This review is based on the Wii U version of Mario Kart 8.
Mario Kart is the rare game series that unites hardcore and casual gamers alike. The mix of accessibility, family friendly design and beloved characters from Nintendo’s other franchises come together for an experience that I would place in the same pantheon with Tetris and Super Mario World as one of the most important examples of interactive entertainment.
Mario Kart 8 brings Nintendo’s racer to the Wii U with the most refined, beautiful and polished version yet of the venerable series. Players still loop around fantastical tracks in a race to the finish or battle it out in contained arenas to pop balloons in the latest installment! The game design does demonstrate a focus on cutting out some of the higher concept designs from previous entries such as the dual driver setup of Double Dash or motion sensing focused input system from the Wii edition (available but not promoted) to focus on optimizing the core racing experience. The turning feels tighter, off course recovery with Lakitu is way faster and drifting carries farther than my experiences with previous Mario Kart games; whipping around the tracks like Ken Block is more achievable than ever.
On the Wii U GamePad, using the left analog stick to steer and A to accelerate works seamlessly with ZL to fire items and ZR to drift around the dozens of classic and new tracks available. The touch screen is used for toggling between secondary information screens (as well as waggling the cup ending trophy if you place in the top 3) which should make fans of traditional controller input happy; I couldn’t track down one of my old Wii remotes or the snap-in wheel from the previous version, but it doesn’t feel like I am missing out on a meaningful part of the game. The triggers have a nice feel and response that feel even better if you pull the entire game down to play directly on your GamePad, it feels like an oversized Game Gear that only occasionally experiences a frame rate hiccup but generally works really well.
Mario Kart 8 also marks a long overdue transition of the series into high definition graphics that look phenomenal on a big screen television. Colours are bright and beautiful with a lot of different palettes used between the different game worlds that tracks are themed with, the karts have a solid look reminiscent of the plastic toy versions and the courses themselves are enjoyable combinations of classic references such as hopping Goombas and fireball windmills along with speed boost pads and frequently available power-up boxes. There are some levels that suffer significantly from aliasing, but the graphics are mostly locked at a consistent frame rate and other issues such as wall texture pop-in are rare.
The clean visual design is rich with context appropriate signifiers such as driving with 1 hand if you have the horn or the soundtrack warbling when you’re struck by lightning illustrates Nintendo’s attention to detail, a bevy of small touches that accentuate the large selection of visually gorgeous tracks and karts. I still get a kick out of your character’s quick nods when passing someone or when an opponent gets hit by your item, flair elements with functional use during the frenzy of a race or battle.
The game’s unlockable content system is not as cleanly designed as content becomes available upon completion of race cups and collect on-track coins. Strangely, these coins are automatically spent upon hitting certain thresholds rather than serving as currency for a user driven store experience which seems like an arbitrary removal of user agency. The curious restriction on controlling content unlocks becomes more vexing when considering decisions such as including the Koopa kids as part of the base game but Nintendo icons such as Link as paid DLC content.
Fortunately, the items available during actual races and battles are all available without unlocks or additional purchases required. New items such as the air horn are surprisingly versatile as both a defensive shell deflector and offensive area of effect wave attack, finally giving leading racers an option to resist the dreaded blue shell of death (other than strategic course drops with Lakitu rescues). The piranha plant effectively clears out nearby enemies ahead of you while snaring coins, but the boomerang has limited use as a slower version of the fire flower. These new items along with the chaotic Crazy 8 cornucopia of items have more use than deprecated items such as the trap question block or ghost, shaking up the item metagame in a meaningful way and encouraging a more aggressive and focused attacking style that results in more frequent lead changes.
Online multiplayer is surprisingly fast to start games by joining a lobby, spectating until an in-progress session has concluded and then voting on the next map for your selected mode. Games play flawlessly without lag in both racing and battle modes whether your lobby size is small or large, indistinguishable from local play in performance when you want to reach out for more heavily populated games. Time trials are also available (with an odd restriction of 4 ghosts per track or 16 total ghosts) that tend to be top ranked among the worldwide leaderboards, posing a stiff challenge for the speed inclined.
Mario Kart Television is a barebones feature that stores your replays, unfortunately it is a missed opportunity to view other racers perform and share clips on social media. There are prompts upon a cup completion to post a status update into the Miiverse, but even the occasional Yeah from followers or strangers feels a little empty in comparison to the YouTube, Twitch and Twitter rich sharing ecosystems offered by other consoles in this generation.
Mario Kart 8 also marks one of Nintendo’s early forays into downloadable content with a pair of post-release modules that each come with a trio of characters, some kart pieces and a pair of additional circuits that mix revamped classic tracks and original entries to the series. Available separately and as a discounted bundle, the first Legend of Zelda pack brings the Egg and Triforce Cup series into the game while the upcoming Animal Crossing bundle will add Crossing and Bell Cups along with the Villager, Isabelle and Dry Bowser (uh, okay) drivers to the collected experience.
The initial wave of new tracks has standouts such as Dragon Driftway and Mute City from the Egg Cup which are bombastic in visual style and road structure, while the Triforce Cup features a revamped version of Wario’s Gold Mine from the Wii version that is reminiscent of the best mining cart riding sequences from the Donkey Kong Country series. The 8 tracks in this initial DLC pack are meaningful additions that are well worth the handful of bucks to add them to your Mario Kart 8 experience. There’s still an opportunity to add more of Nintendo’s classic characters such as Samus and Captain Falcon to the asphalt as the Smash Bros. series has done: come on guys, Diddy Kong Racing and F-Zero are right there as thematically compatible source material!
Less exciting is the free Mercedes Benz cars and wheels content available through a co-marketing deal, but it doesn’t intrude into the game if you want to avoid it. None of the AI racers will use their parts and they do not unbalance the game in comparison to the in-universe vehicles; I took the 300 SL Roadster with GLA tires for a test drive through the Hyrule Circuit DLC track as a lark which played out without any discernable performance benefits.
Due to the well after release timing of this review, the Amiibo figure system is now patched in to interact with the game but I do not possess an NFC figure to test out the integration for adding themed costumes for my in-game Mii avatar. The upcoming Fox McCloud suit will be awfully tempting as a surrogate for actually having some of my beloved Star Fox characters available as actual drivers, but none of the “games to life” connections are required for a meaningful experience.
It took a series of 2014 game of the year discussions (shout out to Giant Bomb) to break through my apathy towards the console, plug it back in and experience a game that perfectly blends the complementary appeals of nostalgia and arcade style racing in a content rich package. From the classic Rainbow Road (which is paid DLC) of long straights and sweeping loops to the twisting, twirling and tight turns of the modern version of the traditionally kaleidoscopic capstone track of the Mario Kart games and all points in between, Mario Kart 8 combines a powerful engine and fresh coat of paint with throwback styling that establishes itself as the Wii U’s most appealing game to date and a must buy for all owners of the console.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars