Mario Kart 8: every track, ranked (part two)

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  1. Excitebike Arena (Egg Cup)

Would have been a good few places higher until the last batch of DLC arrived. This ostensibly simple track not only pays respectful homage to the titular NES classic, but its randomly-generated ramps ensure it plays out differently each time. You’ll need to weave down the straights to succeed: stay in the same lane and you leave yourself worryingly open to shells, fireballs and boomerangs.

  1. 3DS Piranha Plant Pipeway (Lightning Cup)

While your top speed is dependent on your kart selection, there’s no denying some Mario Kart tracks feel significantly quicker than others. Piranha Plant Pipeway goes by in a blur, from that initial descent to the moment you break the surface of the water and soar through (or, in 200cc, above) the castle ramparts.

  1. Mute City (Egg Cup)

As with Big Blue, this doesn’t quite hit the spot until at least 150cc – it’s telling that the track has so many boost chevrons to pick up the pace. Nonetheless, this captures the essence of F-Zero – fast, winding, narrow tracks where a single nudge or shunt is enough to bounce you into the void. At least here you’ve got someone to fish you out. Bonus marks, too, for the tremendous orchestral remix of the track’s theme.

  1. Wii Wario’s Gold Mine (Triforce Cup)

For all the gravity-defying gimmickry of the new tracks, I’m not sure any other track captures that rollercoaster sensation quite as well as the stomach-lurching dip near the start here. Substantially prettified from the last-gen original, it’s a shame we lose the half-pipes, but getting boosted instead of halted by bumping into the mine carts compensates somewhat. And the alternate route near the end is still great.

  1. SNES Donut Plains 3 (Banana Cup)

An oldie but a goodie, this outwardly simple track requires some careful cornering, and has one of my favourite little visual touches in the entire game – that slick sheen on the damp patches that lead back around to the start. It’s a refreshingly short burst of classic MK action, with one of the best mushroom shortcuts ever.

  1. Water Park (Mushroom Cup)

A beamingly cheerful funfair ride, this is far better than a first cup’s second track has any right to be. It’s a concentrated blast of unpretentiously straightforward fun, and tends to keep the pack nicely bunched together, arguably more so than most tracks. Certainly, it’s been responsible for some of my closest multiplayer finishes ever. Few people would put it in their top five, but it’s a course where you consistently end up having more fun than you expect.

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  1. Bowser’s Castle (Special Cup)

Nestled between two of the most disappointing tracks in the game, Bowser’s Castle naturally looks good by comparison. Yet it’s a fine course in its own right, its sharp corners in the early part redolent of earlier versions before it shifts into something different entirely. Lava, lasers and a giant Bowser statue that either squashes you flat or creates ripples to trick off: what’s not to like?

  1. Thwomp Ruins (Mushroom Cup)

This is probably too low a position for a terrific and unusual course with a wonderfully percussive soundtrack, though the idea of these seething stones crashing down onto the track is hardly a new one. The rolling cogs represent a new kind of hazard, mind, and it’s always fun to play a track where laps two and three look a little different from the first.

  1. Dolphin Shoals (Star Cup)

Widely disliked – perhaps because there’s general ill-will among the Mario Kart community towards underwater sections – but I don’t care. This lifts my spirits every time I play it: tracing the leaps of the dolphins through the golden rings is a lovely flourish, the undulating eel adds a note of unpredictability to the mid-section, and the moment when you emerge, arcing around that rocky spar as the saxophone kicks in is just glorious. Oh, and in 200cc, clever racers can glide all the way over that fiendish final turn. It’s maybe a track of great individual moments rather than a consistently strong design, but I love it.

  1. Wild Woods (Crossing Cup)

In which the Shy Guys become surrogate Ewoks living inside a giant tree, making weirdly cute chanting sounds as you pass. The water slide section that segues into a hop and a skip across those giant floating leaves is great fun, and the only real complaint I have is that you never quite get a sense of where you are in spatial terms – it’s only on viewing the replay that you realise you start by haring up a vertical straight.

