Mario Kart 8 was easily one of the best games on Wii U. Three years later, it's easy to dismiss Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch as a mere stop-gap to smooth over the line-up as the developer puts the finishing touches on brand new games like Super Mario Odyssey. What the company delivered, though, is the best version of one of their best recent games, as well as a curiously compelling argument for the Switch's main hardware pitch.
The Switch is built around the idea of taking your games with you anywhere, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe delivers that prospect in a way unheard of in the series so far. Even the best portable entry, Mario Kart 7, was stripped down to squeeze onto a handheld format. MK8 Deluxe, by comparison, is utterly uncompromising. The portable play is seemless and looks great on the Switch screen, without any half-measures in gameplay. While it's not ideal, the ability to quickly start up a two-player game in a pinch with detached JoyCon controllers makes it inherently more inviting than download play onto a second 3DS.
All this makes Mario Kart 8 Deluxe a natural fit for the Switch, combining the portability of MK7 with the impeccable design of MK8. The fact that it so well exemplifies a core strength of the Switch hardware is a feature, not a fluke. Surely Nintendo knew that of all the games to port, this one was a standout.
That Comes Standard
Aside from making a cogent argument for the Switch itself, this Deluxe version comes with the bells and whistles you might expect from a re-release. It comes with all of the downloadable content unlocked from the beginning. On top of that, the already sprawling roster saw five more additions: King Boo, Dry Bones, Bowser Jr, and since Mario Kart is slowly becoming inclusive of all things Nintendo, the Inkling Boy and Girl from Splatoon. A few old standby items like the Feather return, and some more vehicles have been added to unlock with coins.
One returning feature, the ability to carry two items at a time, is the real game-changer. Mario Kart 8 stripped you down to a single item, which often meant triggering it right before another Question block to swap for another. Bringing back two items adds a layer of strategic depth, letting you use items more freely without worrying about being without them in the long stretches between blocks.
Not all the features are quite so polished. The Smart Steering feature, which is turned on by default, purports to make it easier for players to stay on the track. In practice, it would trigger inconsistently, which meant sometimes I would forget about it until it overcorrected on a turn or steered me wrong. It may work for a certain playstyle, but if you have any real experience with Mario Kart, you'll probably want to turn it off quickly.
Back in the Battle
The real standout addition in Deluxe is Battle Mode. My one serious gripe with the original release of Mario Kart 8 was that the Battle Mode was so half-baked. It blended some mainstays of Battle Mode, like balloons to track your score total, with standard race tracks that weren't conducive to funneling players toward each other. It was a bizarre oversight, and left me wondering if Nintendo really understood what made the Battle Mode arenas of past Mario Kart games so great.
Deluxe proves that it not only understands, but that it can still iterate on those ideas beautifully. The revised Battle Mode brings back bespoke arenas, with fairways and criss-crossing paths that force confrontations. It includes a handful of returning arenas from past games, but five out of the eight are brand new and very well-designed. I'm partial already to Urchin Underpass, a Splatoon-themed arena with a wide open area in the middle and several nooks stowed around the periphery.
Battle brings back a wide variety of play modes too. The classic Balloon Battle is still a frantic mess of shells and bananas, and Coin Runners is about as straight-forward a goal as it gets. Shine Thief and Bob-omb Blast return from Double Dash, representing very different playstyles. While Shine Thief is all about playing keep-away, Bob-omb Blast requires ugly, chaotic confrontations with explosions all around you. No two modes feel like they're overlapping goals, so setting the playlist to a Random and going through them each one-by-one provides a great mix of gameplay.
The fifth mode, debuting in Deluxe, is Renegade Roundup. This is the one that finally convinced me that Nintendo still gets the essence of Battle Mode. In it, players are split into teams–one group of cops with siren-equipped Pirahana Plants permanently affixed to their karts, and the other, "renegades" who are trying to avoid them. When a renegade gets too close to a cop, they're automatically chomped and placed in jail, a small caged section hovering above the map. But other renegades can free them by driving under the cage.
It sounds complex, but the signaling in the game is clear and intuitive, so it's easy to pick up quickly. It captures several of the most dynamic elements of other Battle modes: the keep-away aspect of Shine Thief, the wide danger areas of Bob-omb Blast, and the risk-reward loop of Coin Runners. It's easy to feel heroic by freeing your fellow teammates, but the cops are so powerful that it puts a lot of extra pressure on the remaining players who aren't imprisoned. It's a standout right from the start, and helps round out the offerings of old favorites.
On Your Marks
In broad terms, I can understand why Mario Kart 8 might be hard to justify for some players. It's a re-release of a game Nintendo put out three years ago, and that Nintendo fans (who make up a large portion of the Switch audience) probably already played. That said, this is a fantastic addition to the Switch library, not just as a great game but as one that benefits from the system's core features. It adds the requisite new content and fixes the one large oversight of the original. Mario Kart 8 was already one of the best in the series. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is even better.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe will be available in retail and digital stores on April 28, for $59.99. The game is rated E.