Mario Kart 8’s first DLC brings Hyrule Castle and Mute City to the Mushroom Kingdom

An in-depth look at Nintendo’s “Super Smash Kart” DLC

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Mario Kart 8 is a big, bold, beautiful game. The track design is unmatched and the handling is sublime… but it was always lacking something. That something is levels, characters, and karts from other Nintendo properties like The Legend of Zelda, F-Zero, and Excitebike, all added with this new DLC. Cross-over tracks are a long overdue addition, considering how well Nintendo has crossed-over its games in Super Smash Bros. We’ve entered the era of Super Smash Kart—but what all does this DLC add to the already great Mario Kart formula?

New tracks

Egg Cup:

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Yoshi Circuit GCN

Here’s one of the few truly classic courses from Double Dash. A rollicking ride around a Yoshi-shaped island complete with a Yoshi-shaped copter filming the action, the course excels at forcing players to make quick, jerky turns to keep up with the strict bends in the track. There’s also a classic shortcut through the waterfall, if you happen to have a mushroom. Nintendo hasn’t done a lot to revamp this course (I think they just added a jump?), but it’s a meticulously designed track that gains extra oomph thanks to Mario Kart 8’s improved handling over Double Dash.

Excitebike Arena

Excitebike Arena is a pure-fun level that lets players trick to their hearts’ content over angular hills. The design is a simple oval with easily-avoided mud puddles and grass patches as the only obstacle, and as such requires players to grief each other for real challenge. I really enjoy the up-and-down vertical design of this course, and the way the jumps alternate sides with grassy areas adds some dynamism to the track. I think it could have benefitted from a glider section after the raised platform—this would be a great track to swoop down on, as there’s very little glider (and absolutely no underwater) segments in this entire DLC. Still, this is a great appropriation of a very neglected Nintendo franchise.

Dragon Driftway

Dragon Driftway is immediately visually impressive. Super Mario Galaxy’s unfriendly dragon Gobblegut makes an appearance as the motif for an ornately designed Japanese temple, complete with gold gilding and paper lanterns. Unfortunately, the level is a little one-note: it’s all swooping curves and anti-gravity segments. There’s nothing extra special that really elevates the level, except small patches of grass that act as a good mushroom shortcut. I won’t say this level is bad by any means, but it doesn’t hold up next to the incredibly inventive level design in Mario Kart 8 as a whole.

Mute City

Mute City is a fantastic representation of Nintendo’s other big racing franchise, F-Zero. Even more than Excitebike Arena, this really nails home what’s so great about the series. Swooping corkscrews, relentless boost pads, and purple energy strips abound, with a great shortcut that has you flying above the track in classic F-Zero style. And the visual design is just incredible, perfectly nailing that futuristic comic-book kitsch that the series is known for. Really the only downside to this course is that Nintendo remains hush on whether or not F-Zero is truly dead. I really hope this is Nintendo’s nod toward future F-Zero games, rather than an apology for letting it go. This level is just too much fun, and the Wii U is a perfect of a fit for the series.

Triforce Cup:

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Wario’s Gold Mine Wii

This track hasn’t been tinkered with too much, but it’s still easily improved over the Wii version. It maintains the lifting and dropping rollercoaster ride of the original track, but the ride feels much less jerky—in the Wii version there was one hill where I’d always fly off, and that’s not the case here. The other tweak I really like is that the minecarts no longer knock players off the course. Instead, they act as anti-gravity bumpers, propelling players along. This level was brutal and annoying in the Wii version, so I’m glad it got toned down just a little bit.

Rainbow Road SNES

Here we go—forget the awful N64 Rainbow Road, this is where it’s at! Invincible thwomps and a lack of walls leave players at the track’s mercy, and jumps over the abyss are the norm. This version looks absolutely beautiful, with the rainbow-block track shimmering like gemstones over a sleepy toad village, chimneys puffing away in the night. Design-wise it’s largely unchanged from the 3DS version, the only potential difference being that the undulating track seems harder to trick off of. Neither the 3DS or Wii U remake truly capture the brutality of edge-hopping around corners in Super Mario Kart, but this is an absolutely classic track and the best Rainbow Road in the series. I’d still like to see Rainbow Road GBA make an appearance one day, but this’ll definitely do for now.

Ice Ice Outpost

This is a really cool, original level. Ice Ice Outpost features a dueling track design, where two differently-colored paths snake next to each other, letting players drift from one to the other at key points. The shortcuts are brutal on this. You can chain them together from one to the next to the next, but there’s only one that I can nail with any sort of consistency. In that sense the stage runs the whole span of skill levels—it’s not really that hard to stay on-track, but skilled players will dominate the course. My only real gripe is that there’s no underwater segment. This would be a very easy stage to design one in, so that it doesn’t seem like Nintendo forgot about underwater racing altogether.