  1. Toad Harbour (Flower Cup)

Perhaps it’s mild fatigue with Nintendo’s reliance on familiar elemental themes (fire, ice, water, forest, jungle, desert, etc etc.) but I tend to find myself drawn more and more to the tracks that more closely resemble real world settings. This idealised take on San Francisco is like an injection of Vitamin D. Hit all the boost pads on the downward slope towards the finish and it’s all you can do not to shout “wheeee!”

  1. Hyrule Circuit (Triforce Cup)

It can’t be easy to capture the spirit of a game in an entirely different genre. F-Zero is one thing, but Zelda? Yet it works, brilliantly, from rattling over Hylian cobbles to the mystery jingle playing as you hit an item box and the wonderful moment you trigger the shortcut in the castle to jump past (and  boost off) the Master Sword. Coins become rupees; Piranha Plants are recast as Deku Babas, and that theme tune is as stirring as ever.

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  1. Animal Crossing (Crossing Cup)

It can’t be easy to capture the spirit of a game in an entirely different genre. F-Zero is one thing, but Animal Crossing? You get the picture. The four seasonal variants don’t radically change the track or anything, but each is a treat for the eyes – though the course design is fairly straightforward, it would be wrong to dismiss the sheer aesthetic pleasure of the thing. Gorgeous.

  1. Electrodrome (Star Cup)

Another tricksy one with diverging routes, though Electrodrome gets away with it – not just because you’re zipping around winding fretboards, but because they’re both wide enough to accommodate multiple karts but narrow enough to keep things tight and tense. And the unique visual signature and pulsing disco theme make for a delightfully distinctive track: no other course looks or sounds like this.

  1. Wii Moo Moo Meadows (Shell Cup)

Imagine a Zelda game where Lon Lon Ranch looked like this. Proof that simple courses can still be thoroughly entertaining, Moo Moo Meadows is the sort of track you’re always pleased to see among the four available for selection: nothing too taxing, just a fun and consistently competitive course that happens to be set in a pastoral idyll, tinged with a pink-orange glow from the low-hanging late afternoon sun. It passes by with a happy, wistful sigh: you’ll wish you could climb out of your kart, lie down on the grass and simply gaze up at the fluffy clouds as they glide lazily by.

  1. Mario Circuit (Flower Cup)

Talking of simple courses, here’s a simple Moebius strip elevated to greatness by subtle refinements, fine details and deceptive hazards: those Goombas and Piranha Plants should be so easy to avoid, and yet… Mario Circuit is one of the few tracks to make you properly aware of the fact that you’re racing upside-down, it’s blindingly good in 200cc, and the CLANG as you glide into the sign at the end of each lap is the game’s most satisfying sound effect.

  1. Super Bell Subway (Bell Cup)

A real grower. When I started compiling this list, this was hovering around the 20 mark, but it just kept climbing. It’s a combination, I think, of a really well-designed track and a frankly unnecessary attention to trackside detail that most players will never see (the graffiti mural is a sublime touch). It’s a course packed with miniature delights: the World 1-1 riff working its way into the music; that tricky kink before the final turn which has you turning left and immediately left again; the barriers that open just as you think you’re about to smash through them. Next week it might just be top five material.

  1. GBA Ribbon Road (Bell Cup)

The look of this completely slays me. We’ve seen the Toy Story thing done numerous times before, but never has it been realised so expertly. If Pixar made racing games, etc. Beyond that, it’s a course that looks much more straightforward than it is: the ribbon’s undulations are tempting to trick off, but given the absence of barriers you could easily end up skidding off the sides. So beautiful it even gets away with a none-too-subtle advert for Yoshi’s Woolly World.

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  1. Cloudtop Cruise (Special Cup)

Gusty Garden Galaxy x Mario Kart. Enough said.

