Ever since the Super Nintendo, Nintendo has been putting its genre defining Kart racer once per new system. We’re up to its 8th installment now and Mario Kart 8 offers up more of what we love from the long lasting franchise. It’s been a whole 6 years since the last console entry into the series and fans have been eager to see what’s next. After all, who isn’t excited to see their favorite Mario characters race it out in now glorious HD? Sounds great on paper and Mario Kart 8 doesn’t disappoint.
There should be no reason to explain Mario Kart gameplay to anyone, but for the few that have been living under a rock, it’s an arcade-style Kart racer. Up to 12 racers compete for first place and players can choose either a kart or motorbike. Power-ups are also available during a race and they can do things from obscuring the view of all other players to shrinking them. New playable characters and kart parts are unlocked as you finish Grand Prix alone or with buddies. It’s a tried and true formula that has consistently brought joy (and despair) to all who’ve played.
The Wii U was Nintendo’s step in bringing the company into HD gaming and Mario Kart 8 proves that they know what they’re doing. Courses and environments look beautiful from the shimmering water of beach levels to the seizure-inducing, eye candy levels like Rainbow Road or the newly introduced Electrodome. It’s also all in a solid 60fps while playing solo or with a buddy, or 30fps when playing with 3 or more players split-screen. Characters look awesome in HD with great attention to detail and expression. It’s always a joy to see replays of a race and seeing how your player was reacting from passing another player or his/her eminent doom right before a blue shell blew them up. It’s too bad you only see the back of their head throughout a race, because it’s really an amusing sight to see.
There are 16 brand new courses and 16 retro courses picked from all of the seven past Mario Kart games. This is a formula that was mildly introduced in Super Circuit for GBA and then a mainstay since Mario Kart DS. The new courses are all good, but I had trouble picking one out that was better than the rest. There wasn’t any definitive standout course in Mario Kart 8 like how DK Mountain was for Mario Kart: Double Dash!! or Waluigi Pinball was for Mario Kart DS. That being said, Twisted Mansion and the latest version of Bowser’s Castle are my personal favorites, because I’m a fan of that scary/spooky style. But for others, I can easily see how Sunshine Airport and Cloudtop Cruise could be front runners. The picks for retro tracks is a good batch with the majority of them being from the favorite Nintendo 64 version. Also worth mentioning is the music being beautifully orchestrated for both old and new tracks.
A new dynamic added to the Kart racing mix is the anti-gravity feature. On top of gliding through the air and driving underwater, now you can also drive upside down and sideways. Your wheels will begin to hover when the anti-gravity mode kicks in and this will also trigger an incentive of ramming into other racers, because bumping into each other gives both players a mini boost. Visually, although disorienting at first, it’s very cool to see drivers whizzing past you from all different angles. This new addition puts another layer of strategy to every race and I hope it’s something that remains in the series’ future.
The community features this time around is the best Mario Kart has seen. Replays and highlights are constantly worth revisiting, especially when you and your room full of pals just had an intense race. They can also be uploaded for friends to see on the Nintendo Network. Online play is solid and runs as good as if you were offline. There are instances where you wish you can yell your fellow racers for the unspeakable move they just pulled on you, but you can talk while waiting for the next race in the lobby. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction for a company who has largely ignored basic online gaming features for years.
Glaringly missing from Mario Kart 8 is the incorporation of battle mode stages. Arena style maps for players to duke it out are completely gone and players will have to settle with attacking each other’s balloons on the race courses. This is a first for the series and hopefully the last. Another missing feature is the ability to carry two of certain items. In the past, shells and bananas can be queued up and the item box can hold another power-up. Now, all items take up the item box until they are used. This may be for whatever balancing changes Nintendo is trying to pull, but I find it to be a step backwards in smart item management and overall depth during a race.
Mario Kart 8 delivers an experience that keeps the franchise remaining close to the top, if not the pinnacle of local multiplayer fun. It is an enjoyable and easy to learn game that can also become very competitive and addictive. Online play isn’t perfect, but it is competent enough to bring that same great offline play experience onto the internet. Wii U owners should not hesitate to pick this title up. This is why you bought this system.