I will always remember, when starting off in this career, my first editor's inability to hide his disbelief at someone who disliked Mario Kart. "Who doesn't like Mario Kart?" He had a point. The first Mario Kart may have been on the SNES but it feels like it's been around forever, one of those designs that arrived fully-formed and in some minor way perfect.
Over the years Nintendo has updated and refined Mario Kart but it remains a young game, its freshness and excitement positively fizzing off the screen as it squeezes the distance between leader and pack. It puts fun above fairness, allows skilled players to race ahead and then gives the pack tools to bring them down. Players pile-on to the leader, form temporary alliances that are betrayed just as fast, and any room with Mario Kart happening is one full of exclamations. In our office yesterday we played a few rounds: "Ohoho a red shell!" was soon met with "GUESS WHO'S GOT A BANANA MATE."
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is unusual for the series in being an expanded re-release rather than a new title, something that we can surely expect to see more of with Switch. It just makes sense because the game is so brilliant yet the hardware could never give it the audience such quality deserved, whereas with Switch — and a host of rejigged multiplayer modes — it simply fits. Mario Kart 8 still looks absolutely beautiful, its chunky character models and devastating SFX layered atop a beastly racer that can go as fast as you want it to (and with the new 200cc mode, even faster). All at a perfect 60FPS, barring the drop to 30FPS for 3-4 player split-screen which, y'know, c'mon. It plays like a dream. And thanks to just ramming in as much Mario Kart as you could possibly wish for, it earns the tag 'Deluxe'.
The most obviously striking part of Mario Kart 8's tracks is their frequent anti-gravity sections, where the kart's tires flip into afterburners and stick to walls, ceilings, and everything in-between. On top of this it refined the handling to a new level, and Deluxe feels like there's been a little more tweaking of certain racers, while adding a range of kart customisation options that make a difference — but in one of those Nintendo touches, not enough of a difference to ruin things. An especially nice touch with Deluxe is that almost everything is unlocked from the start. This does mean new players will miss the Wii U experience of gradually acquiring everything, but there are still plenty of bits and bobs being earned and this lets you just dive in.
There are stunning sights here. The Electrodome track has a sequence where the track forks, and racers on each path end up racing over the heads of one another. Other tracks see you zooming up walls, diving into great bodies of water to the track beneath, and soaring into the sky as the orchestral soundtrack kicks in. It's a breathtakingly confident production: flipping perspective constantly, folding the tracks in on themselves, looping the road skywards before curving back down again, or shattering the ground into little ramps.
What makes Mario Kart 8 Deluxe special, though, that irresistible quality, is that it's the great leveller. Mario Kart is a game you can get extraordinarily good at. I'm alright, but I have friends that are kart krazy who just take off from the starting line and would never be seen again — but for the power-ups. Classics like shells, red and green, bananas, stars and lightning are all here, alongside the big daddy, the beauty, the king of items, the blue shell that hurtles through the entire pack before taking out the leader. People who complain about the blue shell just don't get it. If anything symbolises the spirit of Mario Kart this is it: an item that is extremely tough to avoid, comes up fairly regularly, and forces the player in first back into the pack. "It's unfair," they bleat as their kart's wheels spin and three coins tumble out. Zooming past with a smile, I wholeheartedly agree.
The Wii U version launched with 32 tracks; Deluxe has 48. Many are returns from older entries in the series, but these have been heavily re-worked to incorporate MK8's features: particularly good is the new version of Toad's Turnpike, which adds wall climbs and speed boosts, and a loving re-casting of the N64's marathon Rainbow Road as a sprint.
Mario Kart 8 was always a superb game, but Deluxe polishes it to a fine shine. The little dance the Villager does as you hop off a ramp; Luigi's famous death-stare as he races past a stricken foe; the glider's canvas rippling in the breeze; racing across a beanstalk's limb while the sun shines and rainbow splits the sky. If you could program happiness, it might look like this.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a pure joy to play, and deserves this return to the spotlight. It gives Switch another truly big-hitter, and aside from this fits beautifully with the hardware's concept: already I've been playing at home, on the train, and bringing it into the office to give Jules a beating. If you like Mario Kart, this is the best it's ever been.
And who doesn't like Mario Kart?