“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”
Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of racing games. That’s why I hardly review ’em. Unless there’s some kind of gimmick, I avoid them for their perceived uniformity and blandness. So then why did I just impulse-buy Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, recently released on the Nintendo Switch? Because the game looked like it really delivers Nintendo’s favorite word: Fun. And it I can attest that it does. It is exhilarating, heart-pounding, joyous, innocent and unadulterated fun.
I cannot overstate how much that surprised me. Mario Kart is a 25-year-old Nintendo franchise and I checked out from it 20 years ago. The novelty of playing a racing game as my favorite Nintendo characters wasn’t enough to draw me into every new title they put out in the series, as with each new title that novelty wore thin. I loved the founding game on the SNES and Mario Kart 64, but most of the filler in between flew right past me.
And then comes Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Here is a game I was never excited about back when it was merely an announcement for the Switch. I followed those announcements pretty closely and while Breath of the Wild, the Nindies, and the games by Square tickled my fancy, MK 8 Deluxe was on the same tier as Arms, that being the “I couldn’t care less” tier.
Then it launched. Then everyone was playing it. Then it started getting galactic reviews. Then I accidentally purchased it and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been going too fast.
Touted as the best Mario Kart game, which is really saying something considering how many go-kart outings these characters have seen, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a port of the Wii U game Mario Kart 8. Nintendo apparently refined and balanced certain aspects of the original game while adding and expanding features for the re-release. This was undeniably a smart move on their part. With the Wii U having sold as poorly as it did, there aren’t a whole lot of people who played Mario Kart 8 and therefore this might as well be a totally brand new game. It was to me.
The goal of MK8D is the same as all racing games: complete a certain number of laps around a racetrack and reach the finish line in first place. There are generally twelve other racers on the track with you. Racetracks include underwater and anti-gravity sections testing the limits of your skills. You modify your personalized kart based on the body, the tires, and the glider. New kart parts are unlocked after collecting a certain amount of coins, 30 coins for each part until reaching 450 coins, after which the requirement changes to 50 before changing again at 1200 to 100. Coins are scattered across the racetracks.
During a race, you rely on speed, acceleration, weight, handling, and traction to succeed, as well as picking up items from item boxes to use against your opponents. Some examples of items take the form of banana peels, mushrooms that give you a burst of speed, invincibility stars, and homing red koopa shells. You can trip up your opponents with these to pull ahead, while keeping an eye out for obstacles, jumps, and boosts, braking when absolutely necessary. A mark of the series, you can make your kart take a little hop which can be used to drift around turns. Drifting longer triggers special boosts, which are essential. These core elements of items and trick turns make MK8D a very fast-paced and aggressive racing experience with tremendous placing mobility, meaning you can work your way back to first place easily most of the time or contrariwise you can find yourself in last place just as easily.
MK8D features four main modes of gameplay: single player, multiplayer, online play, and wireless play for multiple Switch users to race against each other. There are also four sub-modes: Grand Prix, Time Trials, VS Race, and Battle. Online play only features the VS Race and Battle modes.
Grand Prix is the single player go-to, essentially the campaign mode though a friend can join in on the action. Grand Prix puts you in a 4-race cup competition. There are 12 different cups and 4 unique racetracks in each cup, for a total of 48 racetracks in the game. Unfortunately, Deluxe does not introduce new racetracks for Grand Prix. Delightedly, though, some of them are returning tracks from previous Mario Kart games: the original Rainbow Road from the Super Nintendo and Toad’s Turnpike from the N64. For old fans of the series like me, this was that right touch of Nintendo nostalgia.
The new racetracks are for the most part really engaging to play, though. Some of them have some really grueling turns that I hate, like this game’s new Rainbow Road, in which I can’t keep from falling off the track. Some tracks I really enjoy are Cloudtop Cruise (which features music from Super Mario Galaxy), Big Blue (which is a non-looping track inspired by F-Zero), and Bowser’s Castle. Bowser is not only my favorite go-to character in Mario Kart and Smash Bros., but he’s also got a really awesome racetrack in MK8D.
Time Trials challenges you to reach the finish line at your best time and race against ghosts. VS Race lets you customize the rules for your racing. The Battle mode has been greatly expanded since the Wii U version. It includes the familiar Balloon Battle in which you peg enemies with weapons to try to pop their balloons while racing around and trying not to get hit yourself, but there are also Renegade Roundup, Bob-omb Blast, Coin Runners, and Shine Thief plus eight dedicated arenas for battling in. Together these make MK8D’s Battle mode much more robust than the Wii U version’s, resolving a common complaint for the original game.
