Mario and friends driving in go-karts. This idea, spawned during the Super Nintendo era, has created an entire genre – the mascot kart-racer. Though many competitors have tried to cash in with their own kart racing spin-offs, few titles have been able to rise to the level that each Mario Kart title has achieved on its specific Nintendo platform. The struggling Wii U now gets its Mario Kart entry, Mario Kart 8. It brings the Mario Kart series into the HD realm and re-confirms why so many people enjoy the series.
Mario Kart 8 once again uses the same format established at the series’ inception: Mario characters ride in vehicles on racetracks, throwing various items at each other to get ahead of the pack. Players can drift through turns, gaining a speed boost for sliding along the track. Driving behind an opposing player for a couple of seconds will also result in a speed boost. Racetracks include underwater and flight segments. New to the series are the zero-gravity portions. When a racer enters a zero-gravity section of the track, the kart or bike’s wheels turn sideways and the vehicle sticks to the track, no matter which direction it goes. While playing, the camera sticks behind the player at all times, so only the background will appear to be changing angles. In replays, you can better see the absurdities of driving on walls or driving upside down. While in zero-gravity mode, bumping into specific course objects or other racers will net you a speed boost, changing the typical race formula.
The game features 16 brand new courses and 16 courses from past Mario Kart titles. Most courses include multiple paths at certain parts of the track, allowing players to opt for the fun of a zero-gravity wall run or a down-to-earth tight drifting experience, just to name two examples. In past games, the 16 retro courses have been left mostly intact, with only minor changes. But for Mario Kart 8, Nintendo has upped the ante with a full on remake. Each of the 16 tracks have been brought into high-definition, and many given zero-gravity segments and other new features, like the oasis added to Mario Kart: Double Dash's Dry Dry Desert. If you haven’t already played these courses in their original appearances, you might mistake them for completely new tracks.
Bikes return to the series as options for those who prefer to ride in something other than the titular karts. In Mario Kart Wii, bikes were the clear choice in most situations, but Mario Kart 8 makes both bikes and karts worthy rides. Bikes go faster than karts in turns, but karts outspeed bikes on the straights. With many different karts, bikes, wheels, and parachutes available, you can mix and match parts to get the balance of speed, acceleration, weight, handling and traction that you desire. Each character has its own base stats which those parts modify – heavy characters like Bowser max out on speed but eschew acceleration and handling, light characters like Toad sacrifice speed and weight for increased acceleration, handling and traction. Heavier kart/character combos can push lighter ones around the course, which can be quite precarious near the edges.
The item system has experienced a major change in Mario Kart 8: Only one item can be held at a time. This means that if you’re holding onto three green shells to protect yourself, you can’t put a second item into reserve. This shifts the emphasis away from defense (previously, players in the lead could end up with up to 6 shells, banana peels or other defensive items to keep themselves out of trouble for much of the race). Another change hurting defensive play is that bananas now rotate around the car, much like green and red shells do. They no longer appear behind the car in a row, able to stop three consecutive attacks flawlessly. That said, other changes were also added for balance: when a racer is attacked, their damage animation ends more quickly than past titles, and the new Super Horn item not only damages all items and opponents in a nearby radius, but is the only item that can destroy the first-place seeking Spiny Shell before it unleashes havoc on the race leader. Another change is that when a racer falls off the track, Lakitu will grab the racer and place them back on the track quicker than in past titles, and fall victims get to keep their held item once they return to the track.
As you can tell from the screenshots, Mario Kart 8 is gorgeous. Nintendo games are often cited in arguments that gameplay is more important than graphics, but Nintendo truly went all out in bringing Mario Kart into the HD era. Not only are the environments beautiful, but the cars and characters are extremely detailed. You can see Mario’s mustache flutter and watch everyone’s visceral reactions to the goings-on of the track. The characters even give each other a stare down when they pass by on the track, which has become a viral sensation. On the track, skid marks are left by the karts as they slide around turns and the marks stay there throughout the entire race, showing off the game’s attention to detail. The resolution is only 720p, but the framerate is 60 fps and sticks to it. The soundtrack has stepped it up a notch as well. Mario Kart 8 now includes orchestral tunes for the main theme and many of the courses, a big improvement from past titles, which celebrates the series’ status as a Nintendo flagship.
Mario Kart 8 is Nintendo’s biggest foray into the video realm, allowing players to directly upload their gameplay to Mario Kart TV, a new video service. Players can view their own video clips as well as clips from other players and they can share these videos via social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Nintendo’s own Miiverse. It is a brave step forward for a company that often lags behind in the online department and keeps players connected to the game even when they aren’t racing.
Speaking of online, it works very well in Mario Kart 8. The game offers Versus and Battle mode competitively against people from around the world. Players can also create tournaments where the gameplay can be customized. Game speed, item frequency, and number of races are among the possible changes. Now, those players who are enraged by items can turn them off, or those who love items can up the frequency of the more chaotic ones for extreme fun. That said, Mario Kart 8’s online system feels bare bones compared to other online games. Voice chat is also only available in friend-only lobbies, which will disappoint some.
Not all is great on the racetracks, however. Mario Kart 8 has made the odd decision to completely re-work its famous Battle Mode, eschewing the traditional arena combat for battles on the racetrack. It feels something like death races in the F-Zero series, but without the high speed danger that makes that series fun. Battle mode in this game devolves into driving around the track, hoping to catch someone either ahead of you or going the opposite direction. The tracks are simply too long and spacious to make this new battle mode work, and the removal of the old battle mode will rankle the feathers of any Mario Kart series fans who enjoyed them.
It is also disappointing that local multiplayer is limited to four players. The GamePad could have been used as a fifth player, with four others using alternate control schemes. This is employed in the Wii U version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, so it’s surprising that Nintendo does not allow the same option.
Another major flaw with Mario Kart 8 is the lack of diversity in the roster. The Koopalings are interesting additions, but between those seven Koopa kids and the five baby characters, 40% of the total roster is either a baby or a Koopaling. This is disappointing, considering the list of possible characters left on the cutting room floor (Diddy Kong, Birdo, King Boo, Petey Piranha, and so on). Nintendo either needs to cut down on the babies and similar characters or increase the total roster size to take advantage of the vast amounts of Mario characters that are stuck watching the races from the stands. The randomized unlocks for characters and parts are also inconvenient – it would have been nice to pick the characters and parts I wanted. Thankfully for secret characters, it is possible to unlock all of them after a few hours of play.
The arrival of a new Mario Kart title never fails to bring smiles, joy, and competitive rage to the hearts of millions, and Mario Kart 8 is no exception. It beautifies the series and adds in new mechanics to please (and potentially anger) both newbies and series veterans. Despite its issues, Mario Kart 8 stands tall among the kart racing genre once again and is a must-buy game for Wii U owners.
This review is based on a retail copy of Mario Kart 8 for the WiiU