Mario Kart 8’s New Battle Mode Is the Most Fun I Had At PAX This Year [PAX East Preview]

It’s clear with Switch (and Wii before it) that Nintendo can be counted on to “think different,” but I can’t say I necessarily expected this to pervade its approach to showing off games at PAX. While almost every other appointment I had at this year’s PAX East was either a prim and proper Westin hotel walkthrough or a guided showfloor demo, Nintendo went for something a bit more refreshing with a remote second floor location at the convention center itself. With a small stage, couches, and four (yes four) Nintendo Switches and just as many large, floor-mounted LCDs, it was time for some four-player LAN and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Despite having already played and owned Mario Kart 8 since 2014, it was easily the most fun I had at this year’s show.

To start, I’ll confirm that you did in fact read correctly; the game features local LAN on Nintendo Switch, and up to twelve players at that. You’ll of course need several separate Nintendo Switch systems, but given its portable nature the notion is all of a sudden not as far-fetched as maybe it once was. Accessing the wired LAN option for multiplayer is achieved by a slightly obscure button combo (L and R plus clicking the left stick), but I was assured anyone savvy enough to LAN would already know about this. I’m not so sure, but hopefully they’ll Google it and find this article. Alternatively, there's also wireless LAN for up to 8 players.

The changes to the existing Mario Kart 8 game are minor (it’s 1080p now, and sports previous DLC and added modes like 200cc from the get-go), but the biggest addition to the experience by far is a new, proper Battle mode. In the Wii U version Battle was limited to the game’s traditional grand prix racetracks, a fun but ultimately unsatisfying diversion from the main game, where you’d rarely come across your foes often enough to lose many battle balloons or even a single one. Remedied in Deluxe, battle features not just one, not just two, but five Battle modes, comprising what is probably the most feature-rich Battle options the series has seen. If you were worried Deluxe would be too much of a rehash, don’t be.

The available modes include Balloon Battle, Renegade Roundup, Bob-omb Blast, Coin Runners, and Shine Thief, several of which we've seen in previous Mario Karts but one of which (Renegade Roundup) is entirely new. In that mode, half of the participants pilot karts with Piranha Plants hitched via some kind of apparatus in front, and police sirens strapped on top. The goal is to pursue the other players fleeing and place them all in cleverly situated “jails” throughout the map, the percentage of all non-police players in jail when the time-up horn sounds determining which team ultimately wins. Admittedly, Renegade Roundup left me wondering how exactly the law enforcement team could ever win on the regular, but perhaps it simply requires practice and experience. Jail placement seemed to vary across courses, sometimes with one central jail or several, which is a nice touch for added variety.

The other battle modes are more familiar but still as rollicking as ever, be it classic Balloon Battle best known from Mario Kart 64 or Double Dash’s Shine Thief, which I honestly did not expect we'd ever see returning. I’d say Shine Thief was my favorite outside of Renegade Roundup, and possesses an element strangely reminiscent of Harry Potter’s broomfaring Quidditch, in that you may not want to seize the Sprite and end a round victorious if you’ve repeatedly lost previous rounds; you'll win the round, but could end up losing the entire match anyway. Regardless, the mode proved hectic and prone to friendly trash talk within mere minutes, which sealed my fate of being laughed at by the on-hand Treehouse rep for my spastic braking and accelerating tactics that I apparently thought would grant me some kind of yet-unseen duck-and-weave-style immunity. I did manage to place second, so at least I wasn’t completely deluded in my approach.

Speaking of braking, a number of new convenience and beginner-friendly tweaks have been added, as well as features to make the formidable 200cc less masochistic and miserable. You can now brake while power sliding, which suddenly makes the mode a lot more appealing, while newbies can enable something called Steering Assist, which prevents careening over the edges of challenging courses like Rainbow Road. In our final round I turned it on to give myself an advantage at Neo Bowser City on 200cc, blistering through its rainy environment and slick turns at a hilariously breakneck speed and never once falling off course. The result was my single first-place finish of the day, though I resisted mic-dropping my Pro Controller and dabbing on the way out.

Other minor adds like the ability to hold two items, and additional items such as Boo invisibility and Feather jumping in Battle further refresh Mario Kart 8’s return offering, and after my demo it’s clear that I will in fact double-dip on the game and feel little guilt in doing so. Battle feature four all-new courses (shown in screenshots) and four that return from previous games, bringing the total course-count across Battle and standard race to the largest yet seen in a Mario Kart game.

If you’re going to recycle a flagship release across two consoles it had better be worth revisiting, and Nintendo appears to have achieved this with Deluxe (though we’ll wait for the final version to draw any kind of permanent verdict). The game releases on Nintendo Switch on April 28th, so you’ve less than two months to wait before reliving your N64-glory Battle days with whomever you can convince to join. The release is bit late in Switch’s launch window, but it works - I doubt I’d be willing to take even ten minutes away from Breath of the Wild before then anyway.