8.5

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Review: Karting at the Speed of Life

Games Reviews Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
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<i>Mario Kart 8 Deluxe</i> Review: Karting at the Speed of Life

There is no need to review the videogame Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which is now out for the Nintendo Switch. The game itself is a known quantity: Not only was the original Mario Kart 8 released three years ago on the Wii U, but “Mario Kart” itself has transcended genre and form and software and become a kind of platonic ideal. You know what it is. Lest you think the game has not reached mass market acceptance and understanding, Target, they of the Bullseye red-and-white logo and Martha Stewart branded cookware, have this week transformed over six hundred of their stores into real-life Mario Kart simulators. Shopping Carts resemble in-game karts. Those giant red ball statues out front? Now they’re Mario and Luigi’s head. Mario Kart has reached big box store status. We know what’s inside. And we all want to go there anyway.

I played Mario Kart 8 on Wii U. I loved it. Many did. This version adds features and modes but essentially is the same product. (In fact, it loses features, too: The original’s Battle Mode, which I will defend against the misguided hordes, is gone. Also you can’t spin your trophies anymore on the touchscreen, a toy-like wrinkle I missed more than expected.) But this version of the game is unique in that it comes out on Nintendo’s latest platform, the transforming tablet with detachable controllers that last month became their fastest-selling system of all time.

To review the game would be redundant and unnecessary. So I will review the way in which I can play this version of the game. I’m reviewing, in essence, the “Switch Experience” of playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

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Saturday

The baby is asleep. I pick the Switch out of its TV-connected dock and slide on the detachable controllers. I take the now-handheld console to my home office and sit in the green chair, the comfortable one, the one not in front of my laptop. The baby monitor light is green: Silence.

I start up Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and enter a Grand Prix, 150cc, Flower Cup. I get two first place finishes. The monitor starts to burble; its LED light glows yellow. My attention wavers. The next race I place second. I hear my baby’s voice escalate from audible dream-sighs to now-awake-where-am-I crisis. The LED light burns red. Latiku floats over the starting line for the fourth and final race. I consider briefly the consequences of extended stress on a still-developing human brain versus the satisfaction of a gold trophy. I hit the Home Button, put the Switch in Sleep Mode, set one thing down and pick another thing—person—up.

Hours later, baby fed and soothed and napping again, I pick up the Switch and within seconds am back in the action. The light burns green. I take first and nab the gold. I replace the Switch in its dock, ready for another race.

Sunday Breakfast

The baby is asleep. Oatmeal is said to help improve lactation; I use Warren Brown’s CakeLove recipe for Ginger-Banana Oatmeal (minus the ginger) and my wife and I tuck into two heaping bowls of hot porridge dusted—okay, sprinkled—okay, doused—with brown sugar. We read the newspaper. We sip coffee. Soon the bowls are empty. The table is wide and available. I see an opportunity. “I’ll be back,” I say, and walk to the living room, where I pick up the Switch out of its dock and return, folding up the Business section of the paper, unfolding the kickstand from the system’s rear, and set up the screen before handing my wife a neon red controller the size of a newborn’s leg. I turn the system on.

“You got the new Mario Kart?” she exclaims. She didn’t know I received the game early. I was waiting to surprise her. Soon we’re hitting the road at 100cc. We both need to knock the rust off. I talk aloud about how this version is and isn’t different from the Wii U game we played to death.

“Be quiet,” she says. I mention the Battle Mode and the return of the Feather power-up….

“Stop talking!” she says. I may or may not continue to rattle off features and upgrades. The race is won not only on the digital pavement but the highway of the mind. Her Yoshi places first, my Waluigi runs a close second. The second race we swap positions, Waluigi’s flailing limbs leaning across the finish line a hair in front of Yoshi’s dino-snout. The rubber match beckons. So, too, does a now-hungry baby, ready for his own oatmeal-infused breakfast. Hours later she’ll nose out the victory before watching back the Highlight Reel almost entirely in Slo-Motion.

