The Nintendo Switch launched two months ago, and we're finally getting a Mario Kart to enjoy on the spiffy new console. The Mario Kart series began in 1992 and took the world by storm. The multiplayer-focused kart racing game came on the heels of the SNES launch title F-Zero, quickly outstripping the futuristic racer. Super Mario Kart would go on to become one of the best-selling SNES games of all time. Now, 25 years and seven entries later, avid fans know that each new console from the Big N brings with it another superlative entry in the Mario Kart series. Though the games have gone through many changes over the years —from the N64 full 3D graphics to the Gamecube's wacky double-racers twist— the series has remained synonymous with multiplayer fun.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, launching on the Nintendo Switch this weekend, is a supersized port of the superb Wii U entry in the series, Mario Kart 8. The game brought a host of new additions and surprises to the Mario Kart series, and the Deluxe version adds even more, with new modes, characters, and courses to complement the original game's roster. And while some of the changes that Mario Kart 8 made were welcome, some of them caused controversy. Now that millions of players are about to experience the game for the first time, there's no better moment to investigate the reasons why Mario Kart 8 might just be the best game in the Mario Kart series — and the reasons why it might not be.
15 BEST: Graphics
Mario Kart 8 is the first entry in the series to get the high-definition treatment, and it shows. No other game in the franchise can match its visual oomph. It's a joy to watch, even despite its native system's relative lack of power compared to the PS4 or Xbox One. Tracks are bright and colorful, with a look that's cartoony but not too exaggerated, and the lighting effects, in particular, are nothing short of spectacular. Courses like Wild Woods have you racing through beams of sunlight that pierce that forest canopy, while the updated Neo Bowser City (first featured in Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS) makes spectacular use of neon lighting and torrential rain to give the track a slick, cyberpunk feel. Character animations are smooth and sharp, and particle effects from boosting or being hit by items add plenty of visual pizazz. The interface design, too, benefits from the HD makeover, looking more streamlined and sophisticated than ever before. Past Mario Karts looked like Saturday morning cartoons; Mario Kart 8 looks like a Pixar film.
14 WORST: DLC
Nintendo's move towards online modernity has been notoriously rocky, and the incorporation of downloadable content, or DLC, into Mario Kart 8 is yet another example of how the Big N is still figuring out the internet. On the one hand, it allows for one of the game's best features, like including new content from other Nintendo franchises with relative ease. On the other, it locks that great content behind a paywall, meaning that if you want the full Mario Kart 8 experience, you have to pay more money after already purchasing the game. That's not to mention one of the dumbest cross-promotions in modern gaming: the "Mercedes-Benz x Mario Kart 8" pack, which puts Mercedes-Benz vehicles into the game. The cars are ugly and don't fit the game's visual style at all, and it's frustrating to see Nintendo use blatant in-game advertising like this. DLC is already a hard sell in general, making players take extra steps to get the full experience from a game they already bought; if you're going to produce it, it should at least be compelling. Not cool, Nintendo.
13 BEST: More Than Mario
Though the use of DLC is definitely not the best part of Mario Kart 8, it did allow Nintendo more creative freedom to go beyond the Mario franchise in its character selection and track design. Where Mario Kart used to feel like just another spinoff a la Mario Party or the various Mario sports franchises, the addition of other Nintendo characters turns it into a party game on the level of Super Smash Bros.
Players can pick Isabella from Animal Crossing: New Leaf and race her around Hyrule Castle, picking up Rupees instead of coins and dodging Deku Babas instead of Piranha Plants; or, on new Deluxe version, they can choose Splatoon's Inkling Girl and skid through the gravity-defying Big Blue track from F-Zero. Going beyond the Mario franchise makes Mario Kart more fun and more surreal than ever before, while still feeling like a natural evolution of the series.
12 WORST: Character Selection
Yet, while the incorporation of other Nintendo characters is undoubtedly a great addition, the default character roster in Mario Kart 8 is, well, lacking. Outside of the core Super Mario Bros. stars like Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi, there are fewer recognizable faces and more characters that seem to be there just because. Instead of Bowser Jr., we get all of the Koopalings - one might be fine, but all seven? That's not to mention the inclusion of obvious filler characters like Rose Gold Peach or Metal Mario, who aren't actually new characters but reskins of existing racers, or the fact that one of the unlockable characters is... the option to race as your Mii. The fact that these characters were included over more familiar and compelling faces like Birdo or Diddy Kong is bizarre, to say the least. It's just insulting when you complete a cup, find out that a new character is unlocked, get excited to find out who it is, and then realize that it's yet another Koopaling. Where are the notable and exciting Mario characters, Nintendo? Did they go on vacation?
