Mario Kart 8 stands as the next great hope to reverse the Wii U's fortunes, in the same way Mario Kart 7 and a price drop brought the 3DS back to life. Nintendo's banking on the magic of Mario Kart; even if consumers don't buy enough Wii Us to push the system ahead, they can help keep Nintendo coasting until its next console comes out. The plan completely falls apart if director Kosuke Yabuki and his team at Nintendo EAD Group No. 1 don't build a great game.
It's a good thing that Mario Kart 8 is a great game.
I was worried about Mario Kart 8 because I wasn't a huge fan of the last two console entries in the series. Mario Kart: Double Dash for GameCube had bland tracks and didn't feel like a great improvement over its predecessor. Mario Kart Wii? I honestly couldn't tell you why I didn't enjoy that game. On paper, everything comes up golden; in practice, it just didn't click with me. I ended up enjoying the portable entries, Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7, far more than their console counterparts.
Mario Kart 8 does not take the formula set by previous entries into wildly new directions. It's from the more conservative side of Nintendo, the side that makes games like New Super Mario Bros U. This is the "best of" entry, taking a bit of everything that worked before and cramming it all into a single title. When taken that way, Mario Kart 8 does falter in a few areas, but not enough to torpedo the whole experience.
It looks absolutely amazing on the Wii U. It runs in full 720p resolution at 60 frames per second with nary a stutter (Edit: According to Digital Foundry, there is in fact a stutter). The characters and tracks look gorgeous, with bright colors and effects everywhere. Yabuki's art team has outdone themselves, especially when it comes to the extra flair on each track. A sand ship with Toads tossing coins on the track, the cheering crowds, and the majesty of space are just pulsing at the corner of your eye while you race. The extras on the side of the tracks make them feel alive, like they're real race tracks in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Mario Kart 8 features a cast of 30 playable characters. You'll get mainstays like Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Donkey Kong, and an interesting new addition in Rosalina. The cast does feel padded out though, with new characters like the seven Koopa kids, Pink Gold Peach, and Baby Rosalina. I wish Nintendo had stepped up here and brought back some more varied characters like Mario Kart 7's Wiggler or Mario Kart DS's Dry Bones.
Pedal To the Medal (Gameplay, Tracks, and Weapons)
Mario Kart 8's gameplay begins from the Mario Kart racing core, but there's a little bit of everything in here. Underwater racing and hang-gliding return from Mario Kart 7, but Mario Kart 8 adds the all-new anti-gravity option. Anti-grav doesn't look different from a visual perspective - your viewpoint stays the same even when you're upside-down - but it plays different.
The physics in anti-gravity are floatier and drifting requires a different set of reflexes than Mario Kart regulars are used to. I'd say it's somewhere in-between classic Mario Kart and the later F-Zero games. Kart customization also returns with karts, bikes, and ATVs in the mix. They each have a benefit, though the ATV's off-road capability is the easiest to differentiate. I found switching between karts and bikes was more down to personal preference.
The grab-bag approach extends to the boosting system; there's a ton of ways to move faster in Mario Kart 8. There's the classic drift boost, boost pads, the slipstream effect, and Mario Kart Wii's trick boost off jumps. In anti-gravity mode, there are boost posts on the courses and bumping into other racers actually grants you a boost instead of slowing you down. It changes the strategy if you're in the middle of the pack; at that point, you want to combine slipstreaming and bumping other racers to get ahead. Essentially, there's a wide variety of tricks and moves you need to be using at the highest level of play. Mario Kart 8 is family-friendly at 50cc, but at 150cc and online, it can get brutal.
And you'll need to get used to the shifts in strategy because the new tracks in Mario Kart 8 are... schizophrenic. You get 16 new tracks in total, four for each cup. These courses were obviously designed to show off as much off the game as possible, so you'll jump from a normal track, to anti-grav, to underwater, and back again. There's visible shortcuts and hidden ones you can utilize if you have the right items. Not all of the tracks completely come together, but there are definite highlights like Electrodome, Twisted Mansion, and Cloudtop Cruise.
