The first Mario Kart I really enjoyed was the original Super Mario Kart, for the Super Nintendo. Until now, it was also the last Mario Kart I really enjoyed.
For whatever reason, Super Mario Kart’s successors never hit all the right buttons for me. Mario Kart 64 seemed sluggish to me, though in retrospect I was also deep in the throes of Twisted Metal 2 at the time. Mario Kart Advance didn’t do anything for me, and I thought the Gamecube’s Double Dash was ill-conceived. In fact Double Dash left such a bad taste, I stopped trying the Mario Kart games altogether until Mario Kart 8, freshly released on the Wii U.
I’ll give Nintendo this, their little-system-that-can’t-quite may be a little unpowered by current-gen console standards, but it sure makes a gorgeous Mario Kart. Graphics aren’t everything, but Mario Kart 8 is just stunning. It’s evident the moment you boot up your first race. Most of the racers have been seen in prior iterations of the game, but they’ve never looked like this. Their clothing moves, their facial expressions change as they watch their rivals pass them on the course… They exude personality, and are genuinely some of the best avatars seen in any video game, regardless of system. The recent “Luigi deathstare” meme that’s been rippling through the gamingsphere is a testimony to that. In fact, everything in the game looks great, from the courses themselves, to the creatures that inhabit them.
Old-school fans will be delighted to know that while the game’s graphics may have taken a quantum leap forward, the gameplay is extremely familiar. The karts and their respective drivers control as they always have, some weightier or quicker to accelerate than others, and while there are a few new item-slash-weapons to pick up, most of them will be instantly recognized from previous games in the series. All of this familiarity could be a turn-off for someone looking for some massive gameplay overhauls after 20 years, but most people will be expecting what Nintendo is best known for, which are minor tweaks to proven formulas, and they won’t be disappointed. This games biggest tweak is by far is the anti-gravity feature, which allows tracks to become vertical or even upside-down without becoming disorienting for the player.
Speaking of the tracks, these are easily the best I’ve ever seen in a Kart game. There are 32 in all, and the vast majority of them are as much a joy to play as they are to look at. Returning favorite Bowser’s Castle now has a massive stone Bowser punching the course so hard it ripples, while the Sunshine Airport launches you into the same airspace as passenger jets.
All of this is AAA material already, but what really makes Mario Kart 8 a must-have for Wii U owners is the online multiplayer. Having 12 players on a course is a beautiful sort of chaos, and tends to make every race an engaging affair. And because every race is also fairly short, there’s a very high “just one more game” factor that’s bound to encroach on more than a few bedtimes.
There is one familiar aspect of the Mario Kart games that may be particularly frustrating for some, and that’s the classic scenario of being in first or second place the entire race and then suddenly being catapulted to around seventh place by an untimely turtle shell. Yes, go-kart glory in the Mushroom Kingdom continues to be a fickle mistress shrouded in rubber-band balancing, one that you’ll need to dance with repeatedly in order to unlock all of the racers and kart-customization the game has to offer.
I wish I could say Mario Kart 8 was a perfect iteration of the series, but it’s not, and that is almost solely because of the rather stunning change to the Battle mode. As returning players will well-know, Battle mode has always been a duel to the death with other players in a small arena. Not so, this time. In a misguided attempt to bring fresh gameplay to Battle mode, the plays now combat one another on the courses themselves. Now, it’s not a terrible idea on its own, as an option, but for this to replace entirely the arena battles players have been enjoying for two decades is a head-scratcher. I, for one, would pay real money for Battle arena DLC. I shouldn’t have to, but at this point I’m shamefully in want of that experience in the context of an otherwise glorious game.
In the end, Mario Kart 8 truly is the crowning achievement for the decades-old franchise, with addictive gameplay, solid online and incredibly impressive graphics. Even with the questionable Battle mode adjustment, it’s an easy and obvious recommendation for Wii U owners and yet another reason for potential owners to finally pick one up.
Mario Kart 8 is rated E for Everyone and is available exclusively on the Nintendo Wii U.