Another year and Nintendo’s Mario Kart is ready for another lap. Mario Kart 7 saw considerable critical and of course commercial success on the 3DS, and Mario Kart 8 hopes to bring a similar formula for success over to the Wii U whilst inducing a slice of innovation in the form of the new and heralded anti-gravity mechanics.
From the get-go you’ll notice Mario Kart 8 has adopted a clean, crisp presentational style unlike that of Mario Kart Wii. The menus really shine and reflect Nintendo’s model of accessible, family fun. This level of quality carries over to the games overall aesthetic too. Mario Kart 8 is the prettiest Mario Kart title to date, everything is rendered beautifully and the tracks have simply never looked this good. It’s fantastic to see all of Nintendo’s aesthetic charm and visual fidelity on a console that’s capable of rendering it all at a technical level that Nintendo’s intellectual property clearly deserves.
Visual attention to detail and polish really shines though out the experience. Each individual track features is beautifully imagined, no two turns feel the same with each being uniquely visually characterised to comprise into tracks which are on a whole brilliantly comprised. Ranging from reimagined classics such as Cheep Cheep Beach which make fantastic use of new features introduced in either Mario Kart 7 or 8, to entirely new tracks such as Shy Guy Falls which employ fantastic use of the games anti-gravity features to really push the boundaries further than traditional track design has ever been capable of. Riding down a waterfall on an anti-gravity segment is simply thrilling and is something that feels completely unique to Mario Kart 8.
The games anti-gravity features certainly do a great job of making the tracks more visually interesting, and not only that but remove many design limitations as the track is literally capable of going anywhere, at any time. It’s shame however that anti-gravity doesn’t lend itself to any significant functional difference with the racing gameplay, playing similar to the underwater segments, which play similar to the on-road segments the anti-gravity portions of the tracks don’t offer much variation in how the game plays. They do introduce an interesting feature where colliding with opponents can grant you a both a boost, and using this strategically can be fun; for instance you could use it to push your opponent off the track if they were skirting along the edge. However for the most part anti-gravity’s merit comes from its enabling of more aesthetically outlandish track designs, tracks such as Shyguy Falls really come to life thanks to features that would be impossible without the ability to drive up cliff faces, and its used to breath fresh air into retro tracks like DK Jungle.
All of this visual spectacle is perhaps best appreciated with the brand new Mario Kart TV (MKTV) mode, MKTV is a somewhat glamorous name for a replay mode. MKTV enables you to view the replay of races, or viewing the highlights. At the end of each race a brief highlight reel is available, but this can be modified to focus on different players and different aspects of the race. This is great for replaying close finishes, and special moments, but disappointingly MKTV doesn’t include any options for changing the camera angle, so its disappointing when MKTV won’t give you the perfect angle to view a close finish.
This level of polish stands true for the games gameplay as well. Mario Kart 8 offers offers incredibly responsive controls alongside features you’ll be familiar with from Mario Kart 7 such as drifting and performing tricks in-air to gain boost. A range of vehicles are also on offer and bikes from Mario Kart Wii make a return, however this time Nintendo have done a good job balancing them against their four-wheeled counterparts, in particular by removing the wheelie boosting mechanic. The wide range of vehicle parts ultimately compose an incredibly wide range of vehicles to select from and each of these combinations are characterised by different handling characteristics, this makes it fun to constantly switch things around and none of the vehicle combinations stand out as particularly unbalanced.
The game offers a considerable amount of content too, there are a total of 50 car parts, and over 30 characters to unlock as you collect coins across the games tracks. Alongside this there are a whopping 32 tracks to race on, 16 re-imagined from previous games, and 16 that are entirely new to Mario Kart 8. Unfortunately Mario Karts ‘battlemode’ hasn’t been given the same treatment. Battle mode has now been reduced to driving across modified versions of the tracks designed for racing. Whilst it’s functional, and Nintendo have attempted to facilitate this style of gameplay with the introduction of a ‘quick turn’ manoeuvre available only during battle mode, it ultimately feels lazy. If anything battle mode needed to be expanded upon with new and innovative gameplay modes and environment, but instead its devolved into something that’s incredibly uninspired and ultimately shallow.