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Monday Afternoon

The baby is at Grandma’s. I’m on the campus of an undisclosed Metro Atlanta college where I teach. In my messenger bag: A folder; a notebook; a laptop; a copy of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help; a Nintendo Switch.

I have ninety minutes between classes. Usually I drink a coffee and/or eat a muffin and/or check Twitter and/or critique papers. On this day, like most, I do the first three. And then I set up outside my classroom thirty minutes early, pull the Switch from my bag, and start up Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. The hope is that a student comes by, sees their instructor, sees Kart, is suitably intrigued and not embarrassed and lingers long enough for me to look up and say, “Want to play a round?”

What happens instead: I sneak in a second place finish on the Star Cup at 150cc with a new character, Inkling Boy from Splatoon, in the driver’s seat, delighting in his trick Squid transformation. My students have decided not to be early this Monday before Finals Week. I don’t want to force it. I put my Switch away, satisfied in the notion that this spontaneous ripped-from-a-commercial camaraderie could have happened. And anyway, I earned some coins to unlock more vehicle parts in a stretch of time I’d usually waste scrolling through social feeds and gaping in horror at the world’s latest attempt to self-immolate. I call that a win, Silver trophy be damned.

Tuesday Late Afternoon

The one mode unique to the Switch update is an all-new, mostly-old Battle Mode. The original Mario Kart 8’s Battle Mode controversially used the normal tracks in lieu of arenas; this reviewer found the decision a joyful way to reexamine familiar environments, asking you to backtrack and sneak around and hide behind obstacles in a way you would never do in a race-to-the-finish. Most people hated it. And so with Deluxe we have a return to the format of previous iterations: arenas full of central squares, tight passageways and multiple levels in which to burst each other’s balloons or gather the most coins, et cetera. The one new battle format is “Renegade Round-Up,” a take on cops-and-robbers where your team tries to stay out of jail.

Online modes prior to release day are often sparsely attended. I hoped at least a few other reviewers would be raring to battle across the nation’s Wi-Fi. The review embargo lifted days ago, however; the bulk of journalists were onto the next thing. I stood alone on a rotating globe waiting for a battle that would never come. Now that I think about it… That pretty much sums it up.

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Tuesday Early Evening

“I’ll battle with you,” my wife says.

We try Balloon Battle first to get our tires wet. I thought a Team Battle (we chose separate sides) would incur a more strategic outing but all it did was limit the amount of karts we could blast. After a subdued four rounds, we tried something else.

Shine Thief, where a single Kart’er tries to nab and hold onto a giant star for twenty seconds with the rest of the field in mad pursuit, is a callback from the GameCube’s under-loved Kart sequel Double Dash. This was my wife’s favorite game in college, she tells me. And by favorite, she must mean Most Likely to Cause Incoherent Fear in Friends and Neighbors.

“Die, Mario!” She screams at the television, directing her rage at whatever cartoon character zoomed across the screen with shimmering star in tow. “Where’d you go, you bastard?” Only later do I wonder if the adrenaline-soaked fury she spouted throughout the next four battles would unleash a slight toxicity in the milk she would feed our newborn child later that evening.

But it works. I grab the star but don’t make it five seconds before she finds me, her eyes rapturous with shine-envy, her milk ducts continually tweaked by air hose suction. She lets loose a green shell barrage. My kart crumples; the star goes flying. She picks up the shiny beacon and a glittering crown appears on her Pink Yoshi’s head. I do a U-turn and try to chase her down, as do the computer-controlled mushroom men and lizard kids and metallic princesses, but as the twenty seconds tick down to zero, we are no match for her Shine hunger, feverish and unrelenting like some ancient maternal will.

She promises a rematch. I say, tentatively, sure. We hear the first stifled cries of a waking baby. The game for now is over.

But that’s the thing with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch. On Wii U, the game was over when you stepped away from your television. As the saying goes: You can’t take it with you. But now you can. Now, the game is only over when you—or the baby—says so.


Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was developed and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.

Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.

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