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 Lightning Cup.
The Lightning Cup has the most complicated history of any Mario Kart cup, initially appearing between the Flower Cup and Star Cup in Mario Kart: Super Circuit and then disappearing until it resurfaced in Mario Kart DS as a Retro Cup. Since then, it has been the fourth and toughest Retro Cup in every entry, primarily comprised of Star Cup and Special Cup courses, making for a difficulty comparable to the Special Cup. Mario Kart 8’s Lightning Cup is made up of three prior Star Cup courses and one prior Special Cup course.
Tick-Tock Clock is the first Lightning Cup course but was previously the second Star Cup course in Mario Kart DS. The track sends players around a clock face, past swinging pendulums, through rotating horizontal gears, around more clock hands, and on rotating vertical gears. Little has been altered in the Mario Kart 8 version, though clock hands now provide an opportunity for a trick jump instead of acting as obstacles and a couple short drops near the pendulums and a new shortcut across a clock hand at the end of the course have been added. A thematically intriguing course building off Super Mario 64’s penultimate course, Tick-Tock Clock does a great job establishing its setting and integrating its components into the racetrack in meaningful ways. Because of its uniform aesthetic, it could have easily been subpar, but smart design ensures the course runs like clockwork.
Piranha Plant Slide follows Tick-Tock Clock with a more typical Mario setting reminiscent of the storied World 1-2 from Super Mario Bros. The track starts above ground but quickly dives under using warp pipes, sending players past a pair of Goombas and a Piranha Plant to a brief drop with some bricks and a couple tight turns, then into a long underwater left turn with another Piranha Plant, a dash panel, and a ramp, into a final gliding portion that sends the player back outside to a final couple of turns before the finish line. The most substantial changes to the Mario Kart 8 version include some extra ramps, a steeper glider portion near the end, and a different shortcut after the glider portion. Personally, I prefer the original glider portion because it demands some gliding fluency while the newer version more or less glides itself, but the new shortcut works better because it requires more precision to pull off. On the whole, channeling World 1-2 is a fantastic idea, but I find the setting a bit claustrophobic and not as aesthetically reminiscent of its inspiration as it could be. The track design is intricate but never really inspiring, defining itself by its sharp, limiting turns more than interesting hazards or more empowering ways to raise the difficulty.
Third on the docket is Grumble Volcano, a volcanic region initially the last race in Mario Kart Wii’s Star Cup. The race starts outside the volcano, but shortly the path splits for some long turns inside, eventually leading back outside. Once outside again, the volcano beings to erupt, slowly sinking parts of the course as the path splits once more before the finish line. For the rest of the race, various parts of the course continue to chip away, leaving the racetrack slightly altered each lap. The Mario Kart 8 version is virtually identical bar some cosmetic changes, a couple of gliding sections, and the faster rate at which pieces of the road sink. It’s a clever concept implemented successfully in terms of how it impacts the player’s overarching strategic approach to the course and their on-the-fly decision-making. However, the course relies too heavily on a single gimmick that works well but not well enough to justify the volcano’s bland art, lifeless interior, or omission of memorable set pieces.
The Lightning Cup caps off with the final course from Mario Kart 64’s Special Cup, Rainbow Road. While the Nintendo 64 version is primarily known for its incredible length (at 2,000 meters it’s the longest three-lap track in the entire series), a ridiculous shortcut that sends players halfway across the course, and relative ease due to its guardrails, the Mario Kart 8 version makes numerous changes to the classic formula. Some of the most significant changes include aesthetic references in visuals and audio to nearly every Mario Kart game (along with additional references to mainline Mario games), the elimination of the famous shortcut, erasure of guardrails, the addition of glider and antigrav components, and shortening the experience from three laps to one. But despite all of these changes, the course is a glowing success because it wholly embraces what made the original track so special while modernizing and fine-tuning it. The art is absolutely stunning, while the course itself is more thrilling than ever before, making for not only the best of the three Rainbow Roads in Mario Kart 8 but one of the best courses in the game.
Taken together, these courses represent many of Mario Kart 8’s greatest strengths and inadequacies. While Rainbow Road proves an absolute sensory delight, Grumble Volcano is disappointingly monotone. While Tick-Tock Clock fully integrates a classic Super Mario 64 level into kart racing gameplay, Piranha Plant Slide feels little like the classic level it attempts to emulate. Playing these courses back-to-back is a bit of a schizophrenic experience, with each track inspiring drastically different instinctual responses for drastically different reasons. Fortunately, it finishes on an especially high note that marks a perfect bookend to the Retro Cups and outdoes its Nitro Cup counterpart.
Check out analyses of other Mario Kart 8 Deluxe courses, as well as courses from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Odyssey, here.