I’m obsessed with kart racers. I love them like Mario loves jumping. I love them like Sonic loves going fast.
I’ve studied the genre’s history, researching where its most common mechanics originated. So I was all over it when Apple Arcade surprised everyone by launching with a Sonic Racing mobile game just one week before Nintendo released Mario Kart Tour.
Both games are the best examples of kart racing on iOS or Android devices, a sub-sub-genre that’s never been particularly good, due to the mechanics just not translating very well to touch screen controls. But these two games include a few innovations that almost make them work, although neither comes out strongly ahead of the other one.
The real question may be which trade-offs you’re willing to make to play a racing game with recognizable characters on your phone. Let’s dive in.
Mario Kart Tour: “Kart racing” is a bit of a misnomer, since the genre’s true defining characteristic isn’t the vehicles themselves, but rather the use of power-ups to overtake your opponents. Mario Kart Tour features a sturdy set of 10 power-ups, which includes familiar favorites like shells and banana peels, plus each character has a special item that shows up only for them.
The only old favorite missing is the star, which has essentially been replaced by Frenzy mode. If the track favors that character, they’ll gain additional item slots during that particular race. Match three items like a slot machine and you activate Frenzy Mode, which gives you the temporary speed boost and invincibility of a star, plus unlimited uses of the matched item until time runs out.
Sonic Racing: Sega tried a new approach to power-ups (which the game calls “wisps”). Instead of 15 power-ups that appear at random, you get to narrow them down to five by adding them to your custom loadout. The only catch is that you need to unlock all 15 first.
This means less variety during a race, but it also opens the door to strategic potential. On the other hand, it also opens the door to unbalanced loadouts that aren’t very fun to race against. For example, there are two wisps that create track obstacles: Cubes are like giant banana peels, while Quakes are like a cluster of regular banana peels that zoom ahead like a Blue Shell to materialize in front of the racers. I’ve included both in my loadout, which is excessively cruel; in this game, your own obstacles don’t hurt you.
Verdict: Sonic Racing’s custom loadout is an interesting experiment, but Mario Kart Tour‘s formula is balanced and dependable.
Mario Kart Tour: Every modern kart racer has a few recurring game mechanics that fans expect to see. There’s the rocket start (a boost when you hit the accelerator at just the right time), the power slide (a form of drifting that gives you a mini-boost), and the ability to throw items forwards or backwards.
These techniques are usually thrown out the window in iOS or Android games thanks to the limitations of touch controls. But that’s what makes Mario Kart Tour so impressive.
Leave it to Nintendo to say “why should the lack of an acceleration button prevent you from doing a rocket start?” Power slides and jump boosts are contextual, but Nintendo also included an option that allows you to power slide manually! I honestly didn’t think it was possible, because on console it involves holding down the trigger button (initiating the drift with a “hop”), and rocking the thumbstick left and right.
Mario Kart Tour gives you that hop every time you change directions, so you only have to focus on swiping left and right to control it. The downside is that you’re essentially stuck always power sliding. It takes a little getting used to.
Most importantly, Nintendo included the ability to throw items forwards or backwards simply by swiping up or down! It seems obvious now, but I can’t recall ever seeing it done in a smartphone or tablet kart racer before.
Sonic Racing: Despite lacking all the features listed above, there’s one area where I think this game excels. Sega’s virtual steering wheel feels much more natural to me than Nintendo’s default (non-“power slide”) steering mode.
If I’m maneuvering through a series of quick, alternating turns, Mario Kart Tour wants me to lift my finger in between each direction change. But Sonic Racing lets me keep my finger on the wheel the whole time, and doesn’t require an arrow to let me know what angle I’m turning. It’s a much better solution, but it still can’t beat all the control options in Mario Kart Tour.
Verdict: Both games are miles ahead of previous iOS or Android kart racers, which often used binary left and right “buttons” for turning. However, Mario Kart Tour includes additional mechanics missing in Sonic Racing that may give it a slight advantage.
Mario Kart Tour: Online multiplayer is extremely rare in iOS or Android kart racers, so Nintendo’s 8-player online matchmaking seems revolutionary at first … until you start to realize that these races aren’t actually happening in real-time.
The opponents appear to be bots, and get harder as you progress. Are the bots running on ghost data from real players, or merely borrowing their names? If the former, that’s kind of impressive in its own way, but the fact that we don’t know how any of this is working also works against the game. Where’s the transparency, Nintendo? Who, or what, are we racing against?
Sonic Racing: Sega brings actual real-time multiplayer to its own iOS kart racer, but the catch is that races are essentially one-on-one matches. Each player has two CPU teammates to fill out the race, but unlike in Team Sonic Racing for consoles and PC, it doesn’t matter where you teammates place as long as you win.
You can also create a custom lobby that a friend can join — it generates a four letter code similar to Jackbox Party Pack — but matches are still only one-on-one plus CPU teammates.
Verdict: Sonic Racing is slightly more impressive, but neither game offers what players likely want out of multiplayer. And Nintendo’s approach is kind of spooky in general.
Mario Kart Tour: Currently the game features 20 character, 19 karts, and 11 gliders, with more to be added later, I’m sure. But you’re not assembling these pieces to compliment your driving style, like in previous Mario Kart games. Instead, you pick components based on what the track favors.
