Maybe there’s a slight sense of disappointment that while Splatoon gets its own proper sequel, Mario Kart 8 instead gets an enhanced re-release.
Or maybe it’s just the fact that this is the first time in Mario Kart history that Nintendo has dipped back into the same well rather than offering a brand new helping of tracks, characters and gameplay mechanics.
Whatever the reason, I don’t share the same indifference. I believe Mario Kart 8 is the best game in the series, so getting the chance to play it wherever I want in the world is something that would excite me even if it was a straight carbon copy of the Wii U game.
It isn’t, though. Well, not entirely. At its core, this is still very much the Wii U version of Mario Kart 8, albeit with both DLC packs also included – this means all 48 tracks are present and accounted for.
That said, Nintendo’s still seen fit to add a few more little extras to keep things interesting. Five new characters* have been added to the roster: Dry Bones, Bowser Jr, King Boo and – making their Mario Kart debuts – the Inkling Boy and Inkling Girl from Splatoon (along with some new suitably Splatoon-themed kart syles).
Much like Link and the Animal Crossing Villager before them, the Splatoon racers fit seamlessly into the game and offer their own quirky little touches, like turning into a squid whenever they do a stunt off a jump.
*Actually, if you want to get really arsey about it, it’s technically six new characters. In Mario Kart 8 the Villager from Animal Crossing had different male and female ‘skins’ you could choose between before you started a race. These have now been separated into two different characters, Male Villager and Female Villager, bringing the total to 41.
There was no Mii support in the character select I saw, though, so that might count as one driver removed from the line-up.
More notable is a renewed focus on the Battle mode, with Balloon Battle – which some felt was piss-poor lacking in the Wii U game – getting a big overhaul and Bob-omb Blast making a return.
Balloon Battle is still the classic mode in which each player has a number of balloons (five this time, instead of the usual three) and has to burst their opponents’ with weapons. The return of the Ghost and Feather items from the original Super Mario Kart on the SNES makes dodging and stealing said weapons easier.
Bob-omb Blast, meanwhile, is a mode you may be less familiar with because it was only in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! back in the day. Well, a version of it was. This time it’s essentially just the same as Balloon Battle except the only weapons are bombs.
Although the Wii U version of Mario Kart 8 also had a Balloon Battle mode, it was a bizarre bullshit version of it set in the game’s normal tracks: this made it a nightmare to try to find your opponents and as a result barely anyone played Battle mode online.
This time Nintendo’s learned from its mistakes and brought back enclosed Battle Arenas. There were four in the version I played, ranging from old favourites (such as Battle Course 1 from the SNES original) to brand new stages like one based on Urchin Underpass from Splatoon.
While Battle Mode hasn’t really been something I’ve bothered with since the days of Mario Kart 64, I appreciate that there’s a subsection of Nintendo fans who love it, so they should be delighted with this news.
A pre-existing Kart condition
How about the main game itself? Is it worth getting if you’ve already played the Wii U game to death? So far… it depends.
When played on your TV through the Switch dock, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has had a graphical improvement, but only in terms of resolution, not track details (that I could see).
Whereas the Wii U version rendered at 720p and was upscaled to 1080p, the Switch version renders at a native 1080p, meaning it looks sharper.
It also runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, while fixing a tiny little niggle that only the nerdiest and pickiest of gamers would have noticed before.
You see, Mario Kart 8 on Wii U actually ran at around 59 frames per second: every second or so there was a tiny stutter that was barely perceptible to the human eye. It was one of those things that was annoying if you noticed it but subtle enough to go unobserved by most. Either way, it’s fixed now.
So, 1080p and 60 frames per second on the TV. Lovely. On the handheld, given its 720p screen, there should be no prizes for guessing that – yup – you’re getting 720p and 60 frames per second there.
In terms of other differences, there are only a couple that immediately stand out. Most notable of these is the ability to now hold two items at once.
Gone are the days of being forced to drag a banana behind you while in first place, and being in that weird limbo state where you can’t collect anything else but don’t want to drop said banana because you’ll be left exposed.
Now you can drag that banana and grab a second item. If it’s another draggable like a banana or a green shell you can drop the banana, replace it with your new item and repeat.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it finally gives those in the lead a chance to make some offensive moves (as in attacking with bananas, not calling their mum a prick or anything) instead of having to defend all the time.
It also potentially makes for some insane combos if you’re at the back of the pack. Mario Kart veterans know that the further back you are the better items you get, so imagine getting a Bullet Bill but hanging back until you also pick up something like a Starman or Lightning. Triggering both in succession could be ridiculous.
The only other major addition that I’ve seen so far is ‘smart steering’, a new feature for beginners that helps keep them on the track if they’re about to crash. It’s similar to the automatic steering assist you get in some racing games, where your vehicle is turned slightly away from the edge of the track as you approach it.
Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you can play the game with the accelerator taped down now. It’s only a subtle assist rather than a huge swerve: if you’re driving straight for a wall you’re still hitting the bastard.
That probably also explains the optional Joy-Con Wheels (sold in a separate pack of two), which are essentially dinky versions of the Wii Wheel that came with Mario Kart Wii and work in a similar motion-sensing fashion.
All this gimmickry aside though, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe still looks like the Wii U game (albeit a little sharper) and, crucially, plays just like it too.
Um… coronary Kart disease
It was while I was playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in handheld mode when I suddenly had my epiphany and realised the Switch was a big deal.
As I played the first couple of laps, I wasn’t really too fussed about what I was playing. After all, it’s Mario Kart 8, I’ve put hundreds of hours into it already.
I was also playing in a style I was used to. Most of my time with Mario Kart 8 on Wii U was spent playing it on the GamePad, so looking down at the Switch’s screen and playing it on that, anti-grav tracks and all, felt very familiar.
It took me until the final lap to suddenly realise the gravity of the situation (pun always intended). Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch is such a flawless representation of the game that I had subconsciously convinced myself there was another console somewhere else transmitting the video feed to the handheld, just like the Wii U did to the GamePad.
When I remembered that everything was actually running in my hands, that’s when the power of the Switch really hit home. This is a handheld system that can effortlessly recreate Wii U quality visuals (at the very least), at a flawlessly locked 60 frames per second.
It’s the perfect analogy for the ‘console vs handheld’ dilemma Nintendo faces with the Switch in general. When you play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in console mode (much like the Switch itself) there’s nothing massively exciting about it: it’s just like playing on the Wii U, except it offers a little bit more. Certainly not enough to pay extra for if you already have its predecessor.
Play it in handheld mode, though, and the change in perception is nothing short of incredible. Suddenly it’s actually doing something far more impressive, cramming an absolutely perfect recreation of a console game into a tiny portable system.
As such, whether you should be excited about Mario Kart 8 depends entirely on whether you plan to use your Switch primarily as a home console or a handheld. If you expect you’ll be spending most of your time playing it on your TV, it’s looking like you might want to just stick with the Wii U version, upgraded resolution or not.
If you plan on taking it on the go with you like I do, though, the complete opposite is true: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is shaping up to be the greatest handheld racing game ever made by a substantial margin and as such may be a must-have title.
Christ, it’s confusing writing about Switch games.
My Switch coverage continues tomorrow, and will consist of daily hands-on articles, opinion pieces and podcasts for the next fortnight. Want to support my work? Head to my Patreon where you can get my podcast earlier and get behind-the-scenes notes