Seemly out of nowhere, much like a blue shell, Mario Kart 8 is finally available, which in part, helps to justify the purchase of a Wii U for all of the patient Nintendo fans across the globe. When looking at a new Mario Kart game, it’s less about asking if it’s any good, as Nintendo has arguably mastered the art of kart racing, but instead, whether the latest changes will disrupt a balancing act that has taken 22 years of work. Thankfully, however, the changes are enough to keep long time fans invested while simple enough not to leave new players in the dust.
The emphasis on speed is apparent as soon as you load the game. Everything is quicker, which was an issue that has been raised and never properly addressed, until now. From the character selection to kart customization, and even the recovery when falling off the track; Mario Kart 8 moves at a faster pace, and it’s certainly a welcome change. The introduction of new items, such as the “Piranha Plant” and the long wished-for “Super Horn” to counter blue-shells, fit in perfectly with the armoury of weapons, without throwing the item balance into chaos. With these tiny changes, it allows for easier comebacks; rather than the usual, one well-timed shell and you’re out.
The most notable new feature is the visually impressive, and yet, subtle, anti-gravity tracks. These options allow your kart to instantly transform, to begin riding along walls and even on cielings. Besides opening up new track designs, Nintendo also added a unique and thrilling mechanic; while racing in the anti-gravity, bumping into an opponent will cause each driver a boost of speed. Using and mastering the timing of this mechanic can provide a risky, yet rewarding pay-off. Bumping into someone when they’re just about to start turning the corner and watching them plummet off the side will leave anyone with a sense of accomplishment that is hard to match.
The introduction of anti-gravity is tastefully applicable, as well as used with a good level of moderation. Personally, my initial fear was that all tracks would feature nothing but anti-gravity sections; however, they’re used enough to provide an interesting spin on the tracks without over-staying their welcome. In turn, some older tracks have been improved with the feature, but it’s been done, in a way, that doesn’t any feelings of nostalgia. Overall, I was satisfied with the selection of older tracks, such a Toad’s Turnpike or Yoshi’s Valley, but there were still a couple of classics that appear to be missing in action; most namely, Donkey Kong’s “Jungle Parkway” and “Kalimari Desert.”
In addition, and as suspected, the character roster has the usual suspects returning, which, of course, includes everyone from the iconic plumbers to Bowser and his kids. Although, with a roster rocking almost 30 characters, it’s a bit disappointing to see that obscure characters like Dry-Bones missing, and instead being filled with Koopa kids and babies of the main characters. Hopefully, in time, we’ll see the roster boosted in later patches or DLC.
The visuals in Mario Kart 8 seemed to have been refined to a level which I’ve yet to see the Wii U pull off. The amazing level of detail, along with a smooth frame-rate, makes Mario Kart a visual feast for the eyes; even more so when using Mario Kart TV. At the end of each race, players are able to re-watch their recent mayhem on the track, including the option to experience the race from another racer’s viewpoint. While re-watching all of my own incredible moments in slow-motion, I was able to really appreciate the detail of the environment; the animations of the racers when pulling off a move is staggering, so you can expect to hit that slow motion option all the time. Additionally, the replays can be uploaded straight to YouTube. However, uploading to YouTube allows very limited options in editing, and a footage limit of one minute. An option to save to a memory card would have been welcome, but I can foresee this feature being used and refined in later Nintendo titles; hopefully, to greater effect.
However, with all that being said, and for everything that Mario Kart 8 does right, it also appears the Nintendo have experienced a tragic misstep in their experimentation. The “Battle Mode” has always taken place in arenas which were designed for tight combat; often circular with tight corners. The absence of arenas (instead, using modified versions of the race tracks) turned what is usually for heart-pounding action, into boring games of cat and mouse which drag on way too long. To long-time fans of the series, was both disappointing and baffling that the ball was dropped with such an iconic feature. Had they used arenas with sections of anti-gravity, a new type of chaos could have made for countless hours of fun. Fortunately, the outstanding racing makes up for this misstep.
Once again, the online mode returns with enough basic features that you’d expect, as well as support for up to 12 players. Players will be able to join world matches, regional matches, setup tournaments, and also create private rooms for your friends. Playing online was surprisingly smooth, with only a few minor delays in the beginning. However, once the race had begun, there was no noticeable dip in speed, or any lag. Sadly, though, the chat system falls short, only allowing fixed emotes to communicate with others. The limited options for emotes don’t really allow for meaningful communication, which resulted in players using outside services to communicate.
Mario Kart 8 does almost everything you’d hope and expect for a next-generation Mario Kart game. The visuals are impressive, and coupled with the Mario Kart TV, clearly demonstrate just what this little box is capable of. The racing action is both tighter and faster than it’s ever been, and the anti-gravity sections are beautifully implemented. The single-player mode is still worth the purchase, but playing this with friends, either online or on the couch, makes it a must-have title for all Wii U owners. The mistakes here, while baffling, could be easily fixed, and the racing more than makes up for it. If you’ve never tried Mario Kart, it’s time to jump on in and give it a spin.