11 BEST: Replay Feature
This new feature spawned an entire meme around its use. For the first time in the Mario Kart series, the game offers a replay feature after the race is over, displaying dramatic highlights for your viewing pleasure. Maybe you zoomed into first place at the last second —after tossing a well-timed green shell at your friend— or maybe that friend zapped you with a lightning bolt, ran you over, and then fell off the track. Now you can watch those moments over again after the race is over, complete with cinematic camera angles and fast-forward, rewind, and slow-motion options for maximum trash-talk capability. Even better is the Mario TV feature, which saves your most recent races for you go back and rewatch, edit, and share online for all to see. Coupled with the game's superb graphics that let you see every emotion on your character's face, the replay feature is silly and addictive, a perfect addition to an already superb game. Don't believe me? Luigi's got his eyes on you.
10 WORST: Online Play
Mario Kart 8 came out in 2014, and is getting rereleased for the Switch in 2017. Nintendo joined the online gaming revolution with DS and the Wii over a decade ago. You'd think at this point that they would have the whole process figured out, right? Wrong.
Like nearly every other Nintendo game, playing online is far more hassle than it's worth - you have to go through the process of trading and entering lengthy friend codes in order to play with people you know, and you can only play with one other friend instead of the four that local multiplayer supports. Compounding these problems, there's no voice chat during races, which takes away a great part of the fun of playing Mario Kart socially. There's no cheering when you overtake another player; no shouted "boo-yah!"s or groans to accompany that race-shifting blue shell. For a game that's best enjoyed with others, Mario Kart 8 makes playing online feel lonely and kind of pointless; local multiplayer is still the way to go, so you have to invest in multiple controllers to get the most out of the game.
9 BEST: Anti-Gravity Mechanic
Nintendo's been making little changes to the way that Mario Kart plays since Mario Kart: Double Dash!! radically changed the series paradigm on the Gamecube. Though that game's two-racers gimmick hasn't returned, its experimental spirit has trickled through the franchise since. Mario Kart Wii introduced motorbikes and tricks to the mix, while Mario Kart 7 added flying and underwater capabilities. Mario Kart 8 brings back these wrinkles, and adds a new one that ties them all together: anti-gravity.
Courses used to be constrained by silly rules like physics and normalcy. In Mario Kart 8, tracks are now able to loop over, under, and around themselves. Moreover, while in anti-gravity mode, racers get speed boosts from colliding with each other, adding a new layer of strategy to the familiar and fast-paced Mario Kart gameplay. This new addition means that courses are weirder, wilder, and more fun than ever before.
8 WORST: More Refinement, Less Innovation
Maybe it's too much to expect a big change to the Mario Kart series after over two decades of improving and refining on the formula. Nonetheless, Mario Kart 8 doesn't really change the way the series plays. The anti-gravity mechanic, while a lot of fun, only ends up affecting gameplay in minor ways. Most of the other interesting features are imported from other games in the franchise; Nintendo even looked all the way back to the series' first entry on the SNES, bringing back the coins system after excluding it for several installments. While Double Dash!! was polarizing, its two-driver function was fascinating and radically changed the game, allowing for a fantastic co-op mode and a level of strategic depth in character selection that's missing in Mario Kart 8. Nintendo's philosophy here seems to be one of refining the core tenets of the series, rather than innovating and changing how the player relates to the game on a fundamental level. If you were looking for a drastic shift in how Mario Kart works, you won't find it in Mario Kart 8.
7 BEST: Track Design
The last console entry in the series, Mario Kart Wii, had some great tracks and a lot of underwhelming, uninteresting ones. Nintendo had something to prove with Mario Kart 8, and boy, did they prove it. From start to finish, the courses in Mario Kart 8 are incredible, teeming with detail and clever touches that make them just as fun to play on your 50th race as they are on your first. The anti-gravity feature seems to have freed up Nintendo's designers to make tracks more complicated and thrilling than ever before. The design of one Mario Circuit curls over and around itself, forming one long Möbius strip. Another has a roller coaster-style Dragon Driftway flips you upside-down and sideways so many times that it becomes impossible to keep track of which way you're oriented. Even better are the courses where Nintendo's designers depart from the normal three-lap loop, like Mount Wario, which is set up as a straight shot from the top of the titular mountain to a finish line at the bottom surrounded by cheering crowds. This setup allows for new surprises to lurk around every hairpin turn, keeping drivers on their toes.
6 WORST: The Rerelease
Perhaps this is just me being bitter. With the imminent rerelease of Mario Kart 8 great for Switch owners, it stings for those of us who bought the game on the Wii U.
