Since the Super NES every Nintendo system — apart from the Game Boy Color and the doomed Virtual Boy — has been boosted by an entry in the iconic Mario Kart series. Despite its drastic evolution throughout the generations of hardware it nevertheless feels familiar each time around, while other entries in the kart racing genre often fall short of emulating Nintendo’s franchise. Mario Kart 8 arrives as part of that illustrious history and, perhaps, with the most pressure on its cartoonish suspension. The continual bankability of the brand is needed now for the Wii U system, while this also represents the first HD entry in the series.
What’s immediately striking about Mario Kart 8 is that it feels like a distinct progression for the series, albeit while bringing across features and ideas first seen in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7. Nintendo has stated that each entry in the series is, in a sense, started “from scratch”; it feels just that way, with the experience undoubtedly evolved from its 3DS predecessor and rather different from the Wii entry.
Notably, those firing up Mario Kart 8 may be struck by two major steps forward. The first, making use of the hardware at its disposal, is the presentation. While the Wii iteration received some criticism for aspects of its visuals, 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. The characters and vehicles are full of vibrancy and subtle animations, with smooth edges and effects that pop. Fireworks explode in the sky, flames burst from the exhaust and sparks fly when drifting; there’s a sheen to every surface. It all flows beautifully in 60 frames-per-second, too, holding that framerate in two-player splitscreen and dropping to a still-respectable 30 frames when split for three or four player.
Sound design also steps up, with varied engine noises, charming retro flashes and, in many cases, live big band music performances. Either turn up the TV or wear a pair of headphones, as once again Nintendo’s delivered an audio-visual treat.
The second major set of improvements that we noticed right away was in the tweaks and balancing of vehicle handling. Through a combination of a subtle shift in camera angle and what’s clearly been detailed work in the underlying physics, there’s a greatly enhanced sense of weight to vehicles, with bumps and collisions feeling more impactful than ever before. In early dabbles with 50cc this may not get noticed, but through experimentation and in our eventual 150cc campaigns, we noticed a tangible sense of difference that has never been more nuanced — concerns such as weight and grip have never felt so important.
Right from the off, then, this feels entirely solid and confident in how it handles and plays. Overt changes to the racing action, meanwhile, revolve around the implementation of anti-gravity, a key selling point in marketing efforts for the title. When starting out in slower speeds it may feel underwhelming, especially when learning tracks — inevitably eyes are drawn to the immediate back-end of your own vehicle. In the earliest course examples you’re still bolt upright, even when those sideways anti-grav wheels are out and the environment is twisting around you. That does all change in later tracks, however, as gradually you’ll be tilted sideways — turns in anti-gravity become enthralling affairs as you may find yourself involuntarily tilting your head with the bend. What initially feels like a gimmick becomes an enjoyable feature of most of the tracks, especially in the faster race classes.
Anti-gravity also throws up the Spin Turbo feature, which adds a welcome sense of chaos to proceedings. When in anti-grav sections colliding with another racer gives you both a boost, albeit through a spin that can — if a surprise — actually mess up your racing line. In a series that has recently thrived on inducing schizophrenic swings from rage to hysterics for most players, it’s a perfect fit.
The track designs, themselves, arguably represent the strongest compilation we’ve seen to date in the series; we have the now-typical mix of 16 new and 16 ‘retro’ tracks spread over eight cups. The new range, as suggested above, start relatively gently but nevertheless with fun concepts and smooth, carefully structured designs. By the latter stages of the second cup, however, things pick up with more extravagant ideas and challenging sections — standouts in our view include Mount Wario, which follows a long descent down a snowy mountain after launching from a plane, and Cloudtop Cruise, which features a spectacular sequence of launching into the clouds. The new Bowser’s Castle is easily the most demanding, while the new Rainbow Road is enjoyable — while looking fantastic — though, ironically, is outshone by its retro equivalent.
Unlike preceding entries, the retro tracks feel almost entirely new. Whereas previous generations in the franchise have been relatively faithful to original designs, the inclusion of anti-gravity, gliding and underwater driving is utilised very generously, and the development team has approached these tracks as a dedication to classics rather than producing exact copies. Some will still feel rather familiar, while others simply prompt a twinge of nostalgia, yet the balance is such that they feel almost like another batch of new tracks. When a Game Boy Advance or DS circuit implements anti-gravity the effect can be terrific, and these cups up the ante in difficulty, too. The iconic Nintendo 64 Rainbow Road track, meanwhile, is one of the most spectacular in the game and a joy to race.
