Mario Kart 8 is the first home console release in the Mario Kart series since 2008’s Mario Kart Wii - that version is the best selling racing game of all time - so the Wii U version has a lot to live up to.
Nintendo only gives us one Mario Kart title per system, so it’s kind of a big deal when a new one is released.
Mario Kart 8 is more than that - it’s a legitimate reason to buy a Wii U.
Mario Kart in HD is something we’ve wanted even before Mario Kart Wii came out (it, like all Wii titles, maxed out at 480p), and I’m happy to report that Nintendo has not disappointed. I know the current generation of games’ graphics often focus on muddy browns, greys, and realistic explosion emulations, but Mario Kart 8 proves that HD can be just as awe-inspiring with Rainbow Road and a powersliding Mario. Even on my old 720p monitor, MK8 is crispy like a good piece of bacon. Well, if bacon was multihued and had hoverkarts flying around, anyway.
Speaking of hovering, the additional kart modes are fantastic. They allow for fast-changing dynamics within races, but they’re not jarring. Seriously, even when your kart/bike flips its wheels horizontally and glide through sideways, slot-car-track-inspired hairpin corners, the game doesn’t skip a beat. Neither do you - even the first time my kart transformed, the camera panned seamlessly to keep pace with the changing perspective.
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The aerial sections are carried over from the 3DS title, Mario Kart, and they function well here, too. There’s a tangible amount of control, allowing you to pitch your vehicles fore and aft, and side to side. It’s not a hang gliding simulator, but it does a good job considering the game’s arcade nature.
Underwater sections are a bit of a letdown; while it’s great that driving in water will no longer force Lakitu to fish you out, the marine tracks are pretty forgettable. The karts handle okay underwater, but I somehow expected more from the experience. Full boat transformation, perhaps?
The vehicles themselves all handle the tracks with admirable prowess, but the karts are noticeably improved over their Wii brethren - they’re more agile and quicker reacting, requiring less planning to avoid the wanton destruction that tends to befall a Mario Kart track. The playing field among the bikes and karts has been leveled, as well - bikes used to be far quicker, especially with the wheelie capabilities (granting small speed boosts), but now most setups have a fair shake.
The controls themselves are what you expect: Wiimote & Nunchuk, Wii Pro controller, and Wii U tablet, and the first two play just as well as you expect. Surprisingly, I enjoyed using the tablet the most.
The Wii U tablet is versatile, and (mostly) useful. You can hold it and use analog controls, glancing at the small screen for race standings and tracks maps on the fly. This takes most of the ancillary race information off the main screen, drastically decluttering the TV interface. Like the Wii Wheel before it, the Wii U tablet can be used as a steering wheel of sorts - only this time it’s surprisingly accurate. Plus you can switch back and forth between the control schemes on the fly.
I’ll still contend that a good player will be faster with the analog controls, but the tablet’s tilt controls are accurate enough to be fun. You can also play the entire game on the tablet’s screen, which is always a good feature for Wii U titles.
Unfortunately, you can’t turn the tablet off, even if you’re using a Wii U Pro controller or Wiimote to race. It’s a bummer, considering that other titles let you shut the tablet’s screen off (Legend of Zelda: Windwaker HD). But it’s important that Nintendo got most of the controller functions correct.
Equally essential to a Mario Kart’s merit is the track selection; the courses you get in Mario Kart 8 are gorgeous, (mostly) memorable adventures. Mario Kart 8 sports 32 tracks in total (not counting mirrored courses), which isn’t a small number...but it needs more. Hopefully Nintendo will wise up and offer DLC tracks, because they’d make a killing.
The tracks you do get though - on the whole, they’re amazing. Following recent tradition, the lineup is a mixture of brand-new courses and remixed tracks from previous games. They’re all beautiful and vibrant, but too many feel short. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing - this is Mario Kart after all, not Forza - but I’d like to have more than a handful lengthy tracks.
Some old tracks have been delightfully updated (Yoshi Valley and Donut Plains 3, for example), but others have been softened to remove all challenge (Toad’s Turnpike). Here’s where that aforementioned DLC could step in and really pad the track numbers (wink wink, nudge nudge, Nintendo). The 16 new tracks are delightful, however; I can only really count 1 out of 16 that I don’t enjoy (Sweet Sweet Canyon). There is one superstar above all, though.
Mount Wario. Unlike the other 31 tracks, Mount Wario does not use the traditional “3 lap race” formula. Mount Wario has you jump out of a cargo plane, SSX style, and careen down a mountain like a downhill ski jam, culminating at a single ending line. Now, Mario Kart 7 had a few point to point tracks, so I know Nintendo’s got the idea down. I wish they had implemented it more often this time.
There are a few new items, most notably the “Crazy 8” (which surrounds your kart with an assortment of items) and the Super Horn (which destroys items and obstacles around you, including other racers), but there’s one big change: you can no longer hold two items. A common strategy in previous games was to hold an item behind your kart (such as the ubiquitous banana or green shell) for protection, and run into another item block to queue up another item in your inventory. This was helpful for maintaining safety while in the lead, since your competitors would have to hit you multiple times to impede your progress.
Not so, anymore. You can hold one item, and that’s it - which makes it more competitive, especially against other human players.
Mario Kart 8’s multiplayer is as excellent as you’ve been led to believe. There’s nothing like piling four adults in front of a screen and having them beat the hell out of Yoshi, Peach, Mario, and company with ridiculous items and beat each other in spectacular finishes. The best addition is the comeback of the “random” button in versus play. It’s such a small thing, I know, but Mario Kart Wii killed the random option and all it did was cause arguments over who thought which track was cheap. With a random option, everyone can just shut up and play the game.
There’s really nothing bad to say about this game. Sure, it’s here a little later than we’d hoped, but it’s been worth the wait.