Mario Kart 8 Review: Off the wall
If there is one series that Nintendo has always been relatively safe with, it was Mario Kart. With the exception of Mario Kart: Double Dash, which introduced a slew of new gameplay mechanics that ultimately ended up being scrapped in newer iterations, Nintendo opted to only slightly tweak their kart racing formula, enough to please fans wanting something new, but not too much as to alienate newer players. Mario Kart 8 seems to offer the perfect balance of new and familiar, with some amazing gameplay tweaks that finally make the game feel like it rewards skill rather than luck.
Before I get into what's new and improved, let's talk about the sheer amount of content that's here. The roster of characters bumps up to 30, with the 30th being any one of your created Miis. The cast also includes all of the Koopa Kids, who are a welcome addition. The track count goes to 32, with 16 brand new courses designed specifically for Mario Kart 8, and 16 classic courses coming back from past Mario Kart titles. Then there are the karts, ranging from standard go-karts, ATVs, motorcycles, F1 and even some franchise themed karts like the hilariously named, Steel Driver. And of course, every tournament is split into the standard 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc, with each one adding a significant amount of difficulty.
Mario Kart 8's biggest change is in the form of anti-gravity segments, which not only look visually stunning, but have a few added gameplay mechanics that reward skilled players through strategic driving. Once in an anti-gravity section, players can bump into other racers, which results in a quick speed boost to both. However, the strategy here is waiting for key opportunities where only you benefit from such a tactic, leaving the bumped racer in the dust. That means waiting for tricky turns where a bump could send them flying off the track, or waiting for an opportunity to slam them into an environmental hazard, slowing them down to a crawl while you reap the benefits of the boost.
It makes players think about each track design even more so than before, forcing them to learn advantageous spots where such tactics can be utilized. There are also various spots on the track during an anti-gravity segment which when bumped into, grants you a speed boost. Chaining a bump with another racer into one of these is difficult, but extremely rewarding once you pull it off.
What's great is that even classic tracks are remixed with their own specific anti-gravity segments, meaning that even though you're racing on familiar tracks, you're still seeing something new. Not to mention, the skill based anti-gravity mechanics apply here as well, forcing players to re-learn their favorite classic tracks.
Aside from those segments though, the track design is to be commended. Each track feels like a rollercoaster ride of sorts in a different theme park. A surprise waits around every turn, literally. In the Twisted Mansion for example, I start off heading through the front doors of the mansion, then immediately switch to driving on the walls around a large dinner table, and immediately around the corner you then go underwater, when it then shoots you into the air, allowing you to then choose whether you want to land on the first or second floor. And literally every track is crazy like this. The Mario Kart 8 version of Rainbow Road is by far one of the craziest track designs.
But it wouldn't be Mario Kart without the crazy items. Three new items join the lineup, with the extremely effective yet close range Piranha Plant, the Boomerang and the holy grail of items, the Horn. Piranha Plant is extremely deadly, as it can take out multiple enemies, though they have to be within its chomping range. However, even when the Plant chomps onto air, it always provides an extra speed boost. The Boomerang allows you to throw it multiple times, and has the added chance of hitting the enemy while it's returning. This is another item that when utilized correctly, can be extremely deadly. The Horn has an area blast right around kart, disabling any racers that you're close to, however, it's best, and most useful utilization is defense against the dreaded Blue Shell. That's right, the most hated item by arguably the entire Kart racing population finally has a defense. While coins are returning from past titles, adding to each player's top speed once 10 are collected, they now also appear as items as well.
And then there are the graphics. My goodness, say what you want about the Wii U being a last-gen system, but this game is gorgeous. Running at 1080p and slick 60 frames per second (when playing solo or up to another player in split screen) this is as next-gen as a Mario Kart game can be.
But not everything is perfect. Battle Mode got a significant downgrade in this game. No longer are there special arenas. Instead, a select few courses are now slightly altered so they're more circular. It's basically standard racing, but now each player has three balloons.
Also, the GamePad has little to no special functionality. Sure, it mirrors gameplay so you can play off-screen, but it can also show the map. The problem here is that looking down on the map in a game like Mario Kart will certainly yield disastrous results. There are also no options to remap any of the buttons, so you better be content with the default control scheme. There is an option to use tilt controls, but they're the absolute worst. In fact, there is no Options feature in the game at all.
Multiplayer works rather flawlessly, especially for a game that hasn't launched yet. However it is pretty limited. First off, voice chat is restriced to only friends, which for Nintendo is pretty standard. You can only choose from three pre-picked levels or let the game choose one at random. However, you can also choose a customized ruleset as well.
Rounding out Mario Kart 8 is Mario Kart TV, which Nintendo really pushes onto the player after every single race. The Highlight Reel will showcase your best moments in your last race. This is a pretty awesome feature considering that even when I placed 6th, my Highlight Reel consisted of expertly throwing a Green Shell and hitting the racer in front of me, or bumping into a racer during a tight turn, sending them flying off the ledge. You can see the uploaded video below. Basically, the Highlight Reel will always showcase how much of an a-hole you are. It's awesome. If you want to edit these a bit more, you can actually change a whole slew of options, like focusing on multiple characters, more on action, or drifting, and even change the length. You can then share your videos on the Miiverse and even upload them to your YouTube account.
It's not surprising that Mario Kart 8 is phenomenal. And while it's still not nearly as experimental as Double Dash, the new anti-gravity segments add enough skill-based gameplay to make even seasoned veterans rethink their kart racing strategies. In the realm of mascot kart racing games, there is no doubt that Mario Kart is still king.