Before Mario hosted elaborate parties, held tennis matches, and morphed into a paper cut-out, he took to the track with a go-kart. Many years after the original Super Mario Kart, Nintendo has continued to deliver its premiere racing franchise (sorry, F-Zero) for each of its platforms. The latest installment, Mario Kart 8 for Wii U, continues the tradition of fun, desperate victories, and tragic defeats. Mario Kart 8 is yet another high mark in the series, even if there are a few hang-ups.
Okay, so Mario and the gang are all present (a roster-busting 36), and revving engines, but what sets Mario Kart 8 apart from its brethren? Iterations of the series each have their quarks, and eight is no exception. In fact, the addition of anti-gravity in this game’s angle, and it is in no way a gimmick. As Mario and his fellow racers drive over blue shimmering lines in the road, the karts’ anti-gravity capabilities are engaged. This alters play and, in addition, the artistry of this game’s track design comes alive. The first and most interesting change is that colliding into other citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom, which would normally slow one down, actually provides a boost. This generates moments of bumper car glee as players desperately try to ricochet off one another, ever closer to victory. While players can also drive up walls in anti-grav, it is more of a fun novelty than strategic play.
As I mentioned previously, the anti-gravity theme of 8 really comes out in the artistic design of each course. Tracks previously relegated to the ground now curve into and around one another, jut out in impossible ways, and even go upside down. While the camera only tilts slightly at points to keep the racing tight and players’ focused, there are moments of zaniness like seeing players on alternate routes on the ceiling that give Mario Kart 8 distinct madness. In addition, Nintendo used the bright, vibrant colors of Mario’s world and the new HD capabilities of the Wii U to create beautiful and impossible landscapes. While on one track, the road moves up and down raging waterfalls, another track spans a world made entirely of cake and confection, and yet another track runs through a futuristic dance club. Each level is awash with color and imagination, making this the most stunning game on the Wii U thus far. The only knock there is to have for the game’s design is the bare, minimalist menu choices and post-race displays which are entirely lacking. Perhaps as Nintendo was rushing to ship the game, winning ceremonies and any non-racing animations were skipped altogether.
New items have also changed the game’s dynamic. The boomerang can be used three times and will hit enemies (if aimed precisely) on the initial throws or during return flights. Piranha Plants are no longer relegated to the sidelines and are now an item that will both propel players forward and munch on opponents. The Super 8 is a lucky item that gives players an 8-item barrage to use on enemy racers. All that said, the most interesting addition to the arsenal is the Super Horn which normally makes nearby racers spin out, but also has the unprecedented ability to stop the series’ infamous blue shell. For the uninitiated, the blue shell is an item that seeks out the player winning the race and puts an end to their forward momentum in a blue explosion. The Super Horn, though rarely acquired, makes players question whether they should use it right away on nearby foes or save it should they ever so-desperately need in the final stretches of the race.
Core gameplay remains much the same with a few tweaks in Mario Kart 8, which is a good thing in every way. Races are tight and fast on difficulties 100cc and above and I suggest that veterans of the series overlook 50cc in order to get the most authentic and thrilling Mario Kart experience. Even against computer players, there is rarely a moment when success is assured. When players are in 2nd place and below, every item and sharp turn is essential. At the same time, players in first place feel the pressure of racing with skill, worrying that an item could come hurtling their way at any moment. It is a fantastic balance of anxiety, hope, and item-induced fury or glory that keep this game memorable and crazy-fun.
Online multiplayer works well and players can join or create their own tournaments with customizable rules with regard to item exclusion, kart customization limitations, and so forth. Voice chat is non-existent in the game with the exception of pre-scripted text boxes before and after a race that can be selected. While this is a reasonable precaution for kids, not allowing players who are registered as friends to chat with one another (as they could playing together on a couch) is a misstep. While players can acquire ranks, the fact that Nintendo has left out profiles makes the online component, though fun, somewhat hollow if not, at the very least, incomplete.
Mario Kart TV is an in-game feature that allows players to view, edit, share, and upload highlight reels of previous races also feels a bit incomplete as players have no control as to what ends up in the 20 second clip of their two minute race, only how to present that 20 second slice. Still, it is fun to relive highlights, especially with couch co-op. The online features and sharing abilities of Mario Kart 8 are a step in the right direction for Nintendo, but they are only just that, a step.
I must also mention the elephant in the room which is an absolutely thoughtless battle mode, which would have been better excluded altogether if done so improperly. Battle mode has deviated from its roots and has twelve players battle on tracks rather than closed-off squares or circles to encourage close combat situations. With the help of an update, a retooled battle mode would bring Mario Kart 8 closer to perfection.
Mario Kart 8 is just magical at its core. The fun that it inspires through racing that rewards both competitive and casual play in the very same race is telling of how carefully crafted this game is for all players. In addition, the game is beautiful to behold; tracks, character animations, music, and gameplay design coalesce to form Nintendo at its best. What falls at the wayside are (again) the small things. The online multiplayer and sharing features, though forward for Nintendo, fall short of their competitors in scope. Even so, Mario Kart 8 delivers the fun of its predecessors on a grand scale. With the addition of upcoming content, I expect it will retain the momentum it generated, and rightly deserved, at launch.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames