Before December 2021, my last video game system was the Nintendo GameCube. I still love my GameCube, but had basically stopped playing video games after college. The combination of no online play and a lack of portability caused me to not play very often.
Last fall, I decided to buy a Nintendo Switch. Even though I've been working from home since early 2020, the portable console still holds a special place in my heart. I do travel for work occasionally, and I love the ability to grab-and-go with my games in 10-15 minute bursts, so the Switch felt like an obvious choice.
When I bought my Switch, I also bought a few games: a new Pokemon game, the new Super Smash Bros. game, and the newest iteration of my favorite racing game: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
The first way I judge video games is by how easy it is to pick up and feel like you're doing the right thing in the game. I found Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to provide a bit of a steep learning curve, but one that was easily coached and improved by in-game information.
The controls are super simple, which makes it easy to feel like you have everything you need right off the bat. Sure, learning how to drift around corners and build the different levels of mini turbo comes with time, but you know roughly what to do at every point in a race. There's the option to use "smart steering", which will take control of your kart occasionally to make sure you don't fly off the edge of the stage, and the option to use "tilt controls" for steering, which provides a bit of the steering wheel action people like to play around with.
The coaching in the game is also excellent with the time trials, where you can race against a member of the Nintendo staff via their "ghost". You can see everything they do during the time trial, from the drifting strategies to the item usage to the shortcuts they take. Once you have a time trial run recorded, you can start racing against your own ghost to continue to make improvements.
On top of all that, you can race against the computer to learn about racing at different speeds (50cc and 200cc are very different) and how to utilize your items during races. The computers are generally expected to lose, but they put up enough of a fight to make the races interesting, and you can see the improvement as you move from 6th to 3rd to 1st in the grant prix.
Smart steering seems like a great idea until you realize that it will prevent you from taking most of the shortcuts in the game. Tilt controls have caused more chaos to new players than any other feature in the game, especially when people don't know they've enabled it.
But the real barrier to entry is in online play, where you can be matched up against very diverse levels of skill in the same room. You'd hope that at a certain point, more rating would be correlated with more skill, but that's not always the case. I've played in rooms with brand new players (1000 rating) who absolutely dominated their rooms, and I've played with 80,000+ rated players who were competitive with the rest of the room that was sitting at around 2500 rating.
The problem isn't that skill varies, but rather that some of these people are so much better than the rest of the room that they aren't really playing the same game. I've been lapped by players before and seen the player in first play games trying to hit themselves with their own items and still comfortably winning the race. It can be extremely demotivating to play against these players, and if you are that player it can make the game boring.
Mario Party and Mario Kart are the two franchises known for creating extreme discord in friend groups, and I'm happy to see that hasn't changed in recent versions.
No matter your skill level, there is always something to get competitive about. The game encourages you to upload your time trial ghosts for the world to see, meaning the world records are all available for you to practice against. Watching the world records, the gap between the elite and the very good is large. The best time trialists hang their karts off the edge of the track to cut down on distance and perform crazy mini turbo combos like it's nothing.
Online races are a bit more complicated. Because of the luck involved with items, it can be hard to tell if you did poorly because of a poor set of items or because of your skills. Often the race comes down to correct item management and good driving, but sometimes it feels completely out of your control. You could drive poorly but still win by a landslide because the pack behind you cannibalized itself. You could also drive perfectly and get destroyed at the finish line by a hoard of bombs and shells (which is affectionately called getting "Mario Karted").
The stage diversity encourages different types of strategies, as well. Certain tracks have many shortcuts and lend themselves to "bagging", or purposefully doing poorly at the start of the race in hopes of getting better items and being able to skip huge parts of the track on the final lap. The variety and luck factor keeps things interesting but can hurt the competitive spirit of the game, which is one reason I believe Mario Kart is basically non-existent as an e-sport.
The other issue with competitive Mario Kart is there are clearly better and worse characters, tires, and gliders. The mini turbo and ground speed statistics are so important to high level play that basically everyone at a high level uses Waluigi, the roller tires, and the paper glider. The only variation is on the kart itself, of which there are basically only 2 options: the Biddy Buggy and the Wild Wiggler. Balance was not something Nintendo put too much thought into when designing the game.
I love the design of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
The graphics are great, mostly. There are some tracks that clearly had more effort put in than others, but most of the tracks are very well designed and visually appealing. From a rainy day in Neo Bowser City causing puddles in the road to the sand getting stuck in your tires on Dry Dry Desert, little details add up to a very enjoyable visual experience.
The sounds of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are amazing. Getting hit by a shell sounds great, getting 1st on a race sounds great, getting last in a race sounds great, and the background tracks for the race courses are spectacular. They seem to be getting better with time, as both DLC waves have had amazing sound design. I'll just leave the Sydney Sprint music here:
Replayability and Overall
In my mind, the ability to keep playing a game is the overall score that I give to a game. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is one of the most fun and replayable games I've ever played.
There are plenty of characters, karts, tires, and gliders to choose from to keep things exciting. The graphics are entertaining and the music is incredible. The randomness of each online match keeps things fresh while not (generally) being too frustrating. The number of strategies you can attempt on courses can keep you thinking about new things all the time.
The problem, as I alluded to earlier, is that there are clearly better and worse character combinations. It can be fatiguing to hear Waluigi's voice yelling all around you every race, and it can be difficult to deal with a couple consecutive races with terrible item luck.
Still, the good outweighs the bad in a big way. There are so many nuances to the game, both in strategy and in design, that keep me coming back excited to play. I'll often put 2 hours into the game without even thinking about it, and I'll find myself constantly telling me that I'll play "just a couple more". That, to me, indicates a great game.