TOKYO - Nintendo Co Ltd is set to bring one of its most successful franchises to mobile for the first time on Wednesday with the global launch of Mario Kart Tour, in a test of the gaming firm's strategy to drive growth beyond consoles.
Mario Kart Tour will feature gameplay familiar to longtime Nintendo fans but with controls optimized for mobile devices. Players steer characters such as Mario, Wario and Toad as they race karts through Tokyo and other cities while laying traps for opponents.
Bringing the Mario Kart franchise to smartphones offers the Japanese firm a chance to reverse a run of lackluster releases including this year's Dr. Mario World, a reboot of a minor title which gamers criticized as unpolished. Since its 1992 launch, the Mario Kart series has sold tens of millions of units.
But Mario Kart Tour faces potential roadblocks of its own. It will initially lack a multiplayer option - which analysts expect to come later - and is likely to use an in-game payment system popular in Japan but which has been compared to gambling.
"This is probably Nintendo's most critical mobile release in a long time, if not ever," said Serkan Toto, founder of game industry consultancy Kantan Games.
Expectations among investors and gamers alike have been heightened for Mario Kart Tour because of the franchise's console success and due to the title's long development time, with the release date pushed back from early this year, Toto said.
YOU PLAY, YOU PAY
A test version of the game developed with partner DeNA Co Ltd featured in-game payment mechanics including gacha where players pay to receive random rewards - such as rare drivers and karts.
A mainstay of Japan's highest-grossing mobile titles, gacha has been criticized for encouraging impulsive spending.
"It's going to be a challenge to apply Japanese-style gacha mechanics in the West," said Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities, who sees Mario Kart Tour struggling to hold players' interest long enough to sustain in-game spending.
It also remains to be seen whether Nintendo will be able to square the use of gacha with its famous family-friendly image. The Japanese firm is known for cartoon-like games that eschew the realistic violence and gore found in Western rival titles.
'IT'S-A ME, MARIO'
Mario Kart's mobile outing is the latest title steered by the mustachioed plumber Mario, known for his exaggerated, Italian-accented English. Since his debut in the game Donkey Kong in 1981, Mario has become Nintendo's virtual face and a mark of quality for many of the industry's top-selling titles.
Despite the rise of mobile gaming, Nintendo remains committed to developing its own hardware for its top titles.
"For Nintendo, hardware and software are one," said analyst Hideki Yasuda at Ace Securities.
"It sees smartphones as an optimal way for users to come into contact with its intellectual property and to connect to hardware sales," he said, adding that monetization of mobile games is a secondary goal.
Mario Kart Tour's release comes ahead of a number of games for Nintendo's hybrid home-handheld Switch console designed to appeal to more casual players, including two Pokemon titles in November and island life simulator Animal Crossing: New Horizons in March.
Analysts expect those games to drive demand for the Switch Lite, a handheld-only version of the device that launched on Friday retailing for a third less than the original.
Nintendo, which is yet to incorporate the new device into its forecasts, expects to sell 18 million Switch units in the year ending March.
(Reporting by Sam Nussey; Editing by David Dolan and Christopher Cushing)