Races can be played at various speeds. There is 50cc for a slow speed that’s great for beginners but the action quickly ramps up with average speed at 100cc and high-speed at 150cc. There is a 150cc Mirror mode which reverses the tracks’ turns and a ridiculously fast 200cc mode that is not for the faint of heart.
MK8D allows you to choose from 42 characters, not including your dumb-faced Miis. Mii compatibility with amiibo lets you attain unique suits depending on which figurine you own. It’s incentive for me to get a hold of the Mega Man amiibo.
There are six new characters added from the original game, namely: King Boo, Dry Bones, Bowser Jr., the Splatoon characters Inkling Girl and Boy, and Gold Mario. With the exception of Gold Mario, all of these characters are available from the start of the game. In order to unlock Gold Mario, you have to be amazing and (spoiler: highlight to reveal) get a gold trophy in all cups at 200cc. Good frickin’ luck.
Other additions besides the new characters are additions to the gameplay including all cups, tracks, and cc’s being unlocked from the start, tweaks to expand the kart statistics, the new Ultra Mini-Turbo boost, new karts, the Boo item, as well as smart steering and auto-acceleration. Something called “fire-hopping”, which was apparently controversial on the Wii U, has now been removed. With the Switch version, 8-player local multiplayer is now a possibility, provided you can find that many people who were able to buy their own Switch.
Even without a massive solo-mode, MK8D seems to provide an endless supply of merriment. I haven’t grown tired of playing it and I’ve been at it virtually non-stop in my time set aside for gaming. It’s downright addicting, so much so that it’s tough to put it down just to write this review! Something about all of these bright colors, the speed, the familiar characters, the tight controls feels like going home.
The 8-bit Review
Now at 1080p resolution, these HD graphics look better than ever, certainly better than they did on the Wii U’s 720p. Actually, that’s now the equivalent of playing MK8D in handheld mode with your Switch, if you want to peek at the difference. I am actually impressed with Nintendo’s ability to bring so many of these characters up to date in HD graphics, where they look gorgeous and not flat or boring at all. A lot of them have gained significant personality over the years but seeing them here in all of their iconic glory can bring a smile to even the most calloused gamer’s face. One character which looks truly spectacular is Metal Mario, what with his reflective chrome surface.
There are also the karts themselves and the racetracks, both widely varied in their appearances and designs. Some really cool karts are the Bone Rattler, Inkstriker, Landship (yes!), Blue Falcon (paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawnch!), P-Wing (nice Super Mario Bros. 3 reference), and the newly added Koopa Clown kart, which you can be sure I immediately used with Bowser for that classic Super Mario World final boss fight look. As for the racetracks, the brilliant colors and lighting really immerses you and engages your attention all the more as you go faster and faster.
Nintendo has not recently been one to push the best graphical fidelity but Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is undoubtedly a beautiful game in its own cheery and innocent way. This game grabbed me with that high-res, omni-chromatic title screen/promotional cover and still hasn’t let go.
Nintendo is sitting on some of the most iconic pieces of video game music of all time and what do they do with them? They repackage them in great high-quality re-imaginings which take your thirst for nostalgia and inject it with a 2000ml of adrenaline. MK8D’s soundtrack is as whimsical and uplifting as we could expect from Nintendo and their updates of Koji Kondo’s classic tunes. There is seems to be infinite energy in that main theme that plays over the title screen, a brass-filled, jazzy, big band-influenced, guitar-riffing delight which beckons to you as if to say “OMG press start already!”
Magic and adventure are at the center of this upbeat OST. No one could doubt that Nintendo’s games seem designed to appeal to the younger crowds, though no one should feel guilty if your younger person within you is drawn into this game and its music just the same. Nintendo is a master at doing this and the Mario Kart games may be the perfect example of a series which even the hardest and grittiest gamer can sit down to enjoy, casting aside in an instant the illusion of self-proclaimed maturity in the mud and blood FPS warfare.
Of peculiar joy are the tracks that feature familiar music, some tunes going back as far as multiple decades. Who wouldn’t recognize the Hyrule theme? This game’s music is a referential machine capable of throwing back to songs you heard years ago on various consoles and in various games, calling back all of those feelings. However, it’s not feeling alone which makes this soundtrack great. It’s its energy, style, confidence, and speed. It contains more than enough caffeinated audio to drive you through race after race after race.
