It's hard to create a series that both casual and core gamers can fully enjoy. It's even harder to create one they can fully enjoy together. Series like this don't happen often, and when they do it's not uncommon for them to lose their luster over time. The Mario Kart series has been around for over 20 years and while its made some giant leaps forward in the way of hardware and controls the gameplay has stayed true to it's Super Nintendo roots. Drift, weave, boost, attack and get your character to the finish line by any means necessary.
Mario Kart 8 is full of tricks, both new and old, but can it compete with its predecessors' sterling reputation for co-op magic or is it left in the dust?
Mario Kart 8 is the best looking Nintendo game I've ever seen. In fact it's one of the best looking game I've ever seen on a home console, and I've played my fair share of Xbox One and PS4. Somehow the boys at Nintendo managed to bring out every last drop of graphical prowess the Wii U had to offer. And it looks amazing.
As I whizzed through the first few courses, getting accustomed to the controls, my wife watched from our living room couch. "Did you see that?" she practically yelled as I skidded around a lumbering cow in Moo Moo Meadows. "See what?" I said, scanning the screen for some hidden secret. "The cow's breath! You can see the cow's breath!" she exclaimed, "And look at the sky. It looks real!" I'll admit that I tend to get tunnel vision when I play racing titles. I'm focused on the road ahead and not the scenery, but from there on out I forced myself to look around while I drove. Puddles in the mud, sailboats in the harbor, bricks in the walls - they all looked stunning. The detail and grandeur of every course is truly a thing of beauty. Not something I would have ever expected from a Mario Kart title.
Mario Kart 8 marks the first game in Nintendo racing history to have a fully orchestrated soundtrack. It's a very nice touch that complements the scenery and overall feel of the game in a remarkable way. Classic tunes from the Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country series find their way in along with new tracks that can easily stand on their own merits.
Enhanced Racing Elements
I'm not usually the angry type, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't cursed up a storm and nearly snapped my controller in two due to Mario Kart mishaps. The game can put you in your place (that place is dead last) in no time flat. Mario Kart 8 addresses some of these annoyances by tweaking racing aspects we know all too well. Item boxes regenerate faster. Lakitu pulls you up quickly from accidental trips off course. You keep your items after being hit by shells and banana peels. You recover more quickly from devastating spin-outs. All these improvements give players a chance to catch up, a chance to make a comeback and a chance to get revenge.
Not so much a tweak, but rather a full fledged new idea, is the concept of anti-gravity racing. This new gimmick, which only applies to specific parts of each track, gives Mario Kart 8 a fresh new feel and always makes for a more interesting race. Plus, come on, who doesn't want to drive on the walls? It's hard not to feel like a daredevil when you're passing peons, who decided not to take the normal route, as you fly along a stretch of building. Anti-gravity karting also adds a new mechanic called "spin boosting" where you can gain a small boost by ramming other karts and certain obstacles while in hover mode. It's wickedly fun to plow your way through a cluster of characters, spin boosting to the front of the pack. I look forward to Kart titles in the future who add to this well implemented idea.
Coins and Items
Coins, which were implemented in the original Super Mario Kart for SNES, have returned just as they did in Mario Kart 7. Every time you manage to snag one of these shiny devils your speed will increase ever so slightly. Up to ten coins can fuel your unfathomable speed lust, but you'll soon find yourself losing them. Direct hits from items such as shells, bob-ombs and banana peels will send your coins flying, as will driving off a cliff. Lakitu now takes a cut of your gold each time he helps you back on to stable ground. It's a wonderful added competition to the already hectic races.
Items have always been a staple of the Mario Kart series and they're not different in MK8. New items worth mentioning include a boomerang, a classic potted piranha plant, and the already infamous super horn. The super horn's high pitched sound waves can knock over opponents, destroy obstacles and even obliterate blue shells. On several occasions I've managed to obliterate the first place seeking missile with the help of the super horn. It's a good feeling.
When a computer player creams you from behind with a red shell you get mad. When your friend does it while spouting some overly-confident trash talk you get motivated. Motivated for revenge! Mario Kart 8 is at its best when you've got a room full of friends, much like the days of old. The big change here is that two player mode now splits the screen vertically as opposed to horizontally, giving you a better look at the road ahead. It's not a very hard adjustment and you'll soon find yourself hooting and hollering in joyful frustration as your buddies drift on past your momentarily dazed character. This is what Mario Kart was made for. This time around you can even play through all of the Grand Prix modes with a pal or two, which makes striving for all those gold trophies that much more enjoyable. What about Battle Mode? We'll get to that in a bit.
