Can the Booster Course glide past its rusty graphics?
To claim that Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s Booster Course pack is “generous” would be an understatement – we’re talking about 48 remastered courses implemented over the next year-and-a-half. All this for a 2017 racing game (or, more accurately, one that originally released in 2014)! With many series veterans turned off by the microtransaction-heavy Mario Kart Tour and its awkward controls, their desire for a straight-up sequel meets the unfortunate impasse of financial reality; Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is still selling big numbers five years after the fact, and Nintendo’s not about to undermine that Golden Mushroom-fueled momentum. In that event, why not display a gesture of goodwill by letting fans take a grand tour down Mario Kart history at a low price? (At no additional cost if you’re a Nintendo Switch Online subscriber!)
And yet, much as we’ve been enjoying our return to the world’s best kart-racer, not everything is well on Mario Circuit. As the hype following the initial trailer settled down, it quickly became apparent that the new tracks’ graphical fidelity weren’t up to par with the ultra-detailed aesthetics from the base game; in fact, some closer analyses all but proved Nintendo was brushing up ported Mario Kart Tour tracks, as opposed to rebuilding these courses from the ground-up. Combined with the absence of anti-gravity – Mario Kart 8’s signature visual and gameplay attraction – and it’s rendered rather obvious that the Booster Course is but a budget stop-gap for the next big Mario Kart.
It’s very easy for us Nintendo hardcore to roll our eyes and go, “Well, duh! Besides, who’s going to be looking at the graphical blemishes while you’re racing? Just be grateful for what you get!” But let’s not forget this is Mario Kart 8 we’re talking about here. There are countless games that’ve since superseded it in raw technical prowess, but very few can claim to match its timeless, cohesive quality of brimming colors and dense detail. The likes of N64 Rainbow Road, Mount Wario, and Dolphin Shoals still wow even today with their fantastical sense of scale and dreamy colors, and it’s understandably disappointing these new tracks clash stylistically and mechanically with Wii U’s biggest stunner. (Again, it’s not just about the graphics!)
Given that the Booster Course is paid DLC, consumers do have a right to voice their dissatisfaction and feel Nintendo’s not giving their all here. That said, as we’re all busy getting behind the wheel, we must ask ourselves how these courses hold up in the Mario Kart 8 ecosystem. Does their lack of spectacle and zany 90 degree angles render them sterile and stiff relative to the original tracks, or do they coast along on their own strengths?
Much ado has been made over the differences in color and detail: whereas Mario Kart 8’s original use of bump-mapping and the like gave heavy definition to all the gravel and granite, the texture-work here’s much simpler and lacking any solid definition. With how immaculately detailed the game was prior, it’s eye-catching in all the wrong ways. The worst offender may be Toad Circuit (Mario Kart 7), as the garish green colors make for an uncomfortable whiplash compared to the game’s typical color palette, and there’s also a considerable lack of detail to boot. Other courses like Paris Promenade (Mario Kart Tour) have this issue as well, but Toad’s benign design makes it an easy punching bag.
Granted, it’s not all bad – one could make the argument that while Sky Garden’s (Mario Kart: Super Circuit) inferior to the thematically-identical Cloudtop Cruise, the more cartoonish, garishly-lit colors maintain a fresh distinction. It still uses the same techniques from 2014 to bake some life into these old favorites, be it sun catching the light just as we drive underneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris Promenade (Mario Kart Tour) or the dim fog of Choco Mountain (Mario Kart 64) obscuring the distant trail. For any graphical shortcomings, it’s easily the strongest visuals the Booster Course has to offer.
Even so, shiny lights can’t always blind us from the inconsistencies throughout. For instance, Tokyo Blur’s (Mario Kart Tour) bushes are reasonably detailed, but Paris Promenade’s blocky, flat foliage look practically unchanged from their mobile origins. Meanwhile, some courses display skid marks just fine (Choco Mountain), but others are far more subdued – if even visible at all (Ninja Hideaway). Might this seem irrelevant and nitpicky? Perhaps, but to the keen eye trained by Mario Kart 8 experts, all this does add up over time and creates an air of sloppiness. (That, and when Wii-era levels of foliage are staring right at you at the beginning of a race, it’s hard not to wince.)
