Mario Kart 8 Review

By Blair Nokes on June 5, 2014

Mario Kart has been at the top of the kart racing food chain since its debut in 1992. In that sense, it's quite surprising that in 22 years, there have been only 5 console releases and 3 handheld releases, along with 3 arcade games by Namco. The formula has largely remained the same over the years, though every instalment manages to add a new flavour in some form. For example, Mario Kart 64 was the first to offer 3D visuals and four-player split screen.

The jump in quality from Super Mario Kart to 64 was astounding at the time. For everyone still suffering damaged friendships, they'll certainly know that Mario Kart 64 was also the first entry that introduced the Spiny Shell item, more popularly known as the Blue Shell. Mario Kart Double Dash For the Gamecube was the first and as far as I remember the only entry that dabbled with two-player karts. Mario Kart for the DS was the first to support online racing, and of course was the first to utilize the dual screen of the DS. Mario Kart Wii was the first to introduce motorbikes, and motion controls. And finally, Mario Kart 7 introduced the hang gliding mechanic, submersible gameplay, kart customizations, and even a weird first person perspective.

In two decades Nintendo has juggled offering different innovations with every instalment, while still maintaining the essence of Mario Kart's core gameplay. 2014 marks the 8th instalment in the Mario Kart franchise and it is the first one that will be in high definition for Nintendo's struggling console, the Wii U.

Imagine leaving on a trip somewhere to return to your home and feel like nothing's changed despite know there's a difference. That's the best description of how Mario Kart 8 controls. It's fine-tuned, precise, and still feels like all of the older games while still feeling unique enough on its own. Continuing on from the Wii's improvement, Mario Kart 8 has 12-player races in chaotically designed levels that consist of a wide range of redesigns from every instalment, along with new levels specifically designed to utilize the biggest change to the gameplay: anti-gravity.

Levels now twist and turn upside down and have walls that allow you to drive along while other players are on the regular paths. What's incredible about this is that you never truly feel like you're changing position until you see the highlight reel at the end. An obvious exception to this would be the wall-driving where the camera actually tilts to match it. This wasn't just a visual gimmick for the sake of having it either; Nintendo managed to work a gameplay strategy into the mix. For every time you collide with another kart racer, you spin and both get a speed boost. How this works is up to you, as it can be beneficial in certain races or it could be detrimental, like in Rainbow Road. Returning from the 3DS' entry is the ability to hang glide and drive underwater, and they have been expertly placed in certain segments. Playing through Donut Plains, Toad's Turnpike and Yoshi Valley was delightful to see classic levels from Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64 completely redesigned for this.

Items in Mario Kart 8 come in a wide variety of classic returns and a lot of new entries that offer more balance. Green Shells are your typical projectile that can either get satisfying hits from a well-placed shot, or hit someone else with its ricochet trajectory. Red Shells are the dreaded homing missiles that will hit the target in front of you unless they sacrifice an item to deflect it, or if it hits something on the map, like a cow in Moo Moo Meadows. The infamous Blue Shell makes its return and it is still determined to ruin friendships. It's not wholly unbeatable, though. A new item introduced in Mario Kart 8 is Super Horn which emits a radial shockwave that can prevent a Blue Shell attack! Those in first place that stumble on this item would be wise to hold on to it until the bitter end, even if it means giving up the possibility of more items. Star Power also makes its return, offering struggling players a brief moment of item invulnerability. Another crutch-item Nintendo has introduced is the Crazy Eight. It offers 8 eight items all at once for the players use. Each Crazy Eight comes with a coin, a bomb-omb, mushroom, star power, a blooper, a green and red shell and banana.

The probability of getting some of these items largely depends on your position in the race. First placers will typically get coins or defensive items like bananas, green shells or super horns as there isn't a need for the more offensive items. Typically, those further back will get the Crazy 8 or Star Power, but players in 3rd place can get star power as well. Nevertheless, all the items seem to be very balanced, and most fans will be pleased to know that the Blue Shell can be beaten.

Mario Kart 8 supports the Wii Mote and Steering Wheel attachment, along with the Wii Pro controller, the Wii U pro controller and of course the Wii U gamepad. To remove clutter from the screen, player positions are displayed on the gamepad, and it also shows you which character has which item, On top of that, it offers 3 buttons to change what's displayed: a button for off screen mode, a button to display the level's map, and also a button to change the gamepad into a motion controller. They even offer a goofy kart horn "“ a large round button in the center that's purely for laughs. Nintendo really wanted to cater to all players with different control preferences, be it motion gaming or traditional controllers.

The game has its typical four modes. Grand Prix is the standard cup challenge that can be played in 50, 100, or 150cc. There are eight cups, and each cup has four maps that offer a winner based on how many points you have accumulated. Time Trial and VS race are exactly as you would expect, but sadly Battle Mode received a change for the worse. It's less like a battle arena that the mode is most popularly known for, and more like a race with an elimination factor incorporated. There's nothing inherently wrong with the new battle mode at all; it's just not nearly as fun as it was fighting friends in an arena brawl. Hopefully Nintendo tries to cater to those wanting that classic mode returned.

