Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the perfect Switch game.
Despite being originally released for the Wii U back in 2014, Deluxe stands as the first game to fully convince me of the Switch’s core conceit. While the crown jewel of Nintendo’s new hardware launch, Breath of the Wild, has been lauded as one of the greatest games of all time—I never find myself wanting to play it on the go; the vastness of Hyrule feels better suited to my 55” TV. Deluxe, however, feels at home on both the big and small screen.
The Mario Kart games have always had a ‘just one more’ kind of compulsion and thanks to the nature of the Switch you can indulge that impulse indefinitely. Fortunately, Deluxe is the perfect distillation of a formula we’ve all loved since the early 90’s. On the other hand, I’ve had a hell of a time putting it down.
I didn’t have a huge amount of friends growing up.
Well, that’s not entirely true; I was liked well enough and polite, did most things correctly. My grades weren’t amazing, I was fat and the vast majority of my friendships had more to do with the school environment than genuine connections. My parents recognised this relatively early on, encouraging me to be more social, more outgoing; it didn’t really work. Being introverted by nature at 25 years old is a lot easier than at 8, and so despite best efforts, I tended to always end up hanging out by myself. I did love a few things though, primarily my Nintendo 64 (shocker) and my sister.
She and I didn’t have much in common; she was naturally gifted at sports, extremely liked by most and held a general disinterest in most video games I put in front of her. Not all though—she absolutely adored Mario Kart 64. We lost countless hours to that game, getting swept up in the kind of aggressive well-natured competitiveness only siblings can engage in. We’d make games within the game, chasing the train around the tracks in Kalimari Desert or trying desperately to hit the exact shortcut in D.K’s Jungle Parkway. I’ll never forget those times, and while we dabbled in Smash Bros, Mario Kart 64 solidified much of our relationship.
Deluxe comes packed with a variety of improvements under the hood, with several user-friendly changes made to core racing controls. Auto Accelerate and Smart Steering, the latter being switched on by default, are able to assist less skilled players with some of the tighter controlling portions of the game by gently guiding the kart back toward the central path. This, unfortunately, comes at the cost of nuanced controls and access to things like the new UltraBoost Drift and shortcuts but will serve younger players well as they adapt to what may be their first karting game.
All of the downloadable content from the previous release is also fully integrated into Deluxe. Players have access to a substantial list of tracks from the very start of the game, 48 in total, as well as the full roster of playable characters from the original game, DLC and some new additions for the Switch port. The ink children from Splatoon make an appearance alongside the previously (criminally) absent Dry Bones and various others; what results is a bombastic cast of 42 characters, all of whom embody the Nintendo charm to a T. As someone who never really got into Splatoon, I give huge props to Deluxe for successfully exposing its characters to a new audience; I now adore Ink Girl and eagerly await her next game.
Also, never underestimate how much joy seeing Link on a hover-bike can bring to your day.
In late 2003 I traded in my Nintendo 64 and copy of Mario Kart to pay off a Gamecube.
I was completely sold on the weird, purple, handle toting box that Nintendo convinced me was the way of the future. It had been years since my sister and I had played Mario Kart together; she was enamoured with AFL now (Australian Football League, for those wondering) and I had finally found some friends of my own to talk about games with. She and I were still close though, so when I finally got to bring home my new toy she was mildly intrigued too. We did our research, ultimately deciding that the new Mario Kart: Double Dash, looked silly and that we were probably too cool for it (or something dumb kids would think).
The majority of our playtime together with the Gamecube was actually spent with a little game called The Sims; much like MK64 before it, we fell in deep with this, dozens of hours lost to designing the perfect home for our meticulously dressed Sims. We laughed as we trapped the annoying roommate in a house that was burning down, took away the ladder into the pool and were just generally monsters to our creations (kid stuff, you know?). Later I would find the love of my life with Resident Evil 4 and she would go on to win medals in actual real life but hey, we had a blast while it lasted.
Those 48 different tracks I mentioned earlier are some of the most thematically impressive work Nintendo has ever produced too. Not a single one feels too similar to the last; I lost count of the number of time I found myself letting out an audible ‘woah!’ as I raced upside down and side to side through these spectacular environments.
Unsurprisingly, there is also a healthy dose of nostalgia sprinkled throughout, with several of the course being lifted from previous Mario Kart titles dating all the way back to the SNES—only now reborn through whatever technical wizardry Nintendo are pulling to make a game look this good on comparably weaker hardware.
