Mario Kart Tour is Nintendo’s latest attempt to bring one of its most popular franchises to mobile, and it’s easily one of its finest efforts yet. This is Mario Kart as you know and love it — albeit with a fair few compromises.

If you’ve played any Mario Kart post Double Dash you’ll find Tour instantly familiar. It bears the closest resemblance to 8, but includes tracks from pretty much every single entry, including Super Mario Kart, Double Dash, Super Circuit, and 7.

You’ll race your way through a seemingly endless series of cups, each of which is made up of four different races in trademark Mario Kart fashion. The final of the four races is always a fun challenge mode though, that might ask you to destroy a certain number of Goombas, finish first place in a one lap race, or spend as much time airborne as possible.

The number of challenges are wide and varied, and they’re a nice change of pace. Racing is as challenging in Tour as it is in the core games, so breaking it up with a fun mini-game helps alleviate tension.

The controls are a mixed bag though. We really struggled to get to grips with them at first, despite experimenting with all of the options. These include a simple mode, which pretty much automates everything except steering. You slide your thumb left and right on the screen to turn in either direction, pulling off a drift if you try and turn sharply enough. Accelerating and pulling off tricks is automatic.

The other control schemes include a drift mode, which allows you to tap and slide left or right to drift but you can’t turn, and gyro, which plays exactly like Mario Kart Wii. None of the three modes are without their fair share of issues though. Simple mode is the easiest but being unable to fine tune your drift is frustrating, while drift mode removes your ability to perform simple turns in favour of constant drifts. Gyro is decent, but the sensitivity is way too low, and there’s no option to increase it in the settings.

Mario Kart Tour’s Controls Are Pretty Iffy, and Still Don’t Quite Feel Right Hours Into the Experience No Matter Which Mode You Pick

Ideally, we’d use gyro to turn and drift mode to pull off manual drifts, but gyro just isn’t good enough. After our many, many struggles, we eventually settled on drift mode, which felt the most precise when you forced yourself to get a feel for drifting.

New players will be pleased to learn that there are a number of different options in the settings menu to help you. You can turn on steering assist, for example, which will slightly nudge you in the right direction to help you stay on track.

Using items is, thankfully, the easiest move to pull off in any mode. Flick forward or backward to throw whatever item in that particular direction, or simply tap to chuck it forward. There are items that just affect your speed, size, or simply tamper with your opponents and, naturally, these items don’t require throwing.

You’ll recognise many familiar items from Mario Karts old and new. The green, red, and infamous blue shells are joined by speed-boosting mushrooms, lightning, rocket, and boomerang. Depending on the character you select (each of them receive bonuses on different tracks, including a boost in score and combos) you’ll be able to collect and use up to three items at once.

At this point, we should probably address the elephant in the room: the gacha and pay to win elements. Thankfully, it’s good news, as Mario Kart Tour has been expertly designed to include ways to drop huge numbers of cash without providing you with an enormous advantage.

Let us be clear here: Mario Kart Tour is still an incredibly greedy game, and it uses all of the tricks of the trade to encourage you to spend. For example, you can buy three rubies for around $2, but you can’t summon anything for three rubies. So if you’re empty, you’ll have to fork out for the next tier, which provides 10 rubies for $6. 10 rubies allows you to pull off two summons.

The IAPs Are Very Expensive and Greedy, But You Can Ignore Them Entirely

Summoning gives you a chance to unlock a new character, kart, or glider — each of which has a tier. Silver is the lowest and pink is the highest. We aren’t sure of the exact chances of unlocking a specific item as the details page wouldn’t load for us. It’s most likely a bug though.

As this is a gacha game, the potential to sink enormous amounts of cash is very real — particularly when rubies, the premium currency, are so expensive. There’s also no real guarantee you’ll get what you want, so it might take hundreds of pulls to collect the entire list of characters and karts. That’s without mentioning the fact you can pull multiple of the same items to increase their abilities.

You can also purchase a Gold Pass, which is a premium service that requires a regular monthly payment of $5 in exchange for bonus items. As you complete cups and unlock stars, which require you to hit certain score thresholds in races, you’ll unlock a series of gifts that grant you free items. The Gold Pass provides two extra items to those who pay for it. You’ll also get an extra challenging 200cc mode.

However, you don’t have to pay a single dime in Mario Kart to progress, and that’s thanks to the genius score system Nintendo has concocted. Rarer characters and Karts don’t provide the best statistics — they merely provide you with a slight boost in score, and only on certain tracks. You gain score by selecting the right character, kart, and glider, performing tricks, using items, winning races or placing higher — pretty much every action provides you with a score.

At the end of a race your score is tallied and you’ll earn stars depending on how high it is. If you win a race, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a sufficient score to get all of the stars though, so score only really matters if you’re trying to beat your friends in a ranked cup.

While rarer characters will provide you with a boost in score on certain tracks, you can mitigate this by levelling up the characters you’ve unlocked. Each time you race with a character, glider, or kart, you’ll gain XP for it. Gain enough and you’ll level up the item, boosting the score it provides for bringing it into a race.

The Score Mechanic is Genius, and Helps to Eliminate Pay to Win While Maintaining a Free to Play Experience

In another smart move, Nintendo limits the amount of XP you can earn this way per day, so you can’t simply grind your way to an advantage. The Gold Pass doesn’t really provide much advantage either. While you get a higher score for playing the 50, 100, and 150cc modes respectively, 200cc provides the exact same score as 150cc. The only real advantage it gives you is that races finish faster, but they’re also harder.

You do get extra gifts for your cash, but you still get plenty of free karts, gliders, and characters anyway — including rubies, which can provide you with any of the potential gacha rewards for free.

So ultimately, yes, Mario Kart Tour has the potential to be a very greedy game thanks to its very expensive premium currency, optional subscription, and bonus temporary packages that guarantee you a character unlock for a hefty price, but it truly feels optional, and doesn’t provide a substantial advantage to the player that spends the big bucks or grinds a lot. In the current mobile state of the mobile market, Nintendo is to be commended for that.

Mario Kart Tour isn’t without its flaws though, but they’re all gameplay-related — which is surprising given Nintendo’s excellent pedigree in the genre. The majority of these flaws extend to the controls, which are difficult to get used to and never feel quite comfortable. No matter which of the modes you choose to play with, you won’t quite feel in full control of the game even hours into the experience.

It’s also a shame that there’s no real multiplayer to speak of. You do face real players, but it’s mere ghosts just giving you the illusion of a true multiplayer experience. The illusion is broken pretty quickly though, thanks to some dodgy AI that often makes baffling decisions.

Multiplayer will arrive, eventually. There’s an option for it in the menu, and provides it’s online and in real time, we’re pretty excited for it. This is still Mario Kart, overall, and even if your friends have unlocked a solid gold kart and levelled up Mario to max, they still won’t have an advantage over you. Skill will determine the winner.

Mario Kart Tour Isn’t Without it’s Flaws, but it’s Still Nintendo’s Best Mobile Game Yet

In the meantime, you’ll have to settle with adding a few friends and trying to beat their score in the ranked cup, which changes on a weekly basis and provides you with a ton of free rubies for ranking highest.

We’ll leave the review here. Mario Kart Tour isn’t perfect, but it is Nintendo’s best offering on mobile yet, and one that manages to completely avoid pay to win in the freemium space. That’s pretty commendable stuff.

Looking for more Mario Kart Tour content? Check out everything else we’ve written in our Complete Guide.