Nintendo made a few changes to Mario Kart 8 this week—some big, some small, some the size of a luxury car brand's new SUV. If nothing else, this gives us a good opportunity to pause and reflect on how one of the summer's biggest games is doing. So let's do that.
I've been playing Mario Kart 8 pretty much nonstop since it first arrived in May, though I've naturally gravitated towards my preferred game modes. Here are my thoughts after revisiting the game in full over the past few days.
The actual "update" part of Mario Kart 8's new content primarily consists of three things, all of which seem pretty small at face value:
- You can now display a map of the racetrack on your TV screen, all you need to do is press the minus button.
- The game will save the player's most recent vehicle combination for the next time they boot it up.
- Players can now change the focus of the videos that end up in the highlight reel to show different characters or episodes from a given race. Nintendo also said that you can now edit other people's highlight reels, though the effect of that will take longer to fully appreciate.
Nothing major, sure. But let me give one example of an even smaller tweak that serves as a good metaphor for the entire update. At the end of a given race, the game now defaults to the "next race" selection on the menu screen instead of the highlight reel, which it did originally. Switching to another menu option is a pretty easy thing to do. But there have been countless times that I've just pressed A without thinking because I was so eager to get onto the next race. That's how good the game is. Tweaking it, even in such a minor way, helps make it all the better.
All the adjustments are welcome improvements that make the whole Mario Kart 8 experience ever more simple and intuitive. The mini-map is my favorite tweak. Having to look down at the GamePad just doesn't work in a racing game of this calibre—it's too fast-paced and intense to divert your attention so completely, even if it's just for a fraction of a second. It looks great, too:
There are always hiccups and technical glitches when playing a game through the internet, but so far Mario Kart 8's online modes have been running very smoothly on my end. The biggest frustration I've had is there just aren't enough players online sometimes for a solid race, but that's a bigger problem with the Wii U's sales numbers. It's incredibly easy to jump into the game and start racing or battling with other players, either regionally or globally. Not being able to trash talk still feels off to me when I'm playing with friends online, but I've also come to appreciate some of the inside jokes that players have come up with to taunt each other without using their words.
Playing online is great for the most part, in other words. But it's only great when you're playing the parts of Mario Kart 8 that are fun to play. Which leads to my next point...
In our original review of the game, Kotaku's Mike Fahey described the new battle mode as "horribly tedious, borderline unplayable." Because the core problem with the battle mode is that it uses the same tracks you race on and Nintendo hasn't added any new tracks, not much has changed since then. Some people play this mode online for fun, but I have to force myself to. This is especially frustrating because the items in Mario Kart 8 are great. I feel like another battle mode could basically be a new, cuter version of some classic car-fighting game like Twisted Metal, but Nintendo would need to make some bigger changes to its game than the ones it has so far.
It took me a while to truly appreciate this, but Mario Kart 8 really comes up short with its character selection. The game has all the classics, no doubt—Shy Guy, Yoshi, Peach, Wario, Donky Kong...Mario, naturally. Hell, Luigi has achieved a new level of celebrity thanks to his glaring presence in the game. But did Nintendo really need to include all seven Koopalings? Or quite so many baby versions of characters who are already in the game? These characters are fine on their own. But taken together, it's now clear that they overcrowded the game's starting line-up. Nintendo should have left some space for more of its iconic stars the way they often do with Super Smash Bros. Some of these are coming in another update later this year, but the additions that Nintendo made this week don't do much to rectify the situation. If anything, they make it worse. Which reminds me...
In a divisive move, Nintendo partnered with the luxury carmaker Mercedes Benz to add a few of the company's vehicles to Mario Kart 8 alongside a special branded cup. Purists have equated this to Nintendo selling its soul to the devil or the highest bidder—whichever is worse in your book. After playing with the new cars, I wouldn't say that the DLC is that extreme. But that doesn't mean it's good. The cars don't make much of a difference when you're just driving on your own, since you only see the back of the vehicle then anyways. But when you play against other people online, something about seeing these shiny chrome vehicles sparkling in the virtual sun just seems weird. Mercedes Benz cars might look amazing in the real world. And the DLC is free, which makes downloading it fairly harmless in single player since you don't have to use the cars. But their aesthetic is drab in comparison to the vibrant, whacky cartoon worlds that Nintendo is so good at making. Seeing a fleet of mini-SUVs in an online race can sure feel depressing. If Nintendo wanted to introduce branded content to its game, it could have done so far more tactfully.
It's telling that Nintendo dropped a major announcement about the future of Mario Kart 8 just hours before the current update went live. The game is still incredibly fun. There are so many vehicle combinations that diehard fans have started making standalone apps to help them pick an ideal build. There's a lot to enjoy, and a lot more to still discover, about this game. But all the low points I just identified add up to a concern that could very well be a dire one: after just three months, players are already worried about the new game growing stale. The lack of interesting characters and a weak battle mode put more pressure on the Time Trials, Cups, and Vs. races to carry the entire game. At the end of the day, that means you'll be spending a lot of time on the same 32 racetracks. They may be great. But even great levels can start to get old after a while.
I think Nintendo has to realize this on some level. Otherwise, why would they post the upcoming DLC so prominently on the game's existing menus?
Don't worry, these messages all seem to say. There's new, better stuff coming soon. And the upcoming updates do look really promising. Nintendo is rolling out two new DLC packs, each of which offer three new characters, four new vehicles, and eight new tracks. At $12 for both of them, that's a pretty awesome deal—especially when you consider that it's bringing people like Link, Tanooki Suit Mario, and Dry Bowser into the mix.
I have to wonder, though: will I still be playing the game regularly by the time they show up, ready for a new race?