“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” takes this theory of game-design-as-social-contagion into new territory. Technically the ninth game in the series, “Deluxe” is mostly a remaster of 2014’s “Mario Kart 8” for Wii U, now ported to Nintendo Switch, the company just released handheld-home console hybrid. The Switch’s portability complements “Mario Kart’s” social virality, making it possible to play at the park or bar, where the console’s two detachable Joy-Con controllers can be flipped on their side and used for two-player matches while the portable screen is propped up on its kickstand. This flexibility comes with significant ergonomic compromises, both attached to and detached from the screen: its miniaturized face buttons, shallow shoulder buttons, and nubbish joysticks are frustrating to use. No one I played the game with lasted more than 10 minutes with these keychain-sized hand-cramp devices. Nintendo offers $70 Pro Controllers to make up for the fact that the Switch’s central concept —the seamless transition between handheld and home console games — is better suited a product trailer montage than human hands.
“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” bundles the Wii U game’s two downloadable content packs, which added 16 new tracks, six extra characters, and a super-fast 200cc racing mode, with a few superficial extras. There are five new driver characters, four new go-kart parts, the ability to hold a second attack item and a third tier of speed boost given for remaining in a drift. These adjustments are more chaff than meaningful change, a bloom of mechanical diffusions meant to distract from the repetitive task of steering around corners. More significant is the restoration of “Battle Mode,” in which players face off in eight rectangular arenas (five new and three old) instead of race tracks, attempting to pop balloons tied to each kart, collect the most amount of coins before a timer runs out, or capture and hold onto a giant “Shine” icon for 20 seconds. The mode feels both frenzied and stressful, something that’s endured as much as it’s enjoyed.
This tension between amusement and anxiety is central to every part of the game. Its rubber-banding AI keeps computer-controlled racers close due, in part, to the unfair distribution of items that guarantee the player in first place is the most likely to be punished by blue shells, lightning strikes, and view obstructing ink blots. Miyamoto compared this quality to the Japanese tradition of kimodameshi, an improvised “test of courage” in which someone is sent into an uncertain environment — an abandoned hospital or forest in the middle of the night — and made to endure for a certain amount of time. For Miyamoto, it was important to make players “experience fear even if nothing happens.”
Successive versions of “Mario Kart” have acted as anthology releases, offering revamped driving mechanics to play with on courses that mixed new tracks with remade versions of old ones. Over time the tight corners and speedways, filled with oil slicks and potholes of the original,, evolved into wide and relatively empty roads to accommodate the instability of motion controls. In “Mario Kart 8,” the wide lanes remained and were put to use by spongier drifting mechanics meant to discourage the practice of snaking — drifting repeatedly in short zig-zagging bursts — that had become commonplace in 2005’s “Mario Kart DS.”
“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” feels like the most complete game in the series, with 23 remade tracks from earlier games and 25 originals, yet the racing feels like it’s been tamed by the mild courses and gentle drifting system. The more balance and nuance Nintendo has tried to bring to the series, the less effective the game’s kimodameshi tension. At heart, haunted places aren’t meant to be permanent residences. The tricks eventually wear off. This may be why Nintendo has emphasized the game’s portability, enlisting players to carry it out in the world with them like a six-inch billboard for anyone to see. For new (or lapsed) players, the possibilities will seem endless and energizing. For me, the idea of endless possibility started to feel like more of the same.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
Recent game reviews: