Nintendo has always been known to make games that cater to the casual market. The Mario Kart games were the racing series for people who didn’t necessarily like the realistic and serious style of other racers like Need for Speed and Gran Turismo. Because of the casual appeal of Mario Kart, the series slowly implemented mechanics that allowed lesser players to succeed and more skilled players to frustratingly fail. The series hit rock bottom in this manner in Mario Kart Wii, but it has triumphantly turned it around with quite possibly the greatest entry in the franchise with Mario Kart 8.
The first voyage into high-definition karting for our favorite Mario characters is something truly inspiring. Despite the Wii U being the first HD console for Nintendo, they held nothing back in terms of visual fidelity for Mario Kart 8. It runs at 720p and 60 frames per second, and it almost never falters when racing. Coupled with absolutely gorgeous levels and brilliant karts, Mario Kart has honestly never looked or played better.
Drifting around corners, picking up items and speeding past your competitors are fluid and fast and feel natural for fans of the franchise. While the traditional racing formula hasn’t been changed much, there are a few new mechanics thrown in to help keep it fresh. The most notable is the anti-gravity function. At certain sections around racetracks, there are blue anti-gravity switches that flip your kart’s wheels on its sides, allowing you to stick to the ground however it may twist and turn.
Initially, the addition feels pretty minor as the perspective doesn’t necessarily translate well when you’re concentrating on what’s right in front of you. However, the more you progress and unlock challenging levels, the more the disorienting change in landscape comes into play. I often noticed my head tilting from side to side as I swerved around the unique track design. The anti-gravity feature also helps play a part in changing which direction you want to take on a track. You could choose to drift normally around a corner or drive onto the anti-gravity jump to speed along the wall that may offer speed boosts or items. The choice of which path to take, depending on the circumstances, is a great idea and one that separates the good players from the best.
The anti-gravity features help complement the myriad of racing mechanics. Returning from previous games in the series are coins that are laid out on the racetrack. Picking up a coin increases your top speed with the maximum number of held coins being ten. Getting hit by an item causes you to drop three of these coins on the track for others to pick up. There are also loads of jumps throughout each level. If you hit the hop/drift button at the right time off a jump, it causes your character to do a style move and provide a small boost. Another small boost can come in the form of bumping into other karters while in anti-gravity mode. It gives both players a boost, so there’s a give-and-take element that you have to consider when you collide with others.
What impresses me the most about Mario Kart 8 is how well all of these racing features mold together. You’re constantly drifting, picking up items, boosting off jumps and maneuvering around racers to try to get that coveted first place. What this allows is that the truly skilled and hardened racers succeed more frequently. More importantly, it feels absolutely satisfying to pull off these complicated maneuvers in proper succession to propel yourself forward. The fully-fledged Mario Kart TV system also helps turn those moments of driving perfection into solidified memories with a highlight reel after every race that can be saved or even uploaded to YouTube for bragging rights.
Thankfully, the horrid item system in Mario Kart Wii has been finely tuned for Mario Kart 8, and it seems like the best balance that the series has ever seen. No longer does the first place driver get constantly slammed by blue and red shells. The item variety is also key to allowing the players who are falling behind to catch up if they possess the skill. New items like the Boomerang fly forward and knock people aside, and they also hit players on the backswing with proper positioning. The new Super Horn blows up people and any incoming items all around you — even the dreaded blue shell. Along with a few others, these new items definitely keep the action varied and allow drivers to gain advantages in different ways other than just the boring assortment of turtle shells.
The standard Mario Kart single-player portion is the same with multiple Grand Prix’s consisting of four tracks tracking your points based on end position in the races. You’ll choose a character and a customized kart or bike, all with different stats to choose for your style of driving. Bikes can cut corners more easily but lacks solid drifting, and the vice versa for karts. The character roster is a bit weak due to the addition of all the Koopa kids and lack of Boo, Diddy Kong, and others that were in previous games. Here’s hoping for downloadable content so I can play as my boy Dry Bones.
There are two types of Grand Prix races — one that contains all new tracks and another that contains retro levels from previous games remixed with the graphical prowess of the Wii U. The new tracks are impressive in their own right, but I was blown away at the love and care put into the retro tracks. Not only are they reimagined in full HD, but they are also revamped in different ways to utilize the anti-gravity features. Let me tell you that Moo Moo Farm has never looked so good. The brilliant orchestrated soundtrack also deserves a big mention as it perfectly complements the overall theme of the levels.
Of course, a large part of the Mario Kart series is playing with your friends, whether it be racing or in battle mode. Unfortunately, racing is what you’ll be doing most of the time because battle mode just flat out sucks. The standard three balloons and hitting each other with items is the same, but you play on racetracks instead of arenas. It’s slow, clunky and definitely not as fun. I haven’t the slightest idea why Nintendo would change something that so many fans loved in the past. Regardless, the racing in Mario Kart 8 is so damn polished and on point that I don’t think I would ever want to play battle mode again anyway.
For people like me whose friends are far away and can’t sit next to each other on the couch to play, there are online modes. If you haven’t noticed in the last ten years or so, Nintendo doesn’t exactly have the best record with maintaining solid online environments, so to say I was cautious would be an understatement. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised with how well it all runs. Getting into a game is quick and painless, and there is hardly any lag. Still, the sense of Nintendo being behind the times is clear. Voice chat is restricted to friend-only lobbies, friends are still a royal pain to add and play with due to friend codes and the lack of statistics or depth is disappointing. The stable online is a step in the right direction, but Nintendo really needs to catch up to other competitors in the market if they want to stay relevant.
Staying relevant is really the most important thing right now for Nintendo. With the Wii U selling terribly, it seems that they put all their marbles into Mario Kart 8, and it shows. It isn’t often that a long-standing series continues to iterate and innovate on its mechanics and still feel fresh, but Nintendo continues to do it. A combination of fine-tuning the racing and overall fantastic presentation value makes Mario Kart 8 the best entry in the franchise. It successfully allows you to create those moments of badass behavior and carnage among friends, all with a smile on your face. If there was ever a reason to pick up a Wii U, Mario Kart 8 is the best example yet.
Mario Kart 8 is available exclusively for the Wii U.