The Mario Kart franchise needs no introduction, and in this outing Kart comes in just shy of being the masterpiece Nintendo set out to make. The game is all sorts of fun, but it is still not a perfect game. There are improvements compared to Mario Kart Wii, but it is ultimately in taking elements from Mario Kart 7 for 3DS that the game falters. The game isn’t perfect, but there is more than enough to keep enthusiasts busy for a long time to come.
Like the myriad of other titles Mario Kart 8 comes with 16 new tracks, 16 refurbished tracks with 12 racers, and sadly, Battle Mode. Don’t misunderstand: Battle Mode has in the past been great, but this time they shouldn’t have bothered. Instead of the additional bonus of getting battle arenas and older updated arenas you are simply battling on the race tracks, with a couple of modifications that seem designed to open them up but had little or no effect. As you can imagine, this results in a lot of driving in circles looking for opponents and usually finding none. This game is about the racing, and the racing is great. There are of course many different ways to race: ghost races, single circuit, championship cups, online, and tournaments. All of the options from previous Kart titles are there with some new features and a video editor/uploader, but more on that later.
The big change for this iteration is the anti-gravity wheels, which add a new dimension to the race. Driving sideways and upside down is easy to control as the camera shifts with the action, making the transition smooth for the driver. The biggest change anti-gravity brings is that the wheels’ new configuration gives a speed boost rather than a wipeout when you ram another racer. There are anti-gravity obstacles to aim for as well for more speed boosting wackiness. There are still plenty of Thwomps, pipes, brick walls, plants, fences, and bottomless pits for you to find trouble with, of course. The glider and propeller are back from MK7 and automatically kick in over air or under water. It is also worth mentioning that Lakitu, your friend in the cloud that picks you up should you fall, is faster than ever at putting you back on the track. He is a playable character now, and most of the other new additions are the Bowserlings.
Nintendo seems to have made an effort to try and balance the game out from the Wii iteration – only giving one item at a time without letting you hold onto one for later, for example. This may just be this writers’ experience, but it seems that the players in the middle of the pack largely get 1 or 3 mushrooms as their item box pickup; without all of those bullets and stars flying around, it is more challenging to make your way forward. If everybody has a mushroom, they don’t really get you ahead anymore. As far as balance goes, on the Wii you could see multiple high power items like blue shells, stars, and bullet boosts in a single race, adding a certain frenzy to the race. Not so for this game – a blue can sometimes not even show up in a circuit of 4 races. Overall the game feels “nerfed” at times and it loses the frantic charm of its predecessors.
There are new items: a horn that takes out everything around you, including those blue shells (which now take everybody out in their path to 1st place); a piranha plant that will give a (very) small speed boost and chomp on whatever is around you; and a 3 use boomerang. The other new item is a coin. Yes a useless coin. Collect them and your speed will slightly increase, with a maximum of ten per race.
Like the coin, the kart/bike selection is borrowed from MK7, with your cumulative coins advancing you to better builds. You can choose your frame, wheels and glider, but unfortunately most of the frames are cosmetic changes only. The tires as well are many in selection, but most have very similar stats within their category (small, big, off-road; the same goes for the gliders. There are gold wheels/frames/gliders to be won, but they are very hard to get. One of them requires a player to beat all of the ghost racers that Nintendo included in the game. Full disclosure: my game has no gold anything.
All of this adds up to disappointment for those who enjoyed playing as a baby character or a mid-sized character on the Dolphin Dasher in MK Wii. There is no kart or bike that will get you through those off-road shortcuts without a speed power up. This all seems part of Nintendo’s plan to tighten the gap between first place and the rest of the pack, which admittedly could be sizeable in the Wii version, especially online.
The music in Mario Kart 8 is a bit more special this time around. While anybody who has played any Mario game will know what to expect, this time it is all done with live instruments, and you can really hear the difference. The music that plays in the winners’ circle may be the same, but you haven’t heard that riff until you hear it come from an actual guitar. It all helps to give the game an exciting feel, especially when incorporated into the Music Park race (when power sliding across various pianos) or Electrodome’s dance party theme.
Speaking of older tracks while the game includes racing underwater, on walls and gliding, not all of these are shoehorned into every classic track. N64’s Rainbow Road has unfortunately been cut back to one lap, and Yoshi’s Valley doesn’t hide the racers’ rank. The rest of the changes to tracks are aesthetic in nature with a couple of tweaks to incorporate gliders/propellers and a bit of anti-gravity.
Online is really the bread and butter of current Mario Kart games, with the offline circuits included to improve your star rating for online bragging points and scout for shortcuts. Thankfully, it is done very well this time. Voice chat makes it’s MK debut and while it works, it isn’t the most useful thing ever. Chat only works when a friend creates a room for other friends to play against, and even then it only works between races.
