Few games are so swear-inducing yet perversely enjoyable as Nintendo’s Mario Kart series. There’s the stinging frustration of being in the lead for an entire lap, only to go from first to last because you’ve been battered by red shells – but conversely, there’s the unbridled joy of sneaking over the finish line just before a rival racer has the chance to scupper your moment of glory.
In Mario Kart, you can’t have the ecstasy without the agony – they’re all bound up together, and part of its seemingly ageless appeal. Besides, if you haven’t sworn violently at Tanuki Mario, called Luigi’s parentage into question, or dismissed Yoshi as “second-rate dinosaur scum” then you really haven’t lived. (We haven’t done this, obviously, but we know people who have…)
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, as its name suggests, offers a refinement rather than an overhaul. It’s essentially a port of the Wii U version, yes, but Nintendo have spent some time putting it through a wind tunnel, tinkering with the parts under the bonnet, and generally polishing up a game that was pretty wonderful to begin with. Some may grumble about this being a re-release of a three-year-old game rather than a whole new entry, but aside from adding all the DLC put out for the Wii U edition, the tweaks and alterations add up to far more of an improvement than you might expect.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe handles beautifully. The epitome of a slick, fun arcade racer, the sensation of drifting just long enough to engage a speed boost, slipping by an opponent on a corner, or deploying a power-up at just the right moment feels as satisfying as it ever has. Nintendo have pulled off a strange bit of design voodoo here that’s easy to overlook at first: Mario Kart 8 feels at once forgiving and precise.
Dropping off a ledge no longer brings with it the punishing time delay you got in earlier Mario Kart games, yet the game still rewards more adept players – the better you get at either taking straight lines through corners or using the drift and boost mechanics to your advantage, the more likely you are to secure victory. Even those dreaded blue shells, once the scourge of many a Mario Kart race, are no longer quite the menace they once were – if you have the skill, reactions and a bit of luck, they can now be countered more easily.
Deluxe also feels great when played on the Switch. Thanks to the console’s Swiss army knife-like array of configurations, there are all kinds of ways of playing Mario Kart 8; on your living room TV with the main controller, on the Switch’s small screen as a handheld experience, or in multiplayer with those tiny Joy-Con turned on their sides. The simplicity of Mario Kart 8‘s controls – steer, right bumper to drift, left bumper to use a power-up, a constant mash of the A button to accelerate – means that the game feels natural whichever way you play it.
There’s also the option to play Mario Kart 8 with Nintendo’s new steering wheel add-ons, which don’t really look like much at first glance. They’re a fraction of the size of the ones designed for the Wii or Wii U, and require you to slot in a Joy-Con to use them. Despite their diminutive size, they’re a delight to use – precise, thanks to the improved motion sensitivity in those new-fangled Joy-Con, and with pleasingly chunky bumpers on the back which feel much easier to tap or hold down than the tiny buttons on the Joy-Con themselves. While they’re not an essential part of the Mario Kart 8 experience, we’d still recommend picking up a couple, especially as you get two steering wheels in a box, meaning both you and a friend can compete on an equal footing.
Visually, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe looks good enough to eat: crisp, colourful, its chunky, toyetic design giving way to some disarming incidental details – Shy Guy’s victory dance, for example, or the crowds of Toads going wild around the side of the track. The only negative we spotted was an occasional frame-drop or slow-down when there’s a lot of stuff happening on the screen – this was only evident when we played Deluxe on a television, though, and wasn’t evident in the lower-resolution handheld mode.
The Switch version of Mario Kart 8 also improves loading times, whether you’re playing online or offline, and while those modes are essentially the same – though the number of tracks, thanks to the pre-packaged DLC from the Wii U version, is really generous – the Battle Mode has seen some real improvements. Rather than repurpose tracks from the Grand Prix mode, as in the earlier version of Mario Kart 8, Deluxe throws in eight specially designed maps and no fewer than five different Battle games to choose from. Balloon Battle is as intense – and cruel, depending on who you play it with – as ever, while Renegade Roundup, where players have to catch each other, cops-and-robbers style, is a hugely enjoyable addition.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is, therefore, the definitive version of an already great racer. From the wealth of tracks now available in the Grand Prix mode, to the range of multiplayer options – including the vastly improved Battle games – makes Deluxe a package with depth and range as well as high-speed thrills. Coupled with the new possibilities of the Switch – such as the ability to wirelessly connect multiple tablets for your own Mario Kart LAN tournament – and you have what might just be the definitive arcade racing experience.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is out on the 28th April for the Nintendo Switch. You can order it now from Game.