It’s no secret that Mario Kart is an important franchise to Nintendo. It’s one of the few games that Nintendo only publishes once during a Nintendo platform’s lifespan, but despite its years of existence it’s really hard to think back to a time when a Mario Kart game has generated as much hype as Mario Kart 8. While it probably won’t pull Nintendo out of tough times with the Wii U, Mario Kart 8‘s sheer enjoyment should definitely at least push some units.
What Is It?
Mario Kart 8 hardly needs an introduction. Each of the previous three entries in the series have enjoyed blockbuster sales, and it’s always been a marquee title on every Nintendo platform the series has graced since its days on the Super NES.
Despite the game’s many customization options that it has been adding since Double Dash!! on the GameCube, Mario Kart has always been a series prideful of its multiplayer. Now more than ever, the game has a stronger emphasis on skill thanks to the various nuances and features that really add more of a strategic blend to the easy-to-pick-up gameplay the series has been known for.
The game is also Nintendo’s first HD entry to the series, and it definitely looks the next-gen part despite the Wii U’s technical shortcomings when compared to the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
Why Should I Care?
Nintendo has attempted to innovate on its self-created kart racing formula by adding an array of new features over the last four releases. The big nuance in Mario Kart 8 are its anti-gravity features.
Unlike underwater racing in Mario Kart 7, which to some was more of an illusion instead of a solid new gameplay feature, anti-gravity really refreshes the experience. When driving over blue-lit pads, the wheels on your selected vehicle go sideways, pretty much making your vehicle float like a racepod from Star Wars Episode I, allowing players to go up ramps to drive on walls and catch an extra boost of speed when jumping off the walls. Oftentimes the wall paths are actually preferable to the regular paths, giving the game a more stylistic approach that can draw parallels to leaping off walls in Titanfall. While it may seem complicated and difficult to do, the camera helps ensure its ease by following your racer—but it becomes increasingly difficult as you go up to higher speeds in the harder 100cc and 150cc levels.
The anti-gravity features don’t end there either. When bumping into other racers, both karts involved in the collision will receive a slight speed boost. So while the boosts are definitely something beneficial, if you’re bumped off the main road, it can become increasingly difficult to recover, especially since you’ll be easy pickings to other racers as well as their weapons and other hazards on the track. All of this makes bumping sort of a double-edged sword, as it’s both a strategic art and something that can work to your disadvantage.
Speaking of advantages, of course the items and weapons make a return. New items include the “Crazy 8,” the boomerang flower, the piranha plant, and the super horn. The “Crazy 8” is the successor to the “Lucky 7” from Mario Kart 7; it surrounds your character with eight items to use including a red and green shell, a boost mushroom, a blooper, a bob-omb, a banana, a coin, and a star. The boomerang flower lets players throw a boomerang at karts in their way, and of course the boomerang will come back, making them a bit tricky to avoid. The piranha plant just straight up attacks other racers near you, making them one of the more annoying items in the game. Finally, there’s the super horn, which has been getting a lot of press as it will equalize any weapon coming your way, including the blue shell known to have broken a lot friendships.
The existence of the super horn has definitely been overblown though. Throughout my playthrough in all modes of difficulty, I’ve probably only had the super horn in my possession eight times, and I’ve played through all 32 tracks in the game at least four times each, so I wouldn’t really call it a game changer.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Both hardcore and casual gamers alike don’t need a review to know that Mario Kart 8 is probably the most anticipated entry in the series to date. All it takes is one look at a trailer to know that the game looks absolutely stunning in HD, and while the wide variety of courses will take center stage, what’s probably even more surprising are the updated classic courses. The lighting in Yoshi’s Valley is eye-opening, and the redefined Rainbow Road (both from Mario Kart 64) are definitely some sights to behold and they really do a good job with the nostalgic respect the developers have given longtime Nintendo fans. Granted, while it’s not really a technical criticism, it’s a bit disappointing knowing that you can’t venture out to Princess Peach’s castle in the Royal Raceway (also from the N64), nor can you jump off the course in Rainbow Road at the beginning of the race to cut up about half the time it takes to finish the course. It’s great that a lot of the old courses feel new again, but it would’ve been nice if the old and glitchy shortcuts were still intact.
Of course, players wouldn’t have known about those glitchy shortcuts if they didn’t have friends to show them how to do them. Multiplayer has always been the highlight of the Mario Kart series, and it still takes the spotlight in Mario Kart 8. The traditional Grand Prix can still be enjoyed by two people using a split television screen, and while it’s always been that way, it’s probably a weakness now as it doesn’t give a really special purpose to the GamePad. Whether a player uses the GamePad or not, the action is still going to be on split screen, so while it doesn’t mess up any of the game’s high resolution, it still gives players less real estate to work with, and that’s disappointing considering both Mario Kart DS and Mario Kart 7 have this problem rectified by giving every player their own screen.
As far as rectifying problems go, Mario Kart 8 has the easiest online matchmaking system in the series. Players can complain about the lack of official online leaderboards all they want, but friends that want to play friends online simply have to pick them from a menu. It used to be a whole lot more complicated than that, and it’s great to see Nintendo finally fixed that problem.
The main problem with Mario Kart 8 is the game’s excuse of a battle mode. Previous Mario Kart games put players on an arena where they can simply drive around, find items, and wreak havoc on their opponents. So while the items are still there (of course), Nintendo for some reason thought it would be a good idea to put players on actual race tracks. This would’ve been okay as an option, but not the only option. Now battles are longer and drawn out because instead of the time players will take plotting their attacks and driving away, they have to spend all sorts of time driving around a race track in search of their opponents. I didn’t make use of the battle mode much in my younger days, but this totally makes it forgettable now.
All that said, what’s the best way to play Mario Kart 8? The game plays quite well on the Wii U GamePad, with off-TV play being another plus, and you can still use a Wii Remote with or without a racing wheel, but the best option for your money is definitely the Wii U Pro Controller. Since the right analog stick isn’t used, it shouldn’t distract the more hardcore Mario Kart players when playing the game. As stated, the GamePad works great, but at times you’ll be inclined to use the D-Pad because it’s within easier reach compared to the left analog stick–which you’d ideally want to use for a game like this. Yes, there might be more enjoyment when steering using the Wii Remote, but if you’re a completionist who wants to get everything there is to unlock (there are loads of secret characters and customizable options to use in actual gameplay, while there are also 90 stamps to unlock for use in Miiverse) rather quickly, the Pro Controller is definitely the least troublesome way of doing that.
If you’re all about the racing and multiplayer, Mario Kart 8 is bar none the best addition in the series to date, but if you’re really into the battle mode, you’ll probably think otherwise. Either way, the game is a must-have for any Wii U library and while it may not be the game that brings the Wii U out of its troubles, it should definitely be a marquee release this generation.