  1. Shy Guy Falls (Flower Cup)

So quickly do you acclimatise to anti-gravity that it’s easy to take a track like Shy Guy Falls for granted. Not so much on your first couple of goes, admittedly, where you think the novelty of racing up a waterfall might never wear off. It’s never quite as much of an eye-opener thereafter – or so I thought. Up, round and back down in 200cc is an exhilarating rush – or a cascade of excitement, if you will.

  1. GCN Yoshi Circuit (Egg Cup)

Setting aside for a moment my annoyance at the inexplicable abbreviation of GameCube to GCN, Yoshi Circuit can consider itself unfortunate not to be even higher. No one at Nintendo could possibly have conceived Mario’s dino/dragon pal with a view to one day turning his outline into a race track, but it fits so perfectly you begin to wonder. It’s a very technical track, which means it’s unpopular in some quarters – and admittedly it’s best played with people accustomed to its nuances. But you’ll struggle to find a better time trial course in Mario Kart’s entire history than this. Superb.

  1. GCN Baby Park (Crossing Cup)

No, you shut up. Listen: this isn’t simply fond memories of Double Dash!! talking. You will never convince me that Baby Park is anything less than excellent, and here’s why. It’s perhaps the purest expression of the series’ shift towards weaponised racing, a manic game of dodgems where fortune favours the fortunate, and chaos reigns. It’s not, as some would tell you, NASCAR for toddlers – not least because staying ahead of the pack involves some sharp cornering and intelligent use of defensive items. Of course, more often than not it descends into outright madness, a demolition derby where you spend half your time at full pelt and half the time getting hit. But give me a track that makes you rage as much as laugh over a bland, forgettable procession. Baby Park offers the rare sensation of peril when you’re way out in front, and an opportunity for back markers to remain involved throughout, even if it’s simply taking out your frustrations on the leader with a cathartic red shell. It’s the only track where there’s a good chance you’ll either lap or be lapped, or both. It stands apart, proud of its capacity to captivate and irritate all at once. A classic.

  1. Sunshine Airport (Star Cup)

Try not to smile. It’s impossible. A summer holiday in race form, it mirrors the airport experience perfectly. The countdown is the wait for your flight to be called; there’s the excitement as you approach your gate; and whether you’re racing through the fuselage or around the wheels of the grounded plane, you’ll recall the fiddly process of queuing to board and finding your seat. Finally, you’re off! Racing down the runway before lifting your front wheels off the tarmac until you’re up, up and away. Then, as you circle around and begin your descent, you witness another group of holidaymakers taking off, as you pass beneath the undercarriage of a Jumbo jet mid-flight. And all the while, you’re accompanied by an uplifting earworm of a tune – so breezy and happy it might as well be called “we’re going abroad for a week, isn’t life amazing?” 45 seconds of undiluted joy, times three, and a squeak shy of top spot.

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  1. Mount Wario (Star Cup)

A predictable pick, sure, but how could this not be number one? You immediately know you’re in for a treat from the brassy sting as you set off, a fanfare that could only possibly herald something amazing. What follows is by turns breathless and breathtaking, and strangely akin to a multi-event winter sports discipline. The icy start is basically speed skating, luge and bobsleigh rolled into one, then later you’re weaving in and out of trees like a skilled snowboarder, before donning invisible skis for a thrilling slalom and finally accelerating downhill for take-off like a practised ski jumper. What else? The skid past the line as you turn around to greet the runners-up losers behind you; that tiny ramp around the icy bend into the water section that cuts the corner if you can land it; the hidden shortcut through the snow that marks a middle route between the left and right forks. If it comes up a little too often when you’re playing online, that’s only because it’s too good to turn down. And why choose anything else when one of the options is quite possibly the best Mario Kart course ever?

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Mario Kart 8: every track, ranked (part one)

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  1. GCN Dry Dry Desert (Banana Cup)

Dire Dire Desert, more like. So bad they named it twice, this somnolent sandy circuit was one of the worst tracks of the much-maligned Double Dash!!, and hasn’t been improved any by Nintendo chucking a giant puddle in the middle of it. If anyone votes for this online they’re either an idiot or a troll. Or both.

