By Julian Benson and Rich Stanton
It’s fair to say that Rich is a fan of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. But the scale of this latest entry means you could spend hundreds of words just talking about the possible ways to play, rather than focusing-in on how you actually play it. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Deluxe is that, despite being a re-release of an older game, it’s a perfect fit for Nintendo’s new hardware. Switch emphasises simplicity, portability and above all multiplayer — exactly what Deluxe, for all its grandeur, is underpinned by.
Rich: As I mentioned in the above piece, what I’ve been especially enjoying about Deluxe is the range of ways I’ve played it. I play at home on the TV; I get the train to work and can squeeze in a grand prix; at work we’ve been setting up the Switches and playing with six people on three portable screens; I went to a multiplayer session a few weeks ago, where eight people played all afternoon across four tellies. I remember the day the game arrived in the office, and yourself and Tom ended up going head-to-head in the pub. There’s tonnes to say about how well they’ve done on multiplayer this time, but the starting point is that the match of hardware and software here is beautiful.
Jules: Yesterday we even carried on a race between two consoles as we walked from our desks down a flight of stairs into the meeting room we’d booked out (I’m sure the office manager would be happy to know the meeting room was being block-booked so we could play games).
Rich: The office manager needs to learn that there’s nothing more important. There’s a great atmosphere to Mario Kart play too, I think it comes from the way it levels things between players. The skill levels matter, obviously, but the constant interplay means that the cocky so-and-sos in 1st place are only ever there temporarily.
Only in Mario Kart would you get a grown man playing Baby Luigi, standing up at the end of a round saying "guess who won, bitch."
— Richard Stanton (@RichStanton) April 12, 2017
Jules: There are a number of features to make sure the players with little to no experience can keep up. Weapons are a part of that but there’s also a new feature called [smart turning?] that keeps you on the track. It’s a gentle autopilot that activates if ever you’re about to run off the edge of a track or drive headlong into a barrier. It won’t help you win but it will mean players don’t fall too far from the rest of the pack.
Seasoned players will want to turn it off (press start at the beginning of a race and it’s an option you can flick off, like with motion controls) as when it’s on you can only charge your power slide to orange instead of pink.
Rich: So the Wii U version of Mario Kart 8 was much-maligned for its battle mode, which Deluxe sets about fixing — and then some. The classic Balloon Battle mode returns: popping other players’ balloons for points, and trying to keep your own intact. But there’s a great twist here, which is that you don’t drop out of the game when all your balloons are popped — instead, your score gets cut in half. It’s great because you don’t want players sitting on the sidelines, but losing all your balloons is still kind of a disaster.
I also especially like that, in-keeping with this, you can now nick balloons from other players. It’s great! You can boost into them with a mushroom to do it or, as I once did, fly over their heads at just the right moment and grab the string. You end up focusing on this in the second half of the match, or I did at least, because you’re high on score but low on balloons. It seems like such a minor tweak, but adds a whole new level of strategy to what’s already an enormously fun mode.
Jules: That new mechanic with the respawn is equal parts great to horrifying. The first time it happened I was in the lead with 10 points. I then respawned into the game with only five points on the board, 30 seconds on the clock, and in 4th place.
Rich: Exactly: you really care about not losing all of your balloons, even though it no longer means you’re ‘out’.
Jules: Bob-omb Blast was what I spent most my time playing last night. It’s a little like Balloon Battle in that you start the game with five balloons that represent your health. The difference is that every item box contains a bob-omb. This means that games quickly devolve into 12 players skidding around a tight arena with explosions popping off everywhere. The bob-ombs you can pick up stack, too, so at one point I had 10 bombs that I can drop behind me in a long chain, blasting anyone who was chasing me.
The same respawn mechanic that’s been added to Balloon Battle is present here and it’s just as tearing a moment when your last balloon pops and you see your score halve.
