Nintendo made a few changes to Mario Kart 8this week -- some big, some small, some the size of a luxury card brand's new 4WD. If nothing else, this gives us a good opportunity to pause and reflect on how one of the summer's biggest games is doing. So let's do that.
I've been playing Mario Kart 8 pretty much nonstop since it first arrived in May. Here are my thoughts after revisiting the game anew over the past few days.
A few small tweaks make for a big improvement.
The actual "update" part of Mario Kart 8's new content primarily consists of three things, all of which seem pretty small at face value:
- You can now display a map of the racetrack on your TV screen, all you need to do is press the minus button.
- The game will save the player's most recent vehicle combination for the next time they boot it up.
- Players can now change the focus of the videos that end up in the highlight reel to show different characters or episodes from a given race. Nintendo also said that you can now edit other people's highlight reels, though the effect of that will take longer to fully appreciate.
Nothing major, sure. But they're welcome improvements all the same that make the whole Mario Kart 8 experience ever more simple and intuitive. The mini-map is my favourite tweak. Having to look down at the GamePad just doesn't work in a racing game of this calibre -- it's too fast-paced and intense to divert your attention so completely, even if it's just for a fraction of a second. It looks great, too:
Online multiplayer works very well.
There are always hiccups and technical glitches when playing a game through the internet, but so far Mario Kart 8's online modes have been running very smoothly on my end. The biggest frustration I've had is there just aren't enough players online sometimes for a solid race, but that's a bigger problem with the Wii U's commercial viability. It's incredibly easy to jump into the game and start racing or battling with other players, either regionally or globally. Not being able to trash talk still feels off to me when I'm playing with friends online, but I've also come to appreciate some of the inside jokes that players have come up with to taunt each other without using their words.
Playing online is great for the most part, in other words. But it's only great when you're playing the parts of Mario Kart 8 that are fun to play. Which leads to my next point...
It really needs a new battle mode.
In our original review of the game, Kotaku's Mike Fahey described the new battle mode as "horribly tedious, borderline unplayable." Since the core problem with the battle mode is that it uses the same tracks you race on, not much has changed then. Some people play this mode online, but I have to force myself to. This is especially frustrating because the items in Mario Kart 8 are great. I feel like another battle mode could basically be a new, cuter version of some car-fighting game like Twisted Metal, but Nintendo would need to make some bigger changes to its game than the ones it has so far.
The game's current roster sucks.
It took me a while to truly appreciate this, but Mario Kart 8 really comes up short with its character selection. The game has all the classics, no doubt -- Shy Guy, Yoshi, Peach, Wario, Donky Kong...Mario, naturally. Hell, Luigi has achieve a new level of celebrity thanks to his glaring presence in the game. But did Nintendo really need to include all seven Koopalings? Or quite so many baby versions of characters who are already in the game? These characters are find on their own. But taken together, it's now clear that they overcrowded the game's starting line-up. Nintendo should have left some space for more of its iconic stars. Some of those are coming in another update later this year, but the additions that Nintendo made this week don't do much to rectify the situation. If anything, they make it worse. Which reminds me...
The Mercedes Benz DLC just feels...off.
In a divisive move, Nintendo partnered with the luxury carmaker Mercedes Benz to add a few of the company's vehicles to Mario Kart 8 alongside a special branded cup. Purists have equated this to Nintendo selling its soul to the devil or the highest bidder -- whichever is worse in your book. After playing with the new cars, I wouldn't say that the DLC is that extreme. But that doesn't mean it's good. They don't make much of a difference when you're just driving on your own, since you only see the back of the vehicle then anyways. But when you play against other people online, something about seeing these shiny chrome vehicles sparkling in the virtual sun just seems weird. Mercedes Benz cars might look amazing in the real world. But their aesthetic is drab in comparison to the vibrant, whacky cartoon worlds that Nintendo is so good at making. The DLC is free, which makes downloading it fairly harmless in single player since you don't have to use the cars. But seeing a fleet of mini-SUVs in an online race can sure feel depressing.
There's some more good stuff coming -- in a few months.
It's telling that Nintendo dropped a major announcement about the future of Mario Kart 8 just hours before the current update went live. The game is still incredibly fun, but all the low points I just identified add up to a concern that could very well be a dire one: after just three months, players are already worried about the new game growing stale. The lack of interesting characters and a weak battle mode put more pressure on the Time Trials, Cups and Vs races to carry the entire game. At the end of the day, that means you'll be spending a lot of time on the same 32 racetracks. They may be great. But even great levels can start to get old after a while.
Luckily, the new update promises a fix to this problem. Nintendo is rolling out two new DLC packs, each of which offer three new characters, four new vehicles, and eight new tracks. At $US12 for both of them, that's a pretty awesome deal -- especially when you consider that it's bringing people like Link, Tanooki Suit Mario, and Dry Bowser into the mix. But I have to wonder: will I still be playing the game regularly by the time they show up, ready for a new race?