Published on June 23rd, 2014 | by Jeff Derrickson0
Mario Kart 8 Review
Summary: Despite some issues, this is the best Mario Kart to date.
Given recent history, you would be forgiven for not being excited for a new Mario Kart. Over the last several iterations, Nintendo’s genre-defining kart racing series has fallen into complacency, offering up predictable, cookie-cutter design that results in familiar, generally fun yet ultimately dull gaming experiences. You know exactly what you’re going to get: mild tweaks (paragliders, for example), 16 new tracks, 16 old tracks, mirror mode if you do all the things, etc. The funny thing is, the latest entry, Mario Kart 8 for Wii U, is exactly what I just described, yet through inspired track design and general polish, it triumphs as the best Mario Kart to date. No joke, it is the best Mario Kart ever made and the second-best game available for Wii U.
The new concept justifying another sequel this time is anti-gravity, which allows innovation in course design, as well as fun wrinkles to the core gameplay we know and love. Courses are no longer bound by the normal rules of gravity. They all have these anti-gravity sections. Cross a blue line on a track, your wheels turn sideways, and you’re in anti-gravity as the course twists and turns through the air in any direction it pleases. You may not notice you’re racing upside down while you’re in the anti-gravity sections (it’s certainly not as noticeable as the road/air/water sections in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed), but you will see the insane track design in the distance as you approach them, as well as in the fantastic replays you can view of every race.
Much like the level design in Super Mario Galaxy, anti-gravity frees Mario Kart 8’s creators to do whatever they want with the tracks. It unleashes creativity and lets them go wild, obliterating any chance of dull, mediocre track design. For instance, in Bowser’s Castle, there is a fork in the road where the track splits and one lane rotates over the top of the other, so the two lanes end up facing each other as they run parallel. Picture that cockpit-to-cockpit scene in Top Gun, and you will get the idea. Those little touches that anti-gravity provides present a creativity that has been lacking in recent Mario Kart titles.
It even affects the gameplay. While in anti-gravity sections, hitting bumpers or bumping into other racers gives you a speed boost instead of potentially harming you. There are shortcuts with anti-gravity, and you have to decide whether it’s worth risking going out of your way to reach them for a chance at potential speed boosts. Many of the tracks are also subtly dynamic, such as Piranha Plant Slide (from 3DS’ Mario Kart 7), in which you can catch a current on the second lap (and only on the second lap) that will help you reach a higher platform you can’t reach otherwise.
Best of all, the 16 classic tracks are not just copy and pasted from previous titles. They have all been completely remade with anti-gravity in mind. Perhaps my favorite is Toad’s Turnpike from N64. It is generally the same great, traffic-filled level you remember, except you can ride up on anti-gravity sections of walls that line most of the course. So while the old courses are familiar and provide nostalgia, they also provide something new. As for the classic course selections in Mario Kart 8, they are generally well-liked by fans, but of course, there will always be omissions sure to disappoint some. I really miss Baby Park and DK Mountain from Double Dash!!, and while I understand you can’t please everyone, I would gladly buy any track DLC Nintendo hypothetically releases for Mario Kart 8.
The game is also extremely polished, from the tight controls to the orchestrated soundtrack to the absolutely stunning visuals. Seriously, Mario Kart 8 looks better than most Xbox One games I’ve played. You will instantly recognize you’re playing a pretty game, but you won’t fully appreciate the amount of detail in the graphics until you watch one of the aforementioned replays. Speaking of which, one of the coolest new features in Mario Kart 8 is the ability to edit and share game clips. This feature has already inspired plenty of funny .gifs, including the now infamous clip of evil Luigi taking out Waluigi. I personally have not experimented with making my own clips, but I’ve enjoyed watching what other players have come up with, and I do have a tendency to watch replays (sometimes in slow-mo, to the frustration of my friends) looking for funny moments.
And as always, Mario Kart is better with friends. I bought a pro controller for local multiplayer, and it has greatly enhanced time spent with roommates. Mini-review within a review for the pro controller: awesome battery life, and just plain awesome. Buy it. Online multiplayer works how it has for the last several entries; you can compete in tournaments, worldwide and regional versus races or battles, or just play with friends. The ability to bring a local friend online for matches is a nice touch. The only negative I can levy at the online setup is you can only voice chat with friends and only while you are waiting in a lobby. Nintendo has slowly been letting go of restrictions and embracing online gaming, but this feels like a step backwards. The built-in mic on the gamepad works extremely well, and it’s a damn shame that chatting is confined to before and after races. There’s also no easy way to invite friends, so you have to either send a message through the Wii U and hope they see it, or text or tweet at them.
However, the biggest issue with multiplayer (and the game as a whole) is the battle mode, which feels like a distant afterthought in Mario Kart 8. Fans of battle mode, prepare to be extremely disappointed. Instead of building some arenas for multiplayer battles, Nintendo decided to just have battle mode take place on the regular race tracks. It’s a lazy move that greatly diminishes the appeal of the mode. It basically turns battle mode into a race where you have three balloons. Or you could just drive around aimlessly on a track, looking for your friends for the entire battle. It’s the opposite of fun; it’s tedious and pointless. Battle mode has never been the main attraction for me. It has always been something to do for a little bit to take a break from racing, but unfortunately, I won’t even be doing that with Mario Kart 8.
Another criticism people throw at the series is it’s all about luck. I would not agree with that. I can dominate many races no matter what happens, and there are also people who can destroy me no matter how hard I try or what items I get. But item balancing is certainly an issue in Mario Kart 8, especially on 150cc (the hardest difficulty). Of course, if you’re in first place, you’re only going to get garbage, but even more so here. Often, in the past, if you were in first place, you would only get a banana or green shell, which are effective at blocking incoming attacks. More often in Mario Kart 8, if you’re in first, you’ll get a coin, which only gives you a tiny speed boost and increases your overall top speed. There is now a horn item which delivers a shock wave that attacks other racers in your vicinity, or more importantly, can block the dreaded blue shell, an item which fans have long considered unfair. Unfortunately, you will rarely get the horn when you need it.
Worse, the items you get when you’re struggling and in bad position are often a cruel joke. If you’re near the front of the pack, you will constantly get hit by the likes of lightning bolts and Bullet Bills. If you’re in last place, you will wonder where the hell these items are. I’ve played more than 30 hours of Mario Kart 8, and I think I’ve gotten the lightning bolt once. More often, when you’re in last place and desperately need something that will work to your advantage, you will get a mid-tier item like three green shells. On Rainbow Road (easily the hardest in the series), the game takes a turn for the sadistic and seems to only hand out mushrooms (even if you’re in last place), which are useless on the new Rainbow Road because speed boosts tend to send you flying off the track. It’s an issue you will probably only notice on 150cc on the hardest tracks when you’re losing, but it’s there, and it will frustrate you once you notice it. The silver lining is luck generally won’t save poor players and steal victory from skilled racers.
And finally, a minor gripe that has arisen among my friends is the lack of completion times outside of time trials. So the only way to get an idea how well you whooped everyone’s ass is the check your rearview before crossing the finish line. It’s a truly minor complaint, but it seems odd that they are not there.
Major issues with item balancing and battle mode aside, though, Mario Kart 8 is a truly great entry in the series. The tracks and production values have never been this good, and the series has generally never been this addictive. There is a good sense of progression, where you are constantly unlocking new cups, characters, and vehicle parts, and to get them all you will have to seriously dedicate yourself to the game and getting good at it. Considering that even in its most frustrating moments, Mario Kart 8 is pure joy on a disc, especially when you add friends, that shouldn’t be a problem.