The most recent Mario Kart is the best of the bunch, and that's by design.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
The Mario Kart series has come a long, long way from its inception. Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo was a lovely little racer back in 1992, a fast-paced affair with some tough turns and hazards to navigate. There were four different cups — Mushroom, Flower, Star, and Special — as well as three difficulty levels that would ramp up both in speed and AI’s ability: 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc. The game featured local, two-player multiplayer, as well as a battle mode and time trial versions of every one of the game’s 20 tracks. It’s still extremely playable to this day, albeit alien to those who didn’t grow up with this specific style of Kart.
Despite that last fact, the core gameplay of Mario Kart has remained intact since its original release, but with some tweaks along the way, both major and minor ones. The first sequel, Mario Kart 64, expanded the multiplayer to four players — good — but slowed down the experience and came off as far less technically impressive than the genre-starting Super Mario Kart, with its emphasis on Mode 7 graphics and edge-of-your-seat speeds. That result is the opposite of good, in case it wasn’t clear. The GameCube’s Mario Kart: Double Dash!! managed to blend the speed of the original with the expanded multiplayer and gameplay elements of the 64 iteration, while bringing in new features that remain unique to it to this day, features which helped make it the only other Kart game on this list.
Three games, three vastly different gameplay experiences. (A fourth game, Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the Game Boy Advance unsurprisingly played much like Super Mario Kart with track design to match, but with the kind of updated item usage and rules of its followups instead of the original game’s limited (and comparatively limiting) setup.) After Double Dash!!, though, the Kart series became a bit more focused in its design, with refinements on the central concepts of the series and brand new ideas built on top of that ever-stronger foundation. Double Dash’s blend of classic speed with the larger course design of 64 was the template to work from: each game from then on would add the wrinkles to it that would eventually lead us to its current pinnacle of Mario Kart 8.
Mario Kart DS (2005) had fantastic track design, but the gameplay was a little broken since you could, essentially, infinitely boost throughout a stage thanks to the way drifting was handled. This problem, which became most apparent in the online portions of the experience, was fixed in Mario Kart Wii (2008), which built on the style of track design Double Dash and DS, but with a focus on wider courses to accommodate more racers at once. The Wii release also added in tricks and bikes, with differing play styles for the different vehicle types. Bikes were lighter and could be pushed around by even lightweight opponents, but they could also perform speed-boosting tricks at basically any time to compensate. Unlike in the DS version, where the speed boosting could be abused by perma-drifting, the Wii version’s boost-whenever required at least somewhat of a straight path forward and careful riding to pull off, and your attempt to boost could be interrupted by an obstacle or another racer.
Mario Kart Wii also introduced the expanded cup selection [correction: Mario Kart DS had this feature first] we’re now pretty used to seeing. In addition to the slate of new tracks, Mario Kart Wii also brought on classic tracks in a new set of cups, all redesigned to be played in the style of this particular iteration of the series. The Wii release was divisive, in part because it had the option of motion controls, but there is no denying how much of an impact the changes it introduced had — tricks, classic courses, expanding the vehicle selection, online multiplayer, expanded roster and opponent numbers — on the series as a whole.
Mario Kart 7, the first numbered entry in the series, released on the 3DS in 2011. It brought along everything the Kart series had built on to that point, but found room to add in more: now your kart could drive underwater and fly through the air, too. In addition, vehicle customization became a staple of the series here. You no longer just picked whichever kart you wanted for your character, but you could also select the style of tires that would go on that kart, and what kind of hang-glider you would utilize. These tires and glider would further customize your driving experience*, so, through experimentation and unlocking of new types, you could find yourself driving the kart that most perfectly suits your own handling, speed, acceleration, and so on preferences.
*As an example, I know my own ability to effectively turn and drift a vehicle at will even in the toughest conditions means I can sacrifice said vehicle’s overall handling skill in favor of a boost to top speed, which you or I or anyone cannot physically increase on our own. So, the setup that works best for me in that scenario of balancing what I can do vs. what the vehicles can do in Mario Kart 8 is Rosalina (a heavy) on an Inkstriker (a low-handling ATV) with Triforce Tires (speed!), and the Waddle Wing hang-glider (works effectively for the kind of dive-bombing gliding I prefer to utilize, but can also go the distance when needed).
