So, here we are, weeks away from a new Nintendo console. Nothing gets the tongues of self-appointed market experts wagging quite like one of those. Are Nintendo doomed? Are Nintendo going to make games great again? Are Nintendo going to fix my failing marriage? Eyebrows have of course been raised by the Switch's launch line-up. But for me, people are making a massive oversight. They already have one of the greatest games ever made confirmed for the release window of the system. That game is Mario Kart 8.
Back in 2014 when Mario Kart 8 originally released I blown away with how good the game was. I went into playing with the expectation of it just being another Mario Kart game. Good throw-away multiplayer fun but not much more than that. But after many, and I mean many hours of playing I realised this game was in fact mechanically perfect. The first thing that hits you when playing MK8 is the way it looks. While you will play many games which are technically better looking, with more polygons and all that jazz, few games look quite as...well...nice. The colour that the designers applied liberally across every facet of the MK8 almost strains your eyes at first. You feel like a toddler dizzy on sweets but without having to face consequences of the inevitable sugar crash. In terms of art style it seems like they were influenced by the Wind Waker, borrowing from the cel-shaded, Saturday morning cartoon style. It makes environments pop and emphasises the in-game character's features and over-the-top reactions. This added expression on the character's faces gave us one the world's greatest memes in the Luigi Death Stare. It's like he knew all along what was about to happen in the world.
The game looked better than it needed to be. Nintendo could have put out something which looked much worse and got away with it. You know, cause it's Mario Kart, not Gran Turismo. It almost makes you want to slow down and take in the view to see these little details they put in. Read every sign, watch the actions of every spectator. But the colours and styles of each circuit actually serves an important function. A lot of the new circuits have very different 'sections' to them, but the colour palette remains the same despite the changing terrain and shifting geography. It remains incredibly consistent with an overriding colour-coded theme tying everything together rather than becoming completely disorientating mess of colour like the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tracks like 'Thwomp Thwomp Ruins' and 'Twisted Mansion' have distinct areas that force you to go underwater or through caves, but the look of each area feels natural and the transitions are seamless. It keeps you grounded in some sort of reality, even if it is a reality where massive lizard-men drive cars up waterfalls.
But all this would have been irrelevant if Nintendo hadn't nailed the fundamental mechanics of the game. MK8's balancing is spot on, just rationing out items at a rate which does leave the best players feeling victimised but rubber-bands the race enough to keep it interesting. It is arguably the first time that this balance has been found in the series. The most recent home-console outings, Double-Dash and Wii, suffered in this respect. The gimmick of Double-Dash, having two character's in the car, proved more of a distraction than an inciting mechanic and somewhat took away from the simplicity at the heart of the series. The Wii version was far too trigger-happy with the Blue Shells which meant that luck was far too much of a decisive factor. MK8's balance is perfect, but also gives you the option to change the regularity of certain items if you so choose. The 'frantic' mode also giving you the option to play the game like Mario Kart Wii for newcomers and 200cc being added on for the super hardcore.
The 'gimmick' if you will of the game is one which I now can't imagine playing Mario Kart without. The ability to drive up and stick to certain walls and platforms changes not only how the tracks are designed, by how players can approach them. With all arcade racers there are normally specific sections in the circuits where you can take a risky shortcut or play it safe. It offered the player's choice but it was a fairly binary one. While that still does occur in MK8, the game gives you much more option with this new ability. It often gives the choice of staying on the track or using the walls to your advantage. Depending on the amount of cars around you, the items you have and the angle you are driving at, you will make different decisions depending on the situation in the race. For example, if there are lots of cars around you could choose to drive up a wall and deliberately hit into people so you both get a boost, closing down the gap to the cars in front. This adds a level of player agency that makes it feel like there isn't just one correct path, while also allowing you recover from mistakes more easily and rewarding those had adapt and change depending on the events that have unfolded.
The options the mechanic opens up allows the player feel like there is real progression in the race as they can be spin round and see other parts of the track where they just have or just about to drive through. The constantly shifting paths the player can never settle and can easily lose momentum in the race. Not adjusting your play style to the new surface can be the difference between 1st and 2nd. Nintendo also chose to re-imagine older tracks with this new mechanic in place, and broadly these change improve the tracks and make them more lively. Again, they could have been lazy here and replicated the old circuits verbatim just with a shiny new lick of paint. It's just a shame that they didn't remake the N64 version 'Sherbert Land' which is clearly the best Mario Kart track ever. Come on Nintendo pull your finger out!
The only issue the game had which prevented MK8 from being the perfect Mario Kart was the battle mode. Battle mode seemed like a last minute rush job, like the whole development team had forgotten about it until the week before shipping. Instead of the usual specifically designed maps for this mode we got elongated versions of the race tracks which wrapped around on themselves in a never-ending loop. This fudged the experience, as you often you would just be driving in one direction before having a fraction of a second to hit a driver coming the way. In previous games the map was always designed to attract people into the middle of the circuit to wreak havoc on each other. Mercifully, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is set to change this with newly-designed battle maps which will surely have this purpose in mind, including some returning favourites as well. Personally I'm not even the biggest fan of battle mode but I am glad that Nintendo have seen fit to change it as it was previously the smudge on an otherwise perfect game.
Console launches rarely have any games to write home about. You still playing Killzone: Shadow Fall? When did you last boot up Ryse: Son Of Rome? Did you ever get the knack of Knack? The Switch launch will be no different but it will at least has one of the most complete and mechanically perfect games ever created for it. It's for this reason it is a crying shame that MK8 Deluxe won't be about until month after launch. But, if you are considering buying the Switch and never played Mario Kart 8, you already have the perfect excuse to catch up on this masterpiece.