ModNation Racers stumbles at starting line despite wealth of options
When you come for the king, you better not miss. And, as much as ModNation Racers tries to come for Mario Kart, it misses by quite a wide mile. ModNation Racers tries, I’ll give it that. There’s depth to be had here for an arcade go-kart racer. There are various modes to jump into, including a career mode and online and offline play. Additionally, the create-a-character and track editors are serious time sinks. A once-thriving and robust online store for all sorts of mods — the name of the game — is still there. The customization remains deep, with various ways to dress your character and build a rig that suits your aesthetic. This is where ModNation has the advantage over Mario Kart, and that’s obvious from the get-go. But underneath the surface, ModNation starts to falter big time. The tracks are generic and boring and are generally underwhelming with a clunky design to the overall feel. There was nothing that jumped out as interesting, and they feel slapped together and cliche. And, equally as boring is the character design. Despite the characters being chibi-racers, they aren’t cute. The super-deformed look works when you can pull it off, and United Front Games didn’t succeed here. The characters look generic and stale with no personality. As bland as the character design is, even goofier are the controls. Kart racing, while not a precision genre, should be easy to control. ModNation Racers is not easy to race in, considering there’s something assigned to every button on the controller and then some. On top of that, the controls feel imprecise, loose, and sloppy. Also, the speed levels, while customizable, are not tuned properly. What should have been the easiest and slowest speed for a newcomer still felt like the equivalent of 150CC in Mario Kart. That’s not easy, and the controls are unhelpful in dealing with that sensation of speed. Also, some of the racing mechanics are questionable at best. The drifting feature is terrible; at no point was completing a drift possible going as fast as I was going. And, the AI’s consistent ability to prevent weapon pickup even on the easiest level was grating as was the constant bumping into objects and barriers. It’s obnoxious also that there is no weapons display beyond words and a meter. Explaining what the weapons are and their effects would have contributed to more playing. Adding insult to injury, the soundtrack is generic and forgettable. Not a single track stood out, and much like the level design, seemed half-thought-out and lazy. I kept hoping and listening for something, anything, to pique my interest, but I was disappointed there also. ModNation suffers from the adage of too much of a good thing. While it’s nice to have the wealth of customization options, it comes across as what the kids call “doing too much.” Everything seems extra and a little bit too much. It’s trying too hard to tack on a lot of things that are designed to outshine the competition when it should have focused on getting the basics correct. Even where there is depth, sometimes you have to know where to rein it in, and ModNation Racers stumbles on the steps on the way to cast their ballot for themselves as the king of kart racing. It’s an admirable but ultimately flawed challenge to the throne.
There comes a time in every Mario Kart fan’s life when you have to make a choice of whether you still love the series or if you don’t. I assume this, of course, because I have no idea if anyone still plays Mario Kart or not. I assume they do, and I just don’t know it. The series hit that fabled peak of questionability for me when Mario Kart Wii was released. GI wasn’t using a rating scale when we reviewed it (editor’s note: This was reviewed in 3Q2008), but suffice to say it would not have received a good score. Mario Kart had a lot of work to redeem itself for me, a longtime lover of the series who started in 1992. The latest original entry, Mario Kart 8, has made significant effort to polish the series again. Mario Kart, at its core, has always been about arcade racing. There’s nothing realistic about playing as various Mario and other general Nintendo characters while romping through various Mushroom Kingdom locales. It’s always been about the Mario charm expanded to fit within a palatable driving scheme that makes anyone a champion go-kart enthusiast. Mario Kart 8 does not shirk on this charm. If it’s a memorable Mario character, they’re probably in this game. And, in a nod to the appeal of Nintendo crossover and nostalgia, there are new additions from outside the portly mustachioed plumber’s usual suspects: You can now play as Animal Crossing’s Isabelle and The Legend of Zelda’s Link. While they don’t necessarily contribute anything new to the series, their presence is enough to elicit excitement because it means Nintendo is finally opening Mario Kart up to the general roster. There is much to mine from, and if you’re questioning any of this, look at the lead Smash Bros. has taken in this field. Mario Kart has always been the sort of series that takes its history seriously. Entries after Mario Kart: Double Dash have begun referencing the previous tracks of yore, sometimes with varied results. Mario Kart 8 manages to gather a lot of stellar new tracks and