Mario Kart 8 got a big new update yesterday, complete with its first batch of DLC goodies. Players and fans have been looking forward to this with the highest of high hopes ever since Nintendo announced it back in August. So let's take a closer look at what we've got.
First, a quick reminder of what exactly arrived on Thursday. The first Mario Kart 8 DLC pack included three new characters: Cat Peach, Tanooki Mario, and Link. Yes, that Link. Of The Legend of Zelda fame. It also included four new vehicles (complete with a few extra loadout items—i.e., wheels and gliders), and eight new courses. The racetracks are divided into two new cups. Like the base Mario Kart 8 game, some of the new tracks are remastered versions of old Nintendo content, such as a new-and-improved version of the SNES-era Rainbow Road, or the revamped version of Excitebike arena. It's worth noting that this brings the total amount of Rainbow Roads in Mario Kart 8 to three, which is both awesome and ridiculous.
All of this is available for $7.99, or $11.99 if you purchase it along with the second DLC pack, which is coming in May 2015 and adds an equal amount of new stuff to the game.
The meat of the DLC pack comes in the form of its eight new racetracks. I guess that isn't surprising, since this is a Mario Kart game and the racetracks are the essential ingredient in the whole recipe. But still: the update wouldn't have elicited as much excitement if fans thought they were just going to be getting a handful of new courses. Or if those courses were going to feel more rushed and thus less refined than the original 32 they started the game with. Nintendo really pulled out all the stops on Mario Kart 8's racetracks, which helps explain why the game continues to have a fiercely dedicated player base months after it was released on an unpopular next-gen console. Thankfully, the developers applied the same level of creative genius and tactful design to the eight new tracks as they did when making the first 32.
All the new racetracks are visually stunning in the comical and trippy way that Mario Kart 8's best levels are. Courses like Excitedbike Arena and the SNES Rainbow Road feel a bit...flat in comparison to the loopy rollercoaster rides of tracks that were built from the ground up for this game. But that only means that none of the old tracks are quite as memorable as the remastered version of, say, Toad Turnpike. Still, that's one of the best racetracks I've ever played in a racing game, let alone a Mario Kart game. So if that's the standard that Nintendo has established for itself and its players, I'm willing to accept something slightly less.
Plus, the completely new tracks in the DLC more than make up for any of the drier parts of the old ones. Dragon Driftway, a topsy-turvy new track set in what looks like a Kabuki theater reminiscent of the gorgeous PS3 game Puppeteer, is particularly delightful because of how lush and darkly beautiful its color palette is. The F-Zero track Mute City is perfectly dizzying and winding thanks to its prodigious application of boost pads. And the Zelda-themed Hyrule Circuit is a castle track on par with Mario Kart 8's excellent Bowser level. The small details Nintendo brought to this track in particular speak to the amount of care they put into the DLC. The normally shiny gold coins, for instance, have been replaced by green rupees—the gem-like currency in Zelda games. And every time you complete a lap in the the track, it plays a tinny little chiming refrain that Zelda players will remember hearing every time they solve a puzzle in one of those games.
It's fan service, sure. But the term "fan service" is too pejorative to do it justice. Mario Kart's new racetracks are incredibly fun regardless of how deep your knowledge of Nintendo lore is.
I went in and out of Mario Kart 8's online multiplayer throughout the day on Thursday to see how that part of the game was doing. I can't speak authoritatively about the state of the game's multiplayer yet since the new update is still so fresh, but I did notice an uptick in the amount of online activity. There was the occasionally faulty connection that kicked me out of a race, but the game's versus races tended to work well both regionally and globally.
An increased amount of available players is the most welcome change by far. As I noted last month, the game's online multiplayer was started to feel very empty at times. That's never a good thing, but it's especially frustrating for Mario Kart 8 because the game's online multiplayer is so much fun that it's become the primary way I play. Part of the problem I identified in September was that Nintendo changed some stuff about the online multiplayer, which it didn't explain to me or players very well. The new DLC brought Mario Kart 8's "3.0 version" along with it, though, so I'm not entirely sure if the developer has changed things up once again. And if they have changed things, then I'm not sure how exactly they did so. This will take more time to assess as players continue to poke around and race each other. When playing yesterday, I had some trouble finding a solid group of racers from time to time. I could usually solve this by switching from regional to global in the game's online multiplayer menu or vice versa, but I didn't discover any exact science to it yet.
In general, all I can say right now is that online multiplayer remains one of the best parts of Mario Kart 8. That being said, its overall excellence continues to be hampered by some defects. Some of these issues might be technical hiccups. Others, like the weirdly limited online voice chat, are the result of clear decisions that Nintendo made for the game.
Along with the new tracks, Nintendo dropped a few more vehicles into Mario Kart 8 this week. Unlike the racetracks, though, these feel like they were driven purely by nostalgia and little else. Two of the main additions, for instance, were a remodeled version of the classic B-Dasher kart and another meant to look like it was pulled from an F-Zero game (see above). A third, meanwhile, was the Epona-esque motorcycle Nintendo made for Link.
The new vehicles add to Mario Kart 8's colorful tone as a game that offers its players enjoyably silly slices of Nintendo fan fiction. That's always been part of what people love about Mario Kart and its close relative Super Smash Bros., of course. But in comparison to its sibling fighting game, Mario Kart 8's invocation of certain elements of the extended Nintendo universe feels limited. Link rides around in the game with a sword in hand, but he only ever uses it for theatrical purposes—during his boost-jumping animations. While it's charming to see Link do that in a Mario Kart game for the first time, I also have to recognize his sword-slicing for what it is: a visual flourish, and nothing more.
That's fine, on one level. But just having a character as legendary as Link in the game leaves me feeling like the game has some tremendous opportunities to take advantage of the impressive assets it already has in new ways. Many players (myself and Mike Fahey included) feel that Mario Kart 8's battle mode is seriously lacking, for instance. Seeing Link in the game now, complete with his sword and trusty steed, makes me excited to think about what the game's developers could add to the game's melee and ranged combat systems in the future.
Link's often-overwhelming presence in Mario Kart 8 tells me two things about the current state of the game. First: adding stuff from The Legend of Zelda into Mario Kart was a great idea, and Nintendo should have done so sooner. Second: players are latching onto the new character so zealously right now because Mario Kart 8 remains starved in certain areas. The existing roster is colorfully whacky in the way that it should be, but there are still some gaping holes in the current lineup. I have no idea why there still isn't a Diddy Kong in this game, for instance.
Bashing Mario Kart 8's roster might sound like the ultimate form of nitpicking, because it sort of is. But the game's character list serves as useful symbol for the impressive strengths and lingering weaknesses in this game. Some characters stand out as the best in their class. While others (I'm looking at you, Koopalings and baby characters...) are unfortunately bland and forgettable. Since Nintendo has proved itself more than capable of revisiting a game and improving it with this first DLC update, it should continue to refine Mario Kart 8 to add more of the sort of stuff that will make this game an undisputed classic.
Fans should continue to play Mario Kart 8, too, because the new stuff added this week has made a game that was already great even better.