Old fa­vorite, new plat­form, but more of the same

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - BY MICHAEL THOM­SEN style@wash­post.com

Nin­tendo makes games for spec­ta­tors as much as play­ers, turn­ing play into a kind of so­cial ad­ver­tise­ment that at­tracts new con­verts from the wings. This logic guided the “Mario Kart” se­ries through its 25-year his­tory, a go-kart rac­ing game in which play­ers zip around the post­card scenery from “Su­per Mario Bros.” games, col­lect­ing items to hurl at one an­other, angling for coins to get a speed boost and drift­ing around cor­ners to slip ahead of the an­i­mal mas­cot in the kart ahead.

Pro­ducer Shigeru Miyamoto said in a 1992 in­ter­view that drift­ing around cor­ners was “sort of like ‘PR’ for the peo­ple watch­ing game. It’s to get them ex­cited: ‘See, you can race this way too!’ ”

“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” takes this the­ory of game-de­sign-as­so­cial-con­ta­gion into new ter­ri­tory. Tech­ni­cally the ninth game in the se­ries, “Deluxe” is mostly a re­mas­ter of 2014’s “Mario Kart 8” for Wii U, now ported to Nin­tendo Switch, the com­pany’s jus­tre­leased hand­held-home con­sole hy­brid. The Switch’s porta­bil­ity com­ple­ments “Mario Kart’s” so­cial vi­ral­ity, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to play at the park or bar, where the con­sole’s two de­tach­able JoyCon con­trollers can be flipped on their side and used for twoplayer matches.

This flex­i­bil­ity comes with sig­nif­i­cant er­gonomic com­pro­mises, both at­tached to and de­tached from the screen: its minia­tur­ized face but­tons, shal­low shoul­der but­tons and nub­bish joy­sticks are frus­trat­ing to use. No one I played the game with lasted more than 10 min­utes with these key­chain­sized hand-cramp de­vices. Nin­tendo of­fers $70 Pro Con­trollers to make up for the fact that the Switch’s cen­tral con­cept — the seam­less tran­si­tion be­tween hand­held and home con­sole games — is bet­ter suited for a prod­uct trailer mon­tage than hu­man hands.

“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” bun­dles the Wii U game’s two down­load­able con­tent packs, which added 16 new tracks, six ex­tra char­ac­ters and a su­per-fast 200cc rac­ing mode, with a few su­per­fi­cial ex­tras. There are five new driver char­ac­ters, four new go-kart parts, the abil­ity to hold a sec­ond at­tack item and a third tier of speed boost given for re­main­ing in a drift.

These ad­just­ments are more chaff than mean­ing­ful change, a bloom of me­chan­i­cal dif­fu­sions meant to dis­tract from the repet­i­tive task of steer­ing around cor­ners. More sig­nif­i­cant is the restora­tion of “Bat­tle Mode,” in which play­ers face off in eight rect­an­gu­lar are­nas (five new and three old) in­stead of race tracks, at­tempt­ing to pop bal­loons tied to each kart, col­lect the most amount of coins be­fore a timer runs out, or cap­ture and hold on to a giant “Shine” icon for 20 sec­onds. The mode feels both fren­zied and stress­ful, some­thing that’s en­dured as much as it’s en­joyed.

This ten­sion be­tween amuse­ment and anx­i­ety is cen­tral to ev­ery part of the game. Its rubber-band­ing AI keeps com­puter-con­trolled rac­ers close due, in part, to the un­fair dis­tri­bu­tion of items that guar­an­tee the player in first place is the most likely to be pun­ished by blue shells, light­ning strikes and view-ob­struct­ing ink blots. Miyamoto com­pared this qual­ity to the Ja­panese tra­di­tion of ki­modameshi, an im­pro­vised “test of courage” in which some­one is sent into an un­cer­tain en­vi­ron­ment — an aban­doned hospi­tal or for­est in the mid­dle of the night — and made to en­dure for a certain amount of time. For Miyamoto, it was im­por­tant to make play­ers “ex­pe­ri­ence fear even if noth­ing hap­pens.”

Suc­ces­sive ver­sions of “Mario Kart” have acted as an­thol­ogy re­leases, of­fer­ing re­vamped driv­ing me­chan­ics to play with on cour­ses that mixed new tracks with re­made ver­sions of old ones. Over time the tight cor­ners and speed­ways, filled with oil slicks and pot­holes of the orig­i­nal, evolved into wide and rel­a­tively empty roads to ac­com­mo­date the in­sta­bil­ity of mo­tion con­trols. In “Mario Kart 8,” the wide lanes re­mained and were put to use by spongier drift­ing me­chan­ics meant to dis­cour­age the prac­tice of snaking — drift­ing re­peat­edly in short, zigzag­ging bursts — that had be­come com­mon­place in 2005’s “Mario Kart DS.”

“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” feels like the most com­plete game in the se­ries, with 23 re­made tracks from ear­lier games and 25 orig­i­nals, yet the rac­ing feels like it’s been tamed by the mild cour­ses and gen­tle drift­ing sys­tem. The more bal­ance and nu­ance Nin­tendo has tried to bring to the se­ries, the less ef­fec­tive the game’s ki­modameshi ten­sion. At heart, haunted places aren’t meant to be per­ma­nent res­i­dences. The tricks even­tu­ally wear off. This may be why Nin­tendo has em­pha­sized the game’s porta­bil­ity, en­list­ing play­ers to carry it out in the world with them like a six-inch bill­board for any­one to see. For new (or lapsed) play­ers, the pos­si­bil­i­ties will seem end­less and en­er­giz­ing. For me, the idea of end­less pos­si­bil­ity started to feel like more of the same.

NIN­TENDO

“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” is mostly a re­mas­ter of 2014’s “Mario Kart 8” for Wii U, now ported to Nin­tendo Switch, with a few su­per­fi­cial ex­tras.

MARIO KART 8 DELUXE Nin­tendo Nin­tendo Switch

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