When Nintendo first announced the Switch, one of the biggest selling points was the console’s massive potential for local multiplayer. It featured heavily in their trailers and ads, showing off ideas like a group of friends gathering around for a couple rounds of virtual basketball or a girl showing up to a party with the portable console. In a world where current-gen consoles offer far fewer games that allow you play side by side with friends on a couch, Nintendo seemed to be offering a glimmer of hope for fans of split-screen.
When the Switch launched, there weren’t exactly a lot of games that showcased the console’s ability to play multiplayer. Snipperclips, with its cute cooperative puzzle solving, did use the Joy-Con as separate controllers, but it was also short and didn’t warrant multiple play-throughs. And mini-game collection 1-2-Switch was more for showcasing some of the Switch’s hardware features than it was a viable couch co-op game.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, released last week, is the first game to make good on Nintendo Switch’s promise of multiplayer gaming that goes where you go.
It’s a perfect fit. After all, Mario Kart may be the most broadly loved local multiplayer franchise. It’s certainly popular from a sales perspective — Mario Kart titles are the third best-selling games on the DS and 3DS, the second best-selling game on the Wii (after Wii Sports, which was included with most consoles), and the most popular Wii U game ever released. When the average person imagines crowding around a TV to squint at a four-player split-screen game, Mario Kart is likely the first title to come to mind.
Despite being built originally for the Nintendo Wii U, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe feels as if it was always meant to demonstrate the Switch’s most novel feature: the ability to pop off two controllers and use the tablet as a shared screen. There’s no need to find a TV or buy an extra controller. The multiplayer experience is practically frictionless.
I’ve been carrying around my Switch with Mario Kart installed for a few days, and I’ve enjoyed quick pick-up games with family, friends, and co-workers. It’s a conversation starter. I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say it again: local multiplayer adds a social experience beyond the act of playing a game of competition. It’s an excuse to sit down with somebody and chat. And the Switch makes that experience possible anywhere.
The Switch supports two-, three-, and four-player split-screen on a single device — whether that’s hooked up to a TV or not. So if you’ve got a spare Joy-Con and don’t mind crowding around the Switch’s 6.2-inch screen, it’s entirely possible to play a full four-player game on one tablet, which seemed to run just about as smoothly as it did in single player. Plus, the Switch supports local multiplayer with other Switches, meaning that each additional Switch (and copy of Mario Kart) allows for more players.
Is Mario Kart on the Switch perfect? Of course not. Playing on the screen gets tough if you have more than two people, and combined with the flimsiness of the built-in kickstand it’s probably more enjoyable to drop the console in the dock and play on a TV. The Joy-Con controllers themselves are awkwardly small at times, and the left Joy-Con is far more natural to use in the sideways position than the awkwardly centered joystick on the right controller.
And sure, it would have been nice to see something like the DS’s Download Play feature included in the Switch version of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe; the Mario Kart DS feature let multiple consoles play together off a single cartridge, albeit in a limited fashion.
But those are minor gripes. After a few days with Mario Kart on the Switch, I’m left excited by the prospects of where Nintendo will take the local multiplayer next. Maybe Mario Party? Some kind of Wii Sports tennis? Or maybe even that greatest of local multiplayer games, Super Smash Bros?
So much of Nintendo’s catalog is built around playing with friends. And it now has a console that aligns with that philosophy.