Mount Wario is also one of the standout new courses because it's innovative for Mario Kart: it's a single long track from the top of a winter resort to the bottom. I wish more of the new tracks played around with the basic formula in the same way.
The other 16 tracks are remixes of older tracks from previous games, like N64 Toad's Turnpike, DS Cheep Cheep Beach, DS Wario Stadium, and the king, N64 Rainbow Road. When I say "remixes", I mean that Nintendo did more than just a visual upgrade. Some changes are more drastic than others: SNES Donut Plains 3 is a visually-amazing revamp, but plays much the same, while tracks like N64 Rainbow Road and DS Wario Stadium really take advantage of the verticality found in Mario Kart 8. Many of these remixed tracks are better than the new ones, because Nintendo only made small additions. They feel like complete tracks where everything fits together, instead gameplay whiplash showing off all the new features.
Oh, and there's a mirror mode available for unlocking.
Nintendo has added a few new weapons to your arsenal. The boomerang flower is like a green shell that comes back to you and hits on the return trip. The Piranha Plant eats other racers, coins, and items in your way, giving you a small push forward as it does. The Horn acts as the equalizer for the mighty Blue Shell by creating a shockwave that destroys anything around you. The Crazy Eight gives you eight items at once: Mushroom, Green Shell, Red Shell, Banana Peel, Bob-Omb, the Squid, a Coin, and a Super Star.
If there's a standout, it's probably the Piranha Plant, which excels at clearing out everything in your path. The Horn kills Blue Shells, but the amount of times I had it when a Blue Shell was on my tail can probably be counted on one hand. The Crazy Eight can actually work against you since the items floating around can be picked up by other racers. Donkey Kong actually stole my Super Star before I could use it and hit me, dropping me into fifth place! The new items give more options, but none of them are game-breaking. Oh, by the way, you can only hold one item at a time; the old trick of activating a shell or banana peel and holding it behind you while you grab another item no longer works.
Enter The Race (Modes and More)
When its time to hit the road, you'll have a wide variety of ways to play. If you're playing alone, you can do the Grand Prix, Single Race, Battle, and Time Trials. Time Trials allow you to download online ghosts of other players, so it's like multiplayer even when you're alone. You don't have the feel the pressure of another player trash-talking, you can learn some things about each course, and you can decide which ghosts to download based on their course times. Mario Kart 8 lets you to download four ghosts per track or a total of 16 ghosts per system. Winning against online ghosts unlocks stamps to use in Miiverse, so you'll want to try it out a few times at least.
Local multiplayer allows up to four people to run Grand Prix, Single Race, or Battle Mode. Online multiplayer can have either one or two local players, and offers single Races or Battle. You can choose to look for other players from your Friends List, within your region, or worldwide. Lobbies allow up to 12 players to race it out. It's Nintendo family-friendly, so there's no voice chat in multiplayer unless you're in a lobby with friends; random strangers will be stuck with a list of preset phrases. Probably better that way, especially with the Worldwide option.
Nintendo is joining the 21st century with Mario Kart TV. Mario Kart 8 records a highlight reel of every race you run. It saves a certain number of reels before deleting them and you can star the ones that you want to keep longer. Players can upload saved highlight reels to Miiverse or YouTube, but only if they are 60 seconds or less in length. There's also difference in the functionality depending on the mode you're in. My Grand Prix highlights are all in cinematic camera, not locked directly behind your racer like it is in the game. My Time Trial highlights on the other hand were essentially direct feed videos of my runs. I couldn't find an option to choose which type of highlight reel is taken, as I would preferred the direct feed option on Grand Prix. It just seems like an odd omission.
Mario Kart TV's reel editor isn't as robust as PlayStation 4's SHAREfactory or Xbox One's Upload Studio, but it's a nice addition for the game. I can see it being particularly useful for Mario Kart experts to show off their best Time Trial runs.
