For a long time I’ve wanted Mario Kart to expand into the wider Nintendo universe. It’s not that Mario characters and locations alone are at all lacking (they certainly aren’t), but the potential is tremendous. How fantastic would it be to drive through Hyrule racing as Link, or to blaze through Mute City? I finally have evidence to my answer; it would be – and it is – awesome. Mario Kart 8’s first DLC pack has arrived, introducing eight new courses, three new characters and four new vehicles. Among these is The Legend of Zelda, F-Zero and Excitebike themed content, as well as some classic MK tracks and some brand new course debuts.
Let’s start with the characters. In a game with five set weight classes, choosing a specific racer is entirely inconsequential to gameplay and purely cosmetic. With this in mind it’s easy to be puzzled by Nintendo’s choice of newcomers. Though the inclusion of Link largely overrides any disappointment, we’re also given Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach to race as. Considering we could already race as both Mario and Peach in normal, baby, and metal form, why would we want these characters? Why not add another Zelda character? Why not add Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr, or any of the other commonplace Mario characters inexplicably missing? They aren’t just slightly different models either; they have their own voice tracks and animations to the quality of every other racer – I can’t imagine it was any easier for Nintendo to implement these guys than it would have been to focus on those more suitable. It’s not what we wanted, it’s not any more practical, so… why?
Having said that, they’re all great. Of course Link is fantastic, but yes, I’ll even admit that Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach are pretty wonderful too. Okay, I love them. The three new racers have perhaps the most personality of any of MK8’s contestants, and it’d be pretty hard to miss. The best examples are their stunt animations. Link will either pull out a Triforce in mid-air or show off the Master Sword with some sweet flourishes. Cat Peach does some unavoidably cute cat stuff, and Tanooki Mario waggles his little tail or even turns to stone briefly. They’re really cool, fun animations that make the newcomers more enjoyable to watch and therefore play as than most, if not all, of the other playable characters.
Slightly more important are the vehicles. The B-Dasher returns from Mario Kart DS, F-Zero’s Blue Falcon and Link’s brand new Master Cycle represent their respective franchises, and the Tanooki Kart rounds off the set. Each of the vehicles are comparable to the fastest of MK8’s existing choices, and the Tanooki Kart sustains speed particularly well off-road. The other three add little more than visual diversity to the race track, but that’s really all they needed to do. A new set of wheels and a glider come in the pack too, each referencing The Legend of Zelda. It might not do much for the gameplay, but I sure do feel cool driving my B-Dasher with a Hylian Kite.
One of the coolest parts of Mario Kart 8 at launch was how it recreated older courses; MK8’s retro cups were a step above those of its predecessors. Implementation of new anti-gravity and underwater mechanics facilitated a freshness in old favourites, but continued to capture the feeling of the classics we still loved. The same goes for the three retro courses delivered in DLC Pack 1, but perhaps to a lesser extent. The new mechanics are employed noticeably less here, though the visual improvements are as impressive as those on-disc.
Yoshi Circuit of Double Dash fame, Wario’s Gold Mine from Mario Kart Wii and Super Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road are the cards we’re dealt. Yoshi Circuit is still a joy to race through, with awesome Double Dash music to match and some lush new scenery setting it apart from previous incarnations. Wario’s Gold Mine looks phenomenal in HD; a darker colour palette provides a really cool atmosphere. It’s almost gritty, and it makes a fairly lackluster MK Wii track stand out as an interesting incongruity. SNES Rainbow Road on the other hand is pretty but predictable. There’s no real twist in its modernisation; neither figuratively nor literally. At first glance a lack of anti-gravity on MK8’s third Rainbow Road seems like a missed opportunity, but a more grounded, simple track acts as an effective change of pace in the long run.
Two more of the new courses are original ideas comparable to those in the four main cups of MK8. Dragon Driftway sees racers sliding around a huge ornamental dragon in anti-gravity. I love the twisty tracks that require a meticulously urgent approach to drifting, and this is up there with the twistiest. To top it off, it’s a looker too. The brighter colours usually make up the more beautiful MK environments, but the calm greens and browns here accompany the more involved driving perfectly. I find myself in an unmistakenly zen-like state on each lap. Ice Ice Outpost rewards a similarly sophisticated driving style. As well as the two over lapping paths through the ice caverns, some of the most challenging and satisfying shortcuts in MK8, or any Mario Kart game, exist here. I’m interested to see what routes the community finds to be the best, where drivers tend to switch between the two paths, and whether the risk of shortcuts is deemed worth the reward.
