Preview: Mario Kart 8

The green light is nearly on

When it comes down to major, triple-A retail releases on the way that will — Nintendo hopes — lift the Wii U's sales and boost the public's perception of the system, there's currently only one show in town. While there are a number of exciting titles on the way from Nintendo and its partners, Mario Kart 8 has a firm release date and the means to start building excitement among current and prospective Wii U owners. It has a lot of weight on its diminutive and multiple suspensions, and no small amount of pressure.

There are still plenty of unknowns around its features, too, and a lot of hands-on experiences up until now — including our own — have been restricted to a three-track build first unleashed at E3 2013. We've had the opportunity, however, to recently play an updated preview build that includes four cups and sixteen tracks — it's been confirmed the final game will have 32 courses — giving us a stronger sense of how tweaks to the design and core racing are reflected in the courses themselves.

First up is the Mushroom Cup, which includes Mario Kart Stadium, Water Park, Sweet Sweet Canyon and Thwomp Ruins. Unsurprisingly for an opening cup the tracks are relatively easy to navigate, with the Stadium opener being a suitably impressive spectacle of enormous spectator stands and some early exposure to the anti-gravity mechanic. Driving over a blue marker at key points activates this new feature, and early on it's used sparingly, not in its frequency but in terms of the actual impact of the change in angle to be sideways or upside down. Water Park brings back the underwater driving of Mario Kart 7 with some neat visual tricks, Sweet Sweet Canyon is full of colour and Thwomp Ruins predictably throws down the gauntlet of dodging the locals that are all too keen to crush your kart. Flying is also back from Mario Kart 7 in these early stages, and the confectionary-themed canyon does also have a high-speed area where you're propelled through the air to the next section. Overall its a solid and familiar start, with enough tricks to remind you that this is indeed a fresh entry in the franchise.

Next is Flower Cup, with Mario Circuit, Toad Harbour, Twisted Mansion and Shy Guy Falls. It feels as if the track design is hitting its stride a little more at this stage, as is the norm with modern Mario Kart titles once they loosen the training wheels. Mario Circuit ramps up the difficulty in cramping the track at key moments and begins to show a little more boldness in playing with perspective. Like that track, Toad Harbour and Twisted Mansion have been playable in previous demo builds, and have some clever manipulation of the anti-gravity feature; both have you flipping sideways and racing alongside and below / above rivals — it's at this stage that the new title's mechanic starts to assert itself. Shy Guy Falls, meanwhile, is a stand-out of the eight new tracks we played, with an expansive backdrop, exciting flying sections and secret routes to find.

Our preview time also brought the first two Retro cups, too, in the form of the Shell and Banana trophies. The former has Moo Moo Meadows (Mario Kart Wii), Mario Circuit (Mario Kart Super Circuit), Cheep Cheep Beach (Mario Kart DS) and Toad's Turnpike (Mario Kart 64); the latter includes Dry Dry Desert (Mario Kart: Double Dash!!), Donut Plains (Super Mario Kart), Royal Raceway (Mario Kart 64) and DK Jungle (Mario Kart 7). While the tracks from the Wii and 3DS era felt very familiar, some of the older retro tracks seemed almost alien and like new tracks in themselves. For example, Mario Circuit from the GBA title shows a long bend being lifted up into the air in the opening cinematic, and you whizz around sideways utilising the anti-gravity ramps. Toad's Turnpike also felt rather different, with anti-gravity shortcuts redefining the importance of the side areas of the original. While traditionalists may be deterred by this, it's refreshing that the retro tracks on show actually utilise the various innovations of Mario Kart 7 and the new entry to change the overall feel. If you want to play the original tracks they're right there in the past-generation entries, yet these feel like an exciting step up for old favourites.

The difference in these retro tracks isn't just about new mechanics, however, but how the game looks. In motion Mario Kart 8 looks fantastic, and continues Nintendo's run of utilising the capabilities of the Wii U in a sensitive, technically clever way. With bright colours and a CGI cartoon approach to textures, the system is producing visuals that are delightful and not out of place in the era of PS4 and Xbox One graphics, stepping away from complex models — a score on which the system can't compete — and utilising terrific art style instead. When watching someone play in single player, particularly, the attention to detail truly is eye catching.