While there’s tremendous placement mobility, that’s due to the weaponry and items in the game which are all readily available and easy to pick up. However, if you’re near the lead, you aren’t going to gather as many of the good items as you would if you were down near last place. The stragglers are going to get all the bullet bills, super stars, blue koopa shells, and mushrooms whereas the leaders of the racetrack pack are going to get stiffed with measly coins and banana peels.
This is of course in place as a mechanic to ensure that those in the lead do not gain an even greater lead unfairly and that those left behind have a chance to catch up and maybe take the win. When it gets frustrating is when it seems like you consistently get hit with a barrage of koopa shells fifteen feet away from the finish line and you fall from first place to 9th in the span of a few seconds. This is especially abusive in 200cc and playing online can be especially dangerous as players stow up their weapons for the last minute before letting lose. It’s not uncommon to get hit with multiple shells, then a banana peel, then someone zooming past with a star. There are ways to avoid getting hit by some of the shells (you can time a mushroom boost just right to dodge even the dreaded blue koopa shell) and recovering from the delays is still possible, but it’s also still frustrating to lose a race simply because of a couple of items. I suppose that’s where the value of the customized rules in VS Race mode come in.
No, there are no fake question mark boxes to set as traps like in some older games in the series, which I kind of miss since those were especially devious. However, racers now have the capability of carrying not one but two items at a time in primary and secondary slots. There are even double-stacked question mark boxes for picking up two items at a time. More items means more placement mobility, a double-edged sword.
Some problems with the gameplay stem from hardware issues. As cool as the concept of the Switch is, it’s got issues, bro. That left Joy-Con disconnecting seems to happen at the worst possible moment, ruining your lead and running you right off the edge of Rainbow Road or some such other inconvenience. Sitting as close to the console as possible helps but it can still be unpredictable and unreliable, something which a controller should never be for a game requiring precision such as this one. It makes attempting to master drifting boosts and taking turns just right incredibly difficult.
There is also the issue of the Joy-Cons being used separately for two-player mode. This is when they are the least comfortable with their absolutely minuscule buttons, especially the shoulder buttons. X, Y, B, and A are so close together that my fingers accidentally mash the wrong inputs on a regular basis. Sure, I’d love a Pro Controller but not for the price tag. So while it’s a nice convenience and gimmick to be able to split one controller into two on the fly for a casual game of MK8D, the Switch’s Joy-Cons have been the most problematic for me so far with this game.
I don’t mean to undermine the fact that this game plays like a dream, when the controllers are working for you. It’s very responsive the majority of the time and the depth of its racer and kart stats is a welcome addition for strategizing and playing around with different kart builds. It even seems a mite silly to use the term “builds” to describe your characters in this “kiddie” game but that’s exactly what we’re talking about. With multiple character weight classes and a large number of kart customization, there’s a lot of mechanics to play around with until you find the character that fits you. Or in my case, it was figuring out how to make my obvious-choice-character, Bowser, fit me.
Finally… why not more Nintendo characters? This isn’t a huge gameplay issue and I recognize that this game currently has the most playable characters in the entire Mario Kart series. It’s a welcome feature to have so many to choose from but it’s far from comprehensive. Sure, maybe it wasn’t meant to be. I doubt it was meant to be but when you see some pretty obscure character references like Cat Peach, Pink Gold Peach, and Tanooki Mario (who is of course awesome), or Dry Bowser and two Animal Crossing characters, your mind begins to wonder… Where’s Geno? Mallow? Prof. Elvin Gadd? Magikoopa? Birdo? I’m not saying anyone is necessarily asking for Birdo, but c’mon, there’s a playable Lakitu here.
This thorn in the game’s side is further inflated by the presence of non-Mario characters such as Link and the Splatoon kids. If Link is here, why can’t we have Samus, Kirby, Ness, or Diddy Kong? Are we eventually leaning more toward turning this series into the Super Smash Bros. of racing? Well, why the heck not? Could there then be Mega Man, Sonic, Solid Snake, and even Cloud? Maybe someday there will be a bit of DLC to add new racers to the mix and expand an already impressive roster, but until then we should merely remind ourselves that this is MARIO Kart 8 Deluxe, after all.
Online Play: 8/10
Forced into spectating and being dropped because of communication errors quite often are the two biggest issues with playing online. Occasionally when connecting, you’ll have to sit through watching a group finish up their race, which is dumb considering the wide pool of players and rooms that must exist considering there’s no region lock and you can play against human racers worldwide. Online play is also terribly shaky. Let’s hope Nintendo actually makes an attempt to fix things and soon, because being kicked off frequently is the norm, though I haven’t been booted in the middle of a race before. Or maybe I should say “yet”. I can’t imagine the private furor if the connection were lost while I was in first place.
