Mario Kart fans are used to waiting entire console generations before getting a new edition of their favorite racing series full of items. So today’s release of the first downloadable content pack for mario kart 8, just months after the game’s release in May, is a big departure for the series. It’s also a big departure for Nintendo, which is only just beginning to jump on the DLC bandwagon that other major developers have been riding for years.
Thank goodness the company is finally catching up because the first bit Mario Kart DLC (available now for $8 or as part of a $12 bundle with a second pack due in May) is the best kind of nostalgic love letter to Nintendo’s biggest fans. Every corner of the new content is packed with the kind of historical nods and nods to a variety of Nintendo series that normally seem more at home in the Super Smash Bros. games.
Some parts of this nostalgia mining have been evident since the DLC was first announced in August, with Legend of Zelda protagonist Link as the most surprising addition to the racing roster. While riding around as Link, there’s a bit of a disconnect at first as he sees his signature green tunic stuck in a horse-shaped motorbike surrounded by the trappings of Mario games. And just to be sure Zelda fans will get a nostalgic contact high of recognition when Link releases his signature “Hyaaa!” and raises his sword in triumph during a jump (complete with the brief flash of a Triforce icon for good measure).
However, Link blends into the game’s background noise quite quickly, his tunic just a trivial patch of green that you occasionally glance at as you try to make sense of the frenetic jobs around you. Likewise, racing as Tanooki Mario or Cat Peach feels 95 percent identical to racing as the mainstream versions of those racers that you didn’t have to pay extra to access.
But the new vehicles each have their own specific stats and racing styles. The Blue Falcon, Tanooki Kart, B Dasher, and Link’s Master Cycle all seem geared to expert level play to varying degrees, with generally high top speed and low acceleration and traction control. None of them revolutionize the style of kart racing, but it’s always nice to have more options to suit a specific style of play. Plus you get a cute ‘tail wag’ sound effect when you lie down on the Tanooki Kart’s horn, which adds to the substantial Super Mario Bros. 3 pleasure center in my brain.
The real reason to buy the DLC, however, is the new racetracks, the vast majority of which lean on Nintendo nostalgia as a pleasant crutch. Three of the eight new courses are outright copies of old ones Mario Kart tracks. Gamecube’s Yoshi Circuit Double dash (and later Mario Kart DS) is still full of fast, tight turns that require planning ahead to navigate efficiently. Wario’s gold mine Mario KartWii looks better than ever in HD, but it feels a bit weird now that the original’s sidewall ramps are missing. I’m a big fan of the re-imagining of the original SNES Rainbow Road course, a completely flat, multi-colored plane with radioactive glowing Thwomps sending billowing shockwaves through the right angle turns.
Then there are the courses that step outside of the series’ Mario-themed roots to pay homage to other classic Nintendo series. Excitebike Arena is probably the most boring of these, full of long, wide straights and a lot of very repetitive ones Excite bikeramps in style. The Mario Kart-encrypted version of F-zero‘s Mute City is much more exciting, packed with elegant dash zone sequences and excellent use of the game’s new hover mechanic. The Hyrule Circuit course, meanwhile, manages to capture the wide-open feel of it Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field while still being a sleek and well-designed racetrack.
But even more than the design, it’s the little details in these levels that will really set the nostalgia centers ablaze for Nintendo fans. It starts with the music – well-crafted remixes of familiar tunes from the 8 and 16-bit eras – but it goes way beyond that. Mute City throws in F-zerostylized electrified walls, arrow-shaped dashpads and shield charging zones that supplement your coin count. Hyrule Circuit replaces the coins with rupees and the item’s sound effects with those of one Zelda open treasure chest. The designers even manage to shoehorn a somewhat apt cameo from the Master Sword. None of this is central to the racing feel of the courses, but they are nice extras for players who have stayed with Nintendo over the years.
Beyond that, we only have two completely “original” courses left in this first DLC pack. Dragon Driftway is an Asian inspired course full of beautiful undulating turns and a great soundtrack. Ice Ice Outpost, meanwhile, often splits the track into two narrow strips that twist around each other like a corkscrew in relentlessly tight patterns. With the exception of the Excite bike track, each course is an excellent addition to the game’s roster and well worth the total price of about $1 you pay for it (or less, if you buy both DLC packs at once).
Even if the new courses were below par, it’s still nice to see one Mario Kart game will get all new post-release content. mario kart 8 was a relatively solid game when it was first released, aside from some major issues with the battle mode and online play. There’s no reason Nintendo should wait until it can reinvent the wheel with a brand new one Mario Kart on a completely new console for the company to build on that solid foundation.