Mario Kart 8 lets me down hard in the new Battle Mode. Gone are the specialized arena courses. Now all the battling takes place on the flatter racing courses, with players starting at random places around the track. Like older Mario Karts, you begin with three balloons and have to use items to pop others' balloons. If you lose your balloons, you're out. At the end, the winner is determined by who popped the most balloons (any starting balloons you still have left are included in the count).
This is where Nintendo phoned it in completely and as a person who really loved Battle Mode, I'm sad to see it as such an afterthought in this game. There's something about that arena design that just works better. Battle in Mario Kart 8 feels like Nintendo's jamming it in there to say it's there.
Mario Kart 8 is packed full of content and stands near the top of the franchise roster. It looks amazing, there's some great tracks here, the music is still classic Mario Kart (with real instruments!), and it plays like a dream. Mario Kart 8 isn't perfect and it's not quite the best in the series; if you forced me to choose, I'd probably still take Mario Kart 7, followed by Mario Kart DS (Sonic All Star Racing Transformed is up there, too). That said, it's a great game that deserves to help the Wii U fly off store shelves.
When I played Mario Kart 8 back at GDC, I found myself totally smitten with it. All in all, it seemed like everything I wanted from a Mario Kart game.
After putting in considerably more time, though, I find my ardor has cooled somewhat. It's a solid addition to the franchise to be sure, but it doesn't click with me like I had hoped it would.
Pinning down the specifics of my mixed feelings has been difficult, though. There's nothing objectively bad about MK8; on the contrary, it has some excellent courses and alleviates a lot of the dumb frustrations of the series. You'll still lose out on a gold cup at the last second when the AI decides to gang up on you at the end of a flawless run, but infuriating elements (read: Blue Shells) show up far less frequently than in recent Mario Karts.
Even though this new Mario Kart shows welcome evidence of hating players less than its immediate predecessors, and even though it's far and away the most visually spectacular entry of the series by a mile, I'd still rather play Mario Kart 7. In the end, I think it's the little things that bug me. Most of the new tracks (and some of the retro remakes) seem way too wide for their own good, sapping much of the energy and tension from the game. The playable cast isn't as interesting as in some other titles, though maybe I'm the only curmudgeon in the world who doesn't think the Koopalings are the bee's knees. The audio design – music, sound effects, and oh-so-shrill voices – drive me nuts. The new "hoverkart" gimmick seems completely stupid and pointless. And the Game Pad is probably the least ergonomic racing controller ever, revving up my poor hands from zero to cramp within the space of a couple of laps.
Of course, I realize the main appeal of Mario Kart 8 comes from its multiplayer, and that's a load of fun. Yeah, I'm baffled by the lack of voice support for online play, but otherwise the connected racing feels wonderful. This Mario Kart really rewards expert-level play, too. Most of the new tracks feature excellent shortcuts on par with those in the original Super Mario Kart – visible if you look for them, but not totally obvious... and even once you spot them, you need to hit them just right to gain rather than lose the advantage.
So, I don't know. Objectively, I think this could very well be the greatest game ever to bear the Mario Kart title. It's more gorgeous, faster-paced, and more customizable than ever. And yet, something about it didn't quite grab me. I don't think I'm burned out on Mario Kart. Maybe I just love Blue Shells more than I care to admit.
- Graphics: Mario Kart 8 is one of the best-looking titles on the Wii U period, and that's saying a lot after Super Mario 3D World.
- Audio: The music is still 100 percent Mario Kart, but this time it's all performed with real instruments. Most players probably won't notice, but I appreciated it.
- Interface: It's an interface that simply does its job.
- Lasting Appeal: 30 characters, 32 tracks, Miiverse stamps, and a host of customization parts to unlock. Online multiplayer, ghosts, and time trials. Mario Kart 8 gives players enough to do for a long time.
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