The most exciting part of Pack 1, for me, was the new courses based on other Nintendo properties. The new Excitebike track sets itself apart in a couple of ways. Firstly, it’s randomly generated each time you play on it, meaning the usual process of learning and memorising the circuit goes out the window. Secondly, there’s no real difficulty in traversing each lap. Instead, the simple maneuvering around easily avoidable obstacles, execution of stunt boosts and choosing the most effective path are made necessary to win. It’s a significant change to the norm, and while it ends up feeling a little more focused on items (and therefore chance), means it isn’t too fun to play repetitively, but a joy to play on between more complicated races.
Mute City represents the F-Zero legacy suitably, and with absolute reverence to the source material. Obviously it isn’t as fast or crazy as F-Zero, but Nintendo have gone about as far as possible to make it feel like its inspiration without it straying too far from Mario Kart. There are loads of speed boosts to keep the velocity high, and the entire track takes place in anti-gravity mode. There aren’t even any coins to pick up in Mute City; the healing strips from F-Zero are spread throughout, rewarding those who drive over them with coins. There’s a level of strategy involved in deciding whether to cut through these and take the coins to reach your top speed, or take the speed boosts instead for instant assistance. If you needed a cherry on top of it all, you might recognise the unique results screen music that plays after finishing a race here.
Hyrule Circuit is the new course that I was most hyped to play. After heading through Hyrule Field and gliding into the castle, you’ll have an opportunity to hit three crystals and complete a ‘puzzle’, rewarding you with a shortcut jumping right past the Master Sword resting in an unsuitably open Temple of Time. From there you’ll drift through a valley avoiding Deku Babas. I feel like I’m heading out from the Kokiri Forest every time. What makes the circuit special though, are all the little things. Rupees are scattered in place of coins, activating the shortcut plays the iconic ‘puzzle solved’ melody and while you’re waiting for your item from the box you just hit, you’ll notice the chest opening music replaces the normal slot machine noise. I honestly tricked myself into believing I was playing some kind of ‘Zelda Kart’ driving through this track as Link – it’s that authentic.
It becomes very clear that the diversity of this DLC’s tracks is a great strength. Going from Mute City to SNES Rainbow Road or from Dragon Driftway to Excitebike is almost like changing to a different gameplay mode entirely. There’s a breadth of gameplay in these eight courses that acts as an indisputable testament to Nintendo’s tremendous ability to make the most of that which might seem limited. If this trend continues in DLC Pack 2 and potential future content, Mario Kart 8 will go on to be a true master class in level design; and in a kart racer at that.
The biggest problem I have with this DLC is the crazy high standard it sets for itself. “Wow, that Zelda course was awesome, let’s play the next one!” There’s no next one. The announcement of a Triforce Cup early on led me to believe I’d get my hands on four Zelda tracks, and that would have been a perfect amount. The one we were given doesn’t satisfy my desire, but instead proves how valid it is. There is enormous potential here, and I fear it won’t be met. I’d absolutely love more Zelda tracks, but they couldn’t be placed in the already full Triforce Cup, so where? It’s almost as if Nintendo used the cup system to effectively place a full-stop right after Hyrule Circuit, as if to imply it is a complete one off. That’s an idea that disappoints me greatly. On the other hand, we could always end up with random tracks from various properties scattered all over the place. As much as that would bother me, I’d take more Zelda and F-Zero courses with this level of polish and identity any day.
There are no new battle maps in DLC Pack 1, which can only be described as a missed opportunity. Fans were certainly vocal about MK8’s battle shortcomings at launch to a point that you’d expect them to be heard, so why not sell a battle map or two? Regardless of shortcomings, the value of this pack is undeniable. We’re getting just about a quarter of a Mario Kart game’s worth of content at a very reasonable price, which is discounted even further with the additional pre-purchase of Pack 2. This is a generous offering.
Mario Kart 8 just got even better. Nintendo has delivered some of the most interesting and identifiable Mario Kart tracks to this date, and has set an especially high standard for future add-on content. References to other franchises are handled truthfully and respectfully, while maintaining a consistent Mario Kart style. We can only hope for this trend to continue, and this release has got us thinking – what are the coolest DLC possibilities for the future? Whatever may come, it will be hard to fault anything that continues the quality of DLC Pack 1.