It's safe to say that Nintendo caught us off guard with its recent DLC announcement for Mario Kart 8, with these extras bringing new franchises into the MK world and, just as importantly, serving up a significant dose of content. Once both packs arrive the number of courses will have doubled, which is substantial, while six characters and eight vehicles will significantly flesh out the game's offering.
There are a number of topics that are raised by this announcement, so let's start with the most obvious hypetastic example. Mario Kart 8 is stepping out of Mario's universe to incorporate other franchises, which is a first for the series — discounting the Bandai Namco arcades. The Legend of Zelda, F-Zero and Animal Crossing will feature in various ways, through vehicles and even new tracks, which raises tantalising and hugely exciting possibilities. It's a concept we considered earlier this year, wondering aloud whether more diverse characters could bring even more freshness and thrills to the iconic racing franchise. MK8 is exceptional to start with, due to track design and features such as anti-gravity, and the idea of a track inspired by the Zelda series is the stuff of fantasy. For some — not all — this is sheer wish fulfilment.
Of course, the flipside is an argument that this DLC is diluting the brand, opening floodgates to ever-increasing batches of tracks that confuse the overall package. That's a fair view, though for starters we wouldn't lump these two packs with the free Mercedes DLC that's arrived with the game's update today; having blasted around some tracks in these cars we're agreed that they can seem a tad weird, though they're actually put together rather well. This is more about taking Mario Kart in a Smash Bros. direction, albeit less extreme in its diversity; whether that excites or worries you is down to individual preference, though the concept undoubtedly gives Nintendo's development teams some extra scope for creativity and playful ideas.
It's a bold move from Nintendo, undoubtedly, certainly one of its most surprising announcements of recent times — even accounting for its increasing willingness to try new ideas. Much as the Smash Bros. roster typifies, it opens to door to innumerable possibilities — Metroid tracks that take the outer space Rainbow Roads of recent entries to yet another level, or a Kid Icarus track that goes through the fiery underworld. If the Mario Kart franchise has perhaps been burdened by its Mario universe limitations and some generic settings (snowy mountains etc), this development lifts the lid. While rival karting games such as the excellent Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed have enjoyed crossing franchises and designing tracks without limits, Nintendo's team has been slightly limited in comparison; we can't help but be intrigued to see — as a result of this new-found freedom — what's coming in these packs.
From Nintendo's perspective, it's potentially opened the door to an impressive money-spinner, and one that can accentuate the 'evergreen' nature of the title. In its early weeks and months Mario Kart 8 has already performed well around the world, but like its predecessor will carry Nintendo's hopes of being a consistent seller. These DLC offerings provide extra profile and buzz at regular intervals, with the November release of the first pack seeming to be particularly well-timed ahead of the Holiday season, while May's second pack will draw attention to the title's first birthday. Should Nintendo go beyond these offerings with more — the calls for a Battle Pack will likely be sustained and long — then they can provide terrific momentum.
Regular batches of DLC can do much to make a game feel more like a platform, far greater a product after a few years than on day one and with a broadening appeal. As we've argued in the past when suggesting DLC should be a factor in MK8, it also helps the kart racer feel more like a modern contemporary of the racing genre; as much as we love mastering the original tracks, new courses, cars and characters will keep the title at the front of our minds when, typically, it would quietly drop back and become an occasional party game.
From Nintendo's perspective, it's also a particularly logical use of its resources. It's no secret that the company and its partners have to produce more content than ever for its systems, but with the groundwork done on the new engine that's powering MK8 the process of designing new stages is surely far more streamlined — take Nintendo's 2D Mario titles, which are put together with intuitive internal tools that are being re-purposed for gamers to enjoy in Mario Maker. The company has already outlined how challenging it found the transition to HD with the Wii U, which contributed to some delays and problems, yet with that hump cleared in various cases we'd expect that smaller teams are able to turnaround this DLC content.
Our final point in assessing this DLC announcement is that Nintendo is clearly keen to offer impressive value to draw gamers in; the fact that the big N is having to work hard for sales is clearly to the benefit of us, the players. The individual packs ($7.99 / £7) arguably offer solid value — with three characters, four vehicles and eight tracks each — but the double pack is particularly enticing at $11.99 / £11. At a quarter of the full retail price — more like a fifth in the US — there'll be 16 tracks, eight vehicles and six characters. The 16 tracks part is particularly impressive, as that's half the typical line-up, with the usual 50/50 split — based on the teasing layout in the updated game — between new and retro courses. Nintendo seems to be adapting its perspective of value to market realities — rather than demanding like-for-like sums for DLC extras, these are being pitched as affordable enough to be considered a fairly hefty bonus on top of the default content, with enough included to shake off any sense of content lazily 'held back'. The core game has a solid level of content, but for a relatively low price it'll expand nicely by next May.
As you may tell, we're rather optimistic about Nintendo's DLC plans for Mario Kart 8, and don't hesitate to say that NL HQ has been a place of smiling faces and hype over what we'll see in November. That's not going to be universal, however, and it should definitely be acknowledged that the absence of improved Battle options is a source of regret. Though these new tracks will likely be usable in Battle mode — you just drive in opposite directions, after all — the lack of proper arenas (we assume, at least) is hard to ignore. We've suggested above that Nintendo's resources are surely stretched, and it's conceivable that statistics for online play in Battle for previous entries, and focus group data, points to the mode being a favourite of a relative minority. That's not really an excuse for the enduring weak-spot of Mario Kart 8, but it may be a reason.
However you look at it, this is a brave move from Nintendo, changing the feel of one of its most iconic franchises by opening it up to other IPs. It also points to a potential model for other games in future, expanding core experiences with more content to fill gaps in entirely fresh releases. New Super Luigi U, lest we forget, was an early step in that direction. DLC is becoming increasingly common for Nintendo, and we wouldn't expect this to be the last treasured franchise to break similar ground.
Let us know what you think of these points around Mario Kart 8's DLC in the polls and comments below. Are you excited by it, or do you feel it's the start of slippery, deadly slope for Nintendo?
Are you excited about the Mario Kart 8 DLC packs? (643 votes)
Oh yes! I can barely contain myself
Absolutely, I'm moderately hyped
I don't know what I think yet
Hm, I'm not sure about it, but will consider boarding the hype train in future
Bah! Down with this sort of thing...
I don't have Mario Kart 8 and don't plan to own it, so... meh
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Are you happy to see Nintendo producing DLC like this? (605 votes)
Definitely, it's something I want to see more of
Yes, on the condition that it's well balanced
Hm, I'm not sure
Not really, but I'm open to persuasion
No, I don't like it one bit, no siree!
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