Speaking of furor and rage, it is indeed private. Lose a match particularly unfairly? Well there’s nothing you can do to truly express your vexation to the complete strangers of planet Earth. At least not through MK8D’s online modes. That’s because Nintendo’s developers opted for very much a minimalist interface involving a few preset comments and responses like “Good game!” and “Hello!” or “Go easy on me!”.
There’s no way to type in your own text so that means there’s not much personality involved. However, it also means that you can’t get chewed out by an elitist who treats you like human waste because you just started playing the game and you’re warming up to it. You don’t have to sit there through some insufferable tirade from the mewling mouth of some pre-pubescent troll armed with a Thesaurus and a 5th grader’s propensity for rated-M language in an attempt to prove their maturity. You don’t have to apologize for wasting other players’ time, excuse yourself with a “brb”, have the game’s mechanics mansplained or womansplained to you, or listen to the gloating of a self-righteous and self-indulgent adult who has momentarily placed their entire self-worth in being good at Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
That’s refreshing. It’s nice to finish a match and see some positive responses. A few of them are negative but not verbally abusive. Not by a long shot. It’s immensely streamlined and some have called it sparse but I’m here to have fun racing, not play power games with teenagers and man-children. Voting for a stage, trying to up your online racer rating, and doing your best to compete against the impossible champions of Japan is all the exhilaration I need, thank you very much. It’s plenty. Racing online really gets my heart pounding. It especially did the one time I managed to come in first and be… King. Of. Everything.
Smart steering and auto-acceleration are two new gameplay additions which are on by default for a second player, which is slightly annoying, though I can see their benefits and they’re easy enough to turn off. They assist with keeping your racer from driving off the edge of tracks and ensure you keep up your momentum without having to hold down the acceleration button.
Clearly, these features were included in order to make the game more accessible to beginners and young ‘uns. I managed to help introduce my 20-month-old son to the world of video games, pretty much for the first time, by giving him one of the Joy-Cons, turning on these two features, and letting him simulate the experience of playing the game for himself. The pure smile on his face meant all the world to me and, take it as anecdotal or not, it seems to me that this points to a massive level of accessibility in this game. Hey, it was even enough to help a child who suffered a stroke to play. Nintendo has been emphasizing “new ways to play” for years now and this is why they remain a perennial favorite.
Did I mention that MK8D is addicting? Massively so. You know those games that you want to call in sick to work just so you can play all day? You know those games you can’t stop thinking about even as you try to focus on your adult responsibilities? You know those games you have those immersive dreams about where you’re in them yourself? That’s MK8D and I feel like I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface with mastering steering, messing around with builds, and delving into the Battle mode.
With so many entries in the Mario Kart series, and this game being in fact a port, how can we call it unique in the least? Because it’s so well-refined. It’s one thing to simply make a port. It’s another to make one which so widely impresses an audience of gamers typically and increasingly difficult to impress. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe did that by emphasizing the “Deluxe” part, taking everything that was evidently great about its predecessor, answering the complaints of its users, adding several non-detracting features. This is, after all, being touted as the perfect Mario Kart game. I believe it.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
I’m currently trying to work on unlocking Gold Mario, then I’ll try to attempt the golden kart parts. At the same time, I’m enjoying a lot of online competition and I make sure to play the game with any of our friends who visit. With so many characters, karts, modes, and racetracks, there is certainly a lot to do in this game and it’s keeping me busy. I show no sign of getting tired of it any time soon. Even when I do, because of the nature of its gameplay, I can always come back for a race or two now and then.
With Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has a lot riding (heh) on the success of this game to help sell their new hybrid, the Switch. Good thing for them that Mario’s latest go-kart outing is being hailed as the best in the series. It’s already become the fastest selling in the series. Review, such as this one, are looking pretty good and a lot of them devolve into mere gushing at points. This game is simply that fun and nothing else. If you’re looking for a dramatic and complex storyline, look elsewhere. If you’re wanting a massive online community to fit into, look elsewhere. If you just want to kick back and have a blast, then this is the game for you.
No wonder it’s being called “the next Breath of the Wild” for the Nintendo Switch. If every major release for this console/handheld can be this good, then Nintendo doesn’t have much to worry about.
Aggregated Score: 9.1