  1. GCN Sherbet Land (Leaf Cup)

Making it a Double Dash!! double-whammy in the bottom two, this tediously slow and visually dull course is somehow equally monotonous in 200cc mode. The best you can say about it is that the handful of design adjustments make it marginally more interesting here than its original form.

  1. N64 Toad’s Turnpike (Shell Cup)

A track which manages the impressive feat of being both boring and fantastically irritating all at once. I’d wager that this is almost certainly the track that prompts the most rage-quits in online multiplayer matches – and probably local ones for that matter. Less awful in 200cc, I suppose, but still bobbins.

  1. 3DS DK Jungle (Banana Cup)

Absolutely no one’s favourite track. Has one half-decent shortcut, but otherwise almost entirely uninteresting. Not hateful, exactly, but would anyone miss it if Nintendo quietly removed it from online rotation? Would anyone even notice?

  1. Bone Dry Dunes (Special Cup)

The Special Cup is supposed to be home to the best and/or most challenging Mario Kart tracks. Cloudtop Cruise proves to be a tough act to follow, but there’s no real excuse to dump this duffer immediately after it. Its hazards are irksome rather than devious (the corner immediately after the glider section is horrible) and it only avoids a bottom-three place because its brick-coloured sand and magic-hour lighting make it at least attractively annoying.

  1. Ice Ice Outpost (Triforce Cup)

I feel slightly sorry for whoever designed Ice Ice Outpost, because conceptually it’s quite an inventive course. It’s just not a lot of fun to play. It’s never quite clear which of the two intertwining tracks you should be on, and they’re both so narrow that you’ll invariably come to a grinding halt simply by bumping against the sides where the paths diverge. A good idea in theory; not so much in practice.

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  1. Wii Grumble Volcano (Lightning Cup)

In one of the brightest, most vibrantly colourful games money can buy, Grumble Volcano distinguishes itself with its sheer brownness. Bowser’s Castle does the fiery lava thing much better, and even noisy background eruptions fail to invigorate a track that prompts eye-rolling and weary sighs every time it’s picked online.

  1. Sweet Sweet Canyon (Mushroom Cup)

So sugary you can almost feel your teeth rotting with each lap, this Wreck-It Ralph rip-off has that neat doughnut shortcut on the final bend, a lemonade lake that looks like carbonated piss and not much else. The scenery looks good enough to eat, mind.

  1. GBA Cheese Land (Crossing Cup)

Essentially a desert track masquerading as something more interesting, Cheese Land is a more comfortably off man’s Dry Dry Desert. Less annoying than Bone Dry Dunes, and you can trick off the cheese craters, but if you had to choose which of the DLC tracks you could happily live without, this would be in most people’s top one.

  1. Rainbow Road (Special Cup)

I’m not angry, Rainbow Road, I’m just disappointed. Nintendo promised something extra-special; what we got was an admittedly pretty intergalactic jaunt around a twisty, turny, strangely forgettable ribbon of track, with a bizarrely clunky interruption from a passing satellite. After the invention of MK7’s similarly space-set climax, this was a real let-down.

  1. N64 Rainbow Road (Lightning Cup)

The original was remarkable mostly for being ludicrously over-extended, maybe the most insipid finale in Mario Kart history. The main thing it has going for it now is its brevity: one of the longest tracks is now one of the shortest. But oh, that music! The remixed theme is a joy, making you weirdly nostalgic for a track you never actually liked.

  1. DS Tick-Tock Clock (Lightning Cup)

Into the realms of the ‘not bad, but…’, Tick-Tock Clock is a fittingly mechanical offering: all the nuts and bolts are in place, but it’s lacking a bit of soul. There are many potentially better choices from the DS game’s very decent roster, yet Nintendo opted to update a course that consistently threatens to be more interesting than it actually is.

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  1. N64 Royal Raceway (Banana Cup)

A Peach-centric track, and as we all know, Peach is rubbish. Other than looking quite nice – and that’s something you could say of most tracks – the twee Royal Raceway doesn’t really have a defining feature. There’s a few sharp corners, a gliding section, a light sprinkling of sakura blossoms and three stupid birds who keep landing near the start line. It’s okay.

