What do you get when you cross a turtle shell with a banana? If you happen to know, then odds are you have some seriously awkward life experiences, or you haven’t given Nintendo’s iconic racing series a chance yet. If not, then the eighth go around of Mario Kart wouldn’t be a terrible place to start. The ability to save and upload replays, a touch of anti-gravity, and a greater emphasis on racing skill are among a plethora of new tweaks and features, appealing to both fresh and veteran players alike. A quality experience framed with silliness is a cornerstone of Mario Kart’s fame, and despite all of the added twists in gameplay, the latest entry does a fine job of handling Nintendo’s implicit promise of excellence.
Mario Kart 8 is a superb joy to command, the controls respond without a snag; you never feel as though your character does something you didn’t instruct it to, and each decision you make while driving feels like a dedicated one. Whether you’re hugging tight corners or angling yourself through winding turns and unforgiving shortcuts, there is a constant push to perform both carefully and wisely. Make one little blunder, and you may suddenly find yourself losing one, two, seven places in the running line. The stemming pressure may seem daunting, but in effect is a great boon to Mario Kart’s ability to produce a fun experience; there’s a profound rush, a thrill found in the sensitivity of the element. I frequently caught myself glued to my display, enthralled by the pacing of each race and the sheer power it held over my attention.
It may sound a bit run of the mill for a racing title, but fear not, for there is plenty of mayhem injected into the Mario Kart formula. Each entry in the Mario Kart franchise has brought with it wacky, over-the-top items that are specifically designed to infuriate anyone who cares about you. Mario Kart 8 is no exception to the rule, keeping alive a tension-riddled tradition of turtle shells that wreak havoc on the unsuspecting player, lightning bolts that curse the more successful drivers with a shriekingly tiny constitution, and a newcomer repelling-horn — seemingly uninspired — that manages to become the single most satisfying item in Mario Kart history when used under the appropriate circumstances.
In Mario Kart 8, introducing an element of fortune, or more dominantly misfortune, is exactly what the items are designed to accomplish. It always seems that for every one scenario in which they assist, there are five in which they devastate: the calamity the items can wreak when in concert is truly astounding. If you manage to keep seated in first place, you may find yourself the victim of a blue shell, crushing your momentum mere feet from the finish line — an imminent burden, unless you were lucky enough to be awarded the aforementioned horn.
In other moments, you wander into the center of what feels like the entire raceway’s attention: slip on one banana, and suddenly you’re slammed with a boomerang, reamed by a man eating bullet, and finally bumped off the course as the token Bowser rams into you with the weight of a thousand glee. It sounds terrifying, but there is a charming duality to the chaos: being screwed over isn’t simply maddening, but irresistibly entertaining. You know that this sort of thing is going to happen to you — a reality plain to anyone who has played any Mario Kart for a mere few hours — and to find yourself laughing through your frenzy, as the target of something so inane, is just another way that Mario Kart 8 manages to weasel its way into your heart.
Of course, all of this nonsense doesn’t take place in outer space, a gaggle of bizarre humanoids floating after one another with animal parts and fruit; there are myriad, wonderful stages facilitating the pandemonium. Each and every racing arena and its accompanying melody is consistently exciting, soothing the senses with the colorful, imaginative and rhythmic. There is no variety spared: you might find yourself in a partially submerged, twisted haunted mansion in one scenario, bolting over gargantuan spirals of scrumptious pastries in the next, and still yet race through an electrified airship among the clouds in another.
Alongside the sixteen fresh, new courses are an equal number of entries imported from the earlier Mario Kart games, and as a long time series fan, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful way in which these little nuggets of nostalgia were redone.
I was particularly impressed by how seamlessly Mario Kart 8’s new “anti-gravity” feature, which causes players to adhere to the track as they race up walls and into corkscrews, was integrated into the older levels; the elements which made those courses such a joy to play in the past were simply enhanced, and not lost.
The level design as a whole is brilliant, offering plenty of choices for beginners that contain wide raceways and simple turns — but simultaneously refusing to compromise, providing a road to satiate the hunger to test one’s mettle, defying the player with animated obstacles, hairpin turns, and risky, rewarding shortcuts.
But okay, enough gushing. Mario Kart 8 has a spattering of clumsiness, and it’s enough to distract from the fun now and then. Perhaps most egregiously, the new battle mode is downright awful; a task literally boiled down to chasing other players around with items on a handful of the regular courses.
It’s sort of like racing, except … er, okay, it isn’t, maybe it’s more like suddenly wet cats dropped in a very long tube … whatever it may be, the experience is extremely tedious given the linearity and vastness of the stages. A decision that is a serious downgrade from previous games, which promoted item combat within enclosed arenas exclusively designed for the process. It’s a real shame, as some of the customization options introduced, e.g. CPU difficulty, item types, and round limits, held considerable promise.
The character roster, while awesome in scope, is a bit of a void. There are plenty of characters available to play — and make no mistake, most of them are pretty rad — but they are all so incredibly iconic, some even downright redundant: there are five baby versions of characters already in the game and literally an entire family tree of koopas. It would have been nice to see some of the more esoteric characters from the Mario universe in lieu of the redundancy, such as Vivian from Paper Mario or Geno from Super Mario RPG.
Speaking of options, Mario Kart 8 offers a great system of kart-invention: the ATV, kart or bike that your character saddles is assembled from a set of stat-affecting parts that you choose on your own. So what’s the problem? The parts are earned not just randomly, but slowly. By collecting 50 coins, you unlock a new part — the caveat being that you can collect a mere 40 coins per circuit (four races, ten held per race).
Once you manage to collect 1,000 coins, the increment between rewards is increased to 100. It’s an atrocious way to encourage kart customization: why offer all of these awesome options to play the way you want to, but force an element of chance on your goals? Especially considering, you know, the option to use your collected coins to buy the parts would have made just as much sense.
Mario Kart 8 is a wonderful game, though, to be certain. A lion’s share of eventful challenges await in the game’s various single player modes, maintaining indefinite replay value so long as your fondness for the gameplay lives on. It is stellar as a party game, and the online options are robust enough to make for a great home-alone or with-a-friend pastime — doubly so, given the added incentive of increasing your online rating to measure your grit against other players.
Some of the new features and changes may disappoint diehard fans of older entries, but the adjustments largely work out in favor of a game that is already brimming with splendor. Dedicated Mario Kart fans will most assuredly find the game worth picking up, and if you happen to be thrilled at the idea of racing silly caricatures to the theme of besieging your friends, chances are that you would adore the experience.
Roundup & Specifications
+ Very tight, responsive controls.
+ Maintains the fun from easy-going to challenging.
+ Diversifying item system full of character.
+ Beautiful, creative level design.
+ Online mode mirrors single player, with the exception of racing cups.
– Botched battle mode.
– Frustrating reward system.
Developer: Nintendo, Platform: Wii U, Multiplayer: Yes
Release Date: May 30, 2014, Genre: Racing