Preview: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe skimps on new content, but it's worth getting behind the wheel again

My first thought when seeing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch was “this looks impressive.” Running at 1080p and 60fps on a massive main screen at Nintendo’s Switch Preview Tour, the visual improvements over the three-year-old Wii U version were palpable. Characters have finer details that gave them better presence, courses are more eye pleasing with improved textures and a wider spectrum of color, and crisper special effects, like drifting sparks, pack more punch.

A lot of that extra visual goodness, however, is only available when played in Nintendo Switch’s TV mode. In Handheld mode the resolution downgrades to 720p, the same as its Wii U cousin, although I would argue that the images still looked sharper and had more of a pop on Switch’s sleek 6.2-inch screen. The good news is, from a pure graphics perspective, no matter how you play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe it’s almost certainly a step up from what you’ve seen before.

All DLC and a little bit more

Refreshed graphics on Nintendo Switch are nice to have, but if Nintendo really wants to entice back owners of the Wii U version they need to offer their fans something more. The disappointing truth is there’s not a whole lot that’s new, but your mileage will vary depending on whether or not you splurged for all the extra DLC.

In addition to getting all of the game’s base content, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe bundles every single add-on, including The Legend of Zelda and Animal Crossing packs, amiibo support, 200cc engine class, and eight palette swaps for Yoshi and Shy Guy. During my hands-on session, I had a chance to play as Link on the F-Zero-inspired track Mute City, and I’m happy to report the DLC content was ported over smoothly and looks even better than before. In a nice yet subtle touch, I noticed the male and female Animal Crossing Villagers are now separate characters on the select screen, and for the first time I went up against both of them in a “vs. CPU” race.

Over and above the DLC, the game adds two new characters (Inkling Boy and Inkling Girl), three returning characters (Dry Bones, King Boo, and Bowser Jr.), three new vehicles, two returning items (Boo and Feather), a new Smart Steering driving assistance feature, and Double Item Blocks from Mario Kart: Double Dash!! make their long-awaited return. Battle mode has also been completely revamped and finally returns the series to classic arena-style maps. While I would have liked to have seen more significant updates, especially new racetracks and cups, Battle Mode has always been my favorite go-to multiplayer mode with friends so it’s fantastic to see it back.

The Nintendo Switch factor

While Mario Kart 8 Deluxe lacks in new features, it does have one major strength playing to its favor: the Nintendo Switch Hardware. Having an enhanced version of the game you can play anywhere, in multiple different configurations, is a pretty compelling proposition. Nintendo seems fully aware of this because the main stage of the Switch Preview Tour featured four booths showcasing how to play the game in an airplane, at home, on a bus, and with friends in a café.

Tabletop Mode

Inside the model airplane, I went head-to-head against a friend in a two-player race with the Nintendo Switch configured to tabletop mode. For this, we had the console propped up on a dinner tray using the kickstand, and each of us held a Joy-Con controller horizontally in our hands like you would a SNES controller.

I was pleased to see the framerate held a steady pace during the entire race, and the graphics remained crisp and beautiful throughout. However, a big issue I had with this mode is how much screen real estate each player gets. Trying to target far away characters with a green shell on a 6.2” screen divided in half is already challenging enough, but Nintendo bizarrely accentuated the problem by positioning the tablet in the far corner of my opponent’s seat, not exactly between us, forcing me to lean over uncomfortably just to see the action. I could see the potential for a great tabletop gaming experience, but with a screen that small it’s absolutely imperative you communicate with your racing partner to station the console in the sweet spot between you.

TV Mode

Next, I moved over to the model living room to try Mario Kart 8 Deluxe sitting on a sofa and viewing a wall-mounted HD TV. Here I was given the opportunity to try out the new Joy-Con Wheel accessory, which is basically a plastic wheel you insert a Joy-Con controller into and steer using gyro controls. In comparison to the sizable wheel used for Mario Kart Wii, this one is much smaller and easier to grasp, plus it’s a lot lighter given the Joy-Con’s svelte form factor. The game was able to detect my turning motions and reflect them in-game fairly accurately, which is great news for parents with kids, however I can’t see hardcore racing purists using the device for more than a few minutes.

During this session I tested out some of the new and returning characters, including Dry Bones who has always been my favorite light-weight in the series. For fun, I placed him in the new Splatoon-inspired Inkstriker, a vehicle shaped like the game’s Inkstrike torpedo special weapon, but it was hard to tell what impact it made on my driving since all vehicle stats were hidden in the demo. In my next race I paired King Boo with the returning smiling Koopa Clown car (a modified version of the vehicle Bowser rode in Super Mario World), and it handled corners as tightly as I remember from Mario Kart 7. By the fourth race I had tried most of the new characters and vehicles, and while they were a lot of fun to use (Dry Bones!), it also reinforced just how little Nintendo has added to the game. The best part of TV mode is easily the gorgeous 1080p graphics, which are a marked step up from what we’ve seen before.

Handheld Mode

This mode was the game-changer for me. Nintendo situated me and three of my colleagues in a Mario-theme café to test out the game’s revamped Battle mode. I have fond memories of meeting up with friends to connect our Nintendo DS systems for some epic Battle mode matches in Mario Kart DS, and the experience here felt quite similar. Each of us had our own Nintendo Switch console, and after a quick sync we were off to start our first game of Balloon Battle on the all-new Splatoon-inspired Urchin Underpass map.

I immediately noticed that having the entire screen to myself was a big improvement over Tabletop mode, as was using two Joy-Cons in a traditional controller set-up. The Nintendo Switch also has a very solid feel to it in Handheld mode, with just the right amount of bulk to get a firm grip but not enough to weigh it down. Physically, everything looked and felt great.

Nintendo has made a few tweaks to the classic Balloon Battle formula, most significantly starting everyone out with five balloons instead of three, but the majority of the rules remain intact. Collecting items is done by driving through blue Item Boxes around the battle arena, and in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe you can now hold up to two items. This opens up a huge range of new strategic possibilities since you can fire off a weapon and have another one in reserve. In one example, I blasted an opponent with a red shell, then immediately deployed a green shell behind my kart to stave off their red shell counterattack. Another time I used a mushroom to speed boost behind another racer, then pelted them with some short-range fire flower fireballs. I fully expect the community to come up with some neat item combinations, and can’t wait to see them in action.

The biggest and best change Nintendo made was reverting Battle mode back to its arena-style roots, and it made a world of difference during my hands-on multiplayer session. Instead of the lazy, uninspired repurposing of racing courses we had to endure in the Wii U version, the battle maps here promote frequent encounters and a maelstrom of items flying by in every direction. Frantic action and chaotic encounters have always been what made Battle mode such a blast to play, and it’s faithfully reproduced here it all its multiplayer glory. I can definitely see myself calling upon friends for Battle Mode LAN parties, and that is easily the biggest advantage Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has over its predecessor.

Before wrapping up my session, Nintendo left me with a few teasers, like the possibility of more Battle modes and other surprises, so there could be more in store for fans come April 28. The biggest unknown for me is the online component, as Nintendo has been very hush-hush on their upcoming paid online system. If Nintendo can sell enough Switch consoles to foster a large online community, and has the network infrastructure in place to support faster connection speeds, that might provide the final push we need to take this enhanced version out for a test drive.