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 fourth set of courses, the Special Cup.
Like the previous three cups, the Special Cup first appeared in the original Super Mario Kart. Although criteria for unlocking the Special Cup vary from entry to entry, completion of the Star Cup is always required. The Special Cup typically features the longest, most difficult, and most hazard-intense courses in each game, with Rainbow Road always the climactic final course and Bowser’s Castle the penultimate course in all but the first two games in the series.
The first track in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s Special Cup is Cloudtop Cruise. Half Gusty Garden and half Bowser’s Airship, the course takes players on an aerial tour from beanstalk to cloud to airship to a final cannon blast that shoots players inside a storm cloud. Each of these sections features tight turns and region-specific gimmicks, with transitions between these areas offering empowering breaks from the action. The constantly engaging layout featuring plentiful ramps and boost panels, along with a changing soundtrack and tough-but-rewarding shortcuts make Cloudtop Cruise a riveting start to the Special Cup that somehow always feels like a nail-biter.
The Special Cup’s second track, Bone-Dry Dunes, is a mostly monotonous trek through desert and canyonland. Outside of some vaguely Middle Eastern art near the starting line, Bone-Dry Dunes feels like a generic desert devoid of life, defined primarily by its appropriately skeletal fixation with bones. Although these bones are responsible for the course’s low highlight — a vertical rib cage bridge right before the ending canyon — they are always superficially implemented as a stylistic flourish. Because of its shallow integration of its bland theme and a lack of memorable set pieces, Bone-Dry Dunes lacks identity despite having a decent layout. Whether the designers placed more emphasis on the canyon or Middle Eastern culture portions, or just shifted the course setting to a graveyard or Halloween-land, Bone-Dry Dunes could have been a standout course instead of one of the weakest in the game. Plus, the bone theme probably justified adding the dull and superfluous Dry Bowser to the character roster.
After the forgettable Bone-Dry Dunes, things get back on track with Bowser’s Castle, a fantastic race that sends players through several incarnations of Bowser’s Castles from the mainline Super Mario Bros. series. Between the Gray Bowser Statues of Super Mario Bros. 3, to Galaxy-like Bowser’s Airships, to an art style reminiscent of the more modern 3D Land and 3D World, Bowser’s Castle feels like a greatest hits compilation that borrows memorable obstacles and ideas from past games and intelligently integrates them into a racetrack. But its defining feature is totally novel — a giant lava Bowser statue that alternates pummeling a pair of split roads. This obstacle alone requires a depth of forethought, strategy, and reflex lacking in the entirety of Bone-Dry Dunes. My only critique is that its positioning after Bone-Dry Dunes makes its art style feel slightly drabber, especially the outdoor boulder portion that doesn’t totally fit the rest of the course despite being an enjoyable obstacle. As an isolated experience, though, Bowser’s Castle might be the Special Cup’s high water mark.
As the game-defining track in several series entries, every Rainbow Road has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, Mario Kart 8’s fails to deliver the climactic sense of finality fans of the series have come to expect. Although the curvy split road section at the end is definitely a pulse-pounder (and the lane-jumping shortcuts feel like subtle nod to the infamous 64 shortcut), I can’t shake the feeling that most of this course is slightly disappointing. What is there isn’t terrible, it’s just not particularly… Special. It doesn’t feel like the logical conclusion to the game. It doesn’t stretch any mechanics or themes to their extremes. It doesn’t feature insane jumps or turns or antigrav sections to mark itself as particularly unique. Instead, it’s a decent course with a couple of intriguing, albeit underdeveloped, ideas (like the road split shortcuts and moving walkways). All in all, it’s an unexpectedly weak Rainbow Road, especially compared to the stellar final course in the previous cup, Mount Wario.
As a whole, these four courses don’t pack quite the same punch as the Star Cup. With two fantastic courses, one decent but disappointing, and one notably subpar, the Special Cup might be the least consistent cup so far. And playing these courses back-to-back might drag down the experience further because of tonal similarities between the second and third courses and Bone-Dry Dunes putting a damper on the whole experience. Culminating in one of the series’ weaker Rainbow Roads, the Special Cup is a mixed bag that provides challenge but lacks in flair and originality. It doesn’t emit the same sense of journeying the Star Cup does, nor does it provide a similar sense of crescendo. Instead, its quality zigzags, making for a decent but erratic and subpar experience.
Check out analyses of other Mario Kart 8 Deluxe courses, as well as courses from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Odyssey, here.