic tracks from previous Mario Kart games are included

Those choices may in part be to paper over the fact that Nintendo hasn’t quite perfected its touch controls. Two schemes are available, one that prioritizes simplicity and one optimized for drifting. It can take a while to get used to either, and we can’t help but feel a combination of the two would grant the most control.

But perhaps the biggest omission here is multiplayer. Don’t be fooled by the real usernames that appear before each level – those aren’t actual humans you’re racing, but computer-controlled drivers. With multiplayer undoubtedly the best and most iconic part of Mario Kart, we’re sad to see it missing on launch – though the main menu assures us online multiplayer is coming soon.

You’re rewarded based on driving skill, and can even challenge weekly leagues for high scores

There’s also been a lot of negative press about the in-app purchases in the game, and it’s true – they’re not great. A $5/month “gold pass” feels hilariously outdated in the wake of Apple Arcade, and the randomized loot boxes to unlock new characters and karts feel like a rip-off too. You have to pay just to play as Mario in a Mario game?

But crucially, none of those things affect the gameplay in any meaningful way, and the game is fairly generous at doling out its virtual currency. We’ve gotten pretty far through the tournaments and unlocked more than half the game’s characters without feeling inclined to spend a penny.

Unlocking every character is a slow process that can be sped up with real cash if you so desire

It’s a shame that Nintendo’s fumbling attempts to crack the freemium market will shape the narrative for this game, because it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s worth remembering that Mario Kart Tour is a free download, with no ads, that doesn’t gate its content behind wait timers or life counters.

Despite our complaints, this really does feel like Mario Kart. Sliding around hairpin bends, firing shells at your competitors, and mushroom-boosting to pip Bowser into first place is as exhilarating as it ever was.