Mario Kart has always been at the tippy-top of any respectable list of party games. From its origins on SNES and onwards, it's been a simple, refined, playful racing game that's spawned many imitators but no true challengers. Its various incarnations sit as crowning achievements of their respective consoles, most notably the Nintendo 64 and Wii. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, now out for the Switch, having received extra polish and content over its original Wii U version, is the closest the series can come to a summary of its former triumphs without simply including them wholesale.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the Mario Kart formula is how little it's changed. Sure, peripheral elements have been added - bikes, aerial and zero-g sections, online play, motion controls - but the core gameplay is still fundamentally the same as it was two decades ago. There are only really three buttons you'll ever use - accelerate, jump/drift, and use-item - but there's so much variation and skill involved in when and how to press them that the game doesn't need any more. It's hard to describe the satisfying feeling of really nailing a drift boost, doing a jump trick, or successfully taking out your friends and family with shells. Trust me, though: when you get really good at Mario Kart, you feel like a little goddamn road wizard.
Sporting 48 tracks, including several revived and remastered from earlier games in the series, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a mightily generous offering. Better still, all tracks and characters (a good quarter of which originated in non-Mario games, curiously) are unlocked from the word go, except a handful of vehicle customisation options - all but eliminating the tedious grind to see everything found in most racing games. Every track can be raced upon in single player, local split-screen multiplayer, local wireless multiplayer with other Switches, or online (the online mode in particular has a terrific, friendly lobby system for voting on tracks and trading good-natured encouragement). There's also a Battle mode - a natural choice for multiplayer - where players attempt to wreck each other in various ways in custom-built arenas. At the end of races, you get customised highlight reels, which like their Overwatch counterparts offer mixed results but a strong sense of fun. The most controversial new feature, Smart Steering, guarantees you'll never fall off the track; though it'll be seen as cheating by die-hards, it's really well implemented, giving the feeling of just barely making tight turns.
Feeling, indeed, is what Mario Kart is all about, much of which comes thanks to the colourful and varied track design. Nintendo has never concerned itself with photorealism, but the tracks found here are so gorgeous and dynamic that any further graphical advancements would surely be met with diminishing returns. Replete with vibrant lighting and particle effects, Mario Kart 8’s racecourses are filled with vertiginous leaps and drops, tricky corners, and track-specific gimmicks that mix things up even more. Some of my favourites include: driving on the back of a shark, flying into foreboding stormclouds, racing around a volcano while the land slowly sinks into lava, and scooting around a tiny-scale track in a child’s playroom. All that variety and whimsy just adds to the game's playful nature. It's hard not to feel like a kid again (or still, depending on your age) in this kind of joyful experience.
Even played solo, Mario Kart is moreish as hell, but it's the multiplayer that really sets it on fire. As anyone who’s played one of these games will gleefully - or regretfully - tell you, Mario Kart can galvanise friendships or destroy them; it can turn you into a wonderful sport or reveal your hidden competitive monstrosity. The randomly-assigned item pickups provide for most of the drama: a few well-placed shells can drop a player from first to last in no time, especially when those running dead last have a better chance at scoring the most powerful items. Cries of “one more match” will be driven as much by vengeance as by enjoyment.
In the Switch, Mario Kart may have found its most natural home. Given the machine’s portability - either in tablet mode or on a TV with the barely-even-chunkier docking station - the kart party can go anywhere, and it isn't limited by the low power of Nintendo's mobile-only consoles. There’s also the fact - the importance of which I can’t stress enough - that the console comes with two controllers standard, making local multiplayer possible right out of the box. I haven’t had a chance to network with another Switch, but every other mode works. It’s that simple: it just works. Easy to pick up and hard to put down, it's every bit the game for all ages Nintendo intends it to be.
Having only recently returned to the Nintendo fold, I fear we may take games like Mario Kart for granted. True, they haven't changed much over the years, but that's only because their fundamental design is more or less perfect. There's a reason new elements like hang-gliding only show up occasionally: they're there only to add a dusting of extra zing to a game that'd still be great without them. Appropriately, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe feels like a victory lap, the delightful culmination of decades of refinement. No doubt there will be further installments to come, but for the moment, this is as good - and as deluxe - as it gets.