While playing you're only somewhat aware of the standard of the visuals, but what is immediately striking is the framerate. In single player and two player splitscreen it's locked at 60fps, and when playing alone — in particular — it hits home how satisfying the title is in motion. It simply could not be smoother, and while visual flourishes such as smoking tyres and sparks off the engine may only push your buttons on a somewhat subconscious level, the impeccable movement and flow of the race will seize your attention. Nintendo's dedication to maintaining 60fps — as also seen in Super Mario 3D World — should be commended, as it makes a significant difference to the feel of the game; music performed by a live band also enhances the overall effect of the experience. After playing Mario Kart 8 and witnessing the combination of bright, clean HD visuals and a flawless technical performance, going back to past entries in the franchise will be difficult.

That applies in single-player and two-player splitscreen, though you will need to lower expectations once the action shifts to three or four player local play. Here the framerate drops to 30fps, which has been the standard for so long, yet in the context of this title feels like a drastic decline. It performs better than the equivalent mode on Wii, undoubtedly, but it takes time to adjust if you're jumping in from the smoother modes. Visuals also take an expected hit, though they actually show some artifacts and flaws that stand out more than we expected; the new engine utilised for this title doesn't scale as well as we'd like, so the lower framerate is joined by a sharp drop in visual fidelity. These aspects of performance are perhaps relatively unimportant when in a noisy living room playing some riotous four player races, and are only so noticeable due to the exceptional standards of single and two player.

You may have noticed that we've only mentioned four player, which provides us with a neat diversion towards the only major issue we've had with Mario Kart 8 so far. The GamePad. While it supports off-TV play, it does not enable you to play with five players, nor does it allow the GamePad player to use the full screen on the controller while others use the TV in a local race, thus potentially adding an extra player in the process. In multiplayer, in fact, the GamePad screen's only off-TV option is to mirror the TV, including the splitscreen when applicable. While useful for playing a bit of single player when the TV's in use, the mirrored image is worthless in multiplayer. Considering the lower framerate and graphical drop we've referenced above, perhaps technical issues have caused a problem. That doesn't make it any less disappointing, however, and when we asked Nintendo about this we were told that the GamePad options in the preview build were representative of the final product.

In terms of what the Wii U's primary controller does do, the screen can be alternated — by tapping large buttons — to show off-TV, an overhead map of the race or simply a big horn that you press; all superfluous fluff aside from off-TV, and underwhelming for a flagship title. You can also flip between physical controls and tilt controls with a simple tap, and the tilt controls work well, as would be expected. We can envisage young gamers in particular using tilt, holding the GamePad up while playing and getting a laugh out of the horn, but outside of that audience it is simply a very large Pro Controller. In theory all it's missing is that full screen multiplayer option, but then that was the key application of its capabilities that we were hoping to see.

Aside from that, however, the control options are as expected. The Wii Remote can be used in a wheel or hooked up to a Nunchuk, while the Classic Controller is also supported — our pad of choice was the Wii U Pro Controller. Control is fluent, regardless of the option chosen, and our overriding sensation in this sense was that "it's Mario Kart" — it's intuitive, natural and fun. Any gamer that's played modern entries in the series will instinctively know exactly what they're doing and be drifting around corners in no time.

As we've highlighted so far, however, Nintendo has clearly been putting a lot of thought into how it can shake up the formula. Regular MK fans will notice some new items; in this build we came across a fantastic Piranha Plant weapon — lifted straight from Super Mario 3D World — that grabs coins while flipping over any other racers unfortunate enough to be nearby. Also included is the boomerang from Super Mario 3D Land, which is thrown up to three times and can cause genuine chaos. The coin itself is another item and the curse of the race leader, doing little for you but adding to your allocation — the more coins you have, up to ten, the faster your kart. Particularly pleasing, meanwhile, is that the Spiny blue shell goes along the ground as it did in days gone by, potentially wiping out multiple racers on its hunt for the unfortunate leader, while the usual array of shells and bananas return. Some key balancing is in place, too, such as the set of three bananas now coming as separate items of fruit to be used individually, wiping out the trail of previous entries.

