What exactly can be said about Mario Kart that most people already don’t know? For over 20 years Nintendo has managed to keep the formula they pioneered interesting for returning fans and newcomers to the series, a remarkable feat on its own. They’ve since become masters of their own signature craft, even daring to break the mold with the experimental co-op action of Double Dash and the subtle introduction of custom vehicles first seen in Mario Kart DS. However, through each iteration, the core mechanics have remained largely intact..
Mario Kart 8 once again tries to pull out all the stops while keeping the absolute basics pure, though longtime fans may raise a few eyebrows before they can appreciate some of the twists made to keep the high-speed racing thrills fresh. For me, with fond kindergarten memories of the original SNES game still engrained it has been a begrudging transition with each recent game.
For those familiar with the formula, Mario Kart 8 feels like a heavily polished update. Taking the elements that worked with the previous two entries (Wii and 7) and refining them for more potent results. In essence this is what kept most of us happily playing devil’s advocate with Bob-ombs and Spiny Shells, remaining standard fare here too.
The theme of “more is better” starts even before you hit the track. With 16 mainstays like Mario, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and so on, but that number can quickly swell to a maximum of 30 racers (the other 14 are unlockable) that includes Metal Mario, Pink Gold Princess Peach, the infamous Koopalings, or even your own Mii avatar. Even vehicle customization plays a bigger role as piecing together the body, wheels, and glider together, and finding that sweet spot between handling and speed is critical for success. There’s a welcome bit of trial and error to the approach since each component wields vastly different attributes depending on the driver and even after a few hours of earning more parts its still a surprise to discover a vehicle combination that will either keep up with the pack or have you barreling into disastrous apexes and careening off course.
The races are not only entertaining with Boomerang Flowers and the new Crazy Eight items abound but everything is pretty to look at also. At this point I feel that the novelty of most games being in HD is pretty much common because we all know it’s going to look more or less beautiful. But Mario Kart 8, like most Nintendo games, takes it all in for something a little more unique and truly fantastic, almost effortlessly to a fault. The added detail is welcome, especially with 32 new and revisited total tracks and 8 glorious trophies to collect as each location brings its own self-awareness with plenty of callbacks to past titles. With huge jetliners taking off (on schedule, amazingly) at Sunshine Airport, Shy Guys singing a jaunty background tune at their diamond mines, and a downhill snow race on Mount Wario (a vague homage to 1080° Snowboarding) that includes caves, ski ramps, and slaloms the game is bustling with activity.
This also extends to character interaction in the heat of a race where overtaking and clashes often trade mean looks with the competition, an admirable touch matched with an energetic big band soundtrack that would have fit perfectly on Super Mario 3D World.
These minor tweaks make for a wildly interesting game and it’s hard for me not to say that everything has been done for the better. But no matter the intentions a few noteworthy changes are subject to criticism and deserved to be mentioned, at least for the sake of veteran players out there.
There’s a lot going on in any single race but Mario Kart 8 is more about the joys of instant gratification rather than nuanced racing skill. As a result many of the courses feel condensed and consequently some races are disappointingly brief compared to its predecessors, and the addition of anti-gravity doesn’t necessarily add anything substantial to the mix – apart from the “wow factor” of briefly power sliding upside-down (like F-Zero). This, along with the manically-oriented gameplay that passes for Nintendo’s version of ‘balance’ make these attractions feel a little gimmicky when playing solo.
In their defense, Nintendo practically perfected the basic multiplayer aspect a while ago with Mario Kart. The matchmaking process is as painless as you can get, with plenty of options to create custom matches but it hard to see need to considering how the experience encourages just diving in and enjoying a match with others around the globe. As with the last two games this iteration is all about instant gratification, where you pick your course out of the pre-selected options with in-between chatting, and let the server take of the rest in a straightforward roulette fashion.
Aside from the Miiverse functions, which range from posting your latest accomplishments and searching for rivals previously encountered, the game sails along without a hitch. The same can’t be said of local multiplayer, however, which actually suffers from a noticeably reduced framerate, with the Battle Mode remaining a complete afterthought with only Balloon Battles (Coin Runners is ironically omitted this time) and a few sectioned-off courses playable instead of properly dedicated arenas.
As for the controls they’re pretty good, although it’s hard to get behind the secondary Wii U Gamepad screen functions normally used for the horn or map unless you’re using the display for Off-TV play. This is a Mario Kart that’s best enjoyed with analog sticks and traditional buttons, that includes the Gamepad, Pro Controller, or Wii Remote/Nunchuk as first choices. As a last resort the Wii Steering Wheel is available if you absolutely need it.
Mario Kart 8 is one hell of a game the first dozen times through. It’s also a visually stunning experience that may even be enough to convince naysayers to pick up the much-maligned Wii U console, which seems to be in the middle of a resurgence of late with games like Super Mario 3D World and/or Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze. Most will undoubtedly ride the wave of Mario Kart TV replays and Luigi’s now-infamous Death Stare, or occupy themselves with the online and customization options for quite some time. But realistically MK8 doesn’t feel like it brings much long-term innovation to the table, or even evolution. Luckily, it’s easy to forgive Nintendo thanks to that familiar charm that shines throughout, and just maybe that’s enough for an excellent Mario Kart game.