Imagine the Mario Kart series as an enormous living being made out of adorable cars, happy drivers, delightful loops passing through volcanoes and haunted houses and vicious blue shells. Envision this being, this body of Kartdom, and now answer this simple question: where is its heart? What is the thumping engine within the Mario Kart beast that keeps it running after more than two decades? Is it in that place where a simple idea meets perfect execution? Is it among the characters, inside that face off between friends who can play regardless of gamer credentials? Has it been transplanted into the modern motion controls of Mario Kart Wii or in the strategic elegance of Mario Kart: Double Dash? Hard to say. Know this, though: even in our brief time with Mario Kart 8 for Wii U, we can nevertheless still hear its faintly beating heart at this early stage.
Mario Kart 8 does a number of things well out the gate. First is the roster. The standards remain. Mario, Yoshi, Luigi, Bowser, Peach, Koopa Trooper, Toad and Donkey Kong — all grown up from his Super Mario Kart days — remain, as does ‘90s mainstay Wario. Back too are stars of the ‘00s, Princess Daisy, Waluigi, and Toadette are in tow (Nintendo didn’t say whether or not the roster would be expanded in the final outing).
Mario Kart 8 also nails the controls. The insane success of Mario Kart Wii isn’t ignored, and all those little plastic wheels littering the land can be used here. When playing with the GamePad, all you have to do is tap the corner of the touch screen and you’re playing with sweet, sweet analogue stick controls for exacting precision. During one four-way race, that precision was absolutely necessary as well. All four players were jockeying for first place on and off, trading red shells, bananas and blasting forward thanks to a stray booster mushroom, but there was never a blue shell in sight. It may be too much to hope for that Nintendo’s notorious habit of keeping modern Mario Karts competitive for the worst players has been scaled back, but this demo showed none of the rubber banding that’s held the series back.
The track on display at E3 also felt like an instant classic in the Kart canon. A Möbius strip that loops on and over itself as the crew raced around Princess Peach’s castle, it showed off all the graphical flare the Wii U could muster, looking mighty fine in the process. Giant goombas litter the road, their puckish faces glaring in stacks ahead of you, and those glowing question boxes glimmer with a new blue sheen. When the vehicles turn into wacky hovering machines as the track goes upside down or sideways, Nintendo’s intact attention to detail shimmers as well. Spin upside down, and Princess Peach’s hair flows in the same direction. It’s the little things that count.
The little things also add up, though, and it’s the totality of a Mario Kart that really distinguishes it. There are too many questions left unanswered to say whether or not Mario Kart 8 will be a late game hero on Wii U when it comes out in 2014. Will the online racing get a huge following, booming on the Miiverse social network? What about the battle modes? How about a Double Dash mode? Unlockable characters? How will Nintendo support Mario Kart 8 with its new-found love of downloadable content?
Where the heart of Mario Kart lies changes with each new game in the series. Its greatest triumph has always been reinvention, especially in the jumps from Super Mario Kart, Mario Kart 64, and Mario Kart: Double Dash. Each of those games was unique and strange, from Mario Kart 64’s world of hidden short-cuts to the sublime eight-player battle royales possible in Double Dash. Nintendo has shown nothing more than Mario Kart 8’s face so far, and while it's beautiful and forward looking, its heart is still mostly hidden. When Nintendo addresses all of these unanswered questions about its many possible limbs, we’ll know the place its blood flows from.