You can of course race in couch co-op with up to 4 players via split screen, however one odd thing is that the Gampad itself couldn't be used as a 5th player. Sonic and Sega All-Star Racing Transformed offered this as an option when the Wii U launched, and seeing as it's in direct competition with Mario Kart, one would think Nintendo would try and at least match what it offered for local play.

Online mode is present, and allows you to participate in worldwide or regional matches with players, tournaments that you can either host yourself or wait for upcoming events hosted by Nintendo. You also have the ability to play direct with users on your friend list. You can create a private room for all your friends, or join in on their ongoing matches, however you can't seem to invite someone to a Worldwide or Regional. This can easily be fixed, and for the time being they at least offer good support to play with your friends, or players you've recently played against if you're looking to make new friends. On top of that, if you have a friend over they can also participate online with you; the game offers a two-player online mode which seems to be the best of both forms of multiplayer. Online performance is buttery smooth at 60fps and lag-free which is truly amazing given the chaos on screen, the dynamics of each level and the 11 other players to race against.

One great new addition to online, or offline gaming is the ability to share your experiences. The game creates default highlight reels of your matches that you can edit to a certain degree. From there, you can upload them directly to your YouTube channel for everyone to see. It's great to see Nintendo reaching out to forms of social media in a natural way like this and it bodes well for the upcoming Super Smash Bros game.

Every win you earn be it online or offline earns you coins that will unlock either a new character for the roster or new customization options. The game lets you choose from a wide variety of karts, wheels and gliders, all carrying different stats and all having their own benefits and detriments to certain terrain. The roster for Mario Kart 8 has 30 characters all together, with new entries like Rosalina, and the Koopalings. You can also choose to ride as your Mii character or other Miis. As a whole, they are definitely varied, though some inclusions like the baby versions of Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy and Rosalina or skin changes like Metal Mario and Pink Gold Peach feel like wasted slots that could have been used for either returning classics like ROB, or even new characters like Diddy Kong, or King K Rule.

The sound for this game is truly remarkable. Music for every level, and even the main menu are done with live bands and musicians and range from funky jazz, to theme appropriate genres like calypso music for Cheap Cheap Beach or Dolphin Shoals, and fast paced orchestrated music in Moo Moo Meadows with violins being the primary instrument. Every track has some incredible moments, and some even manage to hit nostalgia strings; the main menu is a remake of the menu for Super Mario Kart. There is an absurd level of craft and care that went to the sound design of this and it should not be overlooked. Hopefully the OST will be offered as a Club Nintendo reward!

Much like most of the Nintendo first party exclusives for the Wii U, Mario Kart 8 seems to be a visual showstopper for the console, and proves that the Wii U can hold its own as an 8th gen console. The levels are all finely detailed, have terrific lighting effects and there was even time invested to make sure shadows make sense with regards to light sources. It's something you won't pay attention to in a match, but it was important enough for Nintendo to make sure it was done right. Character animations and designs are all highly animated and have that "Pixar" feel that Insomiac manages to do with their Ratchet and Clank games. When a character makes a sound, their mouths move appropriately which isn't something you'd notice unless you're using the rear view button. Another great thing that has swiftly become a hilarious use of YouTube highlights is how every character will turn their eyes, and heads to nearby players. One increasingly popular replay is Waluigi getting hit with a green shell, and Luigi giving him the death stare as he passes.

Visual aesthetics aside, the game performs like a dream. Mario Kart 8 operates at 60 frames per second, even with two players via split-screen. With four-players, the frame rate has to be halved to 30, but the resolution remains intact. Earlier reports said this game was natively in 1080p, when it is actually 720p with the ability to upscale. This sacrifice in resolution was most likely made to preserve the frame rate and I'm pleased to see Nintendo do what current gen companies seem to forget in genres where frame rate matters more than resolution. A game can look as technically pleasing as Crysis, but in a game where you're moving at high speeds and games that require split-second reactions like racing or fighting games, higher frame rates are essential.

Final Thoughts

Mario Kart 8 may very well be the best entry in the series. Nintendo put a lot of thought to rebalancing the items, and designing a new way or racing that is different from what the series is used to, with tracks uniquely structured to accommodate the mixture of anit-gravity racing, hang gliding, and under water races. Classic redesigns still keep retain their charm with a fresh coat of paint, and they made sure to keep what made those tracks special, like the alternate routes in Yoshi Valley or oncoming traffic in Toad's Turnpike. Hopefully Nintendo seeks to support the game with more characters, modes karts and maps post-release. Having Battle Mode changed is a bit of a letdown, and some of the characters seem like wasted potential but all in all this is the game that will finally start to turn heads. For those with the Wii U, this is the online title you've probably been waiting for and for those still waiting for something worth the purchase this is one of the strongest reasons to own the console.

Pixar-like visuals with a solid frame rate
Fantastic music
Track designs are varied and well thought out
Battle mode isn’t the same
Some odd character choices for the roster
There should be a way to invite friends outside of private lobbies
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