Of course the game wastes no time in introducing players to its premium currency, called rubies, and tossing them a few for free so they can see how they work.
For five rubies you can spin a virtual wheel (or specifically in this case, shoot things out of a warp pipe) for a random chance to add a new racer, kart or glider to your roster.
To be clear, this is a game with Mario in the title where you can pay $5 for a 1 per cent chance to win the ability to play as Mario.
Most of the popular characters, including Mario, Peach and Bowser, have a 1 per cent chance of appearing, while the likes of Koopa Troopa and Shy Guy are more common at 5 per cent. So with the measly rubies the game drops you for free, unlocking the items you want is unlikely.
Rubies are available to purchase for around $1 each, but with the expected annoyance that you can’t just buy five of them for $5 and have one spin; they only come in packs of three, 10, 23 and so on.
To be clear, this is a game with Mario in the title where you can pay $5 for a 1 per cent chance to win the ability to play as Mario. Special characters like Dry Bowser and meme star Peachette only have a 0.3 per cent chance of appearing. If you want to circumvent the pipe you can also get characters in very expensive special limited time bundles. For example right now you can get Mario, 45 rubies and five stars (which unlock new cups) for $30.99.
Just to really drive it home, the game is structured so that every racer, kart and glider is weak on certain tracks and strong on others, so the more unique pieces of gear you can coax out of the warp pipe the easier it will be for you to level up and progress.
Dedicated players will find ways to progress without paying. For example you’ll pick up a few coins on your way around each track, which can be spent in a store for specific low level unlocks that rotate each day. Currently you can buy the character Dry Bones for a coin amount that I estimate would take around 30 races to accumulate. You can also exchange rubies for a chance to win more coins.
It’s clear that all the stuff you can unlock for free is primarily designed to entice you to spend, which is honestly nothing new for mobile games, but the combination of the high prices and iconic Nintendo characters makes it feel grubby.
Where it goes completely off the rails is with the optional Gold Pass subscription service. Members can race in the 200cc class, meaning more points, and they also get extra bonuses for completing cups.
It’s a take on Fortnite‘s Battle Pass, meant to provide dedicated players more loot for their time, but the issue here is that it’s a marginal improvement to the base game, still pushing players towards paying for wheel spins. And it costs $8 per month; the same amount as Apple’s new Arcade service which gives access to dozens of fully-featured games, including Sonic Racing.
Although I do appreciate that the sum is expressed in dollars and not rubies, at $8 the Gold Pass is also two dollars more per month than Nintendo’s own Switch Online service, which gives players access to a growing library of classic games on their Switch console (including the original Super Mario Kart).
As much as I like the idea of Mario Kart on my phone, the offering here is much more about manipulative progression bars and gambling with winnings (or real money) than it is about racing. Future updates or the promised multiplayer mode could bring it back around, but for now this feels more like a Mario Kart themed casino attraction than an honest adaptation of the beloved series.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.