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‘Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’: Our First Take

'Mario Kart 8 Deluxe' is the multiplayer game Nintendo's Switch needs at launch

Mario Kart 8 was one of the best reasons to buy Nintendo’s last console, the Wii U, and sales numbers prove it. It is the top-selling game for the system, with over half of all Wii U owners also owning it. The only problem? With 13 million unit sales over 4 years, the Wii U is the worst-selling Nintendo console to date. Two of its predecessors, the GameCube and Nintendo 64, doubled the sales of Wii U, while the Wii sold more units than those three combined. How many millions of people wanted to play Mario Kart 8 but never got the chance? We’re guessing more than a few, and that’s why we’re happy Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is coming to the Nintendo Switch on April 28.

Like most versions of Mario Kart, the latest installment in the series isn’t a radical departure from the dozen older games before it, but it does add some new elements to the mix, and the Deluxe version coming to the Switch fixes the largest blemish in the game: its battle mode.

The Battle is back on!

If you’ve never played a Mario Kart game, here’s how it works: Mario Kart is primarily a racing game where you drive around goofy courses and shoot your opponents with shells, banana peels, and other wacky items familiar to any veteran Nintendo fans. Battle mode was a secondary feature — typically more of an afterthought with just a few levels, but still fun — where you could skip the race and just blast each other in a deathmatch of sorts. Each player has a few balloons above his or her head, and every time you’re hit, you lose a balloon. Once they’re gone, you’re dead. In some Kart games, dying is actually fun because you get to spawn as a bomb and destroy your opponents. Mario Kart is at its best when everyone is empowered to spread as much mayhem as possible.

It is finally fun to battle again. Arena levels add a fun element that didn’t exist in the Wii U version.

When my friends and I used to play Mario Kart 64, we always imagined how fun the Battle Mode would be if you could play on actual courses instead of the small, cramped battle arenas Nintendo included. Not so fun, as we found out with the Wii U version. Though every other aspect of the game was fantastic, for some reason Nintendo decided not to create Battle levels for 8, and instead let you shoot shells at your friends on its race courses, and only in a timed mode. The result was a boring, lonely fight where it was hard to find any opponents at all. It was sad, and an almost insulting abandonment of the insanity that fans of the mode always enjoyed.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe fixes this problem by adding a couple of brand new Battle arenas in and bringing back some classics, like Luigi’s Mansion from Mario Kart Wii. I can’t confirm that you can turn off the timed mode yet, but I’m hopeful that you can. In any case, it is finally fun to battle again. Arena Battle Mode levels add a fun element that didn’t exist in the Wii U version.

The return of the feather item also gives you a high jump in Battle mode, and if you hit another player while using it or a mushroom, you’ll steal their item.

Finally, the best part about Battle mode, and all multiplayer in the game, is that you can play online, or wirelessly connect up to four Switch systems locally to play.

New levels, characters, karts, and items

Mario Kart 8 had some downloadable content (DLC) updates available, and this game comes with both out of the box, along with other extras, meaning you can play a bunch of new characters like Tanooki Mario, Link from The Legend of Zelda, Princess Peach in a cat suit, Animal Crossing villagers, the Inkling girl/boy from Splatoon, Metal Mario, Dry Bones, King Boo, Bowser Jr., and more. It’s strange to see Mario Kart add non-Mario characters, but it works.

The 16 or so extra tracks in the DLC are now added, including a good mix of new race courses and old, added to a few new cups, like the Triforce cup. More than 8 new vehicles, including F-Zero’s Blue Falcon, are also available.

You can also now hold two items at once in a small nod back to Mario Kart: Double Dash. Skilled players have been holding shells on the back of their kart to do this for years, but it’s nice to see some item reserves make their way into the final game. It doesn’t radically change the gameplay, but it also doesn’t harm it either.

Smart steering is a blessing for newbies

Some longtime Mario Kart players will likely groan when they hear about Smart Steering, but trust me: it is a good thing. Smart Steering basically lets newbies play Mario Kart like a bowling game with bumpers in the gutters. It doesn’t let them fall off the levels and it keeps them moving on a roughly forward trajectory (auto acceleration) no matter what. For those who like to power slide and steer, this sounds like nonsense, but it will make 8 Deluxe a lot more fun when you have a party.

As much fun as Mario Kart 8 was, it was also brutal on new players. It felt faster than most Mario games, and the levels sometimes resembled punishing F-Zero tracks more than those usually found in Mario Kart, with crazy twists and turns, including anti-gravity portions that take you upside down or underwater. Many levels also included hang gliding, another new skill. And this is on top of the standard driving and item throwing usually in a Kart game. It was a lot, and I like Smart Steering because it’s a good way for new or occasional players to stay competitive and have fun. Mario Kart is more about having fun with friends than it is about pure competition.

You can turn Smart Steering off, thankfully. Most of you will want to. I found that it slowed me down, but not falling off the level was a relief from time to time.

Lots of new ways to play

This game has standard Mario Kart controls, but the Switch offers some variety. You steer with the left control stick, use items with the left shoulder button, and power slide/drift with the right shoulder button in every configuration. But there are a few. Read our full Nintendo Switch impressions to learn all the ways to use the new system.

I preferred to play by detaching the Joy-Con controllers and holding one in each hand, but you can also attach them together to feel more like a standard controller with the Joy-Con Grip, or you can hand one Joy-Con to a friend and you can each play together by turning it on its side and using it like a tiny SNES controller. It’s cramped and uncomfortable, but worth it if you want to go a few rounds with a friend on the fly.

You can also play with a Xbox One-like Pro Controller, or yank the system from its dock and play on the Switch’s built-in 6.2-inch screen, like you’d play games on a 3DS.

Finally, if you want to stuff a Joy-Con inside a wheel accessory, you can play with a miniature racing wheel, much like many of you tried on Mario Kart Wii. This wheel is a lot smaller, though. You’ve been warned.

I didn’t feel at a significant disadvantage playing with any of the control schemes available, but I was also forced to use Smart Steering in our official demo, so it’s tough to say how well I would do when the bumpers are removed.

A lot of fun

If you already own Mario Kart 8 on Wii U, you have a right to wish that Nintendo made a brand new Mario Kart game for the Switch. However, for the majority of folks who never bought a Wii U, this is a treat of a game and probably the best Mario Kart game you can buy. It has more levels, characters, and items than any previous Kart, and the addition of anti-gravity levels makes it feel a lot more hectic and crazy than you remember.

Thankfully, Nintendo also finally brought Battle mode back and is adding local multiplayer to the game. Mario Kart is built around multiplayer, and it’s exciting that the Switch is the first Nintendo console in a long time that will come with two Kart-capable controllers right out of the box, as small as they may be.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is not an entirely new game, but it’s a fantastic party title that fleshes out the Switch’s launch lineup in all the right ways. Look out for its release on April 28.

Highs

  • The best Mario Kart game you can buy
  • Battle mode is fun again!
  • Smart Steering is great for new players
  • New characters added like King Boo
  • Local multiplayer included (4-player)

Lows

  • Not a brand new Mario Kart game
  • Smart steering may irk hardcore players
  • Playing on a single Joy-Con is cramped (but not required)