Rich: My absolute favourite thing in Deluxe might be Renegade Roundup. It’s just another perfect fit for Mario Kart’s mechanics. One team is the cops and the other are the renegades. The cops have piranha plants on their cars, permanently, with a little siren on top, and these will bite and capture any nearby renegades. When the renegades are caught, they’re put in one of various cages around each arena. And under each of these cages is a big old button that will release everyone inside.
The cops have to round up all the renegades, while the renegades have to just stay free until the timer’s ticked down. The matches I played were three minutes long, I believe, and every one so far has been just amazing: rough justice rounds where the cops absolutely slam into the renegades and have them all after 30 seconds; back-and-forth struggles where every time a renegade is caught another gets free; wonderful hide-and-seek matches played at slow pace, where the cops just can’t seem to find the renegades.
Jules: Have you played a game where the cops win yet? I played through four rounds with my flatmates and in every one of them the robbers won. We weren’t playing particularly tactically, and that may be what would turn it, but as a robber getting to the button under the cage wasn’t too hard and the payoff was seeing your whole team go free.
Rich: Yes! I think the key thing is accounting for the buttons, which is to say guarding them. In the first matches the cops weren’t doing this but then, once they had three or four renegades in the slammer, two cops would peel off and guard the button. Because their weapon is all about proximity you can do this fairly effectively, and it makes it much harder for the surviving renegades.
My greatest moment came from something like this. One of the nicest touches here is that, if a cop can see a renegade, all cops can see it on their map. But if the cops can’t see you, they don’t know where you are. In one match I was the last renegade standing, and was hiding round the corner from the cage and button. Every one of the six cops was there guarding it. After a few second one peeled off to look for me, then two. The rest soon got bored and followed. Soon only one guard was left and, as soon as they looked the other way, I made the dash and got my buddies out. Sweet sweet renegade freedom.
Jules: I haven’t had the chance to play Coin Runners yet, what about you?
Rich: If Renegade Roundup and Balloon / Bob-omb Battle are more about karts smashing items into one another, then Coin Runners and Shine Thief felt to me more like driving battles, if that makes sense. So in Shine Thief each player has a 20 second timer, and there’s one Shine on the map. When you’ve got the Shine, your timer ticks down, but if you get hit by something you drop it.
It’s a giant game of pied piper really, and pretty funny with it — you get these great conga lines of karts snaking around bends, a cavalcade of items flying towards whoever’s got the shine, and some incredible moments of skill. What I really like about Shine Thief, and it’s why I called it a kind of driving battle, is that there’s real room here for skills: yes there’s a giant pack after you, and yes certain items are going to be nearly impossible to avoid, but sharp turns and dodges can throw off so many of your pursuers.
I played one match where, though sadly I didn’t win, I had a 15-second streak with the Shine and, thanks to some extreme handbrake turns around tight corners, was shaking off my pursuers easily. It was hilarious watching them overshoot again and again, bashing each other with items and generally hitting everything but me.
Similarly with Coin Runners, the goal here is to hoard up coins, which of course you lose when you get hit with anything. The focus shifts because you’re not scoring off other players, so much as accumulating a score yourself and hoping that the others don’t screw it up for you. This one felt like the mode where I was least focused on what others were doing, though again there’s this great moment that comes where everyone sees who’s in the lead and has tonnes of coins - then targets them.
It feels like, if I was in the mood for really testing my driving skills, these are the modes I’d pick — whereas with Balloon Battle and Renegade Roundup they’re much more knockabout and fun in nature. The only mode that doesn’t quite gel for me is Bob-omb blast, which is probably because — while the Bob-ombs are great fun to use — limiting yourself to one item feels kind of counter to a lot of what I love in Mario Kart. The chaos, really.
Then again, it just emphasises that Deluxe has something for everyone. It's not just the range in the game either, but how the nature of the hardware suits this range. I love that we can have a silly battle when we've got a few minutes, and especially because — while I love playing Mario Kart online — there's just nothing like playing someone in the same room. I love playing with other people, and it feels like that's what Deluxe and Switch are all about.