Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Review

Better than lettuce and mayonnaise.

If you go into a McDonald’s and ask for a “Quarter Deluxe” there’s a fair chance that they will know what you are talking about. A throwback to their late 1990s menu, the Quarter Pounder Deluxe takes the regular burger and adds in some mayonnaise, lettuce, and – if you are lucky – even a slice of tomato. It takes a core part of their menu, and adds a little shine and polish; giving you what they consider to be a superior product.

Deluxe is a word that intends to exude luxury, and that analogy is somewhat apt for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe too. Nintendo have taken one of their more successful Wii U titles and released it on the Switch, adding in a glazing of polish, refinement, and a few new things to give us what is probably the most definitive title in the series thus far.

It’s caused somewhat the stir already though, with many Wii U owners feeling incredibly aggrieved that Nintendo have ported the game to the Switch, whereas on the other hand the Wii U’s poor performance means that there is a massive portion of Nintendo’s regular Mario Kart purchasing audience that never experienced it the first time around. I find myself in the latter position after having never outright owned a Wii U myself, or played the original more than a handful of times. Despite being a three year old game, for a huge majority of people this will be “new” and experienced for the first time.

On the surface Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a character-led kart racer starring many of Nintendo’s famous library of characters. You pick a character from an enhanced roster of forty-two (the five new characters here are Inkling kids from Splatoon, Dry Bones, Bowser Jr. and King Boo), and then take on one of the twelve different cups that are all available from the start. Each cup has four colourful Nintendo-themed stages within (giving a total of forty-eight) and you are tasked with winning against eleven other CPU controlled racers. Along the way you’ll be able to use many different weapons that you’ll pick up from the tons of item blocks littered around the track to plough your way through the field. It’s the way it’s always been in Mario Kart – and despite being a quarter of a century old, somehow it never feels stale.

The courses that you race on are incredibly stunning, and what’s more amazing is that this is all happening on a handheld device. Running at sixty frames per second in the single player mode – fixing a quirk of the Wii U version in the process – each of the tracks featured are a homage to various Nintendo franchises past and present. Whether it’s racing around something from the Mushroom Kingdom, a visit to Animal Crossing, a tracked themed around Hyrule – with rupees instead of coins, or even a blast around some futuristic F-Zero themed courses; all of these look fantastic whether you are playing docked or handheld, and – as you’d expect – are accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack. The tunes and chirps all ooze that Nintendo-flavour, which really adds to the atmosphere. The presentation is simply top-notch.

Each cup offers four levels of difficulty, four different speed classes, and even the tracks in a mirror mode. The amount of replay value in the core Grand Prix mode is incredible. You’ll certainly be playing for some time, by which point your mastery of the tracks and their secrets will set you in good stead for some of the other modes. If you so desired, you can also race on any of these tracks individually, or even take on the standard Time Trial mode where you can put these skills to the test.

Long-gone are the days where the characters had singular vehicles to race in, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe features a sort of fruit machine of combinations which differing chassis (and bikes), wheels, and gliding accessories – your choices playing an important part in how your ride performs. Depending on what you choose you could end up altering grip, acceleration, top speed, or handling abilities, and with so much to experiment with you’ll likely take a long time to find your perfect set-up. You unlock more parts through collecting the coins that are strewn around the tracks, so as well as increasing your top-speed when racing there is an actual point to collecting them.

The controls are very easy to pick up, as you’d expect for a game that’s designed to be accessible to everyone. The A accelerates (you’ll want to press it when the “2” appears in the starting countdown) and B brakes. The R shoulder button hops, and allows for drifting whilst the L uses whatever power-up you currently have (or sounds the horn otherwise). If you are so inclined, you can also use the X button to look behind you.

Another change in the deluxe version allows for you to hold two items, a returning feature from Double Dash. Alas, you cannot switch items – but still allows for some more frantic racing. Additionally, and as is becoming typical with some Switch multiplayer games, the game can also be played with two players out of the box. Each player can take a Joy-Con each, and each playing on their side of the screen you can take on two player racing from the get-go (using the same controls).

This works well for the Switch because Mario Kart is a series which is always so much better with others. I’ve always enjoyed smashing through the championship cups and the racing truly is a joy, but Battle Mode was where the true appeal of the series was, and this is where the real difference between the two versions lies. In Mario Kart 8 Deluxe you have a more complete battle mode to get stuck into – with eight arenas and five modes available for you to utilize in satisfying that party-style fun you may be craving. Make no mistake; this is the best iteration of Battle Mode in a Mario Kart title since the original, and arguably surpasses it due to the sheer number of modes available to you.

The first mode I’ll discuss is the classic Balloon Battle, which sees you start with five balloons and a simple aim; pop the balloons of your opponents using the assorted arsenal at your disposal, and try to avoid getting hit yourself. Your score will increase for every successful hit you make and – as you’d expect – the winner is the one with the most at the end. Should you find your own supply of balloons depleted, you’ll respawn in the arena albeit at the cost of half your score. This is the epitome of the classic Mario Kart multiplayer experience, and is easily one of the best modes in the game. Not being permanently excluded when your balloons are depleted is a nice touch for players to keep going and does well to keep up the intensity of the round, but the cost to your score ensures that you may be more cautious.