Subtle changes to items are also notable. A set of three bananas is less useful as it orbits your kart rather than providing a trail, while the Spiny (Blue) Shell is a little fairer in that it now blasts along the ground on route to the leading racer, taking out those in its way. New items are also well implemented — the piranha plant is destructive and gives useful mini-boosts (far better than the Tanooki Tail of MK7), the Boomerang Flower is a fun throwing item, the Crazy Eight is rare and provides multiple standard items, and the Super Horn sends out a shock wave capable of taking out surrounding rivals or even a Spiny. There’s not a flop in the bunch, and added to the standard roster these new weapons work well — they contribute nicely to the ebb and flow of a race.
So there’s plenty to differentiate Mario Kart 8 from predecessors, then, though it’ll certainly feel familiar in many respects, too. Once again you can blast through single player Grand Prix tournament in 50cc, 100cc and 150cc, beating all to unlock the Mirror Mode; the tougher classes remain a serious challenge especially when gunning for a full three-stars, but feel less cheap than on Wii. The full character roster, meanwhile, is unlocked rapidly and avoids a sense of grind, while vehicle customisation makes its return — different vehicles, wheels and gliders are unlocked by collecting coins in races, also meaning that less skilled players need not play above their level to unlock everything.
Customisations feel deeper than in Mario Kart 7, it must be said, due to the impact not just of vehicle settings but the size class of mascots. Experimentation is key as one setup will have different effects depending on having a small, medium or large driver, fundamentally changing handling in the process. It adds plenty of replayability as all racers will no doubt need many tests to find the best fit. Bike fans should know that they’re more similar to karts: they still have lighter handling, but wheelies are gone and the double drift boost is now available on 2 wheels as well as four.
Beyond the standard single player there are VS races that can be heavily customised, while Time Trial results can be saved and uploaded with an optional Miiverse post — time chases against Nintendo staff are also back, and are surprisingly compulsive as they (like most single player activities) can dish out stamps as rewards. You'll never be short of lap times to chase, as you can also browse times uploaded with Miiverse posts for some extra competition.
Battle Mode emerges as one of the most changed features, meanwhile, as this is the first series entry to ditch arenas. Instead you have the choice of eight existing tracks for a Balloon Battle, with racers starting off going in both directions. In most of the circuits it can be fun, as you get into a rhythm of grabbing an item, hurling it at an enemy and dashing for another power-up. With 12 racers it can raise a laugh, but it feels less like a deliberate design choice than a pragmatic use of stretched resources. It works, and it’s a mode often relegated to occasional play, but it’s simply not as much fun as arena battles, and in a couple of cases the tracks simply are not optimised for the mode.
There are a few other design choices that have surprised us. The GamePad, for one, makes superfluous use of its touchscreen — it can be used as a horn (same as the left shoulder button when not hurling items), can have the view switched to off-TV mode or a radar of the race — the absence of it as a standalone screen in local multiplayer is glaring. Only off-TV is any use, beyond the horn potentially amusing very young gamers for a few seconds, and the radar is rather irrelevant. That’s only frustrating due to the fact there’s no radar on the TV screen, no matter what controller’s in use or options explored. It’s an extraordinary oversight, as it means you have very little idea — aside from toggling the rear view — of where opponents are, and the idea of glancing down to a second screen that worked well in the small real estate of a DS or 3DS simply doesn’t work here. Short of awkwardly positioning a GamePad on a stand in your peripheral vision, it’s a waste, while we’re deprived of a series staple in the process.