Another new move that could revolutionise play among the best players and lead to some chaotic moments in multiplayer is the Spin Turbo. When in an anti-gravity area, a collision with another racer will prompt both to spin around and have a small boost. It adds a different dynamic, and while it could benefit both racers, an unaware driver could lose control on a tight bend if they spin unpredictably; this only happens when in anti-gravity, so serves as a neat extra touch that's entertaining in action. We would also like to add that the anti-gravity effect, in general, does become more noticeable as the tracks ramp up in the second cup — on a few tracks you're so focused on the back of your vehicle that you don't always notice the upside down world in the distance, but the Flower Cup showed the potential of the new feature to capture your attention while playing.

It's often the case with Mario Kart games that complexity, longevity and replayability come from mastering the tracks, and most recently in customising vehicles, trying different characters and finding favoured combinations. Away from the track this looks set to be the case again, and it seems to us that cars and bikes will be more integral than ever before. The performance of a vehicle seems more contingent on its own setup than the character, for example, and our limited playtime suggests that you can select a brute like Bowser or Donkey Kong but, with the right configuration, have a light and fast car rather than being slow and heavy. Like in Mario Kart 7 you select three key areas — vehicle, wheel and flying equipment — and it is that which defines your style of driver, not the mascot of choice. We'd need more hours with the full game to fully verify that's the case, but it's an attractive change that you can opt for speed at the risk of being pushed around, but still choose any character you want, or you can be a powerful brute with Toad or Baby Mario behind the wheel.

This selection of vehicles further enforces, meanwhile, the sense that this title truly is merging the best of the past two titles while adding its own distinctive touches. Bikes don't seem to wheelie any more — which left us incredulous for roughly five seconds — but stunts return again. Stunts, like much about this title, show a charm and attention to detail that's truly admirable, with each character having ludicrous and humorous animations, in some cases flashing a grin towards the player as they execute some impressive skills; it's all more noticeable than ever with the crisp visuals. Another small touch that continued to charm us is that characters now hold their next item in their hand; not only is it a cute effect, but it changed the way we played — if we saw a character driving with a red shell sitting in their left hand we'd hold back until it had been used. Again, it's subtle but changes the overall dynamic.

That's a trend that promises to be important with this title, ultimately — changes that feel small but, when combined, give it a whole new freshness. The preview was restricted to single player Grand Prix cups, too, so there's much that we haven't seen. Mario Kart TV was there but inaccessible, and it's also possible to make edits to post-race replays. Blocked menus showed the usual mix of modes, including the 12 player online option that we pray will be as smooth as the single and two-player races; in other words, 60fps. Time Trials, Vs. Race and Battle menus also taunted us, out of reach, and it's clear that Nintendo is storing up additional details and reveals related to modes such as these — all to build even more excitement ahead of 30th May.

As for our emotions as the end of an afternoon with the game? Two main feelings — it was more Mario Kart, in that it played as we expected and, by that reasoning alone, left us pleased, and also that it has the potential to be one of the best entries the series has seen. Whether it will be the best? It's far too early to tell, but it cannot be understated how impressive the title feels to play in single or two player races; it flows beautifully, with anti-gravity and visual embellishments adding extra flavour to a formula that becomes increasingly refined and fun to play. A few of the new tracks also hint at potential greatness in those to come. The only downsides were the notable downgrades in three and four player splitscreen, along with the GamePad — the Wii U's controller adds little of worth.

Those GamePad limitations aside, this is shaping up to be an exciting new entry in the series, and if it delivers in the final package could be indispensable for existing Wii U owners. With its touches of flair and gorgeous performance, it could catch the attention of those without a Wii U, too.

With thanks to Nintendo UK for arranging this preview at its headquarters. Travel and expenses were paid by Nintendo Life.

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