That brings us to Mario Kart 8, which allowed Mario Kart 7 three years on top before unseating it as the top Kart game ever. The Wii U release so perfectly handles every major innovation and change brought to the Kart series over the multiple decades of its existence that I really had no choice but to make the decisions I did about the series’ inclusion on this list. Mario Kart 7 is still fun to play, but there is little point in ranking both it and Mario Kart 8 on a list like this, and even less reason to rank Mario Kart Wii or Mario Kart DS as well. They’re all wonderful — well, DS a little less so, given its issues — but just mentioning Mario Kart 8 works as something of a pseudo-series ranking and, simultaneously, an acknowledgment that it is the King of Kart.
Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U was a huge success, from both a critical and a commercial standpoint. There are just over 13 million Wii U owners worldwide, and nearly 9 million of them bought Mario Kart 8. It introduced DLC to the series, but not little pitiful drips of content: sure, there were some DLC character adds included, but Nintendo added on four more cups to Mario Kart 8’s preexisting eight, as well as the first innovation in difficulty since Mirror was introduced: 200cc. So, 16 new courses for a series whose original game had 20 total, and an entire new game mode to play every single course in, to boot.
You can’t play 200cc like a faster version of 150cc, because it isn’t. It’s an engine with top speeds too fast for the courses that were designed with 150cc and slower in mind, meaning you have to actually use the brakes in order to finish in first place. Yes, I know, I forgot Mario Kart had a button for braking, too, but it’s a necessary component of the 200cc experience if you want to avoid flying into every wall or into the abyss on a given track.
All of this content was included in the base release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch, which is the version most people are familiar with. While MK8 was a success for the Wii U, it still topped out at around the sales of the SNES original since barely anyone had a Wii U to play the thing on. The massive (and constantly growing) install base of the Switch has rectified this, though, as MK8 has sold well over three times as many Switch copies as Wii U ones, making it not just the best-selling Mario Kart ever and the best-selling game on the Switch, but also number eight on the list of all-time sales. As you can imagine, it’s a little easier to make the case that Mario Kart 8 is the greatest Mario Kart ever today than it was back in 2014 when I first thought as much.
Mario Kart 8 had more to bring to the table than “just” a significantly expanded course listing, 200cc, and the introduction of non-Mario universe characters like Link, Isabelle, and Splatoon options, though. You can still drive underwater and glide through the air, but now, you also race through anti-gravity portions of tracks. It’s F-Zero meets Mario Kart, and given F-Zero seems to be dead in all but an official capacity, it’s maybe the closest we’re getting to touching that particular universe again.
The introduction of anti-gravity elements made for some serious course design changes, as suddenly you could have some karts on the ceiling, and much wilder options for choosing paths. It also introduced a new kind of speed boost, specific to these sections, and boosting off of other players who are in the anti-gravity sections with you by crashing into them. More strategic driving, fascinating new course design options, and an additional kind of racing to master? Works for me.
Mario Kart 8 might feature the most difficult Kart racing of the series, but it also has the most accessible racing, too. That’s thanks to a slew of options meant to customize the experience: want to stay on the course rather than veer off of it? There is a setting for that. Would you like the accelerator to always be depressed? It can be! Want to use motion controls instead of the analog stick? You can! For my own experience, this means I’ve got two kids four-and-under picking up Joy Cons and racing with an assist from the game. It’s a great way to let them play with me, and get used to the game until they can switch off the always-on accelerator or the guide that keeps you on course.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s online multiplayer is wonderful, and still loaded with potential opponents that keep matchmaking from taking overly long. While Nintendo’s reputation for online multiplayer being lesser is certainly deserved, they’ve got Kart down at this point. No interest in playing online, though? Don’t worry, as this is the most jam-packed edition of Kart yet when it comes to a single-player experience. Not only are there more cups and courses and difficulties than previous Karts, but you have both the time trial races against ghosts of your own making or of Nintendo’s best effort to compete against, as well as Battle mode, which is even larger in the Deluxe edition of the game than in the original.
There is just so much game here, and all of it is spectacular. Maybe Mario Kart — or kart games in general — aren’t your style of racing, but Mario Kart 8, and especially the Deluxe edition, are just wonderful. I earned three stars (the max, the result of all first-place finishes in each cups’ four tracks) on every non-200cc cup in the game on every difficulty on the Wii U edition when it first released, and had no problem doing it all again on the Switch version: I’ll be getting three stars on the pair of 200cc cups that have eluded me soon, you’ll see.
The racing is just that good, to do it all over again, and now I find myself messing with the time trial ghosts a second time, too. I’m not going to stop going to Mario Kart 8 presumably until Mario Kart 9 rolls around, as, if the last two decades of Kart have taught us anything, it’s that they’ll once again make major strides that give us all our new favorite in the series. It’s hard to imagine a Mario Kart better than this one, but that’s Nintendo’s job to figure out, not ours.
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