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 third set of courses, the Star Cup.
Like the Mushroom Cup and Flower Cup, the Star Cup was first featured in Super Mario Kart for Super Nintendo, way back in 1992. Since then it has remained a series staple, appearing in every version of Mario Kart to date. Typically, the Star Cup is the third Nitro cup, with completion of the cup sometimes required to unlock the Special Cup. As in all previous entries, Mario Kart 8’s Star Cup is more difficult than the preceding two cups, featuring tougher course layouts and more stage hazards.
The first Star Cup course in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is Sunshine Airport. Taking place throughout a more fully developed version of Super Mario Sunshine’s airport, players race through a terminal, onto the tarmac where they dodge plane wheels, and through a plane interior, before gliding alongside a plane and landing on a helicopter landing pad. Featuring the most demanding layout so far, full of tight turns, ramps, and speed boosts with little recovery time in between, the course is devoid of hazards outside of some airplane wheels. It doesn’t feel like the course is lacking anything, though. Instead, Sunshine Airport is arguably the first course where there is never a break from the action, where the player must always be prepared for the next turn, staying one strategic step ahead. Also, the terminal features posters and a flight board that reference other courses throughout the game — a unifying sense of world interconnectedness for those who happen to notice.
Sunshine Airport is followed by Dolphin Shoals, an underwater course that brings back Super Mario World’s dolphins and Super Mario 64’s eel in a Lake Kingdom-like setting. It’s a gorgeous course, flush with oceanic flourishes like brilliant coral reef percolating the sidelines, racing along an eel’s back ridge, and emerging from water for some stunning sun-glazed antigrav. Still, I feel a bit mixed on the course, perhaps because most of it takes place underwater, where looser drifts and slower speeds make racing less tangibly thrustful. The many jumps in the pipe section along with the end shortcut also seem to grant greater weight to items here than in courses like Sunshine Airport, which can also detract from the experience.
In its third course, the Star Cup takes players to the Electrodome, a nightclub where classic Mario enemies rave amid neon lights and pulsing stereos. This vibrant setting would be a lesser course’s strongest facet, but Electrodome succeeds in every way. With throbbing music that varies throughout the stage depending on location (the music features a game-high eight music channels, most of which are context-sensitive), Electrodome is Mario Kart 8’s premiere synesthetic experience, a burst of pounding fluorescent Ecstasy that doesn’t let up. And this is to say nothing of the course layout, which snakes and slopes around itself like a serpent before splitting into two opposed gravity-defying roads in a prolonged and thrilling manifestation of one of the often misused antigrav mechanic. The spectrum analyzer depicted on a screen during the starting countdown is also a nice touch.
The Star Cup caps off with Mount Wario, a dizzying descent down a massive snow-capped peak. Mount Wario manages to fully capture Mario Kart’s essence while being entirely unconventional. On one hand, it is only one of only a handful of courses throughout the series to feature unconventional laps, with each lap covering entirely different ground than the others. And at the time of its release, it was the only course in the history of the series to not be structured like a loop (the F-Zero-themed Big Blue would later be added as DLC and feature a similar structure). In this way, it structurally and thematically feels more akin to games like 1080 Snowboarding or SSX, but playing it casts all doubts aside — this is quintessential Mario Kart.
One of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s biggest draws is how the art design and setting are incorporated into gameplay in a manner that makes each course visually and procedurally distinct. Mount Wario is the centerpiece of this philosophy, offering a dazzling array of settings and obstacles, from hopping out of a plane to coasting along ice-crested mountaintops, to negotiating ski moguls, to navigating a dense forest. Plus, there’s a hydroelectric dam, a cave, slaloms, and a chairlift, all of which are meaningfully integrated into gameplay in a manner that establishes a sense of place. To top it off, there’s also an exhilarating opening animation and a distinct musical track for each lap. It’s shocking how many ideas are crammed into Mount Wario, but it’s even more shocking how thoroughly they’re executed. It marks not only a high water mark for the game or series but for the racing genre — rarely, in any game, are we greeted by such novelty around every corner.
This combination of generally fantastic courses coalesces into one of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s most brilliant and consistent cups. The Star Cup seems to mark the tipping point between designing with educating beginning players in mind and letting their imaginations run wild. Players are left with four staggeringly different but unanimously singular locations, many unlike anything the series has previously attempted. Personally, I enjoy three of this cup’s courses more than any course in the Mushroom Cup or the Flower Cup, making the Star Cup one of the most rock solid gameplay experiences the game, the series, and the system has to offer.
Check out analyses of other Mario Kart 8 Deluxe courses, as well as courses from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Odyssey, here.