Deluxe also packs a marked improvement in the Battle Mode, a feature which sorely needed it following the lackluster showing in the game’s original Wii U iteration. Players are given a choice between five different modes of car combat, resulting in a colourful storm of balloon popping, frantic cops and robbers style battles and variants of head to head competition. While not quite as engaging as the core racing these battles provide a decent alternative when you grow tired of the race to the finish.
Exaggeration placed firmly aside, it’s difficult to not understate just how gorgeous this game is.
Courses feel alive, each its own world into which you had fallen; characters are expressive and often hilarious, the vehicles they ride effortlessly gliding along surfaces, the bombs and shells they throw winding up in a glorious Mad Max-esque war on the road. The music is often a slow building medley of thematic instruments and heart pounding immediacy as a race nears its conclusion (seriously, for a detailed look at how Mario Kart 8 uses music, check this out). Even the menus shine; a Toad adrift in space searching for a global connection is a shockingly salient visual metaphor. All of this culminates in a relentless sense of unbridled fun.
The ghosts of Nintendo’s past come back to haunt Deluxe, however, proving to be the only real shortcoming in sight.
My first experience with the online multiplayer was seamless; after I got over the initial delight of the loading screen I was dropped into a global lobby, quickly voted for a track and within a minute was racing against players across the world. Unfortunately, my next experience was more representative of Deluxe’s network play; connections required minutes to load in, often dropping out after lengthy waiting periods, or worse yet, dropping out mid-race. Nintendo has never excelled at modern network play and while it doesn’t completely diminish the multiplayer aspect of the game, it sticks out as the most unpolished element in a near perfect package.
It’s Christmas, 2006.
I sit in the middle of the living room, frantically hooking up cables to the family TV, desperate to finally play with revolutionary motion controls on the Nintendo Wii. My sister is outside with my uncle and dad playing cricket, my grandmother patiently stirring her coffee next to me as I proclaim to her how games would never be the same, about how you could actually, literally swing your sword around in the new Zelda game. She nods, her pilgrimage from Italy to Australia now seeming like a breeze compared to the chore of listening to me gush about technology she has no interest in. She did eventually come around, eyes widened and mouth agape as she fooled around with Wii Sports (“It moves when I move!”). My sister passes through the room, notes that it looks pretty cool—but leaves again.
Cut to 2008— I burst into her room telling her that I’ve got the new Mario Kart game and a plastic steering wheel to boot! But she’s in her early teens at this point, and we tended to fight a lot. About how she gets away with murder, while I have to be the good child. About how her friends are mean and how mine are weird. She doesn’t care about playing Mario Kart with me anymore and suddenly, neither do I.
Despite the sheer amount of content packed in here, I can’t help but wonder what Mario Kart looks like moving forward. For better or worse, playing Deluxe still feels like I’m playing 64; it’s a whole lot of fun but hasn’t added anything new since 1999. But imagine a Mario Kart which embraces the creative construction of say, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts’N’Bolts? Or even the level creation from Nintendo’s own Smash Bros? Mind you, none of this detracts from the quality of Deluxe but might serve as food for thought as we move into the third decade of this series.
Regardless, Delxue is an absolute delight to play. A perfectly tuned expression of what makes Mario Kart so much fun; it’s bright, joyful and always engaging. The abundance of content and numerous tweaks to the game’s engine make the price of entry acceptable and if you have a Switch, this game joins Breath of the Wild as another must play title.
I can’t believe that was nearly ten years ago.
In the interim things, naturally, have changed; It’s a cliché to say but time does have a way of healing mostly anything. It was a slow process, a glacial disassemblement of old grudges and misunderstandings, but the end result proves to be well worth the struggle. We gradually started talking to each other like people again, discovering more shared ground and experiences than either of us ever thought possible. She would share her struggles with boys, I would share my struggles with boys. We laughed a lot, cried more than I’d have liked, and eventually found what we had so carelessly discarded years before.
I moved out of home not long before the launch of the Wii U and as such, my sister didn’t even know it was a thing—granted that may have been a mercy. By the time I left I had accumulated a number of Wii games though, as well as the red coloured edition of the console, and given that by this time I was avidly using my Xbox and nothing else, I gave most of the Nintendo hardware to my sister. She and her friends barely touched it, more of an afterthought while drinking than anything, but I liked knowing it was safe with her. Even if it was stuffed in a closet somewhere.
A few months back my sister called me out of the blue. She had started to date someone and wanted to show her some of the games we used to play together.
“Can you come over and set up the Wii? I want to play Mario Kart!”