I’ve been playing Mario Kart 8 for the last week. As good as all of the previous games have been, Mario Kart 8 for the WiiU is a cut above.  Quite simply put, it may just be the best Mario Kart game ever made.  Come find out why.

 

 

The Mario Kart franchise has captivated audiences for over 20 years, across so many Nintendo platforms.  How popular is the franchise exactly? Numbers don’t lie.   Around 1 in 3 Nintendo console owners (Nintendo 64, Gamecube, Wii) since 1997 have owned a Mario Kart game at some point. Mario Kart DS was the highest selling single DS title behind New Super Mario Bros, and Mario Kart 7 is currently the highest selling single game on the 3DS (it used to be the outright leader but Pokemon X and Y together have surpassed it.)  Prior to adding it into the black bundle near the end of the console’s life, Mario Kart on the Wii was the highest selling non-bundled console game of all time. It remains far and away the highest selling racing game of all time.

Needless to say, the franchise is gaming royalty, and is firmly in video game lexicon for various things, including funny things like AI cheating.  Mario Kart wouldn’t be what it is without its infamous AI cheating, or the “rubber banding” system as we’ve come to know it. No matter how far ahead of your competition you end up, you are never safe. Somehow, the AI has always been given superhuman catchup abilities, and a seemingly infinite supply of red shells and other powerups to keep the race as close as possible.

There’s a high amount of pressure on the new Mario Kart 8 to perform.

 

Let’s take a look at how it all checks out.

Release Date: May 30, 2014

Consoles: Nintendo WiiU (Special Edition Deluxe Console Bundle Also Available)

Genre / Rating: Racing / E

The premise of the game hasn’t changed. You are still one of a handful of characters in the Nintendo Universe, and you have your choices of single player Grand Prix, time trials or multi-player options.  While the difficulty of track navigation is usually determined by your speed choice (50cc for slower racing, 100cc for medium racing, and 150cc for faster, and more advanced racing,) Mario Kart is also famous for track obstacles and reliance on power steering. Degree of difficulty is often on your choice of character.  Smaller characters like Toad and Yoshi tend to be better for beginners because of their all-around capabilities. Larger characters like Donkey Kong and Bowser have better balance and handling, but lack acceleration and speed.  You start with 16 characters, but that changes very quickly as you progress through Grand Prix Mode.

Before we get into Grand Prix mode, it’s worth mentioning the customization aspect of your character’s vehicles. Each vehicle is broken down into 3 customizable aspects – The car, the wheels and the glider.  Some have advantages and disadvantages over others, but to be honest with you, after playing as much as I did, it’s not so noticeable that it discourages you from experimenting. Would you like to ride a wooden-wheeled Mach 8 with dual exhaust and a funny car parachute?  Sure.  Or perhaps you’re boring and just want to ride your usual kart, with standard wheels, and a cookie cutter glider?  Alright Captain Killjoy. I suppose that’s your choice. Once your car is chosen, get yourself signed up for a Grand Prix.

Grand Prix is the bread and butter of Mario Kart. Here, you play one of 8 different 4 track circuits, each with their own little quirks.  Each track is 3 laps long, though they aren’t always the standard circular format. Some tracks are actually one long continuous track broken off into 3 subsections (though they’re earmarked as laps in-game.) Something new (to me anyway – I wasn’t one of the 35 million Mario Kart Wii owners surprisingly,) is the way the tracks break-down.  Each track has phases marked by on-track blue lights. The positioning of wheels can change to turn the car into a hover car, or fans come out to power it underwater.  Massive jumps result in you pulling out your glider or parachute for maneuvered landings or to steer toward secret parts of the track.

Those track secrets are hidden all over the place. Don’t blink because you’ll probably miss something.  You can ride on walls, ride upside down in parts and even ride in spots off the track.  Don’t be afraid to explore and see if you can find shortcuts. What’s the worse that can happen?  Lakitu will show up and pull you back onto the track or you hit the invisible wall and you know not to travel that way again. Big deal.  Race hard and smart enough and you’ll get all those coins back that you lose.

There are 16 new tracks overall (4 grand prixs worth of exclusive tracks) and then the 4 other grand prixs are reanimated versions of tracks from the previous games. I really wasn’t paying attention to that aspect (I didn’t even notice) until I realized I was playing Toad’s Turnpike from N64 out of nowhere. This isn’t really held secret by the game, as you’re told straight away which games they came from. At the end of the final grand prix of both the new tracks, and the old, you’re greeted with Rainbow Road – One specifically for this game, and the other from the N64 version.

You reach milestones through the coins you collect (different vehicles) and the grand prixs you win (character unlocks). There are numerous character unlocks (including all pretty well all the Koopa kids and Rosalina) and there’s even a special unlock waiting when you win all 8 of the Grand Prixs on a single difficulty. I won’t spoil it, but a it’s pretty cool unlock.

