Mario Kart 8’s new DLC tracks are more (or less) of a good thing

Nintendo is now a third of the way through its ambitious DLC plans for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the ultra-popular kart racer that was released for the then-new Nintendo Switch over five years ago. Back in March, it announced it would be releasing a total of 48 new tracks for the game over the course of six “waves,” consisting of eight tracks each.

But the first wave, released back in March, felt a little basic compared to the highs of the base game, and often it was all too obvious which courses were based on content from handheld consoles or smartphone games. This wasn’t the case in the original Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, whose courses were so overhauled compared to their source material that you’d be hard pressed to tell the Game Boy Advance tracks from those that originally appeared on a home console like the Wii.

We’re a third of the way through Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s DLC waves

Last week saw the release of the second wave of content, and after spending a weekend playing through the eight new additions, I think they represent a solid step forward for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s DLC. No, I still don’t think any of the new content reaches the highs of what was available in the original Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but at a cost of just $25 for all 48 tracks (or as a pack-in with a Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack subscription), it doesn’t really have to. You’re getting the same amount of courses as a new game at under half a new game’s price. No wonder the level of polish isn’t quite as high.

Five out of the eight courses are based on mainline Mario Kart titles, two are based on the smartphone entry, and one’s an all-new track. There’s Mario Circuit 3, which first appeared on the original Super Mario Kart on the SNES, Kalimari Desert from the Nintendo 64 title, Snow Land from the Game Boy Advance, Waluigi Pinball from the Nintendo DS, and Mushroom Gorge from the Wii. These are joined by New York Minute and Sydney Sprint, two courses that made their debut in Mario Kart’s less beloved smartphone title, Mario Kart Tour. Finally, Sky-High Sundae is new, though it’s due to also be added to Tour in a forthcoming update.

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Wave 2 feels like it offers a small yet substantial improvement over the eight courses that made up the first wave. It’s tough to say whether it’s because Nintendo has picked a better selection to remaster this time around or because the team has had a little longer to work on them. But either way, there’s a noticeable increase in quality this time around. Sure, they might not reach the sheer gravity-defying verticality seen in Mario Kart 8’s originals — the endless transitions from hang gliding and underwater driving to anti-gravity wall-riding. But there’s a lot more detail here, more variety, and more energy. It’s enough that I can see them becoming a permanent fixture of future Mario Kart sessions.

Waluigi Pinball is the obvious favorite of this latest wave. Set inside a pinball machine branded after everyone’s favorite scumbag, the track fires you up to the top of the board before tasking you with drifting down past bumpers and flippers while trying not to get hit by the machine’s oversized metallic balls. At the top of the machine, the words “Waluigi No. 1” endlessly cycle across an LED display. I can’t help but agree.

Sky-High Sundae sees the return of anti-gravity

As a brand-new track, you get the impression Wave 2’s developers were able to push the boat out a little further with Sky-High Sundae. It’s currently the only Mario Kart 8 Deluxe DLC addition that makes use of the game’s anti-gravity pads, resulting in a jump-heavy course that sees you kart nipping and drifting across endless giant confectionary. Sure, it’s a shame the overall shape is a simple oval loop, and the whole thing feels slightly derivative of Mario Kart 8’s separate Sweet Sweet Canyon, but I hope it’s not the last brand-new content to release as part of these DLC waves.

Mushroom Gorge and Kalimari Desert are two more solid additions. Play your cards right on the former, and it feels like you spend more time bouncing between mushrooms than with your kart’s wheels firmly planted on its paths. It’s got the best music out of any of the locations in this second wave of content, a delightful mix of techno and… panpipes? (I think.) Kalimari Desert has less verticality to it but includes a roaming steam train that frequently threatens to throw off your race by crushing you or blocking off your path, and things only get more intense in later laps as you’re tasked with racing along its tracks directly. It’s great fun.

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That’s not to say there isn’t some filler included alongside the second wave’s killer. Mario Circuit 3 is a track that’s about as bland as its name suggests, an almost completely flat circuit that feels far too faithful to its SNES source material. Snow Land is a little more interesting, with tobogganing penguins to avoid around its frozen lake. But compared to Sherbet Land, the snowy course found in the original Mario Kart 8 roster, Snow Land feels a little flat. It’s too short to offer anything too substantial, and there’s none of the fun underwater sections that added such variety to Sherbet Land. Overall, it’s forgettable.

Finally, there are two tracks lifted directly from Mario Kart Tour, the so-so mobile entry in the series. Despite its humble origins, Sydney Sprint is a surprising delight, weaving across the city’s famous harbor and in and out of its opera house. Trains trundle in the background of the course, which varies enough from lap to lap that you can properly take in its surroundings from every angle over the course of a single race.

New York Minute is no New Donk City

In contrast, New York Minute is a snooze — a flat, lifeless pastiche of the city with little to break up the monotony of its road layout. None of the vehicles on its streets move, and races here feel like they’re taking place in a film set rather than a living city. Given Nintendo went to the effort of patching Coconut Mall last week to make its static cars move, there’s some hope that this might change in a future update, but I’m not holding my breath. This ain’t no New Donk City, guys.

When reports emerged earlier this year that a new mainline Mario Kart was in development that could offer a “new twist” on the series, it was hard not to see the announcement of 48 new DLC tracks as exactly that: a “new twist” on the traditional Mario Kart sequel. (It’s still unclear whether those reports were referring to this DLC or a separate mainline game.)

Given Deluxe was basically a port of the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8 from 2014, we’ve effectively gone eight years and almost an entire console generation without any substantially new mainline content for the series — especially strange given the continued strong sales of the game. It is now the seventh bestselling video game of all time.

This DLC is still far from the Mario Kart sequel stand-in some had hoped it’d be, but as of its second wave of tracks, it’s turning into a serviceable alternative. It may not have the polish or obvious extravagance of an entirely new game, but with an affordable price tag, not to mention tracks as creative as Waluigi Pinball and Kalimari Desert, it doesn’t exactly need it.