|Release Date:||May 30, 2014|
Few series hold the spot of royalty that Mario Kart has in the industry over the past 22 years. 1992′s Super Mario Kart on Super NES was more than just a great game; for many, the Mario Kart debut was a gateway into gaming. With accessible controls, inventive course design, enjoyable power-ups, and a cast of characters recognizable even by the non-gamer, Mario Kart 8 continues many conventions of the iconic Nintendo franchise, while providing the best console entry in multiple generations.
Deviating from the set formula has never been what the Mario Kart series is known for, and Mario Kart 8 does little to change that. Players compete against a set of AI and human racers to see who can complete three laps around the racetrack the fastest. Along the way, players will be able to acquire items that will not only enable them to enhance their abilities, but also hinder the racing of their opponents.
In the main racing portion of Mario Kart 8, players compete in eight different Grand Prix circuits, each consisting of four races. With 16 new courses and 16 classic courses, players have a lot to choose from when deciding where to race. The new courses are brilliantly designed and do a great job of diversifying the experience with each new track. Each of the 30 characters (many of whom are unlockable) bring with them different carts, tires, and hang gliders to choose from when customizing how he/she will perform. As with previous entries, players can also tackle single races, as well as solo time trials to truly test their skills.
Players can control their racer using the GamePad, Wii Remote, or Wii U Pro Controller. With the GamePad or Remote, players have the option to use tilt steering or traditional stick/d-pad steering for more precise control. Using the GamePad, players can view the map on the second screen, or use the built-in screen to play without use of the television. The off-screen play works extremely well, though using that feature introduced some minor screen-tearing that wasn’t there otherwise.
The selection of tracks is very strong, and does a great job of utilizing the newest addition of the series: anti-gravity sections. Once players pass over a blue section, their wheels will transform to allow them to traverse inverted and twisted sections of the track. These sections can be quite disorienting at times, but never to the point where they disrupt gameplay. The developers even retrofitted many of the 16 classic courses to include anti-gravity sections in order to make them feel more modern. Sadly, some of them are so modified that they don’t even feel like the classic courses Mario Kart historians fell in love with so many years ago.
The items play as crucial a role in Mario Kart 8 as they ever have, as the game provides players multiple opportunities to take down those around them. Over the course of a given race, players in the front of the pack will find themselves dealing with an onslaught of red shells, green shells, and banana peels. Those who fall back in the race rankings will increase their chances of getting the more powerful items such as the Star, Thunderbolt, Bullet Bill, and, of course, the dreaded Blue Shell, which inevitably seeks out the player in first place.
The Blue Shell has become the bane of many players while playing Mario Kart games, as it always tends to strike near the end of the race, and with Mario Kart 8, not only is that true, but the Blue Shell’s appearance feels less consistent than in previous entries. With this title, players can go multiple races without seeing the Blue Shell once, then get hit by the Blue Shell three times in a race. For the first time ever, players have a way to defend against the Blue Shell. While it’s a long shot, if the player in first has the new Super Horn power-up, and activates it just prior to the Blue Shell’s impact, the shell will be destroyed, and the first place player spared.
These items are so intertwined with the series and its racing, but in another series staple — Battle Mode — power ups are paramount. In Mario Kart 8, the developers took a very odd approach to crafting Battle Mode, as, rather than including a separate selection of Battle Mode arenas, the game just provides eight tracks from the racing portion of the game. This feels less like progress and more like a step backwards for the fan favorite mode, particularly when you consider that going backwards on some of the tracks provided has the potential to have some broken spots that will cost players balloons in Battle Mode. This also means that no classic Battle Mode courses appear in Mario Kart 8, taking away some of the nostalgic elements of the series.
The lack of “arena” style courses in Battle Mode is just one of a few odd design decisions in Mario Kart 8. If players want to participate in splitscreen play, they are required to do so side-by-side, rather than top and bottom splitscreen, which has been how the series has handled it from the start. In a racing game, having a wide field of view is very important, particularly when planning out how to approach an upcoming curve, so by limiting the peripheral views of those playing in splitscreen, Nintendo has taken another step towards making couch play less desirable.
Another odd design choice comes into play when players hop online. Online play (in our pre-launch experience) was very fluid and is a strong point of the title. Players can lobby up with up to 12 players and compete in Grand Prix style tournaments, or just duke it out in Battle Mode. The courses are chosen randomly, with each player getting the opportunity to enter one pick into the lottery.
The lobby system works great within the infrastructure of both the Wii U and the Mario Kart formula, as players can use the GamePad’s built-in mic to chat with other players in the lobby. Unfortunately, the design becomes less brilliant as the race begins, as players jarringly lose the ability to communicate in any way as soon as the course begins to load. This defeats the purpose of the in-game chat, as Mario Kart is a series that is best when you can talk directly with other players during the gameplay itself.
Despite any design flaws that come with the package, Mario Kart 8 is another strong reason to consider picking up a Wii U if you haven’t already. With as much accessibility and simplicity as has been seen in the previous entries of the series, a stronger sense of polish and balance has only helped matters for this title. Mario Kart 8 might not be the best title in the series, but it’s the best Mario Kart game in a long time.
Review Statement: A downloadable copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.