Nintendo saves the best till last as Mario Kart 8 outdoes itself. Unexpectedly blowing even high expectations off the road, Mario Kart 8 offers real driving depth, ambitious innovation and social features to ensure everyone hears about it.
It takes just the first few races to realize that this is still cut from the same Mario Kart cloth we all know and love (let’s not talk about Double Dash). You need to dust off your drift-boosting and stunt-triggering skills and get comfortable with a whole host of different racers and rides.
Soon though you’ll start noticing some differences this time round, and find yourself buried in the fences more than once. Just when the pressure is on and other developers would have reverted to type, Nintendo hasn’t played it safe. Kart handling now benefits from an inertia system that not only calls for more skill and precision but intimately connects you with both vehicle and tarmac.
Not only that but there’s innovation at every turn. Most controversial may be the new spin boost trick on the anti-grav sections. This is a little like the slip streaming of Mario Kart 7 that enabled racers to slam into opponents and knock them off course. Here though both of you get a boost on contact so care is needed to take full advantage. Get it right and you can send other drivers sprawling off the road. It encourages contact and will rile those who like to steer clear of exchanging paint with competitors.
Other novelties are found in the weapons. Along with the Lucky Eight collectable that gives a choice of armament Mario Kart 8 adds a Boomerang attack that can be thrown three times at other racers, a Piranha Plant that sits on your bonnet eating up coins and opponents to give you a boost and finally the Super Horn that shocks everything around you. That last one will even deal with the previously unavoidable Blue Shell which is adds some balance to an annoying aspect of the game.
As you play more of the game you start to settle into how the karts controls, and there is a sense of ambition from Nintendo here too. You can steer with the D-pad and handle acceleration and brake with the right analogue stick, or simply opt for motion controls with the hefty Game-pad controller. Either way things snappy and responsive. Ride a bike rather than a kart and things feel suitably lighter and offer a more responsive way to drift round corners — just watch out for that over steer.
The tracks themselves are a nice collection of old favorites and new impressive locales. Each keep pace with the sometimes labyrinthine branching courses of Mario Kart 7, and offer both variety, knife edge shortcuts and entertainment as you tear round each one.
It’s the new tracks that really shine with their antigravity sections and their sheer sense of scale — the old favorite can feel a little tame by comparison. You can see Moo Moo Meadows here in this comparison video is largely unchanged and stays true the original. Equally seeing the Wii and Wii U comparison side by side makes it plane just how far we have come.
It feels more than a single generation later by comparison. Certainly the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One offers no such light and day advancement with their respective previous generation.
Mario Kart 8 plays to this strength in its excellent Mario Kart TV highlights feature. Here you can edit the best bits of your race together, slowing down or speeding up the action and even specifying where the camera should focus. This player input combined with some clever replay computational trickery results in impressive videos that you will want to share with friends.
You can save your highlights to watch later as well as access your friends’ reels and the top popular clips of the day. Finally you can even upload your best bits to YouTube. I found that my kids spent almost as much time with the editor as they did behind the wheel. There is a simple joy of being able to create your own TV mini-drama around the last race, something my son took to and even voiced his own commentary to what was happening.
Mario Kart 8 lends itself towards this kind of playful dissection. It somehow combines its cartoon visuals with a serious racing edge that even invites the sort of commentary usually reserved for proper Formula 1 and Indycar broadcasts.
This may be seen as window dressing by some but expect your Facebook feed to start having these videos popping up soon, something that is an important part of Nintendo (re)connecting to a wider audience with the Wii U.
Mario Kart 8 also offers a smart 12 person online multi-player mode. In one off races or tournaments this is a nice way to extend the fun beyond the family home. Miiverse communities are automatically generated to help co-ordinate things. You can also opt to simply challenge other peoples ghost data and compete for a position on the leader board. On top of that the time trial racing will keep purists happy and offer long nights of whittling lap times down.
Some will criticize the inevitable visual difference when you play locally with four players on the same system. Others will also wave fists at the decision to drop the Coin Battle mode and Balloon Battle arenas. Admittedly it seems strange to Battle on the circuits rather than open spaces and this will be a bind for the youngest players who enjoyed being free from the fences to crash in to.
However to spent too long on these minor quibbles is to fall into scrooge territory. Mario Kart 8 is such a generously proportioned slice of fun in all other aspects that the few downsides are quickly forgotten.
No doubt fans of the series will make much of the return to form, and Nintendo supporters will hail its high average review score (88 on metacritic at the time of writing) as a success. But Mario Kart 8 bears a far weightier and important mission with its place alongside Super Mario 3D World in the Wii U pantheon.
How the game does outside the avid gaming fraternity is the real mission here. Mario Kart 8 will do what was expected of it, offer another reason for gamers to jump on the good ship Wii U. But quite unexpectedly it has a real chance of making that long crossing from core to mainstream consciousness, going the same way as Mario Kart on the SNES and even Wii Sports before it.
The deeper handling, pop-out arcade style graphics on a scale unseen before in the series, the social network friendly Mario Kart TV and Miiverse features and of course the heavyweight Mario moniker itself are Nintendo’s best chance to date of turning round the Wii U’s fortunes. Quietly underpinning all this is the best Mario Kart experience I’ve has since it’s revelatory introduction some 22 year ago.
Platform: Wii U
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Nintendo EAD Group No. 1
Released: May 30, 2014