Mario Kart 8 does not bring an enormous amount of new material to the table.
Over the years, Nintendo has managed to nail down a successful formula that has allowed them to create a fun experience every single time (while Mario Kart Wii was lackluster in many respects, it would be hard for us to classify it as a bad game). Mario Kart 8 is filled to the brim with a lot of the fun we’ve come to expect from Nintendo’s classic racing series – inventive courses, fantastic multiplayer, enraging whoever’s in first place with a spiny, blue shell. After selling over a million copies within its first week of being released, the latest iteration in the Mario Kart series looks to be a big piece of Nintendo’s “How do we save the Wii U?” puzzle.
It would be an injustice, however, to pen Mario Kart 8 as uninspired. There are 16 new courses to play on, each with their own beautifully orchestrated soundtrack, and 16 returning courses that span the series’s history (from Super Mario Kart (SNES) to Mario Kart 7 (3DS)). The majority of these courses are inspired and their hazards require more skill to maneuver in and around than previous entries in Mario Kart’s history. We found ourselves having to take a couple runs through each course to figure out how to traverse them most effectively; while Mario Kart’s fundamentals – honed over years of experience – assuredly come in handy, certain turns and hazards still prove difficult, even with the game’s perfect-as-always driving controls.
While Mario Kart as a series has been increasingly leaning towards more casual gameplay, the courses in Mario Kart 8 reward skill.
Whether you’re driving through the airport from Super Mario Sunshine, a candy-coated gorge, or the newest version of the perennial Rainbow Road (which this time around has the player driving through a space station), you’re repeatedly reminded that this is a Nintendo game. The courses are lavished with that good ol’ Nintendo Magic – bright, colorful and frequently gorgeous, the bump up to HD and the extra grunt afforded to Nintendo by their latest console has resulted in a game which often dazzles with its beauty. The landscapes are rich and supremely colorful, and no aesthetic direction wears itself out; a course might go through four distinct areas over a single lap, and there are some tremendously long courses (think Beetle Adventure Racing, but a lot more vibrant) that merely use laps as checkpoints. As usual, Nintendo has done a superb job with their course design.
While Nintendo doesn’t deviate from the winning blueprint it has developed over the years, Mario Kart 8 is not without new additions. The gliders and aquatic propellers from Mario Kart 7 return, but continue to be gimmicks that don’t require the player to engage in anything particularly innovative, and the carts’ new anti-gravity capabilities are very much in the same vein. It’s definitely creative, and bumping into other racers while driving sideways or upside down grants both of you speed boosts – something which is sure to infuriate some when taking the game online – but as far as the actual race goes, it doesn’t amount to much more than an opportunity for Nintendo to throw in multiple routes and a temporary change in the orientation of your wheels. Still, despite it being primarily a superficial change, perhaps it is for the best that Nintendo opts not to rock the boat. They played it safe, but the safe option is undeniably a whole lot of fun – and the anti-grav sections at least allows for some wonderful vistas, freeing the developer from the constraints of being tethered to the ground and resulting in some fantastically winding track designs which bring to mind Sony’s Wipeout series.
Also returning from Mario Kart 7 is a high degree of kart customization. With more kart, wheel, and glider options than ever before, Mario Kart 8 offers a plethora of potential combinations, allowing players to find their perfect fit. These parts are what determine your vehicle’s speed, acceleration, weight, handling, traction, and how much it benefits from mini-turbo boosts. Unlocking these is a simple matter of collecting coins as you race. These coins double as a racing mechanic, increasing your speed as you collect more – making unlocking them feel seamless rather than like a chore.
Mario Kart 8’s multiplayer is its greatest asset. Local multiplayer is as great as it ever has been, and online multiplayer (which supports up to 12 players) rarely suffers from any noticeable lag. In addition to the regular online racing, you can also organize tournaments, and have a great degree of control over their rules and regulations. Staff ghosts are back, but you can also send and receive the ghosts of your friends race against them on your own time, allowing for an interesting passive multiplayer – though unfortunately, there are no course-specific leaderboards on offer. Mario Kart 8 is still a fantastic experience on your own, but much like every other game in the series, the game’s potential only becomes fully apparent when played against others, whether locally or online.