some old that aren’t favorites but will suffice as entries. A lot of the older tracks are from more recent entries but make no mistake — they are there for the purpose of drawing you in to remind you of the good times and then send you on your merry way to try the new tracks. Tugging at my heart strings with a modern SNES Rainbow Road remake will get you everywhere, though there are caveats to these remakes. While the tracks are great graphically, the music is hit or miss. When I say I want a Rainbow Road throwback, I also want the original music to go with it. It doesn’t need a musical overhaul because the original music was brilliant. I’m not sure why Nintendo thought it needed to have the sound remade, but it wasn’t a particularly great decision. Other remastered stage choices, including Grumble Volcano and Music Park, are fine. And a lot of the new tracks are great; Dragon Driftway and Excitebike Arena are definite standouts. Graphically, the game looks amazing. It’s the best-looking Mario Kart produced yet. All the characters look life-like, and the stages are incredibly detailed. Even the water particle effects look amazing. There are times when there’s a brief lull in action that I can soak up the surroundings, and I’m impressed by the Wii U’s understated capability. Mario Kart 8 shows what the system could potentially do. It’s a testament also to just how good Mario Kart looks in the modern era. Now, here’s where we may have some issues. I’m not fond of the AI rubberbanding, and I haven’t been a fan of it since the Mario Kart 64 days. We are a quarter of a century grown up and past that, and we’re still having issues with last-minute victories by the AI. This is a known issue at this point, yet it rears its ugly head still. Also, while a lot of the new tracks are cool — Excitebike Arena among the best of the bunch — there are some that do absolutely nothing for me. Track selection is important, and this entry has dullards. Big Blue, for whatever reason, keeps showing up in modern catchall Nintendo games, and it’s here, too. I’m not impressed with the track at all, and they could have come up with something else. Also, while I love the Animal Crossing track, it needs something else than the series’ cute motif and catchy music. It’s your basic, run of the mill drive around in a loop track, but it needs something else to give it some pop. Same thing goes for the Hyrule track. It’s basic, too. What makes this worse is that the tracks are part of the DLC bundle for the game. If you’re asking me to spend hard-earned money on extras, the extras need to be super special. I’m not getting that with those two tracks, specifically. Thankfully, there are other extras to be had that kind of make up for those. Overall, this is a solid entry in the Mario Kart sphere of influence. This is the best entry in years, and it deserves some high praise for a lot of the things that it gets right. There’s always room for improvement, but the racing king continues to show why it’s the arcade racing champ and why it continues to rule the road of go-karting.
Growing up as a gamer, there was always a series I could count on to provide a lot of enjoyment: Mario Kart. High quality, fun racing ensued as did a familiarity with the system that made up racing in the Mushroom Kingdom. But as time has marched on, there are dark clouds over the kingdom and it’s not necessarily Bowser’s fault for the foolishness for once; it’s Nintendo’s greed.
Mario Kart in mobile form has always been a safe bet for the Nintendo racing fan. Being able to race with your favorite Mario characters and take it on the go? Where do I sign up? But Mario Kart Tour, the latest mobile property for the gaming giant, is not a fun tour … er, trip. It’s Mario Kart for the SNES dumbed and watered down with gatcha elements tacked on for good measure.
Mario Kart Tour takes the usual Mario Kart formula and adds things like gatcha pulls to unlock special characters, karts and gliders, usually in the high-end category, as well as level up your established roster. The gatcha pulls are obnoxious because it’s dependent on luck of the draw using real money to fund the pulls. The real money — that you’re pulling out of your wallet — is spent in the form of rubies, which allow you to pull from pipes possibly containing the high-end items in batches of one pull for five rubies or 10 pulls for 45 rubies. Though the rubies are moderately priced, it’s the fact that you must buy the rubies or complete sometimes ridiculous challenges to get rubies that makes it beyond the pale.
And, just as infuriatingly, there’s the character/kart/glider system that’s tied to the stages chosen for each tour. Each level has three or four specific characters that are favored on this track. Usually, the characters that are favored are the flavor of the tour; that is, a character or variation created especially for the specific tour. As always, they are high-end and exceedingly hard to acquire. Because this is tied into the pipe pulls, it’s also a cash grab designed to pull in the most dedicated who have the most money and time to spend fiddling around with a mobile game. These “whales,” as they are called in online circles, keep this cash grab going and endorse this continued behavior from Nintendo, which, in all honesty, is atrocious.
