Switch Essentials: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

It’s quite peculiar, when you think about it — an awful lot of what are now regarded as Nintendo’s best games initially appeared on what turned out to be one of its most commercially underperforming systems: the dear old Wii U.

Given that games like Mario Kart 8 were universally well-received on the Wii U, it’s not altogether surprising that Nintendo would want to take the time to port them to a platform like the Switch, which has already absolutely crushed its predecessor in terms of sales.

And while Mario Kart 8 Deluxe isn’t a radical reinvention of its source material, it provides enough improvements over the original experience to make it a worthwhile purchase. Not to mention the prospect of having rather more people to play against!

The Mario Kart series has always been the very definition of “kart racer” — unsurprising, since the SNES original invented the subgenre. But Mario Kart 8 in particular makes it especially apparent how this offshoot of the overall racing game genre differs from its closest relative, the arcade racer.

There are a number of ways kart racers distinguish themselves from arcade racers, with the most obvious being the use of collectible items to either help yourself or hinder your opponents. But even outside of this obvious difference, there are more subtle distinctions, too.

One of the aspects of the subgenre Mario Kart in particular has come to represent over the years is the idea of “adventure racing” — the fact that courses aren’t completely closed-off, and often feature multiple alternative routes to get to the finish line. This has been part of the series from the very start; the SNES original’s use of Mode 7 for the track and terrain rather than the then-fashionable “moving vanishing point” style of racer pioneered by titles such as Pole Position meant that, unusually for the time, you could do things like veer off the track completely and even turn around completely to go the wrong way.

In Mario Kart 8, this idea is expanded on considerably. Even the courses that appear to be pretty straightforward enclosed racing circuits tend to have at least a few shortcuts for the eagle-eyed to spot and the skilled to take advantage of, but it’s the more open-plan races in more “natural” (in Mario terms, that is) environments where the game really shines, with it actually being pretty rare that the game will say “no, you can’t go that way, you need to stay on the road”.

Although the game features a wide selection of courses from Mario Kart titles of years gone by besides its own original tracks, each and every one has had a unique twist put on it. The SNES tracks have undergone the biggest revamp, going from a flat texture map to a fully three-dimensional course, but even classics from the N64, GameCube and 3DS titles have a few surprises in store, primarily from the gravity-defying mechanics, in which tracks often twist, turn, corkscrew and loop much like the races from the game’s stablemate F-Zero; indeed, in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (or the original Mario Kart 8’s optional downloadable content) there are two tracks based on F-Zero, complete with authentic music and sound effects.

Mechanically, Mario Kart 8 is what it’s always been, only more refined. Controls are simple and accessible for newcomers — you won’t even need to think about touching the “brake” button until the most difficult “200cc” challenge level — and the game’s controversial but usually fair balancing of items according to your position in the pack means that races are rarely a foregone conclusion, even when people of very varied skill levels are competing against one another. The blue shell may be frustrating, but it certainly keeps things interesting!

The handling of the bikes and karts in the game is sublime, particularly when making use of the series’ iconic power-slide feature. Bikes swing out in a satisfying wide arc as you slide around a corner, requiring you to start your drifts early, while there’s a real feeling of the karts absolutely sticking to the road as you throw them around. A huge variety of customisation through your combination of character, tyres and glider attachment allows you to tweak the way the game handles to your own preferences; while the theorycrafters of the Internet will doubtless have you believe there’s a “best” combination (particularly for the surprisingly fierce competition on the Time Trial leaderboards) there’s really no setup that is completely unviable, though if you become overly accustomed to one you might have a period of adjustment if you decide to switch things up!

And what tracks there are to explore! Every one is unique, with its own overall aesthetic, colour scheme, hazards, obstacles and required skills to master. Some will be pretty straightforward, high-speed races; others will test your skill at chaining drifts together; others still will task you with intricate, technical driving rather than going flat-out. And each is accompanied by absolutely glorious music performed on live instruments — something the Mario series as a whole has been doing for some time now, and something I hope never changes!

So what does Deluxe offer over and above the Wii U original? Well, for starters, you get all the aforementioned DLC included. That means a bunch of new characters and 16 tracks that weren’t on the original game disc, including guest spots from F-Zero, The Legend of Zelda, Excitebike and Animal Crossing. On top of that, there are some characters added specifically for Deluxe, including the Inkling Boys and Girls from Splatoon, and the ability to scan a variety of Amiibo to provide Nintendo-themed outfits for Mii racers. So while Captain Falcon himself isn’t in the game, you can at least cosplay as him.

The performance of the game has also had a shot of stimulants. The Wii U version performed well enough, particularly in solo and two-player modes, but the Switch version runs in full 1080p when docked, at 60fps for single and two-player modes, 30fps for three or four player. It looks great and feels slick and responsive, however you’re playing.

Deluxe also reintroduces dedicated arenas for the game’s Battle Mode rather than using racecourses — a much-requested feature after the disappointment of this aspect of the Wii U version. Personally speaking, I’ve never been a huge fan of Battle Mode in any Mario Kart game, but the variety of different ways to play on offer in Deluxe keep things interesting and are a nice distraction from when you don’t feel like racing.

The online mode works well, even allowing you to bring a second player along to compete with you either against the general public in worldwide and regional competitions, or simply to set up private rooms with friends to customise rules such as your karts’ engine size, the items that can be used and suchlike. Much like Splatoon and its sequel, the emphasis is on everyone being able to have fun, and as such there is no dedicated public freeform chat, either voice- or text-based, with the only communication available being a series of stock phrases you can trigger on the lobby screen. This helps keep online matches always feeling friendly and enjoyable, and is, I feel, an underappreciated aspect of Nintendo’s approach to online; for those who wish to play with friends or family and bellow obscenities to their hearts content, the option is always there to use a service like Discord via your computer or phone.

Plus the appeal of the fact you can simply take your Switch around to a friend’s house and play in tabletop mode with the two Joy-Cons shouldn’t be underestimated; it means you never have to be far away from some friendly (and/or curse word-laden) competition. While the standalone Joy-Cons aren’t the best controllers you’ll ever use thanks to their miniscule size, they’re certainly more than serviceable for a quick session, particularly if you remember to bring along the clippy bits that make the shoulder buttons easier to press. And if you’re serious about it, you can always bring a Pro Controller along with you too…

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe may not be a brand new game for the Switch, but it’s an easy recommendation, even to those who had the previous version on Wii U. The portable factor, the additional content and the improved performance all make it a very worthwhile purchase — and for those who enjoy competing against rivals from around the world, the Switch’s huge install base means that you should never be short of people to play against, either.

If my recent performance is anything to go by, though, you’ll probably need to practice a bit…

More about Mario Kart 8

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