One thing that Mario Kart hasn’t evolved toward (which is fine by me) is the idea of trigger buttons as acceleration and brake.  You’re still using the A and B buttons respectively, while the triggers are your jump/power steer buttons. Surprisingly, it suits me just fine, and should suit series’ regulars fine too – You can pick up the game and play without worrying about having to learn a new control scheme over again. Controls are responsive and easy, which they should be.

Does the AI cheat in this game as bad as previous installments?  Of course it does.  It’s just as blatant, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat as much as previous versions. We’ve been through that feeling of anxiety when you are in the lead then see a shell incoming.  It’s back, and consequences stack too. I’ve been hit with red shells while Lakitu is placing me back on the track.  There’s no forgiveness at all.  Keep your nose clean and focus, and you’ll catch up to the pack before long.

Then of course, there’s the infamous time trials.  For these, I’d recommend you connect online and take full advantage of downloadable ghosts, especially from the Nintendo developers. Beating their times will net you bonus stickers for bragging rights. Other stickers/stamps are obtained by just playing through the game. There’s 90 of them in all, and I believe you have to unlock around 60-65 of them. Multiplayer and Battle Modes round out the available gaming modes. The battle tracks this time around are just some of the in-game races with different obstacles. I don’t really delve too much into the Battle modes in these games to be honest. They’re fun for a while, but the racing itself is what always draws me in. If you’re the type of person who likes to show off how it all draws you in, or just how good of a driver or sharpshooter you are, dial up Mario Kart TV, which will allow you to upload and share videos in the Miiverse and even on Youtube.

With every Mario Kart game comes a new set of tunes: The soundtrack. This one top to bottom is fantastic. All of the musical arrangements are well done, and even the remastered older scores are great. The way that the musical track sometimes adapts to what you’re doing in the race is a bit of a trip, and I can’t say enough about how well it fits together. In addition, every track has its own score too, which I don’t believe has been done before.

Visually, the game is stunning in every sense of the word. Nintendo’s really outdone themselves, especially on the darker backgrounds with the illuminated tracks. Rainbow Road for N64 redone has finally reached that visual potential we all saw in it back in 1997, and the new tracks are amazing to look at. With the game in full HD too, you’ll easily get wrapped up in the lights, sights and sounds every track has to bring you.  Long time fans of Nintendo’s franchises will get a kick out of just how many sly nods there are to previous games. There are pretty blatant references to things like Super Mario Bros 2, and some pretty tough to decipher puzzles.  A great example of this is the Sunshine Airport track. At this track, some of the paraphernalia on the track are stampe
d “55402-MS.” That means absolutely nothing to the naked eye, but the hardest of hardcore Mario series fans will recognize 55 (or 10 added together)/4/02 as the release date of Super Mario Sunshine (MS) for the Gamecube. Neat!

Sunshine Airport and the new tracks especially are a selling point. The amount of neat twisting and turning and shifting are unlike anything seen before in the series, but are managed well. This might not be for the faint of stomach since the camera does some crazy panning and trickery in some levels.

As a side note, you can do your single player gaming off the Wii U Pro Gamepad no problem. As a new dad with a sleeping child sometimes strapped to his chest, I was able to multitask pretty well by keeping my daughter asleep while playing races for the purpose of reviewing the game. If you’re playing off your TV screen, you can use the second screen to keep an eye on where you are on the track and catch realtime updates of where the other riders are, and which weapons they have in hand.

As you can expect, the gameplay, and the whole title in general delivers. There’s something special about Mario Kart that sets itself apart from other racing titles: It doesn’t take itself seriously. That’s not something racing games strive to do nowadays. While we get caught up in rumble trigger sensitivity, realistic body damage and open world concepts, Mario Kart is taking the same basic formula that’s been in place for nearly 25 years and building off it every time. Most importantly: It always works. The light-heartedness, and easy going nature of Mario Kart makes it fun for children, grownups and families alike.

At the end of the day, everything in Mario Kart 8 feels new, yet it still feels like the same Mario Kart you’ve always played.  

 

Everything from the ridiculously over the top obstacles to the cheating AI – This might be the best, and most perfect Mario Kart game ever made.

There are very few titles in which I throw out the “system seller” moniker, but Mario Kart 8 is definitely one of them.  There’s been such great attention to detail from the little details on the race tracks to even the driving mechanics that you can very easily get wrapped up in this title in seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

The game would be worth its purchase price alone, but don’t forget Nintendo’s also throwing in a free game if you register online before July 31st. I don’t know how much farther you could go than “no brainer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Final Ratings

Gameplay: 5 / 5

Graphics: 5 / 5

Sound: 4.5 / 5

Controls: 4.5 / 5

Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 5 / 5

 

Overall Rating: 4.8 / 5 (96%)

You can still Pre-Order and be ready for Mario Kart 8 when it crosses the finish line into your living room on May 30th, but you cansneak over to participating Best Buy locations on May 24th to get a sneak peak, and take part in a 2 week event for Mario Kart courtesy of Nintendo!