Another great addition is in the hugely improved replays, with the highlights of each race saved for your viewing pleasure. The game’s AI camera has a great habit of picking angles with the most dramatic impact, and the result is that they often feel hand-crafted, rather than the product of programming. You’re able to tweak a few parameters – such as how long the highlight reel lasts, or which aspects it focuses on, though wannabe directors will be disappointed: the options here feel limited. That said, while a fully-fledged replay editor would have been nice, the game does a good enough job by itself that it feels churlish to complain. In another surprising move, Mario Kart 8 sees Nintendo easing off a little on its previously guarded stance to online sharing, with the ability to upload replays directly to Youtube.
Unfortunately, multiplayer is also where one of the game’s biggest blunders can be found: Battle Mode. Historically, Battle Mode entailed zooming around a small, enclosed arenas trying to pop other players’ balloons and was always a colossal amount of fun. In Mario Kart 8, these arenas have been replaced by courses you race on in Grand Prix, refitted to be appropriate for balloon popping madness. However, we found that we spent most of the time in Battle Mode simply trying to find other players rather than actually engaging with them. When playing with one other person, we actually had matches where we never even saw an opponent in the three-minute time limit. The playing fields are far too large, and Nintendo would have been much better off doing what they’ve done in the past: leaving the mode basically untouched and putting their creative efforts towards making spectacular arenas.
Secondary to effectively ruining Battle Mode, but still a notable flaw, is the distribution of items. Since Mario Kart Wii, Nintendo’s philosophy with the series has been to mask disparities in skill levels that players may have. This makes Mario Kart more inviting to newcomers, but it’s a bit of a stab in the back to veterans. In Mario Kart 8, this design mentality persists and is more of a force than ever. Anyone south of third place has the ability to get some of the game’s best items–the Starman, the infamous blue shell–and completely throw a wrench in the race’s placings. Additionally, with the ability to get coins out of item boxes (and those doing well will get these often), the person in first place is now left unprotected more often than ever before and are more vulnerable to dropping down by no fault of their own. This isn’t to say that items ought not play a key role in Mario Kart–they are a staple of the games and part of what makes them–but their distribution is overly punitive to whoever is reigning supreme. Veterans of the series will also immediately notice that falling off the course is no longer a big deal and merely a slight hindrance–Lakitu rescues you that quickly. Overall, Mario Kart 8 punishes you for playing well but not for playing badly, which results in frustration more than anything else.
One final complaint is that the cast of characters feels uninspired. Nintendo has a huge vault of characters to pick from, yet the game is filled with baby versions of characters, all seven Koopalings, and the absolutely bizarre Pink Gold Peach. The game could have much worse issues, but it’s difficult to look at games with much more diverse casts like Mario Superstar Baseball and not wonder what happened. Not even Birdo got a spot this time around, but players have the option to race around as Metal Mario. It’s baffling. It would be nice to see the same open-minded approach to the character roster that Nintendo takes with each iteration of Super Smash Bros. Sure, including the likes of Samus or Fox McCloud might not be strictly Mario Kart, but it would at least free the developer from being shackled to what is, let’s face it, a fairly narrow pool of characters.
Despite these shortcomings, Mario Kart 8 still has much of what’s to be expected and is a fantastic gaming experience because of it. The course design is impeccable, everything looks and sounds amazing, and multiplayer remains – for the most part – a total blast. Nintendo certainly hasn’t revolutionized the series, but this is perhaps to the game’s greatest benefit – by focusing on what has made the series so successful in the past, they’ve been able to improve upon it without introducing too many new elements which could upset the series’ delicate balance.
Mario Kart 8 definitely frustrates in some ways, but beyond the shadow of a doubt it offers a pure Mario Kart experience in shiny HD-quality graphics and with the most rounded set of online features yet seen from the publisher; for that alone it’s worth anyone’s time.