Nintendo have however placed considerable focus on attempting to rebalance the combat experience during races, blue shells have been toned down in frequency, and items like triple red shells and such are much less frequent than they used to be. You can’t hold more than one item at a time either, so defensive play has been toned down in its effectiveness since Mario Kart Wii and 7. However it’s not all roses, whilst first place will see less blue-shells and such items coming at them, you may find the middle of the pack is incredibly heated. As such it can be difficult to get yourself out of a poor position as you’re constantly being harassed by other players items, and as first place has less threats than in previous games its easy for the upper positions to gain too substantial a lead for other players to recover from. The game also offers options for restricting certain item sets, for instance you can select to enable ‘shells only’ unfortunately there’s no indepth selection here, you can’t for instance turn blue-shells off individually, you can make it ‘mushrooms’ or ‘bombs’ only, but you can’t make it mushrooms and bombs only. The ability to customise the probability of distributed items was promising, but its implementation is unfortunately limited.
Another concern is the amount of depth the game has relative to prior Mario Kart titles. Nintendo’s Kart Racers haven’t seen a ‘snaking’ like mechanic since Mario Kart DS, and whilst to many snaking was seen as ‘unbalanced’ or unenjoyable, it did cause those games to lend themselves to a level of competitive depth that simply isn’t present in Mario Kart 8. Instead a technique called ‘firehopping’ has emerged that involves jumping after you perform a level two boost, however ‘firehopping’ doesn’t offer much in regards to gameplay or difficulty of execution, but rather makes faster times inaccessible to those unaware of the mechanic. Whilst this doesn’t make or break the experience it does cause more emphasis on the luck based elements in determining the race outcomes, and this is true even through singleplayer modes, where you’ll find yourself having to repeat grand prix multiple times after being hit by blue shells on the finish line.
A final failing is the lack of singleplayer modes, whilst of course kart racing experiences are intended for multiple players, it would still be nice if there was a better assortment of singleplayer options. Even some form of story mode would be appreciated and give individual players something to do when they don’t have people over to play the game with others. Of course the game does have a robust set of multiplayer features which do enable even the most introverted of individuals to access several million others to play with them at any time, but much you get from this is entirely dependent on how much you weight the intrinsic reward you get from beating other random individuals online.
Overall Mario Kart 8 is everything we expected; it’s a flagship Nintendo title for the Wii U and manages to create a Mario Kart experience that’s both incredibly polished and fun to play for the whole family. It’s unfortunate however that this experience is one that’s predominantly derivative, beside the visual spectacle that comes from driving upside down courtesy of the new antigravity features, there’s very little that’s new here. The game plays in the same manner as Mario Kart 8, which plays like a refined version of Mario Kart Wii. It’s true that by nature this makes for an impeccably refined Karting experience, however once the merits of the visual spectacle have worn away players may find themselves longing for something new. Mario Kart 8 does very little for those that were hoping for anything beyond the expected, and this is ultimately disappointing.
Bad Mario Kart 8 is almost everything you’d want from a Mario Kart title, the game is polished and serves its purpose in bringing frantic arcade racing fun to a new generation phenomenally well. It’s undeniable that anyone who can get together 3 friends for some local action is in for a great time, and online multiplayer serves as a solid alternative for when local play isn’t an option. However it’s a shame that the game shy’s away from innovating itself in any meaningful way. Anti-gravity provides an interesting change in visual aesthetic, but offers little to differentiate the game from previous MK titles on a gameplay level, and new features like MKTV and the advanced race options are oddly limited. Despite these flaws MK8 succeeds in bringing the Mario Kart magic into stunning HD with tradition Nintendo flavour, and with a few friends it can be an absolute blast.
Mario Kart 8 is almost everything you’d want from a Mario Kart title, the game is polished and serves its purpose in bringing frantic arcade racing fun to a new generation phenomenally well. It’s undeniable that anyone who can get together 3 friends for some local action is in for a great time, and online multiplayer serves as a solid alternative for when local play isn’t an option. However it’s a shame that the game shy’s away from innovating itself in any meaningful way. Anti-gravity provides an interesting change in visual aesthetic, but offers little to differentiate the game from previous MK titles on a gameplay level, and new features like MKTV and the advanced race options are oddly limited. Despite these flaws MK8 succeeds in bringing the Mario Kart magic into stunning HD with tradition Nintendo flavour, and with a few friends it can be an absolute blast.