Last week was Thanksgiving in the US, a holiday often celebrated with family. For many gamers, this means a lot of time spent playing Nintendo games. I, for one, spent most nights playing Mario Kart 8 with my brother. Doing so led to a surprising discovery about its online multiplayer: it's gotten a lot better as of late.
I've checked in on Mario Kart frequently since the since Nintendo released its first batch of DLC goodies last month. Simply put, the game'sonline multiplayer has noticeably improved ever since the new stuff came out. More people seem to be playing it, sure. But that's only part of the story — it's become much easier to actually find other people playing the game online than it was previously, and match up with fellow players of an appropriate skill level. So while it's tempting to chalk up all of Mario Kart 8's improvements up to renewed interest in the game (thanks to the new DLC), the improvements in its online multiplayer go beyond that. The game just runs better online than it did before the most recent update. And this is great news for Mario Kart fans, because the state of its online multiplayer was looking pretty grim for a while.
Over the past few months, it had become very difficult to find substantial races to participate in online in Mario Kart 8. Regardless of whether you selected the "Regional" or "Global" options for the game's multiplayer, it took a frustratingly long time to get set up with a race — upwards of four or five minutes, in my experience. And once you did get into a race, very often they were sparsely populated. As in: you'd be racing against two to three other people at most.
Mario Kart has always been an evergreen title that's still fun to play months (or even years) after it's originally released, so the sudden precipitous drop in the game's online multiplayer this fall was pretty depressing for fans — especially since the game was still a lot of fun to play (both on and offline) when performance issues didn't rear their ugly head. Combined with the imminent release of Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U, Mario Kart 8's myriad problems added up to a very real concern: that the game was slowly but surely fading away.
For those unfamiliar with its recent history, a quick refresher: Mario Kart 8's multiplayer allows you to participate in its online gameplay modes alone or with another person. The latter choice effectively turns the excellent the game into an interesting combination of local and online multiplayer that's part co-op, but mostly still competitive. Besides three or four-player local multiplayer grand prix races, this two-player online mode is pretty much my favourite way to play Mario Kart 8. Or, at least, it was. Until some problems started to crop up in the game over the summer.
Nintendo released a big update for Mario Kart 8 at the end of August. While it didn't add anything to the game content-wise, it changed a few things about the game's online multiplayer. These seemed like minor details at first. But over time, players began to take issue with the subtle alterations. The game's online matchmaking system seemed particularly suspect. By the beginning of October, Mario Kart 8's online multiplayer was starting to feel like a virtual wasteland.
As I wrote at the time, it was difficult to pinpoint the root of Mario Kart's online multiplayer problems. Thanks in no small part to Nintendo's silence on the question of how, exactly, it altered the game's ranking and matchmaking system, I couldn't tell if the sudden struggle to find well-populated races online were a result of the game's diminished popularity or any sort of technical hiccup that lead to the appearance of fading interest in the game.
Regardless of what caused the problems with Mario Kart 8's online multiplayer performance, they now seem like a thing of the past. Over the past two weeks, I've had a much easier time starting races with a full roster of competitors. Better yet, I actually feel like I'm being matched with people of similar skill and ranking, rather than getting dropped into a group that's either much better or much worse than I am. This worked just as well regardless of how I was playing — with another person (aka my brother) by my side, or in the game's regional or global modes. And as people's excitement over playing as Link has become a teensy bit less... intense, the Zelda star's presence in the game has become less overwhelming as well.
Of course, seeing a beloved and exceedingly family-friendly title like Mario Kart swell up in popularity around the same time as a major holiday isn't all that shocking. Nor is it a guarantee that Mario Kart will remain at the top of its game going forward. But it's still heartening to see that the game's excellent online multiplayer is making a comeback for two main reasons. First, I noticed the same improvements in online performance and matchmaking in both the regional and global online modes, which suggests that its revitalization is not just a temporary thing caused by people in the U.S. specifically lounging about for the holidays. And second, the boost to Mario Kart 8's online performance comes amidst the highly anticipated launch of Super Smash Bros., another of Nintendo's iconic party games that, however unintentionally or temporarily, risked overshadowing Mario Kart in the eyes of the Wii U-playing public.
There's no telling if Mario Kart 8's current revivification is just a temporary blip or an overarching sign of the game's steadfast presence. In either case, I can say that for curious or erstwhile fans: now is a great time to be playing the game.