Mario Kart 8 Deluxe comes out for the Nintendo Switch one week from today. In anticipation of the release, we’ve been firing up our old systems and reliving Kart memories through the decades. While drifting into corners, firing off blue shells, and bursting balloons has been a hoot, we’ve been reminded of why the series has lasted 25 years, outlasting every kart-pretender that a competitor has cooked up: The Tracks.
Strip away the power-ups and power-sliding and each game contains dozens of brilliantly designed, supremely fun courses that are as fun to look at and explore as they are to race through. Some have hidden shortcuts that can turn a race around; all can be mastered by hitting the right angles and taking those turns at the exact right speed. And just when you think you reach perfection, an opponent sneaks by you at the last second to take the gold trophy.
Perhaps one day we’ll rank every single last track so you can see your favorite. Until then, know that we have a deep fondness for many of the unnamed. How can we forget the classic “Luigi Circuit” with its question block floating by a balloon, or the melting ice blocks of “Vanilla Lake 3”? Where is “Wario Stadium” or “Wario Coliseum”? Who doesn’t love the subtle Super Mario Bros. 2 flavor of “Shy Guy Bazaar” or the giant glossy airplanes flying over “Sunshine Airport”? What’s in all those trucks on “Toad Turnpike,” anyway?
And then there’s Mario Kart 8’s DLC, a first for the series, that effectively turns Kart into a Nintendo Tournament of Stars with courses inspired by F-Zero, Animal Crossing and The Legend of Zelda. Luckily they’re all included in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch. Time to gun the engines and do more research.
These are the fifteen best Mario Kart tracks.
If Mario Kart could be boiled down and balanced onto the head of a pin, and that Kart Essence was then stretched out into a full course, it might look something like “Baby Park.” Some loathe this track, a simple oval that’s whipped around a manic eight times. Some, rightfully, regard it as the true test of champion drivers. Can you manage these four tight turns for eight laps in a row while roller-coasters and Ferris wheels beg for your attention? You can hate the babies. But don’t hate their Park.
The 16-bit game has an austerity that feels innocent and pure. Subsequent tracks don’t have fancy appellations but instead a simple number. Thus: “Donut Plains 3” is the third trip to these mysterious plains, with no fried dough in sight but instead busted wooden bridges that barely take you over pools of water that may be manmade creeks or may be standing water after a long night’s downpour. The original maintains a certain pixelated richness. Play the Retro version in Mario Kart 8’s beleaguered Battle Mode for added strategy: Hide under the bridge and they’ll never know what hit ‘em.
Mario Kart 7 came out in 2011 as the Wii was on its last wobbly legs. As such, the 3DS game acts as a final celebration of the home console phenomenon, with tracks based on titles in the “Wii” series of games. The least-appreciated of the group, Wii Music, nonetheless inspired a cracking Kart course with xylophone planks that ring out in cascading notes as you roll across them to giant timpani drums that can bounce you over your opponents. It got the Retro treatment in Mario Kart 8 but its high-def sheen does not capture the luster of its brassy instruments and we missed the depth of the original’s stereoscopic 3D.
We wanted to celebrate Kalimari’s Desert here and wonder, once more, what might be inside that darkened train tunnel. But once the catchy music left our head we were left wondering: What’s truly special about the desert anyway? It’s barren. It’s empty. But race through a hollowed out tree and find joy in the simplicity of rushing through a pile of colored leaves. The rounded path makes gravity as much of an enemy as that opponent holding a trio of red shells. “Maple Treeway” feels unique in a franchise that loves to iterate on ideas, for better and worse. But if we never run into one of those infernal giant caterpillar things again, it will be too soon.
The Nintendo 64 version introduced inclines and hills, offering up more than the flat obstacle courses of the original. The beach-themed courses in Super Mario Kart were fun dalliances and gave one the sense of sloshing through puddles. But in Mario Kart 64, the course came alive: Crabs skittered across the sand; deep water beckoned and drowned the sloppy. But the central feature is another shortcut: Drive up a hill and boost over that palm tree and land in a cavern that takes you out the over side. Miss it once among a skilled squad and a last-place finish is nearly guaranteed. Might as well roll out towards that deep blue like Tess of the D’Ubervilles.
Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the Game Boy Advance was a revolution at the time: Kart on the go! And yet it felt like a step backwards, returning to the Mode 7 rotation and wonky flat backgrounds of the original SNES game. The driving felt looser, keeping the physics from the N64 game, making the whole experience a somewhat muddled, missed opportunity. The game does have some of the wackiest, out-there tracks though, as the course designers hadn’t yet been stultified by the series’ massive success to come during the DS and Wii eras. Who doesn’t want to drive on the moon? Which, as it turns out, is totally made of cheese. The rumors were true.
