With a year having passed since the start of Mario Kart 8, it's time to look back on 12 months of roaring engines, hairpin turns, blue shells, and a whole lot of swearing.
One year ago I started what turned into a “season” of Mario Kart 8, complete with gameplay tweaks and paid downloadable content (DLC). It’s the first time I’ve played a Nintendo game that has bought into the “long-tail” content and add-on strategy that is so prevalent in the large publisher space. Instead of a capsule frozen in time, Mario Kart 8 got something similar to the season pass and map pack treatment. The question is: how did this work out?
Since all the subsequent add-ons were meant to keep me playing, it’s worth noting whether the core experience help up. Thankfully, the positive impressions from the early days have persisted and even grown. At some point, like Madden and all other sports games, racing games began to reward a depth of technique I just can’t meet. I can admire the hundreds of car models and realistic physics simulations of the Forza and Gran Turismo, but Mario Kart 8 offered a more accessible mixture of action and strategy. You still have to choose smart racing lines, manage items carefully, and have quick reflexes even if you don’t have to worry about shifting. Mario Kart 8 is technical enough that a good player will always beat a novice, yet it is approachable enough for the layperson to grasp.
I’ve thought about the game a lot in large part because the downloadable content and game updates have kept it at the top of my mind. Before even going into the additions, there's the fact that Mario Kart 8 is itself a unique thing. Nintendo traditionally takes a non-traditional (and often baffling) approach to releasing games, as well as the digital marketplace in general, so it’s strange to think that Mario Kart 8 followed the same basic path that an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty game would: pay some money, get some maps and characters. Want to pay for it up front? You’ll get bonuses and a little discount. The usually-conservative Nintendo even uses the abbreviation “DLC” in its marketing material. Seeing what is still often considered a sleazy marketing tactic come from Nintendo remains surreal.
On to the actual content: the first updates were free, Mercedes-branded cars and tires. I have no clue how this deal came to pass (though I imagine whoever inked it had “Business Development” on their card), but it was certainly the strangest and least appealing addition. The in-game equipment was nothing special and seeing real-world logos in the Mushroom Kingdom just felt off. It clashed with the hilarious fantasy auto racing brands the designers created and was a tone-deaf intrusion into a cohesive fantasy world.
Thankfully, the paid DLC turned out to be outstanding. I usually don’t care about character skins, but I have to admit that the emotional appeal of seeing Link wildly stab at the air after hitting a big jump inspired a character shift. This turned out to have in-game consequences, as I learned how to better handle the heavier drivers I often avoid.
The real draw of the DLC was the tracks. The new courses are excellent. Sharp turns are punishing but readable. They have shortcuts, but these alternate paths are less of a hide-and-seek challenge and more of a skill test. The maps are often large, with long lines of sight that offer tantalizing glimpses of faster yet more dangerous paths. Using them is less about poking every random corner of the map and more about being able execute on difficult maneuvers. The first massive corkscrew turn in Big Blue track encapsulates Mario Kart 8’s wealth of exhilarating tracks that are both massive set pieces and welcome challenges to dedicated players.
Seven of the 16 additional courses that were released retro remakes. It’s a tricky balance between playing to nostalgia and offering new experiences, but the familiar tracks were a good reminder of just how much Mario Kart now exists. Seeing courses from decades past reimagined and tweaked to fit the newest game’s mechanics prevented them from feeling like they were pandering to nostalgia. At the same time, they retained the essence of what made them classics in the first place. Looking at the updates and the originals side-by-side shows the care and innovation of Nintendo. Rather than simple HD updates, the courses were similar to experiencing a developer’s updated take on a famous real-world racing course. Le Mans doesn’t change much, but the way people render it can.
The only real negative aspect to these otherwise excellent additions is a problem that plagues most map-based DLC packages: it splits the multiplayer community. As was the case in Titanfall, another of my favorite recent multiplayer games, having paid maps meant that I would often find myself in a smaller pool of players who focused on the same subset of courses. It’s a problem Nintendo’s not alone in experiencing, so it will be interesting if they have a solution next time.
Back to the topic of exhilaration, there was also a recent free update rolled out a 200cc mode. Put plainly: it’s a ridiculously fast, humbling experience. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt like such a novice. At first I thought the mode just broke the game: I was skidding off ledges and crashing into walls. After a few (dozen) races, I actually realized it was exposing a level of depth I wasn’t aware existed.
I found myself going back and actually making thoughtful tweaks to may character selection, vehicle choice, and wheel options. I dialed back on speed and up on handling. I found myself using something I previously never even considered touching in a Mario Kart game: the brake. At 200cc, the game takes on a different, more strategic feel. You go so fast that you have to have a plan for what you are going to do well in advance of reacting. You can simply jump over certain parts of the course. People tend to stay clumped together and the fast driving means they are hitting item boxes at a faster rate. You’re fighting to control your character, and the game itself is fighting to keep you within the course confines.
Teetering on the edge, but maintaining enough control so that excitement outweighs fear: it’s a fitting metaphor for the year of Mario Kart 8. DLC packs and rule tweaks are always a risk, but in this case, they paid off and improved on what was already an outstanding game.