Needless to say, fans have been eager to get their hands on Mario Kart 8. Even if you put aside the Wii U’s desperate need for games, the series’ last console entry was riddled with balance issues and ultimately felt watered down. It wasn’t quite clear which direction Nintendo would go with its most financially fruitful franchise, but I’m happy to report they have absolutely hit it out the park.
The Wii U is far from the most powerful console on the market, but Mario Kart 8‘s visuals put plenty of Xbox One and PS4 games to shame. Its astonishingly detailed textures and dynamic lighting combine with a fantastic framerate to create a game that is quite simply radiant. And while the characters are lively and well-modeled, it’s the environments and tracks that benefit most from the game’s graphical excellence. From glistening pools and vivacious greenery to bubbling lava and lustrous stars, the game’s 32 courses are truly a joy to behold and act as a constant reminder that Mario Kart 8 is really something special.
In fact, there’s so much to see that you’ll likely miss a lot of luscious detail while focusing on a first place finish. Luckily, the new Mario Kart TV video editor saves your last twelve replays and even lets you tailor them into personalized highlight reels, which you can then upload to Miiverse or YouTube. It’s a nice feature to have, and a shrewd marketing move by Nintendo, but the options are far too limited to interest any serious video editors. And that’s unfortunate, because Mario Kart is a game full of potential for creative videos.
Mario Kart 8‘s most touted addition is easily its anti-gravity areas, but they’re not as pronounced as you might expect. Instead, they tweak the usual gameplay just enough to feel fresh, with slightly altered physics and a unique incentive to collide with objects and opponents for boosts. They never once feel forced or out of place, even when retrofitted to the classic courses, and are left out of tracks that simply don’t need them. It’s clear the designers really tried hard to build diverse tracks with multiple paths and shortcuts, and it has resulted in replayability unlike anything the series has seen before.
The game’s true crowning achievement, however, is its soundtrack. Nintendo has never been one to fall short in the musical department, but the orchestral and jazzy compositions that grace every corner of Mario Kart 8 are easily on par with the company’s greatest scores. My personal favorite is Moo Moo Meadows (though I’m admittedly partial to a well-played violin), but the soundtrack dabbles in so many different genres that I found myself playing stages I didn’t particularly love just to spoil my ears with their melodies.
Like its 3DS predecessor, Mario Kart 8 lets players choose from a wide range of karts, wheels, and gliders to construct a vehicle tuned to their specific performance and aesthetic preferences. Experimenting with different kart builds and character weights reveals an astonishing variety of driving options, and makes selecting your signature kart and racer an extremely important decision. The questionable inclusion of all seven Koopa Kids floods the roster with lightweight characters, but I enjoyed the personality and color they each brought to the table. Still, the lack of fan-favorites like Dry Bones and King Boo will ruffle some feathers, but it’s far from a deal-breaker.
The maddening AI and item balancing of Mario Kart Wii has been completely remedied with the series’ debut on Wii U, which means race results are almost always a direct display of the player’s skills. Even the perpetually frustrating blue shell can be trumped in Mario Kart 8 with the addition of the super horn, my personal favorite of the new items on show. The game also adopts the gliding and underwater portions introduced in Mario Kart 7, and along with the new anti-gravity sections the designers have struck a fantastic balance in track variety.
It’s clear almost everywhere you look in Mario Kart 8 that the series’ Wii outing is long behind us. But for those of you desperately clinging to your Wii wheels, breathe easy; Mario Kart 8 still supports tilt controls. That said, the game is undoubtedly at its best when you take the wheel with a joystick. Be it on the GamePad, Wii U Pro Controller, or even a Wii Remote and Nunchuck, the controls are tight, responsive, consistent, and can easily be picked up by new players.
As addictive and polished as Mario Kart 8‘s single player campaign is, fans of the series know that Mario Kart is at its best when played with other people. This is especially true in Mario Kart 8, where for the first time in the series players can choose to race with specific item sets or even without items completely. This customization is also available when creating online tournaments, and often results in some truly memorable races. It would have been nice to be able to leave out specific items, like blue shells, but it’s still a massive step in the right direction. Online play itself retains the smooth and confident 60 frames per second of single player races, even while in hectic twelve player competitions, and I never once experienced a hint of latency.
And you know what? I didn’t even miss the lack of voice chat. Sure, it would have been nice to hurl expletives at that stranger across the globe who sent me spinning with a sneaky banana, but without that distraction I was left to lose myself in the positively wonderful visuals, music, and gameplay. Obviously playing in a room full of friends is the ideal setting for any Mario Kart game, where screen peeking and verbal abuse are happily at home, but playing online without any interference I was able to fully focus on leaving it all on the track. If you want to brag about that epic green shell hit or last second victory, you can either save it for the game lobby, where you can in fact talk to your Nintendo Network friends, or just hop on Skype or your service of choice. Don’t let the lack of in-game voice chat deter you from one of the best online experiences in the history of video games.
Alas, it can’t all be stars and golden mushrooms for Mario Kart 8. For everything the regular game does to please old and new fans, the new battle mode design is just plain infuriating. Battle mode has been a consistently fun and frantic alternative to the series’ nerve wracking racing as far back as Super Mario Kart, and hasn’t seen a drastic change in any game since. That’s why the decision to throw out the traditional arena design in favor of shortened Grand Prix loops is absolutely baffling. The new battle mode works, sure, but you spend most of your time just driving around trying to find your opponents instead of being surrounded by chaos from the start. It’s boring, frustrating, and fundamentally flawed. We can hold out hope for some sort of “Classic Battle Mode” DLC somewhere down the road, but for now the game’s battle variant simply isn’t worth your time.
A combination of fun, fairness, beauty and joy, Mario Kart 8 is absolutely brilliant. A botched battle mode and some missing online features stop it short of perfection, but it’s hard to imagine any Mario Kart game looking, playing, or sounding better. If you needed a reason to own a Wii U, look no further.
Platform: Wii U