With Mario Kart 8’s new anti-gravity track portions, the game took on a slightly more menacing flavor. Gone were the miniature golf + go-kart vibes. These vehicles zoom vertical now. They flip upside down. So why not flip conventions and take Mario and gang to the club? What could have been dub-step schlock instead glows like a neon-flecked glitter ball. Thumping bass scores your ascent through dueling tracks that wind like the groove on a spinning record. And now you can plug headphones into your Switch to visit the ‘Drome anywhere you please.
Let’s not mince words: Mario Kart Wii was massive. With over 35 million copies sold, it’s one of the highest-selling games not only of the franchise but of any franchise. Some looked at the plastic white wheel included with the game and choked back their last meal, now rising with their ire that a beloved game was turned into a motion-controlled drive for the masses with too-wide lanes. Some also lack rich imaginations or are too selfish to let others play with their toys. We love the Wii Wheel. We love this send-up of consumerism-as-lifestyle complete with interior fountain. Maybe the joke was on us, the paying public. Either way: It’s better to laugh than to not.
Another Mario Kart DS variation on “Honey, I Shrunk the Karts.” There’s something about clocks and videogames: Their chimes remind us of older games’ ticking timer in the upper-right corner, and all that whirring machinery made visible is a lovely visual metaphor for the magic of invisible code powering our digital fun. The swinging pendulum makes for a great timing-based obstacle while the spinning gears makes the road beneath your tires feel like it’s finally fighting back. Again, we suggest the Retro remake, which looks stunning in Mario Kart 8 and its Deluxe counterpart.
One of the original eight characters in the SNES title was Donkey Kong… Jr. By the N64 sequel, the daddy kong had returned and kicked his son to the curb. Perhaps Junior was hiding out somewhere in the deep foliage off the course, and that is why, when you veer off the track, you are course-corrected by an incessant barrage of rolling coconuts. There’s many highlights here: The big jump over the steamboat; the rickety rope bridge; the final hairpin turn up a hill in a cave. Give the Retro course in Mario Kart Wii a hard pass, though. They got rid of the coconuts! Blasphemers.
The “Farm” theme first popped up in Mario Kart 64’s “Moo Moo Farms.” But this return to the hay brought in roaming cows and mud, all watched over by a handsome barn glinting in the sun. Fire up your brand-new copy of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to see this track in its HD glory. The music alone will get you running to the local Pawn Shop to grab a cheap fiddle and start practicing bluegrass scales.
Pity the poor Waluigi. His gaunt frame and nasally voice betray his inner being: A sad, lost creature with a spirit as hollow and brittle as a thin, dead reed. Perhaps to compensate, Nintendo has bestowed upon him a track with the opposite traits of its owner: Bright, ecstatic, joyful and free. You race alongside gigantic pinballs through a giant table complete with flippers and score targets. Or have you been miniaturized and this table is normal-sized, perhaps tucked into the corner of Waluigi’s empty bachelor pad? The Nintendo DS original has aged poorly; we recommend the 3DS Retro track in Mario Kart 7.
Though the grand finale of Rainbow Road gets all the plaudits, the early Ghost Valley courses would lay the groundwork for the formula: The winding tracks, the barrier-less curbs, the ultimate test of risk and reward. Your tires squeak over the wood planks. The haunted music is a foreboding mix of low-octave organ sounds and echoing spectral trills. But the magic touch is the shortcut ramp: Use that Flower to hop onto the extended plank and cut off the entire last corner, or go for the gusto and use a Mushroom to zoom across the jump pad, catapulting across the gap before slamming on the brakes to make the turn and slide across the finish line.
Bowser’s Castle contains the final stand-off in most mainline Mario games. Here, it is the penultimate test, a mansion haunted by decades of pitfalls into lava and a kidnapped woman of royalty inevitably gaining her freedom. It’s the “Dark and Scary Night” of the series, the time when lightning flashes and giant statues come to life and spit fire. We have a special fondness for the N64 version, and though its Wii Retro remake puts a prettier coat of paint on it, we miss the tighter corridors and blurry hedges. That Thwomp stuck behind bars at the end of the hallway is evidence of Nintendo’s designers having a sicker sense of humor than they get credit for.
We tried to pick just one. Each have their merits: The original’s technicolor kaleidoscopic track inspires dread and is burned into our collective eyeballs; the N64’s floating, galloping colored lanes have a mix of whimsy and dream-like terror; Double Dash’s track high above a city feels like the first draft, full of bravado and misgivings, of what later iterations would tighten and polish; Mario Kart 7 and 8’s galactic missions feel appropriately epic for a grand finale but perhaps lack the tightness of earlier entries, when the last race was more about the ultimate test of driving skill and less about bouncing on the moon. So we threw up our hands and said, here, take them all. Ravish yourselves. Anyway, “Rainbow Road” is less a collection of tracks than it is an idea. It shall not be limited. It cannot be contained. It is waiting for you.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.