For just over two decades, I’ve watched Nintendo’s relationship with music evolve.
Pokémon moved from simple and charming (but never the less iconic) tunes to dynamic ones that would completely alter the mood of an area based on whether it was day or night, winter or spring—or whether you were standing still, or riding your bike to the next gym. Then you had the Mario franchise, where Bowser’s sinister presence has been evoked using creepy choruses, epic choirs, swanky electro-jazz, and downright badass electric guitar arrangements superimposed over claps of thunder.
A good friend of mine once told me that seeing the SQUARESOFT label stamped on the cover of a game was a promise of quality. It—once upon a time—told you that you were picking up something truly special. In a similar way, the Nintendo logo has become not just a promise that you’re buying a finely polished game, but that you’re likely getting an outstanding soundtrack to boot. Mario Kart 8 is an exemplification of this promise.
April’s Mario Kart 8-themed Nintendo Direct offered a glimpse inside the recording studio for the game’s soundtrack, showcasing the various talents they’d brought to the table to perform music largely arranged by Nintendo’s own Koji Kondo. Listen to the way Teppei Kawasaki’s bass solo ushers in the brass, listen to Takuo Yamamoto’s baritone sax pave the way for the alto. Listen to the trombones, trumpets, saxophones, and stringed instruments crescendo into the original Super Mario Kart theme!
I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, though, as not every track in the game is solely instrumental—not to the degree that Super Mario Galaxy is, at least. Nintendo takes great care in combining the nostalgic beeps and boops of synthesized music with its talented arsenal of artists. The digital accordions (?) of Sweet Sweet Canyon contribute just as much to the tunes’ playful vibe as its violin sections do; the flute in Thwomp Ruins’ theme knows when to give way to synthesized percussion, while Electrodome and Tick Tock Clock do away with instruments all together.
Yet, my favorite thing about Mario Kart 8’s soundtrack isn’t the music itself, but how the music is built into each of the game’s 32 race tracks. Naturally, some examples are stronger than others. Any Mario Kart fan worth his or her salt knows by now that, on the final lap, the music in any given course will pick up speed. Similarly, if you place 5th or lower, your victory theme sounds like a band of broken kazoos at a sad clown party. But that’s not the sort of implementation I’m talking about.
Two examples that spring to mind are the Star Cup’s Dolphin Shoals and the Special Cup’s Cloudtop Cruise. When you take off from behind the finish line at Dolphin Shoals, you’ll be treated to the mellow beat of a steel drum while you and your opponents race underwater. When you enter a caved area with pipes, the steel drum will fade out—but then you’ll burst through the water’s surface where, apparently, all of Mario Kart 8’s alto saxes have been roaming free. Return to the water again, and the saxes transition smoothly into steel drums.
Before you have time to get lost in the brass, you’ll hit Cloudtop Cruise. As you skirt along the clouds at the beginning of the level, you’ll be racing to a tune equal in tension to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, which will quickly die off and become a subtle melody that combines the grandeur of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s Sky Exploration theme with the elegance of Super Mario Galaxy’s Gusty Garden.
After you cross Bowser’s flotilla, you’ll be shot out of a canon into a cumulonimbus thunderhead. The course’s cheeriness gives way to all the dreariness that accompanies a thunder storm, and the course’s triumphant trumpets are replaced by an imposing electric guitar. As you glide out of the thunderhead, the music will return to its brass roots and lead into a beautiful rendition of Super Mario Galaxy’s Gusty Garden. Rather than just slapping a theme onto every course, Mario Kart 8 spoon feeds you its soundtrack, letting the player discover each and every one of its intricacies.
That’s just scratching the surface, too. Mario Kart 8 works environmental elements into its music as well. When you approach the mines of Shy Guy Falls, the chanting of the titular Shy Guys will match the rhythm of the song. Pirahna Plants will dance to the beat of Music Park’s theme, as well as the techno baseline of Electrodome. Hell, the music even changes depending on whether or not you’re in first or second!
I’ve tracked down the music of Mario Kart 8 online to try and find examples, but it’s just not the same. The music of Mario Kart 8 is comparable to that of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (which I wrote about back in February), in that transitions are so seamlessly worked into the environments that it’s truly impossible to capture the dynamic nature of a single tune in just one video. It’s a sensory experience that you can only get if you play the game.
There are so many tracks I’ve neglected to mention in this write up, but if you plan on picking Mario Kart 8 up, you’ll get to experience it all for yourself. While you’re falling off the edge of Rainbow Road, remember to keep your ears perked up, because the soundtrack to Mario Kart 8 is something very, very special.
Food for Thought:
1. Although the Celtic-sounding violin and folk-y acoustic guitar of Moo Moo Meadows is a delight, when it speeds up, I can’t unhear the sound of Turkey gobbling. I don’t know how else to describe it, but…wait and see for yourselves.
2. Expect to be busy for a while if you want all of the obtainable upgrades and stamps. Earning three gold stars (that’d be getting 1st place in all four races of a Grand Prix) may have earned me the hidden characters and Gold Kart, but I’m still missing about 50 stamps and the Gold Tires/Glider.
3. You cannot play against AI online with your friends. You can, however, play split screen online, or set up tournaments to invite your friends to.