Mario Kart 8 Deluxe isn’t quite a sequel to the 2014 Wii U original (the 12th best game of that year, for what it’s worth). But it isn’t quite a straight port to the new Nintendo Switch, either. After playing Deluxe for a few days now, we tend to think of it more like a useful post-release patch that happens to require $60 and an entirely new system to play.
Mario Kart 8 review: One step forward, one step backThe core racing in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe feels exactly like the Wii U version, right down to the excellent selection of 48 courses, so most of what we said in our original review (plus thoughts on the DLC, which is already included in this package) stand largely unchanged. Here are some quick impressions of what has changed this time around.
Battle Mode is back
The most important update to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe comes in the Battle Mode. The Wii U version frustratingly put battles on regular courses built for lap-based racing, meaning you could spend quite a while just hunting down opponents to hit with items like shells and bob-ombs.
For Deluxe, Nintendo has taken the time to craft five new battle arenas (as well as revamped versions of three classic courses). We particularly liked the new Lunar Colony course, which lets you jump high off of crater lips thanks to the low gravity, but all of them are well-designed for fast-paced, at times almost claustrophobic battles when there are 12 cars rolling about.
Mario Kart 8 also includes a few variations on the usual balloon popping battle mode that’s most common to the series. Renegade Roundup is the only completely new mode, a cat-and-mouse team-based game where one side tries to lock up the other by swallowing them with piranha plant items. Captured players have to sit in jail while waiting for a teammate to bust them out, which puts a pretty boring pause to what’s usually non-stop Battle Mode excitement.
Shine Thief, making a return from Mario Kart: Double Dash, is much more satisfying, emulating schoolyard games like Capture the Flag and King of the Hill. Coin Runners also returns, switching the focus from attacking to coin collecting in a way we didn’t find completely satisfying. And the returning Bob-omb Blast feels like one of those crazy variations you used to play in Goldeneye where only explosive weapons were allowed—good for a fun change of pace, but not for a deep competitive dive.
Aside from Battle Mode, the changes in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe can be pretty incidental. I’m told, for instance, that the game now runs at 1080p resolution when docked to a TV (as opposed to the 720p resolution of the Wii U version), but I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference unless I get uncomfortably close to my screen. The game looked great on the Wii U, and it still looks great now.
Gameplay-wise, the biggest change is the ability to carry two items, a la Mario Kart: Double Dash. This does add some interesting strategy regarding when to throw out your primary item and use one in reserve. It also helps you cycle through items more quickly, letting you collect a new weapon even if you’re saving a current one for defensive purposes. And it might be my imagination, but I feel like I got hit by more opposing items thanks to the change as well.
Deluxe also offers a new optional Smart Steering mode that automatically corrects your angle as you approach the edge of the track (oddly, this feature is on by default when you first load the game). This is primarily useful for beginners who have trouble keeping a good racing line, but even experts may find it useful in the insanely fast 200p mode, which can now be played without leaning on the brake so much.
Other changes are even smaller than that. There are five new playable characters (including two from Splatoon), but as usual their differences from the existing roster are purely cosmetic (thankfully, though, all these characters are unlocked from the get go this time around). There are a few new vehicle options as well, but they don’t feel all that different from existing ones. And while the return of the item-stealing Ghost is a welcome addition, I found the jump-inducing Feather (only available in Battle Mode) practically useless.
One of the biggest differences in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe comes not in the game itself, but in the hardware it’s played on. On the Switch, Mario Kart 8 is now easily the best portable Mario Kart experience available. That’s thanks in large part to the Switch’s big, high-resolution screen and comfortable analog sticks and triggers, which still feel amazing compared to the cramped DS and 3DS line.
Deluxe is also the first Mario Kart to offer a portable, split-screen multiplayer experience with just a single console. We found this somewhat tolerable for two-player matches, but having three or four players crowd around the Switch’s portable tablet screen made the play area a little too small for comfort, unless you’re willing to have everyone scrunch very close together. (Note: We haven’t been able to test online or local multi-console multiplayer as of yet.)
The frame rate also dips from a silky smooth 60 fps to a relatively clunky 30 fps with more than two split-screen players (in both portable and docked modes). That’s a shame, since we’d definitely prefer a lower resolution, smoother experience in a racing game like this.
While Mario Kart 8 Deluxe can technically be played with a single Joy-Con held horizontally, we can’t recommend this unless you’re desperate for some quick multiplayer (and limited by a lack of controllers). In this controller configuration, it becomes very hard to comfortably maneuver the analog stick under your crooked thumb. It’s also tough to get consistent presses on the tiny shoulder buttons, which are extremely important for power slides and item use. While single Joy-Con play might be OK for slower-paced games, it utterly fails for a reflex-intensive title like Mario Kart 8.
(The Switch’s smaller-than-normal face buttons also make it somewhat uncomfortable to hold down the accelerator button for long periods throughout a race. Thankfully, an “auto-accelerate” option in the menu means you can spare the divot on your thumb if you wish.)
Worth the money?
For people who already bought Mario Kart 8 (and perhaps its DLC) just a few years ago on the Wii U, it might be a little galling being asked to pay $60 for a new version of the game that has changed so little. But Mario Kart 8 is still one of the best party games around and now quite a bit easier to lug to a friend’s house. A version you can take on the go is a good excuse to replay the excellent courses solo as well, or to host multiplayer matches away from home.
If you missed out on Mario Kart 8 the first time around, Deluxe should be on your must-buy list for the Switch. If you already wore out the original version of the game, try out the Battle Mode and the portable play before you decide to reinvest.
More Info: arstechnica.com