Review: Mario Kart 8

…Is Yoshi checking Peach out?

 

Nintendo released Mario Kart 8 at a time when the Wii U was struggling.  The fact is, the Wii U is still struggling, and Mario Kart 8 just so happens to be the forerunner in Nintendo’s sales stimulus package.  The game, now a month old, has sold millions of copies worldwide, and is responsible for bolstering the Wii U’s sales substantially.

Mario Kart 8 is an undeservedly uninspired name for Nintendo’s latest Kart hit, but that doesn’t mean that 8 is just more of the same.  Sure, Nintendo played it safe by sticking to its tried and true formula (16 new tracks, 16 classic tracks, grand prix mode, versus mode, time trial mode, battle mode, and online mode) but Mario Kart 8 differs from its predecessors in some very key areas.

 

Mario Kart 8
Console: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EAD, Namco Bandai Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: May 30, 2014
MSRP: $59.99

For one, the game is B-E-A-Utiful.  Nintendo really took advantage of the Wii U’s processing power to make the best-looking (and first ever HD) Mario Kart yet.  It’s truly wonderful to see and experience the clean and crisp karts, characters, and racetracks.  Nintendo has always been more about the gameplay than the graphics, but, as the famous meme asks, why not both?

Every racetrack contains details–real details that the player will notice–that were never present before.  Best yet, the classic tracks weren’t ripped directly from their original consoles pixel for pixel; they received a facelift.  While retaining the basic structure for each course, the classics are retouched to take advantage of new graphics capabilities, and the terrain is updated to accommodate zero gravity driving and paragliding, so even the “old” courses feel new.

 

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Driving feels very similar to how it did in Mario Kart Wii.  Bike wheelies are gone, but other than that, racers are availed a decent variety of bikes and karts (and ATVs), each with its own stats to best suit their driving styles.  Falling off the edge isn’t nearly as frustrating any more; instead of cutting away to a black screen, Lakitu is on task and immediately retrieves fallen players with his mighty fishing rod, costing racers less time overall.  Zero-gravity driving doesn’t change the dynamic too much.  Mostly, players will get a new perspective on the map and will benefit from shortcuts, boosts, or item boxes that stray on more secluded routes.  It’s a fun addition, but not one of the more groundbreaking elements.

Down to the nitty gritty: the things that make Mario Kart 8 the knight in shining armor, showing up just in time to save the Wii U.  What’s different about Mario Kart 8?  Nintendo did a lot to fix the little things that were wrong with previous Mario Kart titles, including, most noticeably, a vast reduction in the frequency of infamous Spiny Blue Shell occurrences.

Classic weapons hailing back from Super Mario Kart–green shells, bananas, red shells, star, mushrooms–haven’t gone anywhere.  Some items introduced in other titles have been done away with (I’ll miss you, Chain Chomp!), while others, such as Fire Flower, Bullet Bill, Bob-Omb, and Blooper, have simply been fine-tuned.  Players also can no longer collect new items while they have other items trailing them (like shells or bananas), which makes it difficult to hoard items and encourages players to rotate their weapons frequently.

 

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Mario Kart 8 ushered in three new items as well – the Boomerang Flower, Piranha Plant, and Super Horn.  The Boomerang Flower, seen in previous Super Mario titles, can be thrown up to three times, and topples players in its course when it’s thrown forward and on its return voyage.  Similar to Chain Chomp from previous titles, the Piranha Plant attaches to the front of a racer’s kart and pulls it forward, munching up coins and other players in its path.  The Super Horn, my personal new favorite, sends out a circular shock wave, taking out players within a generous perimeter of the kart.  An effective defense against attacks as well, the Super Horn is the only item to legitimately stave off incoming Spiny Shell attacks (other than Star, of course).

Coins are back in Mario Kart 8, and they’re the currency used to unlock more kart customizations.  As before, coins will provide players with a marginal speed boost and increase the racers’ speed and recovery time ever so slightly.

… don’t worry; a new iteration of Rainbow Road will have you falling off the edge and cursing at the screen just like old times.

The new courses are both imaginative and practical, and offer varied themes, routes, and terrains.  Some races take place in the sky, others underwater, and–don’t worry– a new iteration of Rainbow Road will have you falling off the edge and cursing at the screen just like old times.  As always, every course has some kind of shortcut, some mushroom-dependable, others not.

In general, items seem to do less damage to players while simultaneously offering less of an edge to struggling racers.  Mario Kart 8 plays more like a Mario-themed racing game than any title before, and requires its players, especially those competing in the 150cc class, to hone their driving skills to rely less on items.  Many will be upset to hear that it’s more rare than before to snag a powerful item in the last seconds of a race and rocket from 11th place to 2nd, but I think the new style will encourage more sophisticated gameplay.

 

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After each race, players have the option to look at a highlight reel and share it with the Miiverse – an interesting idea that will likely be used frequently while the game is new, then drop off the radar in months to come.  Speaking of networking, online play is incredibly smooth, and, like Mario Kari Wii, supports one or two players against local racers or those worldwide.

Time Trial mode is again a great way to focus on skills without a dozen racers and the frustration of items.  Players can race against Nintendo’s staff ghosts or just try out new kart combos on their own.  They can also upload their own ghost data to the Miiverse or play against other racers’ ghosts.

 

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Where did Mario Kart 8 fall short?  Battle mode was decidedly disappointing – it almost feels like Nintendo forgot to design a battle mode and threw it in as an afterthought.  Players don’t battle on original stages; instead they fight on the existing Grand Prix racetracks.  During a fight, it’s clear that the stage is more conducive to racing than battling, and it feels weird to duke it out in a linear setting.

Score: 8/10 – Review Scale

I’m still waiting for Nintendo to release a Mario Kart title that has more than 32 tracks – perhaps 64?  It would also be cool to revisit different character-specialized items, à la Double Dash, my favorite Kart title.  But all in all, Mario Kart 8 contains the true components of a Kart title yet injects enough new elements to hold its own in the series.  One thing is clear: its sure to bring Wii U consoles into the houses of many loyal and hardcore, as well as casual gamers worldwide.

 

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