I went on holiday a couple of weeks ago. People do it, from time to time. Only a few days. When I came back, I checked in on what I'd missed, here at Waypoint.
The Crew's back, which is OK, I guess—it was cool to take a cross-country US road trip from the comfort of my front room. A sequel, or perhaps a prequel, for Life is Strange is in the works—color me day-one for that. A bunch of pretend rabbits were going to die… Because, why not, The Internet.
Then, this: Baby Park Is Obviously the Best 'Mario Kart 8' Track.
Are you trolling me, My Own Place of Work? What is this (safety wink) diabolical (reassuring nudge) take? Baby Park? A simple, albeit speedy, oval? Chaotic, noisy, messy, drifty fun, sure, yes, it's all of those things. But the standout one, of the 48 featured in Mario Kart 8 (and its Switch-ed up Deluxe version, too)? You've got to be shitting me.
I'm joking, naturally. (If that wasn't clear—I'm joking.) My ire above is expressed with tongue so firmly in cheek I'm almost choking myself. The little piece in question, by regular Waypoint writer, Kiss and Tell columnist and UK Podcast guest extraordinaire Kate Gray, was more about getting people chatting away about the best (loads) and worst (not much at all) about Mario Kart 8, than it was a definitive statement. Because, I mean, how can anyone, realistically, sincerely, say that any single MK8 stage is "the one true track"? Without spitting out your breakfast.
You can't. It can't be done. But, here, now, I'm going to try something else. I want to tell you why Star Cup is the best cup in Mario Kart 8. Not just one, but four courses. And how taken as a whole, they form the burning heart, the screeching soul, of the contemporary Mario Kart experience.
Star Cup is comprised of, in Grand Prix order, Sunshine Airport, Dolphin Shoals, Electrodrome and Mount Wario. When Chris Schilling, another Waypoint columnist, ranked all of MK8's tracks for the Telegraph, these came in at two, 16, 11, and first, respectively.
Now, Chris is a man who knows his Mario Kart inside out, and when he says that two of the four legs of the Star Cup are the best in the whole game, I believe him. I mean, I would even if I'd not played the thing. But I have played it, loads. At home and on the move, on the Wii U and the Switch, offline, online and against family and friends. And I wholeheartedly agree with those first and second positions on his list.
Let's look at Sunshine Airport, what with it being the first of this cup's quartet of magical courses. The name, alone, is an instant win: evocative of escape, of holidaying, and capable of stirring a little nostalgia, too, with its clear Super Mario Sunshine references—the airport's on an island, reminiscent of the Isle Delfino setting.
It's so pure when it pops onto the screen, that big blue sky just the most tempting invitation to fly—and you will, soon enough. You might begin inside the terminal, but in no time at all it's outside and on the tarmac, beneath a jet, and then right through one. Not long after, we get the first of this cup's just terrific, "one perfect shot"-style views, as the player is launched into a short zero-G section via a ramp and a glide, the sun lens-flaring across the screen with a hot, sticky kiss. Then, it's back down to the building you started in—a short, tight, twisting, verticality-embracing lap that'll last less than 40 seconds running at the (IMO) optimum speed of 150CC.
All of that, with the music, the brilliant, ebullient, turn-that-frown-upside-down music, and the planes taking off and landing around you, and the pink toads behind the check-in counters, and the hopping piantas cheering the racers on from behind the barriers. It's just the perfect start to the perfect cup.
Track two, Dolphin Shoals, isn't quite the same instant classic of the Mario Kart canon, but it sure does complement the excellence that bookends this cup superbly. Its centerpiece, if you will, is one of its transitions between above-and beneath-water sections—a triumphant emergence, towards the lap's end, where racers splash free of the blue and hit a zero-G bend soundtracked by a soaring saxophone. (And there's that blazing sun, again.) Nintendo games feature these compact moments of magic more often than the work of any other major studio, and this is one of Mario Kart 8's very best.
Electrodrome, how I used to misunderstand you. When I was pumping late-night hours into online MK8 play, I used to fear this sparkling disco stomach-turner with its upside-down flips, Top of the Pops chart-countdown-recalling synth stabs and beat-keeping piranha plants. Too… shiny, perhaps. Too artificial. Not especially in keeping with what I believed the Mario World to be, in the wider sense: squishy, cute things, all big smiles and bouncy hillsides.
But Electrodrome is a zinging hoot. Not the easiest course to master, especially at higher CCs, what with its surprisingly uneven surfaces and long bends that you can just fall off the side of (TBH, a good bit of foreshadowing for what's to follow in the final course). But it's so sparkly gleaming good, so razzle-dazzle rip-roaring, that it blasts through the artificiality complex and comes down to land in a dreamscape of Studio 54 via Nintendo EAD's singularly special game design philosophies. Which are, basically: if it's not fun, it's not going in, and probably something about pipes and hats. Probably.
Electrodrome is fun, and bright, and blissfully bombastic—but it pales in impression beside what brings the Star Cup to a climax, the one-way, straight-ahead, downhill chase of Mount Wario. No laps here: it's a triple-checkpointed A-to-B affair, starting in a hover-plane and finishing at the bottom of a ski slope.
Between beginning and end: A mountaintop twister coated in treacherous ice, momentum-breaking spills surrounding a track that doesn't look narrow, but soon feels it. (And, again, that sun, I just want to drink it up.) That's part one, a slippery, drifts-aplenty workout that shifts into something completely different for phase two.
Which sees racers roll, and quickly flip their wheels for zero-G flight, into a cavern where the track becomes something close to a Titanfall-like wall run, before disappearing altogether as gliders unfold above a surging river. The sunlight's gone, temporarily, but still the stage fizzes, visually, culminating in a dash through the inner workings, and then the watery powerhouse itself, of Wario Dam. Once more, there's great verticality to this course, as karts and bikes cling to walls at 90-degree angles. Through a woodland area full of leapable logs and it's onto the final leg of Star Cup—which could just be its very best.
Skiing, on wheels, is just part of it—slaloming through flags in the most exaggerated skidding of the entire game, slamming into moguls and speed-boosting off every one of them. It's great. So, too, is the musical change—what was jovial and jaunty becomes something more akin to a cops-and-robbers movie pursuit, albeit a particularly brassy, comedic one.
And the final downslope to the finish line is just gorgeous, stretched out before you, a perfectly positioned series of boost pads peppering a ski-jump strip before whoosh, it's into the air, through three boost rings and onto a tight right then left then woo-hoo.
I must have played Mount Wario a hundred times or more, now. When it's an online option, I'm picking it. Each and every Star Cup grand prix that I complete, I'm always delighted by its ultimate climax, that final charge, through ice and air, cascading water and powdery snow. "Quite possibly the best Mario Kart course ever," concludes Chris in his assessment. My man, my man. Yes. (Breakfast, everywhere.)
Baby Park is great, in isolation, as a one-off—but it's a lining up of vodka shots, the same thing over and over, bang bang bang, until you're dizzy and your stool's somehow up there, above your head, now. But then, it's DLC, originally, and a reworking of a course that appeared previously, in Double Dash and the DS version of Mario Kart. It lacks the craft, the care, the meticulous detailing and march of memorable moments that make up the constituent courses of the specifically made-for-MK8 Star Cup—which, when taken as a whole, is more a finger of fine, let-it-linger 30-year-old Scottish single malt than it is anything to neck without touching the sides.
Truthfully, however dark a day might have been, firing up these tracks on my Switch never fails to bring about a smile, even so many laps later. Unless I've selected 200CC, of course. That overshooting, overdrifting, oversweaty nightmare can absolutely GTFO. I'll need another holiday by the time I'm done with it.