Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and the spinoff franchise that just keeps rolling

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe doesn't add much to Nintendo's well-worn formula, but as one of the best - and last surviving - games in the kart racing genre, that's probably enough, writes Jonathan Ore.

Mario Kart games have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, available on the Nintendo Switch, is an updated version of 2014's Mario Kart 8. (Nintendo)

Here's an idea: Take Super Mario, the best-known video game mascot of all time.

Instead of having him jump on enemies' heads and saving Princess Toadstool, drop him and his supporting cast into go-karts and make them race around colourful circuits.

To make things even more chaotic, give every driver banana peels and exploding turtle shells to impede or frustrate their opponents.

Put that all together and you have Mario Kart, a bizarre assembly of non-sequiturs that went on to become the most successful gaming franchise born out of a spinoff.

Since the game's release in 1992, it has grown to a series of eight games on home and handheld consoles and sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

The original Super Mario Kart, released in 1992 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. (Nintendo)

The combination of recognizable characters with accessible driving gameplay — navigating a kart is naturally less nuanced than Formula 1 racing — made it the perfect crossover game, beloved by kids, adults and non-gamers alike.

Mario Kart has survived and outlasted dozens of knock-offs, and returns April 28 with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch.

Casual karting

Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo was originally developed mainly as a counterpoint to F-Zero, a futuristic racing game with a steep learning curve.

Unsurprisingly, its popularity enticed others to try to replicate or surpass its success.

Soon, other popular video game characters began appearing in kart racing games of their own. Sony's mascot Crash Bandicoot starred in Crash Team Racing. Final Fantasy's cuddlier creatures joined in with Chocobo Racing.

Nintendo even spun off its own success, with Mario Kart regular Donkey Kong bringing along his own sidekicks for Diddy Kong Racing.

Sony's Crash Team Racing was one of the better kart racing games that followed in Mario Kart's stead over the 1990s and 2000s. (Sony Computer Entertainment)

Before long, non-gaming mascots joined the fray. Bugs Bunny, Shrek and even the red and yellow M&M characters appeared in kart racing games (of middling-to-poor quality).

By the late 2000s, however, the era of cute or wacky animal mascots fell out of favour. As technology allowed for more graphical detail, realistic human adventurers a la Uncharted's Nathan Drake became the norm.

Surviving racing game franchises, such as Forza on the Xbox One, are more complex affairs with a heavier focus on realism, customization and the ability to collect (or buy) real-life high-end cars, complete with the official license.

And as the mascots faded away, so did the vast majority of kart racing games.

But not Mario Kart.

Stuck in neutral?

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe doesn't do much to update the formula.

It features the same selection of tracks, characters and vehicles, including the additions that were sold separately in paid expansion packs, all for a single retail price.

That features cameo appearances and tracks from other Nintendo franchises, including the villagers from Animal Crossing, Link from The Legend of Zelda and even Mario Kart's sister franchise, F-Zero. The cheeky, transforming squid-children from 2015's Splatoonjoin in the fun as well, expanding the guest roster to six.

Everything plays and feels just as it did before — which is to say, sublime.

The Inkling kids, from 2015's online shooter Splatoon, are the latest guest characters in Mario Kart. (Nintendo)

It's never been more entertaining to dash along tracks, screech around corners and leave your competition in the dust — right before a half-dozen banana peels, shells and other weapons smash your lead with a screeching halt.

The most notable additions warranting the "Deluxe" subtitle include a refreshed Battle Mode that was sorely missing from the 2014 release. Players are tasked with crashing into rivals and stealing points in arena-like environments instead of racing circuits.

But if you've already played the other tracks to exhaustion on the Wii U version, the Battle Mode likely isn't enough to justify re-purchasing it on the Switch for a full $80 ($60 US).

The Switch's portability promises karting on the go, but it doesn't come without caveats. The tablet's 6.2-inch screen forces you to squint to see vistas originally meant to be played on a television.

It can be hard to pick out details when playing in four-player split-screen mode on the Switch's small tablet. It's much more playable on a regular TV. (Nintendo)

And the JoyCon controllers' tiny, stiff buttons threaten to make your fingers sore after a couple of races. The expensive Pro Controller again wins out for comfort and playability, but at the cost of reduced portability.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is clearly intended to leverage the original's massive success on what Nintendo hopes to be a console that sells more than the underperforming Wii U.

While the series seems to be content spinning its wheels, it proves that the original kart racer still holds the pole position in gamers' hearts.

About the Author

Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, entertainment and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.