A favored character gains additional item slots, while a favored kart can double the points you earn. Thankfully, the game tells you up front which pieces are favored by that course. The problem is that you might not own those characters or karts yet, and unlocking them all is going to cost you.
But I’ll get to that in a moment.
Sonic Racing: Sega keeps things simple with 15 characters and no additional components. Characters have unique stats, but they don’t feel very different to me while playing. Instead, the one noticeable difference is each one’s unique passive ability, some of which are only active when you set the character as a CPU teammate. “Capsule Gift” is a particularly useful CPU ability, because they constantly feed you power-ups.
The problem is that the characters are unlocked the same way as tracks, by unlocking leagues. The only reason anyone will likely grind through this game is if there’s a favorite character they want to unlock.
Verdict: Do you prefer rotating through characters you might have to buy, or sticking with a favorite character you might have to grind to unlock? Neither option is great, but finding the “best” is mostly personal preference.
Mario Kart Tour: Unlockable characters have been a staple of kart racers ever since Atari Karts on Jaguar, but you always earned them by racing. This time Nintendo took a Gacha game approach, in which you use slot machine-like mechanics in hopes of winning the characters you want. So if you want to complete the set, you’re going to have to buy your way through numerous unwanted duplicates first. And there will be duplicates.
The vending machine in this case is a warp pipe that you feed rubies earned by completing challenges, unlocking gift boxes, or purchasing with real money. If you save up rubies you can “Fire 10” for the price of nine, giving you one bonus item. I’ve done it twice so far, but fewer than 50% of the items I earned were new, and at least one item was duplicated within the stack.
Even worse, in the fine print it mentions that the featured character Pauline (the one character I really want) won’t be available in the next pipe, and pipes expire after a week. They guarantee that you’ll get Pauline and her items within 100 tries (or 10 groups of “Fire 10”), but the only way to do that is, of course, to spend real money, and emptying out the current pipe before the expiration could cost around $200.
The whole thing is disgusting.
Sonic Racing: Sega also included a Gacha game, but it’s not nearly as severe. There are only 15 “wisps,” and they’re pretty easy to collect, no doubt because being part of Apple Arcade means they’re not trying to sell you on microtransactions.
Verdict: Sonic Racing has a much fairer system.
The shop itself
Mario Kart Tour: An alternate way to unlock characters and karts is by spending coins in a Fornite-style shop. Just like rubies, coins are earned by completing challenges or unlocking gift boxes, plus you can earn a limited amount per day in races. If by chance you want to spend real money to buy coins, you can convert rubies into coins via a mini-game called Gold Rush.
The problem is that, like Fornite, you have to wait until the items you want are rotated into the shop. But if you buy something now, will you end up with a duplicate from using the pipe later? Leveling up will unlock additional rows in the store, giving you a wider selection, but so far it’s always two rows of commons and one row of uncommon. Will rare characters like Pauline ever rotate in?
You can also gain additional characters, coins, rubies, and rewards by purchasing a Fornite-style “Battle Pass,” called a Gold Pass. But unlike Fornite’s price tag of $10 per season (that you can also purchase using in-game currency), the Gold Pass is a $5 monthly subscription that you can only purchase with real money. And as others have pointed out, $5 monthly is also what Apple Arcade costs to play Sonic Racing, plus a ton of other games.
Sonic Racing: Guess who also has a Fortnite-style shop? But in this game coins are much more plentiful, and the store refreshes multiple times a day, making it even easier to unlock all the wisps. And duplication makes the item stronger, whereas duplicates in Mario Kart Tour slightly increase the number of points you earn
Verdict: Sonic Racing wins this one, and it’s not very close.
Mario Kart Tour: You could say this is really three games in one: the core racing game, the Gacha game, and the experience point game. The XP meter is the most heavily borrowed element from RPGs, likely because it lends itself so well to being used as a progressive ratio Skinner box.
But why stop at just one, when everything can have an XP meter? Beyond the core XP meter, which gives you a reward every time you level up, all the characters, kart, and gliders also have XP meters that fill at the end of a race. Leveling up these items increases your high score next time you use them in a race. But there’s also a limit on how much XP these items can earn per day. Which is strange, because there isn’t even a paywall to blame it on. I guess they want to make sure people don’t complete everything too quickly?
Sonic Racing: This is one area where Sega almost makes Nintendo look tame by comparison. You have three varieties of XP: your core XP meter gives you damage resistance, leveling up your wisps makes them stronger, and leveling up your characters gives you bonus coins.
The big difference here is that the three meters are all connected! You level up characters to get coins to level up your wisps, which is what fills your core XP meter! The damage resistance you gain is minimal, but look at all those meters! And the meters are all filling! Fill those meters! Fill them all!
Verdict: Both systems are a grind, to be honest.
So which one is the better iOS or Android kart racer?
Both games are innovative in one or two ways, but not all those innovations are welcome. Sonic Racing might be more fun up front, but becomes tiresome quickly. Mario Kart Tour is kind of tiresome right off the bat, but it will keep you playing longer with better optimized techniques designed to keep you hooked. But that doesn’t sound like a good thing, does it?
Maybe the real question is whether anyone will ever make a good kart racer for iOS or Android devices? I haven’t given up hope.
All imagery: Kate Willaert via Polygon