Mario Kart mobile isn’t quite the self-powered tour de force you might expect

Mario Kart Tour (2019)

It seems anytime I hear about self-driving, autonomous cars, it’s usually as part of some news story talking about, at worst a fatal crash and at best, a testing boo-boo. They’re even trialling autonomous racing cars – then motor racing really will be solely down to the car. But again you have to laugh because they only get a morning’s worth of testing out of their roboracer before it loses the will to live and begins the afternoon by plunging headfirst into the wall. Sorry, I shouldn’t personify these things by saying “will to live”. That’s a dangerous game, because one minute you’ll have a cute Herbie Tesla, the next it’s mowing down civilians by itself on nightly death runs and pinning the blame on you.

I freely admit that there’s little point in me talking to you about cars. I don’t currently drive, and I don’t even have a car right now either. That’s not because I’ve gone all Green these days – I’m not an irritating do-gooder just yet – but I simply don’t need one. I didn’t even enjoy driving all that much anyway, although again I need to caveat that by saying that any occasions I had to ride with my hair in the wind and the sun at my back were vanishingly rare.

No, mine was the commute, the daily slog alongside fellow lemmings with far better vehicles than mine, all grey and stop-start and unexciting. Mine was a manual too of course, so you couldn’t even put your feet up whilst stuck in the latest pile-up, caused no doubt by one of the seeming millions of clowns who text while driving. It probably says a lot about me that I considered my transition to the bus, the old loser cruiser, as an upgrade.

Manual indeed. I’ve said before that “manual” never precedes anything good. Manual labour, manual sorting, Manuel from Fawlty Towers, he was no good, was he? Automatic cars free up an entire side of your body, and even your most airheaded 16-year-old American girl can grasp it, as can her 30-year-old meathead boyfriend. But it’s still a bit too much work, you know, the pedals and that. They still book you for being under the influence as well in an automatic car, and how ridiculous is that? It couldn’t be the chariot of choice for the seasoned pubgoer, so we must turn back to the fully autonomous car.

Gosh, but I sometimes wonder if it was ever worth my while sitting my driving test. I don’t drive now, and I never got asked for it out on the road anyway. I’d relegated it for use as my ID, but then even that became redundant as I got greyer and greyer, sadly. But I say bring on the self-driving cars because even if there have been a few fatal incidents, well, how many accidents involving death do we see each day on the roads as it is?

And keep in mind that both of us are likely to be in countries where there are strong driving standards, even if we don’t fully believe it. Go to Italy, hell, go to India and implement AI cars and you can be guaranteed an improvement on the warzone that is your typical Mumbai crossroads. I just hope some kind of geeky, awful competition doesn’t erupt between car firms to try and outdo one another’s programming – can you imagine the BMW’s car AI if that was left unchecked? The motorways would be a gross concrete battlefield, and you’d never be let out at a junction again.

The less I have to do behind the wheel, the better. Nintendo knew this, which is why in their slightly worrying foray into mobile gaming they made Mario Kart Tour, a game where you don’t even need to accelerate, or indeed brake. You can simply indulge in one of my favourites, which is to sit there while gently stroking it along. The vehicle I meant, what are you suggesting?!

It’s probably a good thing really that the throttle takes care of itself in this game, because there’s so many bells, whistles and bright lights going on here that it’s tough to know where to start. It almost gets a bit too close to those ghastly gambling websites you see with the gaudiest, neon branding and characters that wouldn’t entice anyone but the most mentally bewildered chavs who mistake tackiness for class.

Of course, Nintendo want their pound of flesh at some stage, which is why when you enter the Mario Kart Tour app you’ll always have the shop front and centre. This is one of those what they call gacha games, the type of endeavour where you pray to that ever mirthless random number god that your irregular unlocks give you the rewards you want, against a tiny choice, and if you don’t get what you need then you can go right ahead and purloin your parents’ credit card and pay for new packs.

The only issue here is that these types of gacha games only really work when the prizes on offer are impossibly booby anime girls – you’re a lot less likely to pony up when you’re missing out on karts, gliders, and twelve different colour variations of Birdo, I feel. Still, like in Pokémon Go, it’s actually fair enough and you can get plenty of play out of Mario Kart Tour for nowt. And what you have here these days is actually an awful lot of content, with more tracks, drivers and karts than any other Mario Kart – even Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, when all its DLC is said and done.

This probably doesn’t augur well for the future of the series, but that’s besides the point. It’s impressive how much they’ve crammed in with all the bopping music, and some pretty great graphics for a mobile game. Generally I’m quite impressed with the package. Don’t think you’ll be able to sit down and play through cups and tournaments at your leisure though, there are cups but it’s really more about individual races or challenges (time trials, ring challenges etc) and scoring points from these.

The races are two lap tours around often modified versions of classic Mario Kart tracks, and even a few real-world locations thrown in – I’m not so sure how I feel about that, but I’m sure I’d be over the moon if they added Dublin. Of course in addition to real buttons, you’re missing out on one of the premium selling points in Mario Kart which is local multiplayer. You can add any pals you may have on your Ninty online account, but you and I both know that this is a pointless exercise.

Here’s where I embarrassed myself though: after I won the first couple of races in Mario Kart Tour, I was just patting myself on the back and reasoning that Nintendo actually implemented some competent matchmaking for the first time in their online history. Only later did I realise that the reason I was racing against some right pilchards and getting those beautiful heartpounding wins was because they were bloody bots.

Oh come on, how naff is that? It’s not like there’s a lack of a playerbase there. And I know you have to keep me hooked with just enough serotonin to get me to put my hands in my pockets, but come on. It’s Mario Kart, me and my main gal Toadette should be able to challenge ourselves against the other scum in the massively online pond. I might as well be watching someone else play on YouTube than race bots.

It’s still bizarre to see Nintendo in the mobile sphere though, and in a fairly well-made, not incredibly cynical game. Completely predatory on children of course, something like Mario Kart with microtransactions must give parents waking nightmares after FIFA Ultimate Team gave them sleeping nightmares. But that’s the nature of the beast, innit?

Still, perhaps I’m a bit out of touch, Seymour Skinner style, but I should think this game could only ever be left in the dust by the mainline Mario Kart games. It may just be that the manual car isn’t dead after all. Self-driving might be the next big breakthrough for automotive transport, but nothing beats getting behind the wheel and feeling like a part of the operation, rather than a mere programmer. And if you can get the choice to get racing, drifting and jumping in some actual, manual machinery, then that’s even better again.

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