In video game years, Mario Kart 8 is already middle-aged yet remains virile. It maintains a healthy population of online racers over fourteen months past its May 2014 launch. By most accounts, the Wii U version of the seminal kart racer is the series’ high watermark, resplendent in its HD gloss and detail-rich course design, and already rejuvenated twice with a generous double-helping of extra tracks, characters, and cars.
Listen to the masses, though, and there is a lone flaw just waiting to be nipped-and-tucked: Battle Mode.
Original reviews scoffed at the decision to use standard tracks in lieu of unique arenas, a series staple going back to the SNES original. “If it gets arena battle tracks at some point by way of DLC,” Chris Carter of Destructoid wrote, “it will be a near-perfect package.” Polygon’s Phil Kollar almost forgets to mention the mode entirely, shoving this shoulder-shrug (“Mario Kart’s always divisive Battle Mode seems like even more of an afterthought this time”) into a sidebar. Kotaku’s own Mike Fahey doles out the harshest criticism: “It’s horribly tedious, borderline unplayable.”
Nintendo’s biggest games used to be grand statues, labored over for years and meticulously chiseled until every last detail was set-in-stone. With the advent of online patches and downloadable content, and the Kyoto-based company’s warming attitudes toward both, once-a-generation stalwarts like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart have evolved beyond their retail boxes and grown in ways inconceivable to a Nintendo fan even five years before.
Nowhere is this new attitude more visible than with Splatoon, Nintendo’s squid-based shooter. The game launched in an incomplete state and still sold a million copies its first month. Earlier this month, a massive free update added modes, guns, gear, and several options—like custom battles and friends-only matchmaking—conspicuous in their absence. More than ever, Nintendo seems prone to improve and embellish their popular titles for an ever-insatiable audience.
With Splatoon and Smash adding entire new modes this month, and Mario Kart 8’s previous DLC packs, there’s precedent for Nintendo to fix what so many feel is broken. I’m here to say: Battle Mode, as it stands, is already fantastic, and the part of the game I still go back to after a year of playing. It does not need fixing. You do.
Here are eight reasons why Battle Mode is the best mode.
The general goal—pop your opponents’ balloons before they pop three of yours—is the same as it was in 1992, when Super Mario Kart first introduced us to turtle shells used as sliding projectiles. The big change in 2014’s rendition of Battle Mode was that instead of building new, isolated arenas, Nintendo opted to use eight Grand Prix tracks. Most people who have a problem with Mario Kart 8’s Battle Mode misunderstand how to approach these same courses in a new situation. They see Moo Moo Meadows and assume they need to race around those dusty hills, just as they have in a Grand Prix 150cc. To race around and fling a shell intermittently at your opponents, joust-style, would indeed be “horribly tedious.”
But this is not a race. Each driver begins on a separate part of the track. There is no Finish Line. You are not meant to drive but to hunt. Each track is, in fact, a large circuitous arena, with hiding spots and areas of cover and wide-open danger zones and tight bottle-necks. If you go in one direction for the entirety of the match, you are not allowing yourself the joy of a proper Battle. The first thing you have to learn: How to turn around.
The U-turn has been a maneuver in Mario Kart since the very first SNES game. Push acceleration and brake together and your kart will shimmy in place; turn and you will rotate as if on ball-bearings. The trick is to combine this while drifting into a corner; do it well and you can turn swiftly to change direction, often to the surprise of your pursuer. By employing U-turns, a Battle Mode match shakes loose its unfair joust-comparisons and instead becomes a chaotic game of cat-and-mouse. Once the track is seen less as a one-way highway and more of a maze, it’s imperative to watch your opponents more carefully than during the standard race. React to what is on-screen at your peril; a real Battle Mode champ will plot out their next move based on their surroundings.
The Mario Kart map has always played a perfunctory role. You could win without ever looking at it. Nor does your opponent’s location matter much when tossing the all-powerful Lightning Bolt or first-place seeking Blue Shell. Even in earlier iterations of Kart, Battle Mode’s relatively tight quarters allowed a glance at your opponent’s screen to hint at their location: Block Fort’s color-coded quadrants (from Mario Kart 64) evolved out of Battle Course 1’s hue-drenched lanes (from Super Mario Kart). But with Mario Kart 8 placing you in one of eight full-sized courses, the view from above becomes a necessary window into the strategies of your off-screen opponents.
