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 perfect, 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 game’s first set of courses, the Mushroom Cup.
The concept of the Mushroom Cup originates in the original Super Mario Kart, released in 1992 for the Super Nintendo. In that game, the cup featured five courses, the fifth of which was a sequel to the first course that borrowed heavily from its design and aesthetic. In subsequent entries, including Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the Mushroom Cup would feature four courses instead of five. But in every entry, the Mushroom Cup is a collection of some of the game’s simplest courses, typically comprised of short laps with minimal turns, wide roads, and few hazards or gameplay shake-ups. They commonly feature serene unthreatening venues, with racing circuits, beaches, deserts, and pastures among the most common locales.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s first course is Mario Kart Stadium, a traditional first-course racing circuit that elegantly introduces the game’s most essential gameplay elements, new and old. Mario Kart Stadium is primarily concerned with introducing the player to the game, easing them into racing by tossing new conceits at them in an approachable and clear manner. From start to finish, the layout looks like this: straightaway, right turn, straightaway, hairpin right turn, straightaway, veer left, straightaway, veer right, raised hairpin left turn, straightaway with glide component, left turn, straightaway. Each turn is made approachable by the straightaway section before it, and more difficult turns are introduced after easier ones. Furthermore, gliding, ramps, and Mario Kart 8’s signature antigrav are all implemented along simple straightaways. This clear separation of actions and concepts allows for players to fully engage with each one without having to worry about another concept layered on top. Meanwhile, the subdued simplicity of the arena-like art style further allows the player to focus on gameplay. This makes Mario Kart Stadium not only a superb race for first-timers, but a course practiced players can revisit to practice new characters, karts, or difficulties. It’s utilitarian without being cold.
Water Park is an amphibious amusement park, comprised of a few rides the player can interact with to different degrees. A step up in difficulty from Mario Kart Stadium, Water Park features one especially long left turn in the form of a loop de loop, and a couple of snakey bends immediately after. Along with a long gliding portion near the end where the player must dodge the moving cars of a ferris wheel, the loop de loop is the course’s highlight, offering a momentary reprieve from standard gameplay to relish a specific mechanic. Both portions also offer some multitasking for the first time, as players will want to drift while boosting off a roller coaster and glide while avoiding the ferris wheel. Though I appreciate the integration of these two rides into the course, the spinning saucer ride could have been more thoroughly integrated, and the roller coaster could look more like a roller coaster, which I think would have made it clearer to the player they were in the antigrav loop de loop central to the course’s identity. The fact that the course is flooded also seems extraneous, since underwater gameplay barely effects how the course is played, while making the course’s setting a little bit too complex and vague. This is to say that Water Park is a strong second course in what it teaches and tests, but its setting is too equivocal for its own good. Placing it in Super Mario Sunshine’s Pinna Park could have more established a stronger sense of place while still justifying underwater gameplay without drowning half the park.
As the third course of the Mushroom Cup, Sweet Sweet Canyon is arguably the first course in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe that features Mario Kart’s signature sense of speed. Partly, I think this is due to the canon near the start, which shoots players to the top of a cake tower that they spiral around afterward. But I think a large part of it stems from the blind turns on the split roads, probably the toughest turns so far due to limited visibility and the corkscrewed ways in which the course bends. All this said, I feel the integration of theme with the course is subpar. Every piece of the track feels dessert-ified, from ice cream cone boost pylons to off-road frosting that slows the player, to a conspicuous donut signaling a shortcut. But while Water Park incorporates a pair of amusement park rides into gameplay, Sweet Sweet Canyon incorporates its themes only through aesthetics. And though the canon and the split road are the layout’s signatures, neither feels thematically unique, both missed opportunities to further establish a sense of place.
Finally, Thwomp Ruins is the fourth and final course in the Mushroom Cup. And like previous courses, it notches up the difficulty without going overboard. While Thwomp Ruins’ layout is the flattest so far, and the least concerned with verticality or antigrav, its layout is the most intricate and decision-based, featuring several small sharp turns and branching paths. And unlike past branching paths, some provide a tangible benefit, like the middle path near the water that only opens as a millstone passes through. This section is the course’s defining feature, as it houses several core themes and new gameplay concepts including thwomps, millstones, hazard avoidance, multiple paths, and risk-reward decision-making more complex than anything in the past three courses. Although it might be less aesthetically developed than a course like Sweet Sweet Canyon (in fact, the course feels less like run-down ruins than a temple), Thwomp Ruins boasts a crisp and clear visual style allowing the player to focus on the layout of the most intricate and demanding track thus far.
These four tracks considered together, it becomes clear the Mushroom Cup is primarily concerned with teaching and testing the player the core gameplay. Although the difficulty ramps up consistently, the player is introduced to new mechanics in a deliberate piecemeal fashion, so that the player is able to make meaningful decisions based on past observations and trial-and-error by the end of Thwomp Ruins. These courses are tied together through their general ease and accessibility, but what makes the Mushroom Cup greater than the sum of its parts is how the courses build off each other like the first levels of a traditional Mario world, ensuring players are adequately equipped for the more diverse and complex challenges ahead.
On the whole, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s Mushroom Cup starts the game with an eye on beginning players but provides enough visual appeal and thematic diversity to keep series veterans invested. Though minor quips with some of the courses keep the Mushroom Cup from being particularly memorable, it remains the cup I go back to after a long break from the game, trusting these four courses will adequately oil my rusty skills for greater challenges.
Check out analyses of other Mario Kart 8 Deluxe courses, as well as courses from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Odyssey, here.