  1. 3DS Melody Motorway (Leaf Cup)

Its central gimmick – that you’re racing around and generating sounds from a bunch of musical instruments – is fun on the first few goes, but once the novelty has worn off you’re left with a track that doesn’t really do much else of note. Of note! Because…oh, never mind.

  1. Twisted Mansion (Flower Cup)

A Boo House as a Mario Kart track is an idea with potential for mischief and spooky trickery, but it’s wasted on a lavish but fairly generic haunted house setting. Beyond that, it’s an exercise in box-ticking. Anti-grav wall driving? Check. Gliding section? Check. Underwater bit? Check. Boost pads? Yawn.

  1. N64 Yoshi Valley (Leaf Cup)

Like Ice Ice Outpost, Yoshi Valley is a better idea on paper. Multiple routes just end up splitting the pack, and it’s only once the paths converge that things get exciting again. And let’s face it: as obstacles go, the giant Yoshi egg that occasionally blocks off the wooden bridge is pretty crappy.

  1. DS Cheep Cheep Beach (Shell Cup)

I’m a sucker for tropical settings, and this gorgeous, sun-baked circuit makes me yearn for a Wii U update of Super Mario Sunshine. You can almost feel the oppressive heat, which perhaps helps explain the languid pace. Slow and flat, Cheep Cheep Beach is far from top-tier Mario Kart, but it’s not bad.

  1. 3DS Koopa City (Bell Cup)

An HD makeover has done wonders for a track I always found thuddingly dull on 3DS. Neon lights and slippery asphalt are a surprisingly attractive combo, and light drizzle has rarely looked quite so appealing. A reasonable opener for the Bell Cup, but there’s better to come.

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  1. DS Wario Stadium (Leaf Cup)

The clear highlight of Mario Kart 8’s least enjoyable grand prix, Wario Stadium has its ups and downs – quite literally in the case of its new elevated anti-grav section, which smacks a little of change for change’s sake. Then again, bumping an opponent off the top edge is an undoubted pleasure. It’s the Crystal Palace of tracks: comfortably mid-table without ever looking like troubling the big guns.

  1. Big Blue (Bell Cup)

Slap an F-Zero theme on a flat, featureless strip of track and some people would put it in their top ten. Big Blue is basically a sci-fi waterslide that only really comes to life in 200cc. It’s fine, but its popularity is almost entirely down to rose-tinted memories of a series Nintendo has all but left behind. Great music, though.

  1. SNES Rainbow Road (Triforce Cup)

Pick of the Rainbow Roads, this can’t have the impact the original did back in ’92, but it’s a solid update. It’s a great time-trial track, but can be infuriating in multiplayer, and in 200cc you’ll either enjoy a terrifying white-knuckle ride or end up funding Lakitu’s kids through university.

  1. Mario Kart Stadium (Mushroom Cup)

The first track of any Mario Kart is traditionally fairly safe and pedestrian, but this is one of the series’ strongest starts. It offers a fine introduction to anti-grav, and is ideally suited to 12-player races. Put it this way: if it’s randomly selected in an online lobby, you probably won’t be too unhappy.

  1. GBA Mario Circuit (Shell Cup)

There’s something wonderfully artless about the way anti-grav is shoehorned in here, not least because you get to witness the section of track being lifted on a hydraulic jack in the introduction. And once you’re at its apex, you get one of the game’s best views: not just the track below, but a glimpse of the world beyond it. Nothing else quite lives up to that moment, but that’s enough.

  1. Dragon Driftway (Egg Cup)

Barely enjoyable at 200cc, this is otherwise a hugely undervalued track with an unusual theme, some devilishly difficult sections and a terrific soundtrack. The grass verge on the home stretch is a bit of a dick move, but any circuit that pays tribute to a Mario Galaxy boss (SMG2’s Gobblegut) is all right by me.