Some may gripe about this, but it really makes perfect sense when you take a step back and see how other people behave with full voice chat on other systems. MK8 would hardly be accessible if little 7 year-old Jimmy comes home from Sunday school and is told he is a “cunt nugget bastard” by some random voice over his controller. While some might still say that friends wouldn’t say such things, with Nintendo’s open Miiverse this isn’t always true. Nintendo is determined to keep their system accessible to all ages and in this case it is commendable that they would make such an unpopular move to keep their community clean.
Online players will see a familiar menu setup with the globe spinning, but the Wii U is HD and the world and space never looked so good. If you have seen the movie Gravity, you might be concerned for the life of the different colour Toads floating around in their space suits. Everything has been streamlined this time, including waiting between matches. There are 3 random track selections to choose from in each race with an additional option to vote for a random track, presumably to keep the Rainbow Road spammers at bay. Also, once you’ve made your selection you can choose from preselected phrases to encourage, goad or communicate with your fellow racers as all of your Miis stand around chatting and waiting for the race to begin.
As said before, there are all sorts of options besides the standard twelve-player race to the finish line; tournaments are available, both custom and by Nintendo with different options in the race settings. You can set the date and time you want the tournament to start (daily, weekly etc.) as well as karts or bikes, items or no, etc. etc. etc. Lots of options here – and if tournaments aren’t your thing you can still play custom races worldwide with items set to maximum or off, etc. etc. etc. etc.
There are still random disconnects at the worst possible times, but for the most part the online is smooth and quick without players appearing to jump around the track. The standard online versus race still reigns supreme, but there are options for all levels of play. The online point reward system has been tweaked; no longer will anybody lose hundreds of points for getting last in a single race, causing them to put their Wii remote through the drywall (or TV). There is less to be earned per race, but loses are no longer a major letdown, and the need to play for the next hour to make up the points lost is erased.
As far as just how all of this crazy, item-chucking, karting works with your controller, that is up to you. The gamepad can be used as a wheel (or as an off TV play screen), you can use the joysticks, Wii remote (with or without wheel or nun chuck; and with or without motion controls), pro controller, and even a remade GameCube controller for this game. Call me a purist if you will, but my configuration is still the Wii remote in the wheel, with my gamepad on a stand on the table as my map. Yes, the map is on the gamepad screen only now, and while playing on the pad it can be tricky to look down and check where everybody is. That’s why in my house it sits on the table in its stand (two came with my system and a cardboard one came with the game so Nintendo has tried to give us all stands) and nobody uses it so we can all see the map.
In the MK Wii players were given the option to opt out of drift turning, but no more. While playing with a group of friends this gives even more of an edge to veteran players; while they drift around the corners getting speed boosts, those new to the game are still trying to incorporate the slide into every turn. This is the third MK game to use basically the same drift turn method, and it works very well, allowing veteran players to jump right in and worry about the turns in the road and not how to control the dang thing.
The most interesting new feature is a video editor that saves your races and allows to you choose favourites that will be protected from deletion when your bank of saved races gets full. The video editor is quite basic, but it has a few options to it. When replaying the video you can play with the speed, but you cannot save these changes for upload.
When uploading you can choose the focus between up to four racers and also whether the video focuses on different aspects like items or corners. You can also choose 30, 45 or 60-second video lengths as well as a couple of sound options. Other than that, you can’t choose moments to put in the video, and things get screwy if you go off track and need rescue. In the video below you can see the camera cut away as soon as a player falls off the track at the end of the race, which can lead to a lost narrative when sharing the race to YouTube or the Miiverse. The sharing works fine, but it can be time consuming.
Mario Kart 8 is not a perfect game, and sometimes after spectating a race for three minutes only to get disconnected you may want to throw something. But for everybody that has been waiting for a new Mario Kart this one was worth the wait. That being said, for those who haven’t been waiting for a new Mario Kart there isn’t much here to draw you in. The power slide steering can take some getting used to, and as a four player party game that can be a drawback for guggles (non-video game folk) in attendance even at the Sunday drive pace of 50cc.
Yet no drawback in the game comes even close to knocking Mario Kart off the must buy list for any Wii U owner. Like its predecessors it is a brand all its own even within the Mario universe. The online here is the best Nintendo has done in a game other than Monster Hunter 3. Battle Mode is the only major letdown, but it has (almost) always been the weak part of a Mario Kart title. The race is the thing, and the racing in Mario Kart 8 is better than it ever has been and will surely cause hundreds of hours to be well wasted with plenty of mayhem and last-minute upsets for all that purchase it. So send a friend request to DrZoidberg and let’s race!