It’s a safe bet that the gaming public has some idea what to expect from a game whose title ends in a numeral that many people subconsciously pair with the phrase “Is Enough.” Such is the case with Nintendo’s Mario Kart 8. At a time in the franchise’s lifecycle when most publishers would attempt to hide how long the series has been running with a clever subtitle, Nintendo comes right out and says, “Yeah, this is the eighth Mario Kart game, you wanna make something of it?”
Platforms: Wii U
Genre: The Original Kart Racer
Release Date: May 30, 2014
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Behind that confident attitude is a firm belief in the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There’s no part of Mario Kart 8 that won’t feel familiar to fans of the franchise. The Mushroom, Flower, Star, and Special Cups include 16 new tracks based on famous Mushroom Kingdom hotspots, while the Shell, Banana, Leaf, and Lightning Cups house the same number of retro courses in a remixed form. There are Time Trials and a Battle Mode and everyone hates the Blue Shell while loving the Lightning Bolt.
For the most part, Mario Kart 8 takes a lot of its inspiration from 2011’s handheld entry, Mario Kart 7. You can customize your kart by selecting from a large number of chassis types (including bikes), wheels, and gliders. Driving underwater will turn your kart into a submarine, while catching some big air will pop out that glider. Drifting is essential to keeping up with the pack, and collecting Coins will increase your overall speed. You can grab a mini-boost by doing a trick off of the game’s many ramps, and drafting behind other racers will give you a mega-boost.
So what’s new in Mario Kart 8? Not a lot, sadly. The biggest change from Mario Kart 7 (and Mario Kart Wii before it) is the game’s graphical makeover. The Wii U is considerably more powerful than the Wii under the hood, and Nintendo has created an absolutely gorgeous new entry in the series by wringing every last drop of processing power out of their next-generation console. The new tracks are just overloaded with color and feature a ton of neat touches and hidden tricks. The new Rainbow Road orbits a satellite; Bowser’s Castle has a seriously spooky (and slightly demonic) robotic Bowser at the center; Sunshine Airport is so cute that it makes me want to get on an airplane right now; Mount Wario is a breakneck slalom down a mountain that doesn’t use circular laps; and Electrodrome takes place in a thumping Mario-themed discotheque.
The other major addition to Mario Kart 8 is the antigravity engines that have been attached to each kart. After entering certain sections of each track, your wheels will tuck under your vehicle and transform your kart into a hoverkart. Even though the feature has received the brunt of Nintendo’s marketing push (leaving gamers to discover Luigi’s Death Stare by themselves), the antigravity sections of each course aren’t as mindblowing as you’d hope. When it’s done well (as in Bowser’s Castle or Toad’s Turnpike), it’s a twisty, turny triumph. But most of the time, the antigravity sections of each tracks are segregated from the rest of the course, and you’re not allowed to ride on the wall or the ceiling while others take the road. Once you pass through an antigravity gate, the screen will slightly tilt to the side. Other than the occasional disorienting feeling when you realize you’re driving on the ceiling, they don’t feel that much different from driving on the road. However, the courses that offer a choice between taking the road track and diverting to an antigravity shortcut are some of my favorites.
A few other tweaks to the gameplay attempt to distinguish Mario Kart 8 from its predecessors. You’re no longer able to let a banana or a shell trail behind you, leaving the Item Box empty to fill with a second item. While technically a loophole, it added a lot to the strategy of racing against your friends. A few new items were also included and, I have to admit, I’m quite taken by the shell-destroying Super Horn. Tooting my horn at just the right moment to destroy an approaching shell and send multiple racers off into the wall is a thing of beauty. The Crazy 8 (a collection of eight items that encircle your kart), the Boomerang Flower, and the Piranha Plant are less fun. Mario Kart 8 also includes savable replays that can be edited and uploaded to YouTube. It’s a neat little feature (and again, it gave us Luigi’s Death Stare).
What I’m much less impressed with is how Nintendo decided to add Wii U GamePad functionality to Mario Kart 8. The race map that has been included in every previous entry in the series has been shunted off to the GamePad. Sure, it opens up some screen real estate to better appreciate the amazing graphics, but if you prefer to play with the Pro Controller or a Wii Remote, you don’t get to see the map, which has always been a pretty important part of the game. And why would I ever want to look down at the GamePad while I’m racing? “Texting While Driving” laws exist for a reason, Nintendo.
And while I’m complaining, what happened to Battle Mode? Everyone’s favorite multiplayer mode has been turned into some kind of jousting match as groups of racers start at opposite ends of a repurposed race track (that’s right, no more arenas) and charge towards each other. You can change direction at any time and try to turn it into the Battle Mode of old by chasing down an opponent, but it’s never exciting the way Mario Kart 64‘s Battle Mode was. Back then, it felt essential; now its inclusion feels like a ticked checkbox on the feature list.
It’s this constant battle against the franchise’s history that makes Mario Kart 8 such a hard game to discuss. There were many times when it felt exactly like its forebears with a shiny new coat of paint, but how can that be a bad thing? Nintendo nailed the kart racing formula on their first try, and they’ve managed to release six games that are equally as good in the years since. Mario Kart 8 plays just as good as any of them, but something about it didn’t wow me the way Mario Kart 64 did in 1997 or Double Dash!! did six years later. And is it even fair of me to expect it to?
Mario Kart 8 may be waging a constant battle with its own history, but it does so much right. The redone retro courses look fantastic, and even after putting an untold number of hours into every previous game in the series, I barely recognized most of them (though, to be fair, many have been heavily edited). Meanwhile, the new courses are so packed with secret passageways that I was still discovering new ones right up until I sat down to compose this review. And the game delivers when you crank the difficulty up to 150cc and the computer-controlled karts start going a lot faster. Mario Kart 8 is a very good game, often even a great one, but it’s not one for the history books. And that might be my problem, not Nintendo’s.
But while I was playing Mario Kart 8, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was time to open up the Mario Kart roster to some of Nintendo’s other creations. A “Super Smash Kart” would open the series up to plenty of new possibilities. Players could toss Link’s Master Sword at another racer while piloting an Arwing up one of Metroid‘s famous vertical corridors. It could be fantastic, and Mario Kart 8’s director is even considering it. I also began to question how Shigeru Miyamoto can say he has “no good ideas” for a new F-Zero game. Mario Kart 8’s flawless graphical presentation and sense of speed prove that the Wii U is built for racing games that operate at a breakneck pace.
Whatever the future holds for the franchise, Mario Kart 8 knows exactly what kind of game it is. It is the eighth entry in a series that began 22 years ago, and Nintendo nailed it (for the most part) yet again. They fiddled with a few things they shouldn’t have fiddled with, but Mario Kart is still the only name in kart racing that you need to pay attention to, and this entry will surely enthrall Wii U owners for years to come.
Review Disclosure: A review copy of Mario Kart 8 was provided by Nintendo for the purposes of this review.