Mario Kart has always been about people. Its best installments have always realized the value of togetherness: after all, the entire concept is based around Nintendo’s menagerie, friend and foe engaging in a bit of motor sporting fun. Super Mario Kart screamed multiplayer from the series’ green light, forcing a split screen presentation with a somewhat sad map in the unoccupied space if you were on your own. On N64, four player split screen. Mario Kart DS gave us online while Wii presented derided, but child friendly tilt controls.

The games in the franchise that didn’t push the series into new people’s hands are the ones often forgotten, Super Circuit on Game Boy Advance, Double Dash on GameCube shunned for a lack of inventiveness. You could perhaps have said the same of Mario Kart 8- until now.

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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a wonderful advertisement for Nintendo’s Switch; something MK8 never was for WiiU. The diminutive Joycons are wonderfully sized for smaller hands, and steering and acceleration assists can make kids competitive with parents (be warned, these assists are on by default and make the game feel absurdly on rails to a normal player). The break away nature of the controllers meanwhile means that a flash mob of multiplayer racing can happen instantly, with good performance even when the screen is split in tablet mode. Quick sessions with several people are what’s enthralling here, and in the Deluxe edition, battle mode has been overhauled too for people who enjoy automotive deathmatches (the bubble popping never really appealed to this reviewer, but its suite of extra modes are worth a quick go each at least).

On the race track, you can comfortably argue that this is the best Mario Kart has ever been. Track design is tremendous, new circuits dizzyingly vertiginous, and reinventions of past circuits accommodating later game refinements like underwater sections and tracks leading up walls requiring a hover car like transformation. Returning circuits delicately tease nostalgia, while newcomers are likely to stick in their mind on their own merits; a giant animatronic Bowser smashing and bending a track through his castle is a spectacular highlight.

After battle mode was first absent and then bastardized on Wii U, on Switch there's a wide range of options, but everything's one off. There's no real persistency between plays.

After battle mode was first absent and then bastardized on Wii U, on Switch there’s a wide range of options, but everything’s one off. There’s no real persistency between plays.

So, then. Mario Kart 8, on Switch, is the best Mario Kart. Read this far, and then jump on down to the score at the bottom of the page, and you might be somewhat bemused. So here’s the home truth. MK8 is the best MK has been, but nowhere near the best that it could be. The uncomfortable fact I had to come to terms with is that it isn’t enough for Mario Kart to just be Mario Kart in 2017.

Mario Kart’s intrinsic unfairness, a lack of balance, a basis of frustration, has persisted in Mario Kart 8. Super Mario Kart’s rubber banding, sending more offensive items to racers at the back of the field was somewhat heavy handed in 1992, but the thought was welcome. Snaking drift boosts broke Mario Kart DS’ multiplayer, but was given  a free pass because, hey, Nintendo embracing online play was even more of a novelty in 2006 than now.

MK8 though, not only contains the rubber banding and disproportionate item use the series has always had, but even celebrates it. First turns to fifth at the finish line through red shell after blue shell after lightning blast. It’s frustrating, but not in an ‘I’ll get you next time’ way, more in the sense that it’s been seen and done so many times before that you take your licks in resignation. Similarly, a last gasp victory over your stricken leading buddy feels like a consolation prize, and rarely the result of true skill. Its Mario Kart TV mode, where highlights can be edited and shared, complete with smug or exasperated facial expressions on the gorgeously animated characters just rubs things in.

The light on Mario's aerial there indicates that baby mode is turned on. The game defaults with every assist on, doesn't tell you how to turn them on and off (press plus on character select), and doesn't even tell you they exist. Assists are welcome for kids, but signposting is atrocious.

The light on Mario’s aerial there indicates that baby mode is turned on. The game defaults with every assist on, doesn’t tell you how to turn them on and off (press plus on character select), and doesn’t even tell you they exist. Assists are welcome for kids, but signposting is atrocious.

Mario Kart 8 is polished so much it shines in presentation and track design, but plays it so safe in maintaining tropes and structures that everything feels a bit barren. There is an argument to be made, especially for this game of the year like Deluxe edition with its inclusion of all prior downloadable content and extras, to have everything unlocked at the outset. That is the case here, in terms of characters and tracks at least. Yet while parties can quickly hop to a favourite circuit with a favourite character for a quick cup, things feel flat afterward. When your reward for victory is a new tyre or cart shape that has marginal effects on performance, it’s all a bit disappointing to be told ‘well done, you win. Would you like to play again?’ with nothing that really fires the imagination like thinking what the next unlocked tracks could be like. Similarly, online races are given persistency by point scores that influence match making, but there’s none of the expansive online suite, no Skinner box experience points going up that we’ve come to expect from the online experience. It’s better, then, to dig into time trials, and the crowd sourced ghosts that not only are pitched to your level, but that obviously won’t blast you with a blue shell should you dare to get in front.

All these criticisms aren’t unique to Mario Kart 8. That’s really the point. With the Switch at large presenting a revolution in portability and local multiplayer, it’s a shame not to see Mario Kart revolve along with it. The gang may be altogether on the race track and around the Switch, but they’re engaging in races that feel just a tad stagnant at this point, and lacking in the bright positivity of a Sonic and Sega Allstars. The time has perhaps come when being the best Mario Kart ever may not be good enough.

2/4 Pops: Decent There might be problems that mount up and prevent it from being a top tier game, or it might not do enough to quite make it stand out, but a 2 can still be an enjoyable experience that the curious should try.
Japanese retail code tested. Japanese version of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has full English support.

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Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)