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The Mario Kart formula hasn’t changed at all since it’s inception on the Super Nintendo. It still works with some changes made throughout the last seven entries. The last console iteration, Mario Kart Wii, was still great despite it’s issues. From blue shells occurring more frequently, bikes being too good, and the online being a bit bare bones, Nintendo had a lot to fix in the Wii U iteration. Fortunately, Mario Kart 8 is arguably the most complete Mario Kart package yet, but it still has lingering flaws and new issues that prevent it from being another Nintendo classic.
The standard modes are there as expected in Mario Kart 8, from grand prix that can be played up to four players now, time trials to compete for fast times and against staff ghosts, regular VS races, battle mode, and online play that can be played splitscreen with another person for the first time. The structure remains unchanged with grand prix cups of four cups with sixteen new courses and another set of four with sixteen retro tracks remade to accommodate the new gameplay mechanics. Three CCs are still available to choose from at the get go, but veterans of the series should go right away to 150 cc for the faster speed and challenge.
For the character roster, I was slightly disappointed with the additions and omissions in this new Mario Kart. Other than the Koopa Kids you encountered in many 2D Mario games, which I actually liked playing as some of them here, the other additions are unoriginal to no surprise. I wonder who had the bright idea in Nintendo to come up with someone like Baby Rosalina, who increases the baby roster to five now, and Pink Gold Peach as a “metal” variant to Peach like Metal Mario. It is unfortunate some characters like Diddy Kong, Bowser Jr., and Dry Bones from Mario Kart Wii are not making return appearances in this Wii U iteration with the additions Nintendo included. Continuing another staple in the series, characters are assigned to various weight classes such as Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi being in the middle, heavy guys including Donkey Kong, Wario, and Bowser, and so on. A character’s weight does get factored to the vehicle customization, which I’ll talk more a bit later.
As I mentioned earlier, 32 tracks (evenly split between new and retro) are in Mario Kart 8 and some of the new ones are the best courses in the series yet. Nintendo did a great job with the track design filling it up with as many features as they can. One of the major features introduced in this game that make these new tracks shine is anti-gravity sections. These sections allow karts or bikes to drive upside down or sideways for a period of time. The neat part is that bumping another character allows for a speed boost that can be used to pass or even take out the opposition. Underwater and gliding sections make a return from the 3DS iteration to further increase the variety in the new courses. My personal standouts of the Mario Kart 8 bunch are Shy Guy Falls as you’re going up and down waterfalls, Dolphin Shoals, the Electrodome, and Cloudtop Cruise, which is a homage to the Super Mario Galaxy games.
The retro courses look great in HD as if they’re completely different tracks than they were in their original counterparts. Sherbet Land from Double Dash now has underwater sections, Toad’s Turnpike from 64 now has cars you can use to jump and glide, DK Jungle from Mario Kart 7 has an anti-gravity section, and 64’s Rainbow Road is one lap around the track splitting into three sections to count as laps, which is a bit disappointing but understanding for time reasons.
Of course a Mario Kart game is not just about the courses, but also the items as well. There are some new toys to mess around with to take out the opposition. The boomerang flower allows players to have three throws with a boomerang, the piranha plant is used for boosting and chomping on nearby racers, and the super horn is a shockwave that can also take out nearby racers as well as protecting yourself from items including the dreaded the blue shell if you’re in first place. Lastly, the crazy eight is basically eight items at once used in a set order. When you’re usually in the lead, you’ll get a coin item to get two coins. These coins that making a return appearance from the original game will boost your main speed and they can be collected throughout the courses. They are also customized to unlock more customizable parts for vehicles as well.
Besides the new items, the usual suspects of banana peels and shells are still there to throw at your opponents. Red and blue shells are still enemy number one, but luckily you’re not gonna be hit by a blue one as much as in past games. However, the big change in Mario Kart 8 revolves around item storage as you can only one item at a time (you can still get three bananas/shells as one item though). In other words, you can still hold a banana behind to protect you from a shell but you can’t have another item waiting to be used. This is a welcome change that players have to adjust to when making the jump from a previous game.
Everything together when it comes to the gameplay makes Mario Kart 8 a blast to play whether alone, locally with three other people, or online in 12-player races. The driving and drifting feels satisfying to control especially when you come up with a good customizable setup. Karts and bikes actually feel evenly matched so there’s no better preference players go with than it was in the Wii game. Players can customize karts and bikes to come up with the right stats of speed, acceleration, weight, handling, and traction. Like to be a brute force on an ATV while sacrificing acceleration and handling, you can choose that style, or you rather prefer fast out of the gate yet risk getting bumped hard by a heavily controller. The styles of combinations to choose from make Mario Kart 8 more deeper than it should and so far there’s no almighty winning combo yet from what I seen.
The single player difficulty is on par with past games as it is easier on slower CCs, but on 150, it is the real deal. There will be races where you’ll just get hit by three red shells in a row, struck by lightning, and of course getting blue shelled at the end costing you a win. That is still Mario Kart in an nutshell where luck still plays a pivotal role than skill, but luckily those type of races don’t happen as much as they used to no matter well you’re performing. Other than the grand prix and time trial modes, there’s isn’t much offline stuff to do alone, but maybe it is time Nintendo takes notes from Sega’s Sonic All-Stars Racing series to include a more fleshed out campaign next time.
