Look, I'm going to put this bluntly, and I apologize if it offends you, but... Mario Kart Wii sucked.
I say this as someone who's played every Mario Kart since the beginning, even that boring one Namco made for the arcades. I even enjoy the series' offbeat incarnations. (By which I basically mean Double Dash!!) I can find something to love about every single entry in the series – yes, even that boring one Namco made for the arcades. But by god, I hate Mario Kart Wii.
In fact, the enormous gulf in quality between Mario Kart Wii and the portable games on either side of it – Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7 – had gotten me to thinking the series had become a victim of Nintendo's either/or tendencies when it comes to dividing content across their consoles and portables. You know what I mean there, right? The way the console New Super Mario Bros. games are considerably superior to their handheld counterparts, while on the other hand Animal Crossing thrives on handheld systems and sinks on consoles. Mario Kart, despite the fact that racing demands the most impressive hardware possible, had appeared to plant its flag firmly on the portable side of things.
But now I've played Mario Kart 8, and that theory's right out the window.
For its eighth installment, the series throws out all the things I hated about the Wii entry. Nintendo has refined the sloppy, hyperactive feel of the last console Mario Kart into something that more kinetic and unpredictable, but also something more controlled. I suppose the design of the game reflects the console that hosts it, really. Nintendo catered to casual and occasional gamers with Wii, and its Mario Kart felt fittingly spastic, an attempt to woo light users with mechanics that felt closer in spirit to Mario Party than anything else. Wii U, on the other hand, represents a bid to win back the more dedicated gamer, and Mario Kart 8 reflects this design by reining in the cheapness.
This becomes especially clear in 150cc mode, where rival racers put up a brutal fight by racing capably but fairly. I didn't see even a hint of the cheesy rubber-band AI that's plagued the series since Mario Kart 64; when I outraced my opponents, I left them in the dust. When they gained the lead on me, they did so by capitalizing on my screwups. I rarely got the sense that the AI was specifically gunning for me – the tendency of a single successful AI attack against me to occasionally be followed up by about half a dozen other attacks landing in rapid succession (thus knocking me well out of the lead for the rest of the race) being the only thing to raise an eyebrow in the hour I spent with the demo at Game Developers Conference last month. There are fewer dogpiles, though. Fewer blue shells, too. Unlike in Mario Kart Wii, victories and losses alike feel both deserved and justified in Mario Kart 8.
Not to suggest that the new game throws out everything the Wii chapter brought to the table. Motorcycles remain in the mix, offering great acceleration and traction but totally different drifting mechanics than classic karts. Likewise, Mario Kart Wii's ceiling of 12 participants per race returns (after a brief drop back to eight at a time on 3DS). That's basically Mario Kart's guiding philosophy at large, though: Keep what works about previous games, abandon the failures, and experiment with new elements.
In this case, those new elements involve greater flexibility in player choices. We've come a long way from the Super NES days, when customization consisted entirely of picking a character, which determined your kart's weight class. With Mario Kart 8, each racer has a choice of multiple karts, bikes, and ATVs (a sort of midpoint between the other two classes). You can fine-tune your character's stats, though certain ratings only become available by changing vehicle types. Want to max out your traction? Easy enough! All you need to do is switch over to a bike – so hopefully you have a handle on how those drive.
Mario Kart 8 also demonstrates an attempt to combine the track design philosophy of both of its immediate predecessors. Courses tend to have MK Wii's wide-open layouts (essential for accommodating the large number of simultaneous participants) while incorporating a number of Mario Kart 7-like gimmicks. Once again, you can sail across vast gaps in the track and drive underwater, but now you'll also encounter sequences in which your kart converts to a sort of hovercraft, allowing you to defy conventional series wisdom by deliberately smashing into other racers for a speed boost. Certain sections of track also allow you to drive up the walls, though you're not exactly defying gravity in these areas; if you perform a hop, you'll break contact with the wall and and drop back down to the ground.
The antigravity areas aren't nearly as interesting as they sound. For one thing, they're not particularly conspicuous; for most of my demo session, I didn't even realize I had been driving across them, as the cosmetic change to your kart is so slight. The real appeal of the track layouts comes from the designers' aggressive effort to cram each course with as many alternate routes as possible. Every time I thought I had a given track's secrets down, I'd spot an AI rival taking some obscure shortcut that I hadn't even noticed before. Interestingly, screwing up an attempt to jump tracks onto a shortcut doesn't come with many penalties unless you plow into a corner and lose your momentum. If you fall off the track, though, Lakitu snags you as you begin your plummet and immediately returns you to the race, meaning that sliding off the side of the course doesn't totally undermine your chances for success, even in 150cc.
Trainspotters will probably take delight in seeing the return of classic mechanics – evidently collecting coins in order to max out your speed is here to stay – and the series' debut of beloved characters (including Bowser's entire gaggle of Koopalings). For my purposes, though, the most important thing about Mario Kart 8 is that it feels balanced. The chaotic sloppiness of the Wii game has been quashed, along with the wackier design choices of recent titles, in favor of a game that feels as steady and thoughtful as the portable entries. At the same time, though, Mario Kart 8 takes advantage of the Wii U's power to offer the fastest, most intense racing experience the series has yet offered. With the game set to launch in less than two months, we can safely assume its details are set in stone and that the game Nintendo showed off recently represents the final product – a welcome sign of redemption for the series' console entries.