Just like every Mario Kart before it, MK8 has a slew of new tracks styled around the game's newest twist, anti-gravity. The tracks have also been adapted for newish Mario Kart features such as tricks, gliding and underwater racing. Every track has a distinct setting and does a decent job of mixing things up on the fly, especially when it comes to the anti-gravity portions of course. Never have I seen so many shortcuts and alternate routes in a Mario Kart title. My only complaint is that there aren't more straight shot tracks, meaning ones where there are no laps, just one long course to traverse. Stand out tracks include Thwomp Ruins, Toad Harbor, Mount Wario and Cloudtop Cruise.
With seven handheld and console titles under its belt the Mario Kart series has a lot of courses in its past. Only 16 tracks can make the cut, and they have to be adapted to all the new concepts involved - tricks, gliding, hover racing and more. It's fun to see how each level has transformed over the years. While some tracks hit me with a wave of nostalgia and incorporated these new features well (Toad's Turnpike!), others just didn't feel like they should have even been in the running. At least they didn't pick Baby Park, right?
A new character has been unlocked! A new vehicle part has been unlocked! A new stamp has been unlocked! These messages are seen after nearly every cup and time trial when you first begin. While there is plenty to unlock and I was always excited to uncover my newest additions, I couldn't help but feel it was all too easy. That being said, this should be a great way to keep younger players coming back for more and getting them excited about the game as a whole. Maybe it's just because I'm a Mario Kart veteran, but more challenging unlockables would have been welcome.
Ever done something so amazing in a race that you wish you could capture it for the whole world to see? Well, lucky you. MKTV give players the chance to upload highlights of races straight to YouTube (assuming you have a Google account). Unfortunately there aren't loads of options involved. You can't even add the slowdowns or fast forward moments you get in a normal replay. Nonetheless it's a welcome addition. Just check out that sweet GIF above of me busting up Toadette as I trick my way to victory. Sick.
It's surprising to think that Mario Kart has been online for nearly ten years. Nintendo has always done a great job making the online infrastructure simple and effective. Mario Kart 8 is no different. My only gripe here is that there isn't much, if anything, new about the online play. You can play regional, worldwide or with friends, as well as make your own tournaments for others to join. There's a bit of added customization when it comes to these self-made tournaments, but nothing that stands out as revolutionary or noteworthy.
The few times I managed to find an online opponent (which won't be an issue upon release) I had a smooth experience. No lag, short load times and flawless gameplay overall.
Mario Kart 8 gives players the opportunity to use four different controllers - gamepad, pro controller (my choice), wiimote, and wiimote/nunchuk combo. All of them handle just fine, but there's no way to customize the controls for each option and switching from one type of controller to another is a unnecessary hassle. For those of you wondering - the gamepad can be your map, a horn, or mirror your gameplay. It's great for when someone else wants to watch TV, but aside from that it's sadly useless.
Koopalings and Babies Galore
I love kids. Kids are great. They're one of the main reasons I became an elementary school teacher. Apparently the folks at Nintendo are also fond of little tikes as it seems they crammed as many as possible on to the newest Mario Kart roster. At first you think, "Aww look, they brought back baby Mario," but you'll soon discover that they also included Baby Luigi. And Baby Peach. And Baby Daisy. And Baby Rosalina. I know babies are adorable, but should we really be putting this many behind the wheel of speeding vehicle?
Then we have the Koopalings. I'm sorry if I spoiled the fact that these kiddy koopas made it into the game, but Nintendo has been plastering them all over as of late. Who wanted this lot? Who at Nintendo thought this was a good idea? They may as well be named Bowser Jr One through Seven for all can tell. I simply don't understand why Nintendo would put in this many similar characters when they could have brought back classic racers such as Dry Bones, King Boo, Diddy Kong, or even Birdo. Mario Golf World Tour even had Magikoopa and Nabbit teeing up. Will we see new characters introduced as future DLC? We can only hope, because I'm already tired of half these rugrats.
Botched Battle Mode
Bursting balloons has been a Mario Kart must since the early 90's. Massive battle arenas, teeming with ramps and items have always been included for manic multiplayer throwdowns. Not this time. In some bizarre step backwards the Mario Kart team decided to simply let players battle it out on actual courses from the game's main racing component. This means you're basically driving the course over and over again until you run out of balloons or the clock stops. It's not very enjoyable. There can be what feels like long stretches of time when you don't encounter another driver and find yourself watching and waiting for anything to happen. Did I mention there's no map on screen? Because there isn't. Adding battle areas that are the size of average tracks and not including a map is just silly. The rules may be the same, but Battle Mode on the whole just became the worst part of Mario Kart, and that's extremely disappointing.
While Mario Kart 8 seems to be achieving recognition mostly for its beautiful outer shell, I'm happy to report that it's more than a pretty face. Under that shiny coat of paint is the best Mario Kart I've ever played when it comes to actual racing. It's not a perfect game, and it's obviously more fun with a few friends, but it will certainly go down as a must-have for any Nintendo fan and Wii U owner. It's time to start your engines all over again.