But how about the actual racing? Some fit into Mario Kart 8’s zany mold better than others, with Ninja Hideaway (Mario Kart Tour) being far and away the star. The track gleefully embellishes upon its ninja motif, with its shuriken ceiling traps and rafter shortcuts striking a perfect balance of pressure and excitement. Framing racers as actual ninjas infiltrating a grand pagoda, the track is so dense with secrets that I keep finding new tricks within every match. (Realizing I could glide up to the rafters near the end put the biggest smile on my face.) Simply put, it’s an explosion of creativity one could even swear was originally born in Mario Kart 8 itself!
Others are just, well, fine; really. I can’t help but feel perplexed by my personal favorite Mario Kart Wii track, Coconut Mall. Yes, all the new contextual world-building is delightful and fits right in with Mario Kart 8’s sense of world, but why nerf the infamous car-poking chokepoint at the end? Love it or hate it, while balancing concerns around 200cc’s rocket speeds might’ve been an issue – and having tested that engine class on the course, it would admittedly be a tight fit – that area is now devoid of any tension and just feels off.
While one could chalk that up to Mario Kart 8’s continued practice of nerfing hazards, playing more abstract tracks like Sky Garden give me even more pause. Again, one could make the argument that its composition as a straight-up, unadulterated racing course sets it apart from Cloudtop Cruise’s nimbuses and beanstalks, but being so familiar with how the game seamlessly blends grounded terrain and inverted roadways, I couldn’t help but identify certain bends and turns that never exploited those mechanics.
At the very least, we can all agree the music’s on-point – with everything from Paris Promenade’s accordions to Ninja Hideaway’s fusion of bass and shamisen making for infectious bops that fit right into Mario Kart 8’s big-band soundscape. The Booster Course’s focus on older tracks provides an additional boon in how these classic songs translate into one of Nintendo’s most celebrated soundtracks, paving an aural road down memory lane. In particular, Shroom Ridge (Mario Kart DS) channels that familiar, nostalgic synth and Choco Mountain lets loose with jubilant harmonicas and banjos to make the racing that much more engaging. While I can’t discern if any of these tunes are live performances, they’re just as high-quality as the game’s original compositions. This not only speaks to the tender care put into them, but establishes their role as the key bridge between the standard and DLC tracks.
Let me reiterate that this is all very charitable of Nintendo in a manner we haven’t seen since 2016’s Welcome amiibo update for Animal Crossing: New Leaf. As is always the case with DLC, it’s all too likely that a skeleton crew was tasked with remastering these courses as Nintendo forges ahead with Switch’s future offerings. Citing the absence of new characters and karts is a logical complaint, but at the very least, constructing brand-new tracks within the original scope of Mario Kart 8’s ambitious design philosophy was likely out of the question. Thus, reviving old favorites was the next logical step. (That, and let’s face it: most players will gradually shrug this off over time, if they even care about it at all: they’ll embrace the novelty of new tracks as they hop online burning rubber with Waluigi-manned Wiggler karts. And really, who could blame them?)
And yet, it’s that impeccable blend of presentation and gameplay that renders Mario Kart 8 so lauded all these years. For those who haven’t played it since 2017 or even 2014, these tracks could very well be a breath of fresh air. Even dedicated racers can appreciate these tracks on some of the same grounds, but they’re the same people who’ll also spot the gradual cracks in areas like aesthetics and removed elements.
Noise is good – with how much hullabaloo this controversy has generated, the feedback has undoubtedly reached Nintendo’s ears. Whether they’ll do anything about it remains to be seen, but just as Nintendo set out to improve N64 emulation for Switch Online, future cups may very well be touched up in light of this criticism. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe remains a precious landmark in how Mario Kart has always successfully raced for the gold, and it’s hard not to argue that the DLC tracks deserve better.