After a lengthy build-up, Mario Kart 8 is almost here, the latest entry in the hugely popular franchise. It's been critically acclaimed on multiple fronts, with plenty also lavishing praise on the visuals and performance of the title; in our review we said that visually "MK8 is a stunner, and joins titles such as Super Mario 3D World in demonstrating Nintendo’s increasing confidence and prowess with its HD system". Of course, that's the impression from our humble eyes and from the experience of playing the game, but Eurogamer's Digital Foundry has done its thing to drive down into the technicalities of the title's performance.
For one thing, and to end debates and inaccurate rumours, it's confirmed that the title runs at a native 720p, as is typically expected on Wii U. Of course you can display in 1080p if your TV allows, but this confirms the reality of the situation. While some technical shortcomings are also highlighted with the engine and visuals, DF is quite clear in emphasizing that the tricks Nintendo does employ deliver an attractive overall result.
This is all enhanced by a convincing combination of real-time and pre-baked shadows that even take occluded edges into account. Complimenting this is a vast array of dynamic light sources, such as headlights, item boxes, and special effects, made possible by what we suspect is a shift to a deferred rendering solution. Even in four-player split-screen we see dynamic lighting play a large role in defining the visual design while simultaneously highlighting detail in the texture work. It's really quite a treat for the eyes.
Now to the framerate. We've been referring to single and two-player splitscreen as 60 frames-per-second (fps) and further splits as running at 30fps. This is certainly true in terms of what most will perceive, but as is its way Digital Founding has discovered a hidden detail that drops a frame when CPU opponents are in action.
When it comes to performance, Nintendo has always aimed to deliver a rock-solid 60 frames per second with each home console Mario Kart and, aside from Mario Kart 64, it has always managed to achieve just that. There was never any doubt that Mario Kart 8 would fall right in line with the rest of the series but upon seeing it for ourselves we immediately noticed that something was amiss. During gameplay we experienced the regular appearance of duplicate frames manifesting as a constant but subtle stuttering effect. Upon analysis we determined that the game suffers from extended clusters in which a duplicate frame is displayed every 64 frames. What this ultimately means is that, during normal gameplay, Mario Kart 8 continually drops down to 59fps. This may not seem like a big deal - most will probably not notice it at all, and it has zero affect on playability - but it has a noticeable impact on image fluidity that mars what would otherwise be a perfectly consistent frame-rate. And for us at least, once it is seen, it can't really be unseen.
We're not sure a drop to 59fps will be noticed by any but the very pickiest of players, as the article states, while it's suggested that the issue could potentially be resolved in a patch. For our money, at least, this issue is an irrelevance.
It's always intriguing to see the technical details behind a game, however, and Digital Foundry does conclude with a positive assessment.
By most standards, Mario Kart 8 is an incredibly polished game with beautiful visuals, a high frame-rate, magical playability and an excellent menu system. By Nintendo's stratospheric standards, however, we dare say that it falls just a bit short. When a Nintendo game goes gold you better believe the final product will be complete and polished to perfection. In the case of Mario Kart 8, the issues we encountered with performance and image quality do detract just a little from an otherwise totally solid experience - and bearing in mind its previous, relentless push for gaming perfection, it leaves us wondering just how the stutter in particular managed to slip past Nintendo QA. Thankfully, the issue should only really stick out to those most sensitive to frame-rate and shouldn't impact the experience for most people, while the sheer fun and imagination injected into this title clearly trump the technical limitations in the image make-up.
With that in mind, don't let these minor polish issues keep you away from the game - this is Mario Kart at its best and brightest. Racing has been refined to near perfection and its visuals are among the best on the platform. While we were a tad disappointed in the lack of a more robust single-player mode, the overall experience we had with the game was excellent. Old-school fans and newcomers alike will find a lot to love here. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have some races to win...
We suggest checking out the full article if these details fascinate you, and it could be a mini-game in itself actually trying to spot these issues yourself, as a drop to 59fps isn't easily perceived. Ultimately, the overall assessment is another positive one for the upcoming Wii U blockbuster.