Next up is Bob-omb Blast, which essentially plays exactly the same as Balloon Battle, even down the balloons and scoring system. The trick here is that you can only use the Bob-omb item. Bombs can be stacked to a maximum of ten, and can lead to some pretty hectic and explosive encounters! It’s definitely a lot of fun and results in a lot more carnage than the standard mode.

Whereas those first two modes are more combat-orientated and chaotic, two of the others are more about your driving skills. Shine Thief features a singular shine on the map, and as soon as one player collects it the countdown timer kicks in. The aim is to hold the shrine for twenty seconds, which is easier said than done when you suddenly become the target. Being hit by an item immediately relives you of your prize and gives another player the opportunity to hold it for the longest. Once the overall clock expires the winner will be whomever held onto it the longest. A true test of your learned driving skills, you’ll stand your best chance by pulling off all the tricks you know – including a 180 on the spot (A and B together whilst steering) and drifting.

In Coin Runner those skills will also come into play as you attempt to collect the most coins. Spread around the course are a multitude of coins for you to collect, and – as you’d expect once again – being hit with an item will cost you your earnings and throw them back into play (allowing others you get rich at your expense). It quickly becomes a rather tactical game; you trying to protect what you’ve got, whilst also launching an assault on the one with the highest tally – or defending as best you can if that’s you! For me this was the weakest of the modes available and I spent the least amount of time playing it, but it’s not like it doesn’t work if you’re interested in that kind of gameplay.

Speaking of interest, one of the games I was most seduced by is called Renegade Roundup. A six-per-side game of cops and robbers, Renegade Roundup has the cop players permanently equipped with a Piranha item (and a flashing siren) and tasked with arresting the opposition. Getting into range of a robber will result in the carnivorous flora swallowing them and transferring them to the cell, and once all of your opponents are caught you win. It’s inevitably not that simple, as the surviving robbers all have the ability to released ensnared colleagues from their cells – and all they’ll have to do to see that happen is make sure that they are not all captured when the time runs out.

In the end, it’s a tough call to say which of the modes was the best out of Renegade Roundup and standard battle; but when all of the battle modes offer you fast and frantic carnage in differing arenas, the resulting action always ends with everyone laughing.

Moving past what you can do as a single person and getting back to that bit we mentioned earlier about multiplayer, it’s completely true that you can play with up to four other players on a single Switch system. That’s not your only option however, as the game offers other local variations. You can connect eight Switches together locally for a maximum of eight player shenanigans or even use a (sold separately) LAN Adaptor to connect a maximum of twelve systems together (providing they have their dock and own screen) for the ultimate LAN Party. The multiplayer fun doesn’t stop locally though, as you can also partake online with a maximum of twelve players! For now this is all free whilst Nintendo finalise exactly what their online plans are, but it’s worth mentioning that right now – during that free window – might be the best time to get in on the fun. A paid service will cut down on potential players, though one would hope that the sheer number of people buying the game might not make that too obvious once it hits.

As for my experience, there’s simply no question that this is the most fun I’ve had playing multiplayer for some time. All of my family got in on the act with a variety of racing and battle played, and we were laughing and joking near the entire time. Even my wife got in on the action, playing a video game for the first time in around ten years – following up on what was probably the last time she played a Mario Kart title. Whether playing with friends or family, you are guaranteed to have a fun time – and with the sheer amount of tracks, modes, characters, and combinations here it’s difficult to see it getting stale anytime soon.

The game also caters to players of different skill levels by adding in a drive assist option, which is on by default. Those that have trouble staying between the lines will instantly benefit from the game correcting your course slightly if you stray too far. This of course renders shortcuts and such trickery moot, and more competent gamers will want to switch it off (by bringing up the menu using +/- from within a race); but it was nice to have included as an option, and allowed my seven year old daughter to be on a more level playing field.

Going the other way with skill levels is the addition of a third level of boosting. When you go around a corner you can “hop” into a drift, and by keeping the button held and steering you will produce sparks, the longer you keep this going the bigger acceleration reward you’ll receive when you release it. Mastery of this skill will massively aid you chances of victory, or get those times down in the time trial mode.

I’m getting to the point where I’d normally tell you what’s wrong with the game, but I’ll be really honest here; there’s not a lot to grumble about. The AI cheats a little somewhat with rubber-banding and seemingly preferential item pickups, but that’s not exactly new in Mario Kart – though I suppose “not exactly new” is an apt criticism of the game in general. HD Remasters and system ports are not a new thing however, and should this fabulous package be criticised simply because it’s released at full price on a new system? Many other re-releases have not been subject to this levy, so that would be unfair. It affects Switch players that also own a Wii U, but they have the choice to double-dip or not. If they really want it, they’ll justify that purchase.

As for me, I firmly believe the purchase is justified – especially for new players that didn’t experience it the first time around. This is the most complete, definitive, and best Mario Kart title yet, the best multiplayer experience you can buy on the Switch, and the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It’s certainly deserving of that Deluxe tag, though I’d say it’s much more premium than even that word suggests.

If you own a Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe essential; if you don’t, perhaps you should.