We had one major complaint with Mario Kart 8 when we reviewed it on Wii U - its so-called Battle Mode was lazy and barely worth a look. It simply took place on Grand Prix tracks, so you'd drive around unaware of where your foes were (as a track map wasn't added until a post-launch update), which was a vacuous and pointless experience. It was like jousting in karts, but without any of the tension or excitement.
The game achieved redemption because, frankly, the rest of it was so darn good. It was streets ahead of Mario Kart Wii in quality, not just visually but in its core mechanics and balancing. The added twist of anti-grav sections was a delight, too, and when Nintendo released some fantastic DLC it arguably stood up as a contender for best-in-series. That's always a hot debate, to be sure, but we felt MK8 was a proper Battle Mode away from being definitive in its genre.
Now we have Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and as the name makes clear it is the same as the Wii U game in most ways. Some nice features have been added to races, such as steering assist for inexperienced players and some other smart tweaks. For instance there's now a tough to achieve third drift point for a bit of extra boost - speedrunners will go to town with it in Time Trial, for sure.
That's all very nice, but when we spent some time with it in the company of other jaded old game writers we cared about just one thing - Battle Mode. It's back, and Nintendo has put the effort in with eight maps and five different modes; we naturally tried out the best ones the only way we should - in local multiplayer in the same room, where insults and nudges can be dished out.
First, some admin. Nintendo seems to have done a good job with local multiplayer options. There's no Download Play (unsurprisingly because of the amount of data involved), but local wireless supports up to eight players (each on a separate system if desired) and in an admittedly ideal setting we saw no blemishes or hiccups. In the setup there were four Switch consoles on the go, with two players per system in split-screen on the TV, which holds up at 60fps. Also of note, which we didn't get to try, is support for LAN multiplayer - if you successfully rig this up with those darn LAN adapters (perhaps at a competitive event or expo) you can have 12 players at once, which is a nice touch.
That's all good stuff, but what about the actual modes? In the company of seven other players we tried three of the more interesting options - Renegade Roundup, Shine Thief and Balloon Battle.
Renegade Roundup is all-new and not seen before in the series, and adopts a cops and robbers approach in which two teams each get a run on each side. When playing the role of cops you have a police light and piranha combo on your kart, and the task is to find and nab the criminals which, by the way, are not visible on the track map. When you snap them they drop into a prison cell that does display on the map, and the fugitives can rescue their trapped buddies by running over a switch under the elevated trap.
It's a fascinating game of cat and mouse. In our session we tried to station one player at the cells to look out for potential rescuers, while on the other side it's a tough call between trying to stay safe or rescue buddies. The winning team either sees out time without everyone being caught or successfully nabs all the renegades, and results came up pretty even in our rounds. The adversarial team nature is a lot of fun, even among relative strangers, and impromptu shouts and communication pop up. In one case a renegade almost spent a whole round hiding without moving, before your humble writer spotted them and wrapped up the round. This is an excellent mode in good company.
Second up was Shine Thief, which is an old favourite from Mario Kart: Double Dash!! on the GameCube. In our rounds this was purely every karter for themselves (though in all modes Teams are an option) - the goal is to grab the Shine and evade attacks and other players for as long as possible, with each player having a countdown that they need to get to zero. The delightful chaos of this mode is comedy gold, and at one point we simply had to stop and laugh at the scene as one player with the Shine had five others in hot pursuit, all doing stunts and with shells flying in every direction.
Once the player with the Shine is hit it pings off depending on momentum, so being the one to strike the blow doesn't guarantee you'll then pick it up and carry on. Small elusive characters are handy here, and each player (or team) has a timer that counts down when in possession of the iconic star. There's an obvious reason why fans wanted this mode, is that it's a game of 'tag' with all of the karting madness that brings. It gets everyone in the Mario Kart mood.
Those are our favourite modes, but all five have something to offer. In that group we also played the classic Balloon Battle, in which you simply try to hit and damage others while dodging danger yourself. Once your initial batch of five balloons is lost you're not out of the game, but you lose a chunk of points and return with three balloons, again with the risk of losing points when they're all gone.
The remaining two modes we've tried in different circumstances, mostly in two player with family and friends, filling gaps with the CPU; setting CPU to 'hard' helps to recreate the tension of playing with other people. Bob-omb Blast is interesting, as they're the only items up for grabs but you can stash up to 10 at a time. They work differently to the normal bombs in other modes, in that they explode immediately on the first bounce after thrown (and thankfully team kills aren't possible here like in other modes). It's a fun time, and well suited to those with a taste for explosive chaos.
Finally we have Coin Runners, with the simple objective of hoarding as many as possible, and grabbing those dropped by others that have been hit by a weapon. This mode was better than we expected, primarily because the coins are relatively scarce - the limited supply means that players and/or teams are scrapping over a small number of coins. A simple premise that's well executed.
Whether in local wireless with a full contingent or at home in two player with CPU filling the gaps, we've found ourselves drifting towards Battle Mode more than we did even in Mario Kart Wii. The modes are all entertaining, with Renegade Roundup and Shine Thief being stand-outs, and part of the reason is the eight arenas. These are all new to MK8 and they've been smartly designed - there are a few remixes of classics and new iterations.
Standouts for us include Lunar Colony, which has small hops everywhere for picking up speed, and also Dragon Palace, which has indoor and outdoor sections with the cool transition of breaking through traditional Japanese doors to leap into an outer courtyard. The Splatoon arena - Urchin Underpass - is also charming and strongly reminiscent of one of the original game's levels, with awesome music to boot. It's a solid collection of eight varied arenas, each encouraging different strategies and approaches.
All of this is wrapped in that lovely Mario Kart 8 aesthetic and those rock-solid mechanics, rocking along at 60fps in single or two-player split-screen. The game in general has an extra level of detail and colour depth compared to the Wii U iteration, a bit like going from 'medium' to 'high' detail settings, perhaps. What the Battle Mode content delivers, of course, is something entirely new to accompany all that familiar core and DLC content from the original. Play battle mode as a new character like Boo or Bowser Jr., and you'll have that nice fresh feeling.
Unlike the shoddy Battle content in the original, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe offers varied, smart and raucous modes and arenas. Over quite a lot of sessions over the last few days we think the following is safe to say - Battle Mode is back with a vengeance.
The impressions on Battle Mode with seven players took place at a venue chosen by Nintendo UK - Nintendo Life paid all of its own travel and expenses, but received a copy of the game for review purposes. The Coin Battle and Bob-omb Blast impressions are from playing that review copy at our own leisure.