To say that Mario Kart is popular is an understatement. Few series have ever matched its twenty-year legacy of sheer popularity and critical acclaim, so needless to say, Mario Kart 8 has a lot to live up to. Expectations have perhaps never been higher, as this is the first entry on a high-definition, online-competent console, but the game pretty much fulfills all of them. It is classic Mario Kart and that means it’s great — the game even throws in several cool improvements and additions to the franchise. But it is not quite perfect, and by no means is it a revolution.
MK8 is the classic karting action that most of us experienced at one time or another. You are lined up against eleven other racers in an effort to reach the finish line first, but the journey will be anything but simple. You dodge hazards, bump opponents, and utilize a variety of items to obstruct others\’ progress in order to improve your own, all in that mad dash to the end. Plenty of series staples make an appearance: bananas to lay as trap; shells to throw ahead of you; mushrooms to add a temporary burst of speed; stars for invincibility; lightning to shrink opponents; bombs to blow people up; the squid, Blooper, to obstruct vision; and bullets to put those far behind right back into the thick of it.
Several new items have been added as well. There’s a boomerang that has a similar effect to shells, but they may be thrown and returned up to three times. The super horn spins out opponents and destroys hazards in a nearby radius and the piranha plant chomps on anything nearby while speeding you up in the process. The crazy eighty grants you a mixture of eight different items. Be warned, though — others can activate some of them by running into you. Coins also make a return in MK8; running over one on the track or finding them in boxes will increase your constant speed ever so slightly and you can collect up to ten of them.
The game functions a bit differently this time, being considerably less punishing than in the past. Getting hit by most items now will not make you lose your own, even if you are dragging it behind you as a defense. Recovery time after being hit is remarkably quick as well and the same is true if you fall off the track. In almost no time at all you\’ll return right back where you were, still with the item you had when you fell. However, you do lose three coins every time you fall or are hit.
The game is more skill-based rather than luck-based now — getting a red shell to the behind will no longer lose you several places; falling off Rainbow Road is no longer a ticket to last place; getting run over by someone lucky enough to have a star will not put you at the back of the pack. No, while a well-timed use of an item at the end may change the result of a race in a close match, they no longer control the overall fates of the players. In other words, it’s no longer about getting lucky with items, it’s about building up speed and staying there. Falling or getting hit won\’t set you back because you are unable to move: it will set you back because, unless you can gather more coins, you won\’t be as fast as the other players. Now, you can\’t win purely through force of a lucky power-up. You need to use them more cleverly than in the past. Racing skill is the most important thing now more than ever before — but it’s all balanced so that new players still have opportunities to win even without an abundance of talent.
Speaking of new players, I was worried the new additions would keep inexperienced players from getting into the game easily, but I need not have worried. The new anti-gravity feature, which allows you to ride on walls and ceilings, barely changes the core gameplay at all, and neither does the returning underwater or gliding segments. They are as easy to understand and control as the regular racing, but they all have their own little variations to figure out, such as anti-gravity giving you a boost when you run into other players. It changes up the flow of the races in a good and unobtrusive way. These features make the races feel more fresh and exciting without making them complicated. It is easy as ever to pick up instantly, but now there are more tiny quirks to master for those who wish to do so.
In single player, there is plenty to unlock; there are tons of characters and though the selection could be better, it’s still serviceable. There are also a number of vehicles and parts to reveal as you go, which can be customized. Every character fits with the karts differently and changing wheels and gliders makes for some varied results. There is plenty to tinker around to find the perfect car for you, but unfortunately, the way there can be a bit of a chore. It’s not the best experience when you start in single-player. Trying to find out which character/kart combination to use while getting used to the adjusted physics, in addition to some of the early tracks being pretty basic, can take a while to get very fun. But once the physics are mastered, the tracks begin to feel familiar, and personal strategies begin to take shape — boy, is it excellent.
The tracks are more impressively designed than ever. Though a few of the early tracks are unremarkable, the new ones are some of the best the series has ever produced, with creativity bursting from every facet. Racing through airship in the clouds, twisted mansions, space stations and waterfalls have never felt so perfectly designed. There are sixteen brand-new tracks but the other sixteen are remakes from previous games, all great choices that have been marvelously redesigned in order to take advantage of MK8‘s new features. A few feel a bit average, but the good wholly outweighs the mediocre by a large margin.
Fortunately, you can run through the entire Grand Prix in multiplayer, as well as single-player, so you can begin unlocking new tracks with your friends right from the start. That’s great because, as usual, Mario Kart is considerably more fun when you have others along for the ride. As fun as racing against the computer can be and as excellent as the online is — more on that later — nothing beats gathering friends or family around the TV for a good old-fashioned Mario Kart race. As this game is still as easy to pick up and play as the previous entries, multiplayer that will be a blast for years to come is by far the best reason to pick up the title.