In addition to the tool-like single-player mode, there is the multiplayer mode from hell. I wish I could somehow convey the trash-like qualities of multiplayer in words, but I’m at a loss without getting an FCC fine for profanity. The multiplayer plays like garbage and ignores any sort of mechanics that Tour attempts to create in the single-player campaign. It is utter chaos in every match and those lucky enough to do well have to be doing that with sheer luck. It can’t be from actual skill and good mechanics, because Tour is missing the mark in both areas.
The mechanics, lacking in skill and refinement, are a serious problem. Now, I’m cognizant of the fact that this is a mobile game, so we’re not talking precision like a main entry would have. However, this is rough even for a mobile game. Often, drifting is difficult and ultra mini-turbos are next to impossible. Given that I’ve mastered the drifting feature in Mario Kart with every entry starting from the Nintendo 64 days, I shouldn’t have this much trouble maintaining a drift. The combo system, while interesting and a great feature, is not refined as well as it should be. There should be a meter that shows me the length of time between combo actions and how much time I have left if you’re going to tell me that I have a time limit on those actions. Sometimes, combos drop inexplicably, ruining a run at a challenge that requires a certain number.
Equally problematic are the weapons system and the AI level. I tend to race comfortably on 100cc, but I will race on 150cc and 200cc (with a purchased Gold Pass) if I’m working on improving scores in the bi-weekly ranked cups. In the months since I’ve begun playing, I’ve noticed the aggression of the computer-controlled karts steadily creeping up, which is a problem. It’s mostly noticeable on the weekly favored track, which quickly gets infuriating when you’re trying to maintain a ranking and the computer is hell bent on keeping you from achieving this goal. The weapons system plays a large part in this because it’s nearly impossible sometimes to receive your character’s specific weapon or a frenzy or even a useful frenzy despite your character more than likely being a high level.
Also lowering Tour’s fun factor is the character system. As in other games in the series, there are a variety of characters from the Mushroom Kingdom and Nintendo in general that can be and have been added to the roster. The sheer variety is great but the need to unlock and pay for these varieties is the problem. It’s greedy as hell that you have to buy rubies to possibly unlock a character to do well in the featured tour track or magically come up with the ways to earn them, which are far and few in between. Basically, Nintendo wants you to spend money and they’re not afraid to pimp out Mario Kart to achieve this goal, so they’ll nickel and dime you constantly.
And I hope you love a lot of the tracks already pulled into Tour because track variety is lacking. There are a lot of not-fun tracks that seem to be repeated quite often. That decreases the enjoyment of racing because you know you aren’t going to want to mess around with a cup that has an obnoxious track (I’m glaring at you, 3DS Rainbow Road).
Visually, Tour is fine. It looks like Mario Kart and has all the elements of the racing god we’ve come to know and love. As a matter of fact, the game looks like a better version of the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8, just below Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch. Those oft-repeated tracks are gorgeous recreations of old faithful favorites from the SNES, Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Advance titles with a few new cities of the world tracks thrown in the mix. In the beginning there were a lot of different city tracks, but because of the pandemic, work on the tour has been kept to already established tracks from the series that can quickly be converted for use in Tour.
Musically, Mario Kart is known as having a banger soundtrack for every game. Tour doesn’t slouch in that department with the new tracks, but it does mess up with some of the older tracks. I’m not quite sure how a game can get one part of the soundtrack right but mess up the other parts, but Tour somehow manages to do it. Any of the new tracks that were created for Tour are excellent. The menu themes are excellent, as well, with new tunes mixed in with remixed favorites from previous games. But then you get to an older track, let’s say Koopa Troopa Beach from the SNES. It does not sound the same as the original version at all. The pitch sounds off by a few notes, as if someone recreated it for Tour and kind of, sort of remembered the way the original sounded. Rainbow Road from the SNES has the same problem. It sort of resembles the original tunes but also … not really. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to get from tour to tour, so I don’t necessarily get my hopes up in terms of music quality when I see an older track announced.
All my problems with Mario Kart Tour are fixable, but that’s up to Nintendo to work on and decide if it’s worth it this far in. With increasing frequency, however, I find myself saying this might be the part of the Tour that’s my last stop.