Mario Kart 8 Review
Mario Kart, a series that has sold more than 100 million units, returns for its eighth installment on the Wii U. Nintendo is hopeful Mario Kart 8 will provide a much needed Golden Mushroom to the struggling Wii U, but is the game inventive enough to boost this twenty-two year old racing franchise into the HD era?
From the trailers alone, it is evident that Mario Kart 8 pulls out all the stops in terms of presentation. This is easily the most beautiful game Nintendo has ever created, and the gorgeous track layouts and charming character animations create an environment that is as rich and detailed as any Pixar movie. Toads dance on the sidelines, Cheep Cheeps fly through the air, and Shy Guys hum along to the fantastic jazz music. The tracks are incredibly diverse, ranging from the bright, ancient passages of Thwomp Ruins to the fiery, twisted hallways of Bowser’s Castle; each is lovingly crafted and a joy to race through. Even the retro tracks have undergone incredible transformations, including an inverted U-turn on the GBA Mario Circuit, an extremely bright and detailed Cheep Cheep Beach, and what feels to be an entirely redesigned N64 Rainbow Road. The personality of both new and returning tracks is unmatched.
Just another day in paradise
Yes, Mario Kart 8 is beautiful, but a good-looking game is just that: a good-looking game. Fortunately, Mario Kart 8 is also incredibly fun to play; the racing feels as tight, nuanced, and fast as Double Dash, and the new antigravity mechanic allows for the most creative courses in series history. The hang-gliding and underwater sections return from Mario Kart 7, which, when coupled with antigravity, make each track feel dynamic and fresh. In fact, the courses are so well designed that even straight-aways feel fast as you prepare to power slide into the next turn. I’m especially a fan of the boosts that characters gain when bumping into opponents while in antigravity mode; it’s great to see the developers find a way to encourage more aggressive play that works for lightweight characters, too.
All of the old favorite items return (including the dreaded blue shell), but the new additions help balance the gameplay and mitigate frustrations a bit. For instance, the new super horn can knock a blue shell right out of the sky, while the added Piranha Plant provides subtle boosts as it chomps through the competition. Even the new boomerang item can hit multiple opponents out of your way, although it requires the most precision of the new bunch. The coin item actually ends up being the biggest game changer, since obtaining one leaves players vulnerable to incoming attacks.
Bowser, admiring his flawlessly constructed castle
Interestingly, the developers further balanced gameplay by removing the item-hoarding strategy that has existed since Mario Kart 64. Players can no longer grab a second item while holding one behind them, which means that first place racers cannot stockpile defensive items in order to sustain their lead. What initially sounds like a step back actually has the opposite effect: maintaining first place feels like a gamble, and the decision to hold defensive items or toss them back at the competition feels all the more risky. Furthermore, blue shells appear less frequently, but a single red shell can now be equally devastating to unprotected first place players. And those triple red shells are killers in two player matches.
Mario Kart 8’s racing is a joy, both online and off. I find the two-player one-vs-one split-screen to be the most fun, as the balanced items require precision tactics from both opponents. In fact, local multiplayer practically requires that racers have similar skill levels because items alone are no longer enough to come back from poor racing. The online set-up is also a step in the right direction with quick matches, voice chat among friends (which is functional, though only available between races with abrupt cut offs before the next track), and a ton of customizability in tournaments. I did find, however, that twelve player online matches sometimes experience some Internet lag (depending on the match), which is an issue that I rarely had with Mario Kart 7. This is a shame, considering the 60fps racing is so seamless and fluid offline.
Nothin' says Mario Kart like a mobius strip.
I have very little criticism here. My biggest complaint is Battle Mode, which is a bust and almost nonexistent, as recycled courses (and boring ones, at that) replace the exciting, confrontational arenas of the past. Moo Moo Meadows is a poor substitute for Block Fort, so if you buy Mario Kart for Battle Mode, you might want to watch some videos ahead of time to prepare yourself. It’s really not much fun, and the lack of an onscreen map makes finding opponents a chore.
Another small complaint involves the balancing of twelve player Grand Prixs, where falling behind early often costs you the game. Unless you get ahead fast and maintain a steady first place, you’ll be stuck in the group, getting hit over and over by shells, Piranha Plants, boomerangs, and bombs. Yet, if you catch a big enough lead in the first lap, it’s usually smooth sailing to the finish line. Granted, this isn’t always the case; overall, I’d say the Grand Prix balancing is still a huge improvement over its predecessors, but the discrepancies can be frustrating nonetheless. Also, a little more customization in Mario Kart TV would have been nice (such as a fully utilized editor on the GamePad or the ability to change camera angles), but watching a green shell hit a crying Toad in slow motion is absolutely hysterical and fully welcomed.
Thanks to stunning graphics, a killer soundtrack, tight controls, and a well-balanced item system, Mario Kart 8 manages to evolve the franchise in all the right ways. This may not be the radical departure that was Double Dash, but Mario Kart 8 is more addicting than ever while providing a vibrant, nuanced kart racing experience that you’ll be enjoying for years to come.
Please note that the final score is not an average