Those oddities aside, there are areas where Nintendo has gone well beyond its basic duties. You can utilise motion controls with a Wii Remote (and optional wheel or Nunchuk), tilting the GamePad, physical controls on the GamePad and — our favourite by a mile — the Wii U Pro Controller. Intriguingly, you can even play with a D-Pad, opening up the sideways Wii Remote, while the Classic Controller support prompted us to try a SNES iteration of the CC: utterly unnecessary but it gave us a minor thrill. If you want to tilt and shake, you can, or if you prefer it can be all about analogue steering and buttons. The hardest of the hardcore looking to perfect shortcuts and alternate routes may be interested to know that on the GamePad and Pro Controller you can even control the throttle with the right analogue stick, allowing you to actually control speed with more precision than simply on/off.
Nintendo has also done a terrific job with online play, which we were able to test extensively for review. You can jump into Worldwide or Regional matches with strangers in Grand Prix or Battle, or even apply Custom rules (such as speed class, or seeking rivals using motion controls only) to find like-minded players. Text chat through pre-determined messages remains, though the game now selects three tracks or ‘random’ for you to choose from in each round, with the options switching every race. For those seeking to play with Friends only it has an excellent option in which you can setup or join rooms — again setting various custom options — and it’s here that the GamePad mic can be used for voice chat. Not being able to rustle up 12 friends at once isn’t an issue as CPU bots can be added; only two human players are needed.
The Tournament mode, taking over from the Communities of MK7, is the strongest online addition. You can join tournaments, but in an approach similar to that of Mario Golf: World Tour you can establish your own that are visible to the public or only accessed through inputting a code. There’s a dizzying array of customisation options, most notably setting rules on available items, whether the contest is down to individuals or teams, and they can be one-offs with a fixed window or, in a great touch, scheduled to run in weekly or daily windows. Rankings are integral in this structure; for those that want to find the best racers and not just those with the most free time, you can set a limit on races allowed per-player within a tournament. The potential for replayability between friends and communities is terrific.
Most importantly, in our tests at least, online performance was rock solid even on a modest connection; we only suffered one disconnection. It maintains that 60fps smoothness, or very close to it, and we saw far less of the glitchy jittering of rival’s karts so common on the Wii. Occasionally the game will compensate and you’ll see opponents drive through an item box in your game, but that’s relatively rare. With online play so integral to modern-day Mario Kart, it’s clear that Nintendo has focused on getting it right.
The final major addition is Mario Kart TV, which will also have a web app of its own for players to watch replays or check statistics on the go. In its own self-contained area you can view favourites (tagged with a press of + after a race), recent races or the most popular highlights currently doing the rounds on Miiverse. The edit options are fun, as you can extend beyond the default 30 seconds to a whole race, have the footage focused on certain characters and more. It’s humourous to mess around with the super slow-mo, in particular, and the option at launch to upload to YouTube — not available at the time of review — will no doubt be welcome. When “uploading” to Miiverse, however, your post will simply have a screenshot and whatever text, scribbles or stamps you add; you can’t watch the videos on the bespoke social network. That’s a pity, and overall Mario Kart TV is a nice, enjoyable addition that's not likely to become an integral part of the experience. [Update: on 16th May 2014 a feature was enabled so that Mario Kart TV replays uploaded to YouTube can also be included in Miiverse posts, a welcome option for those with Google / YouTube logins]
There’s plenty that’s new in Mario Kart 8, then, and also that usual sense of familiarity. In a number of respects this can be argued as the best entry in the series to date, as it harnesses the hardware and demonstrates the developers' attention to detail in impressive ways. Once that initial grind of unlocking Grand Prix cups and learning tracks is over, it’s hard to let go of the accelerator. Experimenting with vehicles and characters, finding shortcuts and extra boosts in tracks, or simply revelling in the chaotic fun of a race online, it retains that compulsive nature of its predecessors. Bold design with flying, underwater and anti-gravity racing also brings the franchise in step — conceptually — with ambitious yet less technically accomplished rivals, serving up some of the slickest, smoothest and most exciting kart racing we’ve ever seen.
Mario Kart 8 has perhaps taken a little longer than we expected to arrive, but it’s been worth the wait. The vehicles and racers have never handled better, the collection of courses is possibly the best yet, while replayability through Ghost Races or — primarily — online races and Tournaments is almost endless. A few design oddities aside, this joins the list of must-have Nintendo games on the Wii U; it’s an accomplished effort that pushes the franchise forward. In years to come the debates over the best Mario Kart games in the series will, inevitably, feature this as a contender.