Modes other than Grand Prix and regular races make an appearance, of course. Time trials show up as usual, where you drive through a track as fast as you can, trying to beat your best times. You can download ghost data from Miiverse, where you can race against other players\’ fastest times. Battle mode makes a return, too, where you try to hit as many people with items to pop their balloons as you can in a set time limit without losing your own balloons. This time around, the matches take place on regular race tracks, which is not even an improvement on the past couple games. The mode is not much more than a disposable extra: fun, no doubt, but not nearly to the standards of the regular races.
There are plenty of controller options to use and all work pretty great. Both standard and tilt controls work well across all variety of controllers — GamePad, Wii Remote, WiiMote + Nunchuck, and Pro Controller. The GamePad naturally allows for some unique features: Off-TV Play is an option and it clears up a lot of HUD on the TV, displaying rankings and a map — which, for whatever reason, doesn\’t show more than the player’s position. You can also touch the screen to honk your horn, which is frankly pretty pointless, especially since there is already a button that allows you to do that. Although the GamePad seemingly could have allowed a fifth player to join, the game does not have this feature, which is a bit of a disappointment.
The menus are well-designed: clean, simple, extremely easy to navigate when choosing characters and kart customizations. With that said, it takes a moment after switching between characters, karts, and parts for something new to show on the screen, so there is a delay in knowing whether or not you\’ve moved to the correct choice. It’s a miniscule issue, but one that doesn\’t make any sense as to why it was not fixed before release. It is just slightly annoying, especially when trying to get people through the selection screen in multiplayer — a hard enough feat already.
As the first HD entry into the series, it runs flawlessly smooth and is truly breathtaking. Every little thing has been designed in excruciating detail and the visual style as a whole is exceedingly pleasant. Every track has their own distinct feel and personality. There are plenty of tiny touches as well — from the way the puddles of water reflect light to the random and adorable animation of the background characters. It’s all done so that it feels like you are racing through a living, breathing world. What worried me most about the visuals was that, with the additional power to be taken advantage of, the developers might go overboard and make the tracks too busy or confusing. That is fortunately not the case; as much as there is that goes on during every track now, it is still as easy as ever to see what to do and where to go. Considering the different transformations that can occur, that is a pretty impressive feat.
The music has also set a new bar: every song is catchy and extremely enjoyable, setting the mood for the race whilst still standing alone as a great track in its own right. From the atmospheric Toad Harbor to the superb remix of Moo Moo Meadows to the glimpses of Super Mario Galaxy in Cloudtop Cruise, every song brings something fantastic to the table. Online is extremely solid this time around; as usual, you can play up to twelve other people in either a race or battle, with one other person locally able to join you. Joining a match is easier than ever, taking literally seconds to connect to the network. I experienced no lag whatsoever during any races. Voting for the races unfortunately is limited to three random choices, so it is likely that you won\’t be experiencing your favorite tracks online as often as you\’d like.
There are also public and private tournaments, where you as the creator can tweak various rules, such as speed, control options, vehicles, allowed skill level, and how often the tournament occurs. Voice chat is enabled this time around, but it is unfortunately only allowed in the lobby, where you will spend very little time, anyways. As was said earlier, you can additionally download and upload ghost data for time trials via Miiverse. Also available through Miiverse are a variety of unlockable stickers, so those who enjoy trophies and the like will enjoy this, though it did not do much for me.
One of my personal favorite additions to the game is Mario Kart TV — after every match in single-player, multiplayer, or even online, the game automatically makes a highlight reel. These show particularly noteworthy moments from the race with a cinematic camera and you can even change the reel to display different highlights: which racers it showcases, what types of events (big hits, impressive, drifts, items, etc.), and the length. There is even a slow-motion option by holding down B which shows off the visuals spectacularly. It’s a really fun addition, being able to relive the more exciting moments from races over and over again. You may even save the particularly cool ones to your favorites list in order to remember them forever. Better yet, you can share them to Miiverse or even YouTube with very little effort, allowing others to see your best experiences and you theirs.
If you have ever liked the franchise, you will like Mario Kart 8. It is a gorgeous entry to the series that comes with everything we know and love. There are a few additions, improvements, and changes, and it is more skill- than luck-based, but for the most part, it is the same basic experience as before. That is by no means a bad thing. You will have the massive amount of unlockables and the perfected local and online multiplayer, but it is now considerably more beautiful and comes with some of the most creative and brilliant designs the series has seen yet. In other words, it’s Mario Kart — but it is now better than ever.