With over 13 million units sold worldwide between the Wii U and Switch versions, Mario Kart 8 is Nintendo’s most commercially successful console game since the Wii era. And it’s little wonder why. Mario Kart is always a top-seller, but Mario Kart 8 is something special. Its core gameplay is so satisfying and finely-tuned that it flirts with perfection, and its audio and visuals rival Nintendo’s best work. And when the Wii U version’s downloadable content came bundled in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (in addition to a battle mode!), the result was arguably the most critically acclaimed Mario Kart of all time and the greatest racing game of the generation. In this continuing feature, I will be examining Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s courses cup-by-cup, evaluating the ups and downs of each course. In this entry, I will be looking at the Leaf Cup.
Like the preceding two Retro Cups, the Leaf Cup originally appeared in Mario Kart DS, comprised of four courses from past games. Typically, the Leaf Cup’s difficulty is on par with the Star Cup and updates courses from past Flower Cups, Star Cups, and occasionally Special Cups. In Mario Kart 8, the Leaf Cup contains one Flower Cup track, one Star Cup track, and two Special Cup tracks.
The first course in Mario Kart 8’s Leaf Cup is Wario Stadium, originally the first course of the Special Cup in Mario Kart DS. Nominally the successor to Mario Kart 64’s Wario Stadium, the course’s hazard-dense design is more reminiscent of Mario Kart: Double Dash’s Waluigi Stadium while its music is taken from Mario Kart DS’ Waluigi Pinball. Outside of the end of the course, which now has a tricky antigrav turn and a brief (perhaps unnecessary) underwater portion, the course has remained largely intact, full of dash panels, mud pits, and fireballs. Between its obstacles, sudden swerves, and unwieldy (especially on 200CC) antigrav portion, Wario Stadium ups the difficulty through engaging design, though its setting can feel indistinct.
Wario Stadium is followed by Sherbet Land, a remake of the first track in Double Dash’s Star Cup, which itself was a spiritual reimagining of a Mario Kart 64 track with the same name. The course leads players over snow and ice past skating Shy Guys, through an ice cavern, and over a frozen lake. The Mario Kart 8 version is largely identical minus some cosmetic changes (such as its gorgeous sky and starting line) and a couple of underwater routes near the end. These new routes help diversify the experience in the course’s least unique third, but much of the course still remains aesthetically and procedurally nebulous. Like the game’s desert courses, Sherbet Land does little to fully embrace the potential of its atmosphere, instead implementing snow and ice in mostly superficial ways, leading to a course that feels half-hearted in both art and design.
Music Park is the third level of Mario Kart 8’s Leaf Cup, but it was originally the third course of Mario Kart 7’s Flower Cup. The track leads players along several musical instruments, including a piano, tambourine, and xylophone, all of which emit context-sensitive sounds as the player interacts with them. Conceptually genius and intricately constructed on its first go around, the course underwent very few changes in its transition to Mario Kart 8, all of which are cosmetic outside of some new coins. An intense and varied course with some of the best gliding and shortcuts in the game, Music Park was among the best courses in Mario Kart 7 and it remains a standout course in Mario Kart 8. The only downside is that its title in the PAL version, Melody Motorway, is vastly superior.
Finally, the Leaf Cup ends with Yoshi Valley, a remake of the second course from Mario Kart 64’s Special Cup. The course features two central set pieces — the first is a surprisingly confounding maze of twisty pathways, the second a massive rotating Yoshi Egg near the finish. The Mario Kart 8 version sees several changes to the original layout, including alterations to each maze pathway to make them more equal in length, more guardrails along these paths to prevent falling, and a smaller Yoshi Egg at the end. Taken together, these changes make the course significantly easier to traverse, for better or for worse. On one hand, figuring out the optimal path was an intriguing challenge in Mario Kart 64 that enticed players to tackle trickier paths for quicker times. On the other hand, making each pathway equally viable allows players to enjoy the path of their choosing without having to worry too much about falling significantly behind. Personally, I like the new maze more than the old, but feel the smaller Yoshi Egg is unnecessarily nerfed to the point where the second half of the course can feel unthreatening and a bit boring.
All things considered, the Leaf Cup is a rollercoaster in quality that traces some of Mario Kart 8’s retro course’s highest highs and lowest lows. While Music Park is a stunning standout, Sherbet Land is a dispirited letdown, and the other courses fall somewhere in between. Its focus on tracks from more recent Mario Kart games keeps the cup feeling especially modern, with no courses feeling as aesthetically generic or simplistically laid out as many of the Super Mario Kart or Mario Kart Super Circuit tracks. It is undoubtedly the most difficult of the Retro Cups so far, and perhaps the most consistently engaging, though it doesn’t come close to its near-untouchable Nitro Course counterpart, the Star Cup.
Check out analyses of other Mario Kart 8 Deluxe courses, as well as courses from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Odyssey, here.