It's hard to believe that it's been almost 22 years since the release of the original Mario Kart. It's even harder to believe that, throughout that time the series has not only managed to remain relevant, but has become one of Nintendo's most prized cash cows in their stable of franchises. In fact Mario Kart 8 has caused Wii U sales in the UK to increase over 600%. Clearly the game is destined to be a commercial success and may even play a hand in righting the Wii U ship. But how is it really? Does it measure up to the high standards set by it's predecessors?
Yes. Yes it does.
For starters, the game is absolutely gorgeous. The amount of detail found in each level is nothing short of staggering, especially when you consider the fact that this is a racing game, which means that most players will never notice all the little touches. Things like Shy Guys toiling away in the mines of "Shy Guy Falls" or the different street cars slowly making their way through the sunny streets of "Toad Harbor" or the birds who are casually sitting on the road enjoying the sunshine until their peaceful day is disturbed by your kart careening toward them at dangerous speeds. This is part of what makes playing each level over and over again fun. I have played each course multiple times and I am still noticing new details.
In case you're wondering Ludwig is the best.
Complimenting the beautiful visuals is an equally charming soundtrack. Personally, I am loving the jazz influence Nintendo has been using in their Mario games. It just seems to compliment the Mushroom Kingdom so well. As an aside the music that accompanies Moo Moo Meadows is nothing short of incredible. It gets my dormant Celtic blood pumping every time I hear it.
The controls are as good as you would expect them to be in a Mario Kart game. Each of the three different vehicle types has a definite "feel" to them, as do each of the different driver weight classes which range from feather-weights to super heavy weights. Add into the equation a myriad of different customization options and you've got a game in which there are a seemingly infinite possibilities when it comes to play style. Similarly, you can choose to use pretty much any controller released for the Wii or Wii U in this game, as well as motion controls. What is remarkable is that each option is viable. I truly feel like if I devoted enough time to it, I could become a pro at using motion controls in this game. As it stands, I prefer the Wii U Pro Controller.
With each new entry to the series, Nintendo tinkers with existing mechanics while adding completely new mechanics. Some of the changes stick, such as drafting, gaining a boost after drifting or the gliding after a jump, while other changes are left by the wayside, RIP double racing we barely knew ye. The two major mechanics introduced in Mario Kart 7, gliding and driving underwater return to Mario Kart 8. I was glad to see their return as I feel they add a lot of variety to each course. I hope this means that these two mechanics are now a permanent fixture to Mario Kart.
The most notable new mechanic introduced in Mario Kart 8 is the anti-gravity driving. When you drive over a particular blue strip, this new mode automatically activates. It's a neat idea, but to be honest I was less than impressed with it. There are moments when being upside down or vertical affords awe-inspiring views, but for the most part it's hard to even tell you are upside down in the first place. The biggest saving grace for this new mechanic is the fact that it opens up a ton of alternate routes for each course, which in turn creates a reason to come back to each course in a quest to find the best route.
The greatest new feature debuting in Mario Kart is, without a doubt, Mario Kart TV. The game automatically records a video of every local race you play in, whether it's in single player mode or multiplayer mode. After each race you can watch a highlight reel, which you can then edit to focus on particular drivers and certain actions such as hits, drifting and using items. While watching the reel you can rewind and control the speed of playback. There is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing the utter despair on your friend's driver's face as he or she is hit with a shell you launched. Often when playing with friends we would spend as much time watching the highlight reel as we did actually racing.
What makes Mario Kart TV even cooler is the fact that the game saves your twelve most recent highlight reels as well as six of your favorites. If you want to show off your skills to the world, you can post the video to Miiverse or to YouTube without having to exit the game. This is a cool feature and illustrates the fact that Nintendo is finally starting to grasp the concept of social gaming.
Here's an example of the highlight reels you can create in Mario Kart 8
Of course it wouldn't be a new Mario Kart without some new items. Mario Kart 8 introduces the following:
- Boomerang Flower - Gives you the power to hit other players either in front of or behind you with a boomerang.
- Piranha Plant - Automatically chomps players ahead of you while giving you a tiny boost. It also grabs coins for you.
- Crazy Eight - Gives you the following: Coins, Bob-omb, Mushroom, Star, Blooper (Squid), Green Shell, Red Shell and finally, a banana.
- Super Horn - Emits a radial blast which will trip up nearby characters while also being able to destroy all items and obstacles. Yes this includes the dreaded blue Spiny Shell of death.
The new items are alright. Nothing too ground-breaking. The Super Horn had the potential to really change the game, especially for racers who are in first place. When Nintendo showed off the fact that they had finally crafted a foil for the pesky Spiny Shell, Mario Kart fans the world over rejoiced. Unfortunately the Super Horn is a very rare item if you are in first or second place. I have been pummeled by the Spiny Shell just as many times as in previous entries in the series.
I have the scars to prove it!
Speaking of items, the designers made an interesting choice when it comes to how items are used. Previous entries allowed the player to hold an item in reserve. This meant you could be holding a green shell behind you to protect yourself while having another one in reserve. Not so in Mario Kart 8. You can only be holding one item at a time. At first this choice is seems like a misstep, but honestly once you get used to it, it's not so bad.
One design choice that is bad no matter which way you look at it, is the direction Nintendo went on battles. Gone are the arena's specifically designed for kart melee action, in their place players are given eight regular tracks to select from. The problem is the size of the tracks. It makes it so difficult to find the other players which leads to large spans of driving without any action. It just seems lazy.
Most impressive about Mario Kart 8 is that it has become the first Nintendo console game with online play that does not seem overly complicated or just tacked on. You can join races with international players, regional players or friends. What's more, you can join races and even tournaments which feature customized rules, such as only allowing bananas or bikes. The online features do a good job at preventing the game from getting stale. My only wish is that there was a voice-chat feature paired with their online offerings.
Odd design choices aside, Mario Kart 8 is an awesome addition to an awesome franchise. The single player options will get old fast, but thanks to robust online offerings as well as an unparalleled local multiplayer the game promises to remain an entertaining game for months to come. If you have been on the fence about getting a Wii U let me assure you that Mario Kart 8 is worth getting one for. It is the Wii U's first fully-fledged killer-app. Nobody else makes kart racing this fun.
I give Mario Kart 8 a 9 out of 10.