Business / Tech

Mario Kart Tour could be the monster mobile hit that Japan gaming giant Nintendo needs

by Yuji Nakamura and Takashi Amano

Bloomberg

More than four years after a much-ballyhooed entry into mobile gaming, industry giant Nintendo Co. remains bereft of a monster smartphone hit. But the wait may finally be over.

Mario Kart Tour, set to launch this summer, has had gamers’ attention since it was announced in early 2018. Not only is the franchise one of the best-known video game racing series, it’s regarded as the Nintendo title most suitable for smartphones in terms of controls, opportunities to make generate revenue from users and features likely to hook mobile players.

But investors remain cautious, given Nintendo’s patchy track record in mobile and the fact that Tour was already delayed once. That’s why most Wall Street analysts have excluded it from their profit estimates for this year, leaving a lot of upside. Should the game become a bona fide hit, that could be key to sustaining this year’s 32 percent stock rally.

While the company has yet to release a single screenshot of the game, Bloomberg News scored a seat in a closed beta test that kicked off Tuesday. After putting the title through its paces, here are our early impressions. Typically, not all content is included in beta or trial versions, and game elements may change before a full release.

Production values

The app tries to capture the experience of a console, with polished graphics, sound and design. Anyone familiar with the series should feel right at home.

Controls have been simplified for one hand on a mobile screen. Racers move forward automatically, so users just pull the screen left or right to control direction, or tap to deploy items. It’s well-designed and doesn’t get in the way of gameplay.

Most of the popular characters are featured, including Mario, Luigi, and even Larry Koopa. The courses are inspired by prior Mario Kart games, and older players will get a big hit of nostalgia when encountering Boos on the Luigi’s Mansion course, or trains running through Kalimari Desert.

Hungry for more?

Super Mario Run, which debuted in 2016, appeared to bore some users within minutes, but the beta version of Mario Kart Tour offers more content. Players can unlock roughly 50 courses, 30 drivers, 20 karts and 10 gliders. Each one comes with bonus areas, progression levels and customization options.

While some players in the beta test seem to be controlled by bots, others appear to be real people. Nintendo declined requests to clarify whether bots were part of the beta, but the company is expected to let people race each other when the game is formally released. Races get harder as users unlock faster speeds, which could also keep players coming back.

That should be a relief to investors and gamers, who worried that Tour could be watered down. Nintendo executives have said they see mobile games as a way to funnel players toward buying its Switch console, where they can enjoy the full experience, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Tour.

Show me the money!

Nintendo has gone all-in on monetizing Mario Kart Tour, with one analyst calling the approach “pretty hardcore.”

Content is unlocked by racing, but the game limits users to only a handful of races every 15 minutes. That nudges them to pay to unlock more play time. It shouldn’t be too severe for casual gamers, but heavy users will likely need to pay up.

What’s more, each course gives some characters an advantage that makes it easier to win. But characters are unlocked through gacha, a gambling-like mechanism where users can’t select their reward. Also known as loot boxes, it nudges players to spend real money for more opportunities to unlock the racer they want.

Investors will likely celebrate the money-heavy design, but gamers have already voiced displeasure on social media. In particular, being able to buy advantageous racers puts Nintendo in dangerous territory often referred to as “pay-to-win.” Electronic Arts Inc. faced a huge backlash in 2017 after including pay-to-win features in a Star Wars title.

Overall, early impressions indicate Nintendo has a hit on its hands. Tour is a well-built mobile game with plenty of content to engage gamers. If Nintendo can push the competitive angle, including ways to lengthen the learning curve, it could keep gamers coming back.

That formula has been proven to work well. QQ Speed, a mobile game from Tencent Holdings Ltd. that borrows heavily from the Mario Kart franchise, has grossed at least $617 million since late 2017, according to Sensor Tower analyst Randy Nelson. Mario Kart Tour could earn $1 billion a year, research firm NewZoo estimated last year.