Nintendo struggled to support the Wii U throughout its lifespan; the system didn't catch on with consumers, and its tablet/controller hybrid was never fully justified by any of its games. Mario Kart 8 was a rare bright spot for a system that sorely needed it, and I've had a lot of fun with it on my Wii U. So it's frustrating to see Nintendo rerelease the game with new features and characters at full price on another system. In order to have the 'complete' Mario Kart 8 experience, I have to 1) find a Nintendo Switch, 2) drop $300 on it, and then 3) spend another $60 on a game that I already own. For fans and Nintendo loyalists, it's a slap in the face and a permanent tarnish on the game's legacy - an admission that the game was incomplete enough on its original release that they had to put it out again in order to incorporate all of the features they wanted.
5 BEST: Returning Tracks
Nintendo's been incorporating old tracks into new installments in the Mario Kart series for quite some time now, but they've never managed to get it right as much as they have in Mario Kart 8. Older installments in the series were content to upgrade the old tracks visually and call it a day; here, the designers have gone a step further and altered the track layouts, sometimes radically, in order to differentiate them from their older versions. The results are spectacular. Mario Circuit (from the GBA installment), has an inclined anti-gravity section that the original couldn't hope to include, and the N64 version of Rainbow Road has been refitted as a dramatic one-shot course in the vein of Mount Wario with anti-gravity loops and twists. Even the tracks that don't have these kinds of drastic changes benefit from the HD enhancement and have radically different colors and lighting, making them feel of a piece with the new courses.
4 WORST: Less Challenging
Older Mario Kart games could be quite difficult to master. Mario Kart 64 had handling that felt floaty at times, the two-racers gimmick in Double Dash!! meant that karts were heavier to accommodate the extra weight, and Mario Kart Wii had unusually aggressive AI that could reverse the course of a race in a heartbeat. Mario Kart 8, by contrast, is a much easier game to get a handle on. This is great for newcomers, as it's the most accessible game in the series by a wide margin, but if you're a seasoned pro with years of kart racing under your belt, it can feel like the game doesn't offer that much to learn. The addition of the downloadable 200cc class helps ease the sting a little bit, and if you're really dedicated, you can devote yourself to learning the tilt controls or to mastering driving with all the different weight classes and vehicle types, but otherwise, the game is just too easy. Winning Mario Kart cups is fun when it's dramatic and suspenseful, but not so much when you lead the pack by 15 seconds on every single course.
3 BEST: New Items
Nintendo adds new items to Mario Kart with every iteration, and there are often more misses than hits - for every Bullet Bill, there's a useless, frustrating Thunder Cloud. In Mario Kart 8, however, all the new items feel like smart and purposeful additions. The boomerang flower is a useful short-range projectile; the piranha plant acts like a mushroom with added offensive capabilities, and the crazy eight is a game-changer when you're trying to catch up after a misjudged jump or an ill-timed blue shell. Best of all, though, is the super horn which finally —finally!— allows players a reliable way to combat the notorious blue shell, so you're no longer smacked down by some loser in the back of the pack. It's not "the greatest item in Mario Kart 8" for nothing. None of these items radically upset the game's balance, but they add new strategic possibilities without disrupting the delicate equilibrium that competitive gaming thrives on.
2 WORST: Battle Mode Debacle
This is the big one. In the past, battle mode was a highlight of Mario Kart multiplayer, where players would be thrown into specially-designed arenas to throw items at each other in vehicular combat. It was fast-paced, fun, chaotic, and a great change of pace from the relatively restrained racing mode. For the original release of Mario Kart 8, however, Nintendo removed the arenas, forcing battle mode onto the standard race tracks. For a mode that thrives on face-to-face, direct combat, this is a disaster. Players are spread out on vast raceways and barely come into contact with each other, and when they do, there isn't enough room to have a real competition. Battle mode is so gutted that many, like me, haven't touched it since release, despite having fond memories of playing the N64 and Gamecube iterations of it. It was a baffling decision that cut the game's replay value in half. It's been fixed for the Switch rerelease, with Nintendo showing off the new battle arenas at nearly every press event since the game's announcement, but it shouldn't have been a problem in the first place.
1 BEST: The Nintendo Touch
Maybe this is broad, but it really is the final, indefinable element that separates Mario Kart 8 from past games in the series. Everything about the game just feels 'right.' Numerous little touches bring a smile to my face every time I play. For example how the courses from outside the Mario series replace the coins on the track with Rupees, Bells (the Animal Crossing currency), or the boost strips from F-Zero. Or how the Animal Crossing course has randomized seasons that change track conditions and background music, making each race different from the last. Or how Nintendo added in the 200cc class for players who want even greater challenge over the default 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc classes. The controls are tight and responsive, the fully-orchestrated music is marvelous and easily the best the series has ever offered, and everything about the game is joyful and satisfying to experience. It's hard to explain, but you know it instantly when you play: Mario Kart 8 just has that touch, that attention to detail, that makes it the best in the series.