Mario Kart 8 uses pretty much every controller option available on the Wii U from the gamepad, Wii Remote by itself or with the wheel attachment, Nunchuk + Wiimote, Pro Controller, and Classic Controllers. I primarily used the gamepad because the second screen does it’s uses. On the gamepad itself is the positions of all the characters in a race but you can switch between off-TV play, a view of the course with characters’ positions, and change to tilt controls. The game controls great with the traditional sticks and buttons, but the tilt controls are solid as well if you prefer going with that. The Wii Remote also has both control styles as well, but non-gamepad controllers can’t refer to the main screen for track layouts and player positions. I haven’t seen the option to include those in the HUD which is a strange to have Nintendo miss on that. Imagine having the second screen advantage when playing locally with three other players. It is not much of an advantage to be honest since the game is trying to encourage the look back button if opponents are coming from behind, but still a weird design decision that hopefully gets addressed in a possible update.
However, the most disappointing feature in Mario Kart 8 is the battle mode, which is basically an afterthought compared to how good the racing is. While it is back to popping opponents’ three balloons, the battles take place in the actual courses than specific arenas seen in past games. That alone is a big no no making this mode not fun to play. Items are scattered throughout the track and they are usually green shells, so you have to be pinpoint accurate with your shots as opponents pass you or you’re on their tail. The better items are usually picked up when you’re behind much like the races, but having to make u-turns constantly to try to take a player out is just flat out boring. Sure, it is another different approach to battle mode, but I wonder who playtested this and thought this was good enough and fun at the same time? How hard is it to have Mario Kart 64’s battle mode back in the new engine?
Online play has been improved from Mario Kart Wii but not by much. Another player as a guest can join in on the online action now. There’s still worldwide and regional lobbies to choose from to race and battle with other people online, but the friends list integration is weird and behind with the times. For instance, setting up private lobbies with custom rules can be frustrating if don’t have a consistent number of friends playing the game. You can’t even invite friends directly from hosting a lobby and even access the home menu to see which friends are online playing this. This can be done on the online’s main menu however where you can join up with your friends as long as the lobby they’re in is not full. Inviting friends to play your games as good as this shouldn’t be this hard Nintendo!
Despite issues with the online infrastructure, the netcode has been consistently smooth for the most part. Online games run fine with minimal to no lag or at least Nintendo did a good job hiding the latency. In some races for example, I can tell if the race is laggy if the game is not responding to my item press to stop the wheel. Other instances at the end of the races have me finish at a position one behind than the original one. Besides regular races and battles, tournaments with custom rules are another option to play online and they are basically in grand prix format. Once you’re done doing everything in the single player, online races are the majority of your time will be spent.
Mario Kart 8 also has some social features that mostly revolves around Mario Kart TV where you can watch your past highlights and other popular videos from the community. More importantly, you can upload your highlights and races to YouTube along with Miiverse, which you can some of mine above. These clips can be either last 30, 45, 60 seconds, or just have the full race up. I personally prefer the highlight videos with the dynamic camera angles whenever something cool happens, but these videos can be edited with slowdown effects and camera angle changes. It is nice to finally see YouTube upload functionality in a Nintendo game and how fitting Mario Kart is the one to have it.
From the initial announcement, last few trailers, and now the final version, Mario Kart 8 is indeed the best looking game on the Wii U. This is Nintendo at their best when it comes to taking advantage of their technology to come up with amazing environments. The new courses I mentioned earlier are not only graphical showcases for the game, but also the system as a whole. The game also oozes with personality and charm especially when you see the facial expressions by the characters during the highlight reels. Luigi specifically has been the center of attention with his infamous “death stare” since the game came out because of how well Nintendo has done with the graphics. While the framerate is at 60 frames per second with one or two players are racing on the same screen, it does dip to 30 again just like Mario Kart Wii with three/four players, which is disappointing and even on a more powerful system like the Wii U, this is still an issue.
The soundtrack is also the best in the series because there is actually a Mario Kart band that contributed to it. The intro theme alone is worth listening to the point you leave the game on the main menu for a while. The usage of instruments like the guitar and the saxophone, specifically in Dolphin Shoals, is some of the best music I heard in a game this year and goes to show that Nintendo loves the sax with this and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Even the retro tracks’ remixes sound amazing as Mario Kart 64’s Rainbow Road still remains as a classic today. Some of the characters’ voices can get annoying however, but that is not that big of a deal.
While Nintendo hits a lot of the right notes with Mario Kart 8, lingering flaws and new disappointments prevent it from being another classic. The new gameplay mechanics such as the anti-gravity sections and the item storage changes are welcome, but you’re still going to have one of those races you’ll just get hit by everything going from the top to the bottom of the pack. Luckily, those don’t happen as frequently as did back in previous games, specifically getting blue shelled and now being able to avoid it with the new super horn. The driving and drifting are great especially in the new courses, which some of them are the best ones of the series yet. The tracks themselves now have a lot of variety and choice with anti-gravity, gliding, and underwater sections. Battle mode is however an abomination and some online features show that Nintendo is still behind the times when it comes to online infrastructure. At the end of the day Mario Kart 8 is still Mario Kart at it’s finest and that is good enough to be another must have for the Wii U.