Using the map in conjunction with a more free-form approach to course locomotion also lets you use skills learned in Grand Prix while in Battle Mode. And vice-versa: a shortcut found here can then transfer to your traditional racing. No other Kart allows for such skill transfer.
Weapons are a fundamental part of the Mario Kart formula. Odd, then, that MK8 strips its Battle Mode of many weapons found in the standard Grand Prix. You won’t find heat-seeking Red Shells, or Bullet Bills, or the new Crazy 8, a rotating lazy-susan of destruction. Instead, you’re forced to employ the more rudimentary artillery with skill.
As British artist William Morris said, “You can’t have art without resistance in the materials.” Slinging a green shell long-distance and smacking your target is and will always be a more satisfying feat than transforming into a giant Bullet Bill and plowing ahead on auto-drive. This feeling has always been a part of Battle Mode; here, amongst the traffic-jammed straight-aways of Toad’s Turnpike and the labyrinthine Yoshi Valley, your shots fired are more reliant on your persistence and aim than in the earlier games’ truncated arenas, full of walls for endless ricochets or hapless dead-ends. This is about driving and shooting, both.
This is also about stopping. Never in a Grand Prix race is it advisable to stop. But since MK8 uses the traditional tracks as makeshift arenas, you can now experience the thrill of Maverick from Top Gun when, lining up an enemy in your rear-view, you hit the brakes and they fly right by and you slam their last balloon with a shell or boomerang.
The eight tracks chosen were done so carefully; each offers a bevy of blind corners, off-road cover or environmental obstacles to use at your advantage. Donut Plain’s rickety bridge is normally sped over and forgotten about; in Battle Mode, it becomes the roof to an underwater foxhole, where sneaky kart-racers will hide and ambush the lackadaisical. Dry Dry Desert’s wide sandy sprawl is this writer’s least favorite track, but even its quicksand pit provides clever battlers a natural impediment you can use to your favor. Toad Harbor is full of secrets in plain sight: Duck under jump-ramps and lie in wait; hide behind destructible boxes and come out blasting; trail alongside a slow-moving streetcar to remain invisible from the asphalt.
Many previous Battle Mode maps were gimmick-laden and obvious: Pipe Plaza (Kart DS) has you disappearing and reappearing between two halves of a single course, while Honey Bee House (Kart 7) is beset with momentum-halting sticky goo. Mario Kart 8 lets you rediscover the tracks you already thought you knew, providing cover and advantages in an organic way.
When your final balloon is popped, you turn invisible and continue to race around the course. But like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, you can still affect events. Drive through a Question Block and you’ll receive either a single Green Shell or a single Banana. Even though you’re transparent and your score is locked in place, you can still get revenge from beyond the pitstop garage. Zoom after the kart that just knocked you down and out. They can’t see you. But they will feel the sting of a point-blank shell and wonder how they never saw it coming.
Whatever criticisms are lobbed at MK8’s Battle Mode, one aspect of the game that is universally lauded is its sheer beauty. Regardless of the system’s raw horsepower, there’s no denying that when in the hands of Nintendo’s artists and programmers, the Wii U can output some serious visual flair. It’s a shame, then, that most of the time spent in MK8’s brilliant environments is always in one direction, and always at top-speed. To play Battle Mode is to appreciate these tracks from a new perspective. Slow down through one of Sherbet Land’s tunnels and follow a snowflake through the beam of your headlamps; pause during an anti-grav patch of Mario Circuit’s looping track and realize the world below you is now upside-down.
Mario Kart 8 remains one of the high points of this generation. With its generous refreshes of new tracks and strange, parallel universe crossovers, it continues to entertain over a year after launch. But when I start up another round, I inevitably return to Battle Mode. If you’ve enjoyed Kart’s balloon-popping mayhem in the past but skipped MK8’s due to popular opinion, please, I implore you, hop aboard your kart of choice and discover what you’ve been missing.
And if you see a bearded guy wearing a Wario racing suit behind the wheel of a pink Cat Cruiser… watch out.