Hyrule Circuit

A lot of people were eagerly anticipating this track, and I think Nintendo knew that, placing it right at the end of the DLC to be a big finisher. The fanservice is great, replacing the Mario Kart sound effects with Zelda ones, the coins with super-shiny rupees, and the piranha plants with deku babas. But that’s really the thing. All these changes feel very cosmetic—the track still winds around like any standard Mario Kart track. Heck, the castle theme isn’t so different from other Mario Kart levels, and the pastoral part feels very Moo Moo Meadows.

And maybe Nintendo could have gone further with the fanservice. Why have random Hylian guards atop the castle when you could have Zelda, Gorons, or any number of Zelda characters waving players on? Why are the deku babas and keese just swaps of existing Mario Kart iconography when you could have unique features like, say, octoroks in the moat? At least the switch-activated Master Sword is a good touch. Overall though, I think this level just doesn’t feel like a final level. It’s way too easy, especially in a cup with Rainbow Road and Ice Ice Outpost. I don’t dislike this level, really, but compared with Excitebike Arena and Mute City, it’s clear that Nintendo didn’t quite get this right without an existing racing template to base it on.

New characters

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The new characters are Link, Tanooki Mario, and Cat Peach. Link’s the only heavyweight, making him (in my opinion) the only one truly worth using. But… he looks kinda lame, crunched up in the karts like that. He’s much better as a motorcycle rider, but the bikes don’t gel with me like they did in Mario Kart Wii. Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach are both good designs, but I don’t think they feel entirely justified when there are more worthwhile Mario Kart characters left absent. Nintendo have also added Amiibo support, allowing players to scan in character costumes for their Mii racers, but that’s not really the same thing. Where’s my King Boo, Nintendo?

New karts (and parts)

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The new karts are the Blue Falcon, Tanooki Kart, B-Dasher, and Master Cycle. With the exception of the Master Cycle, which I just plain don’t like, the other karts are great. The B-Dasher and Blue Falcon are both iconic vehicles from their respective series, and the Tanooki Kart is damned cute. In particular I really love the Blue Falcon. Firstly because it’s classic, but secondly because it’s a high-speed vehicle with solid acceleration that takes wide turns in a way that reminds me of Super Mario Kart’s slidey handling. It’s a great vehicle and I’m really happy to have another super solid alternate to my Cat Cruiser. The DLC also includes the Triforce Tires and Hylian Kite glider, which are both pretty cool.

Is it worth the price?

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Absolutely. This DLC is $8 standalone, but if you go all-in with the two DLC packs, you’re getting 16 levels, 6 characters, and 8 karts for $12. That’s basically half a game’s worth of content. These tracks maybe aren’t as intricate as some of the other tracks in the game, lacking some of their setpiece flair, but that doesn’t make them any less fun. Mute City and Excitebike Arena in particular are both incredible, and I really appreciate seeing Yoshi Circuit GCN and Rainbow Road SNES again.

… but is it enough?

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Look, I’m the sort of person that, if Nintendo offered us DLC containing a whole game’s worth of 32 tracks, I’d still want more. I’m the sort of person who, if Nintendo wants to completely remake Mario Kart DS for Wii U, I’m totally on-board. But at the same time, no amount of tracks can really be enough. Sure, I have some minor/major gripes with item balance and mechanics, but the main issue is this: Nintendo really needs to release a Battle Mode DLC. Mario Kart’s battle mode is a waste of potential at this point, and it feels rushed out rather than redesigned. These race-based battle tracks just aren’t cutting it. If Nintendo released a (hopefully free) DLC of four to eight classic arenas (SNES Battle Course 2 please!), and maybe a classic ruleset for battle mode, that’d go a long, long way toward making this the best Mario Kart of all time.

I know it’s wishful thinking, but Mario Kart 8 plays so well in so many ways that it’s an utter shame what’s happened to the series’ battle mode. As things are, Mario Kart 8 feels like half of the full game. One small DLC pack, probably much easier to design than the current two, would make much more of a difference in the long run. I hope Nintendo sees Mario Kart 8 as a game with true legs, and goes out of their way to fix something that never should have been broken in the first place. In many ways, having Link and other Nintendo characters in Mario Kart is a dream come true. But for many players, a proper battle mode has become a dream of its own. The last four games have missed the mark entirely—hopefully Nintendo sees this as an area for improvement, rather than a mode to get rid of.

Final thoughts

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Mario Kart 8’s first DLC impresses with a selection of strong tracks and cool karts. These tracks maybe aren’t as intricately designed as the original ones, but they’re no less fun. And the addition of other characters and tracks is something fans have been waiting for Nintendo to do for a long time now. Even though what I really want is a battle mode DLC, that doesn’t make what’s on offer here any less stellar. You’ll blow through these tracks really quickly, but you’ll be playing them for a long time to come. Mario Kart 8 is a great game, and these tracks are a fun and affordable reason to keep playing.

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