Way back in 1992, demos weren't a thing, so the Toys R Us near my house was where I used to go to try out games. My first 16-bit era console was the Sega Genesis, a wonderful gift from my father a few Christmases prior. I enjoyed the system immensely and wasn't too torn up about not having the Super Nintendo, which had only been released the year before. That is until I went out to Toys R Us that fateful day to see what new games were coming out. The previous Super Nintendo demo unit had Super Mario World, but that day they had changed it to a new, upcoming title.
Super Mario Kart blew my tiny mind away. The characters, the Mode 7 racing, and the absolutely awesome Battle Mode. At the time, I thought racing couldn't get any better (This is a recurring theme for gamers I've noticed. It always gets better). For the next two months, whenever I got a few spare hours, I went to Toys R Us and played Super Mario Kart. If there was no one there, I'd jump on. If there was someone playing, I'd play against them or patiently wait until they were done. I lived and breathed that game, despite the Genesis I had at home.
I loved the game so much that when Christmas rolled around and my father got me the brand-new Sega CD, I played it only one day. The next day, we promptly returned it and bought a Super Nintendo and Super Mario Kart. (Yeah, in hindsight, that was a total dick move on my part. What can I say? Kids are dicks.)
Fast forward to college and I now own a Nintendo 64. We had an open dorm room where we kept the game systems and there was always some local multiplayer going on, be it Goldeneye, Starfox 64, or even some Turok 2. My most played game? Mario Kart 64. I was a monster at the game and nearly unbeatable in my dorm. I was so merciless that my girlfriend at the time actually stopped playing Mario Kart 64 forever because I trounced her so bad in a race. (In hindsight, that was a total dick move on my part. What can I say? College-aged teenagers are dicks.)
Mario Kart and I have a long history. I love the series. It has had some outings that didn't resonate with me -- Super Circuit and Mario Kart Wii come to mind -- but even at its worst they're still great games. Creating a good kart racer is hard, as evidenced by the numerous dead attempts at Kart racing franchises left in Mario Kart's dust. That Sega's recent Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is legitimately good is pretty shocking. Seriously, it's really good and on sale all the time. Buy it.
After the relative disappointment of Mario Kart Wii for me, I was wondering how I'd react to Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U. At Nintendo's E3 2013 press event, I finally got a chance to see what the company had crafted as their first HD Mario Kart. Settling into the game for the first time, I picked up the Wii U GamePad and began my first race.
I hated it.
Hold on, don't kill me yet! The problem is the default controls on the demo unit had you tilting the GamePad to turn, like the Wii Remote controls on Mario Kart Wii. It's fun for casual players, but I don't find any precision in that mode of play; it just feels too flighty to be enjoyable for me. I stuck it out and made it through the first race (which was actually the third race in the demo) with the control scheme, just to get a feel for the game. For my next race, I switched to analog controls, which can be done at anytime during a race by tapping the GamePad's touchscreen.
"Oh hey, Mario Kart. There you are," my fingers said immediately. There was the left-and-right tap of the power slide, the feel of holding a drift and waiting for the right time to release. That's the Mario Kart I've missed, now in glorious HD and married a track that would be perfect in F-Zero. (Hey Nintendo, bring back F-Zero. I'm willing to pay for an HD remake for F-Zero GX.) The F-Zero comparison is superficial, because while your kart is in anti-grav mode, it slides along the track as if you're on the ground. No big changes to the series here.
Pretty much everything from past Mario Karts is making a return, with the exception of Double Dash's switching mechanic. That means in addition to the new anti-grav, every vehicle has underwater and hang-gliding options, spread across regular karts, heavy karts, and bikes. Coins return for Mario Kart 8, but the demo didn't give any insight on how those coins will be used in the game. Ramp tricks for an extra boost are in and I'm not a snaking master, but it seemed somewhat possible in the demo I played, like the weakened version found in Mario Kart Wii.
Tracks are crucial to a great Mario Kart; you want more Bowser's Castle and less Vanilla Lake or DK Pass. There were only a few tracks in the demo I played: a Mario Circuit, a Seaside Resort, and a Boo House. (These aren't official names, just placeholders I've made up.) The latter two are pretty vanilla tracks in my opinion, but the Mario Circuit shows real promise.
Circuit courses tend to be the most boring in their respective Mario Karts, as they're meant to ease the player into the game. In contrast, the new Mario Circuit shows that the anti-grav sections can really free the Mario Kart track designers to try some new things. In old games, elevation tended be a gradual shift or achieved through big jumps or boosts. In Mario Kart 8, the designers have a chance to really embrace verticality. And it works. The Mario Circuit is a great-looking track in a great-looking game. Seeing the Mushroom Castle zip by upside-down in the skyline at 60 frames per second is worth the price of admission. (Which is currently free, I guess.) If this is the starting point, I look forward to what other insanity Nintendo will come up with.
Hungry Nintendo is always the best Nintendo in my opinion. The Wii U is currently tracking well below their expectations. I'm sure they're hoping that Mario Kart 8 will contribute to the Wii U's fortunes like Mario Kart 7 did for the 3DS. And to make that happen, they need an absolutely amazing Mario Kart.
I can't tell you that Mario Kart 8 is going to be the perfect Mario Kart, because I've only played three tracks, three times in a row. But what I've seen is a glimpse at something that can be great, especially if the tracks take more after the Mario Circuit, which stands as Nintendo's best foot forward currently. When I played the game it was summer of 2013, and the game is currently slated for spring of 2014, so Nintendo's had time to design more tracks and cut out what doesn't work. Fingers crossed that they pull out all the stops. The Wii U needs it.