Back when Mario Kart 8 was released in 2014, our own John Teti heralded it as the best Mario Kart ever made. Unless you were a big fan of the series’ battle mode, which this installment royally botched, it was hard to argue otherwise. MK8 is a sumptuous audio-visual feast, each impeccably imagined track bursting with activity, nuance, and color. And it played as wonderfully as it looked, inheriting a host of additions from recent installments, like the timing-based air stunts, that add a pleasant busyness and speed even to those moments where you’re just mindlessly cruising in first place. Fueled by the more modern accommodations of the Wii U, Mario Kart 8 was a glistening showpiece for Nintendo and its near-peerless craftsmanship.
Now, Nintendo has shined up the game for a Deluxe rerelease on the Switch and found ways to make it even better. There’s the requisite handful of added characters—fringe Mario universe picks like King Boo and Bowser Jr., as well as the Inklings from Splatoon—and all the stupendous post-release tracks sold as downloadable content for the original release, including a duo of deliriously fast F-Zero courses and the twisty confines of Dragon Driftway. All of that is a perk for Wii U players who may have moved onto the Switch and never shelled out for Mario Kart 8’s DLC (never mind the hordes of people who skipped the Wii U and will be experiencing the game’s splendor for the first time), but it’s the changes under the hood that make Deluxe a better version of the best Mario Kart ever.
For most people, the big one is the updated Battle Mode. Nintendo has attempted to atone for the original release’s mistakes with a decked-out combat suite that borrows arenas and game-types from all around the series. Aside from the classic Balloon Battle free-for-alls, the two modes plucked from Double Dash—one where everyone’s literally tossing bombs around and another that plays out like a high-stakes game of kill the man with the ball—are the most inspired inclusions. There’s also a frantic new mode called Renegade Roundup that’s a solid, unique addition. It’s a mix between tag and cops and robbers, with one team, The Authorities, using Piranha Plants to put the other, The Renegades, behind bars. If any one Renegade is still free when the timer reaches zero, then the criminals win, but if all of them are caught at any given time, then The Authorities win. The big twist is that any criminals who are still on the lam can trigger a jailbreak and restore the team. This is the crux of the new mode, creating the opportunity for thrilling hero moments as you swoop past unsuspecting do-gooders and free your partners.
Deluxe has a little more Double Dash DNA in it even beyond Battle Mode. The biggest change to the actual racing is that players can now hold two items at once. You can’t swap between them at will, though, meaning if you want to use that red shell you’ve got in waiting, you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth throwing away the weapon in your primary slot. Double Dash’s double-item boxes also return, which is a tremendous boon for players out in first place as they dramatically increase the odds of getting an item you can use to defend yourself, rather than another useless coin. The brilliant trade-off there is that they’re not often placed in the most optimal positions on the track, meaning you might have to break from your perfect racing line to take a stab at picking up a banana or horn. It assuages some of the frustrations players had with the way the original release handed out power-ups and adds a much needed layer of risk-vs.-reward thought to high-level play.
All of those changes, plus a third level of dift-powered mini-boost, are fine additions for veterans, but the real stars of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are the options it introduces to help new players. The game has something called “Smart Steering” turned on by default. It’s a computer-assisted way of keeping you on the track no matter how bad you may be at turning, which for most Mario Kart rookies is probably the hardest part of the game to get used to. Plenty of proud, experienced karters might scoff at this idea, and for them, turning Smart Steering off is as easy as pausing the game and pressing a button. But for someone who’s never played a Mario Kart and is just starting to learn, Smart Steering is a way to play alongside more experienced friends and actually have fun doing it. My partner, who doesn’t play any video games and was reluctant to give Deluxe a try, is now completely hooked on it. Someday, after she’s learned the ropes, we’ll take the training wheels off and leave Smart Steering behind, but for now, it’s a way for her to play along with our friends and experience the tactile and visual pleasures of Mario Kart 8, something she would have struggled to do without this assist.
With all the hoopla we make about video games with complex systems and grandiose visuals, it’s easy to forget just how much of a hurdle handling a controller and playing a modern game can be for less experienced players. When it’s a nightmare just to get moving, none of that nuance we rave about matters. And that’s to say nothing of how games can be better built to accommodate people with disabilities and physical ailments. A story has already come out about Deluxe’s Smart Steering and Auto-acceleration helping a 4-year-old who suffered a stroke play the game with her siblings. All of Deluxe’s extra bells and whistles are a nice bonus for fans, but the game’s dedication to accessibility is a victory for everyone.