Mario Kart 8 in Pole Position

Our official Mario Kart 8 hands-on preview went live yesterday — if you haven't done so already, you should really read it. We'll wait here until you get back.

Done? Good. We can now move onto the next phase of our Mario Kart 8 coverage: a good old-fashioned chat around a table featuring Thomas "I just had to hit you twice" Whitehead, Anthony "It's just like F-Zero" Dickens, Darren "Don't put me last in the list" Calvert and Damien "Tom, you hit me twice" McFerran.

Gentlemen, start your engines!

Thomas: So, initial feeling after playing the eight tracks. Were you sufficiently wowed?

Anthony: Visually it's a big step from the Wii version and super smooth 60fps in single and two player looks great. I think the detail on the trackside is really impressive — just a shame you don't get time to look at it when you're racing!

Bowser with a boomerang ready!

Damien: I'm not sure I was wowed, but I was certainly entertained. It's Mario Kart at the end of the day, and it met my expectations.

Anthony: It was hard to be "wowed" when we've already played it before!

Thomas: I think the visuals and 60fps were really impressive, especially in single player. Online play with that smoothness and look is going to be really enticing. It was hard to be blown away because we were playing the early cups, which are always less spectacular than the second two.

Darren: The new tracks designed specifically around the anti-gravity cars blew me away more than the retro-fitted ones, for sure.

Anthony: I think one thing we all noticed was the drop to 30fps in three and four player. What did you all make of that?

Check out those anti-gravity bikes!

Damien: I thought four player was slightly disappointing, due to the aforementioned frame rate and detail drop. Anti-gravity worked well on some tracks and less on others — it was hard to tell when you were upside down.

Thomas: I'd agree. It was surprising that not only was there a very noticeable drop in visuals, but the framerate is quite jarring after the silky smooth single and two player.

Anthony: It's one of those things though, because the framerate is so good in single player, it's more noticeable when you have three or more players.

Damien: Clearly they've had to make sacrifices to get four players on screen at once.

Anthony: At least it was a very solid 30fps and not variable.

Damien: The most puzzling thing for me was the fact that you couldn't do second screen multiplayer with the GamePad. I assume that's because too much horsepower was needed to stream two different displays.

Luigi chased by Wario!

Anthony: Yeah - one player on the TV, one player on the GamePad would make a lot of sense, other games have done it.

Thomas: Uh-oh, the GamePad. [laughs]

Anthony: Please Understand!

Damien: Or "the controller that Nintendo forgot".

Darren: Yeah, that is a massive oversight given that F1 Race Stars and Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed let another player use the GamePad so you can avoid split screen.

Anthony: You'd think it could of done it at 30fps, if not at 60fps.

Damien: I can only assume that the graphical detail would have suffered if they'd included second-screen play, whatever the frame rate. They clearly want to impress with this title. But yeah, it's disappointing — this is one of the selling points of the hardware after all, and racers are ideal for second-screen play.

New Item: Piranha plant!

Darren: I would have liked to have had the 30fps option if I could have used GamePad for two players.

Damien: Wow, we all sound so negative!

Darren: I guess it's good that this was pretty much the only negative!

Anthony: We're assuming it'll be running in super smooth 60fps for online multiplayer, so that will make a lot of people very happy!

Thomas: Yeah, that has to be the hope.

Damien: It can't be stressed enough that in full screen at 60fps, this is gorgeous. Possibly the best looking Wii U game so far?

Anthony: One other thing, I went back to Mario Kart Wii the other day and found myself really unimpressed with the design of the user interface and HUD elements of the game. Mario Kart 8 looks fantastic in these areas, and it gives a really nice polish to the game as a whole.

Dat N64 Rainbow Road...

Darren: What were some of your favourite tracks which we played? I really loved the "Sugar Rush" style course. Looked good enough to eat!

Anthony: It's got a similar feel graphically to Super Mario 3D World for me, it's simple but really high quality at the same time.

Damien: I was disappointed that Donkey Kong doesn't have HD fur like in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. A minor quibble, obviously.

Anthony: His traditionally luxurious hair looked quite greasy, to be honest.

Darren: Donkey Kong's expressions when you do a stunt cracked me up, he's the best!

Anthony: Yeah, the character animations for the stunts are really fantastic.

Thomas: It is gorgeous, and when racing you don't necessarily appreciate the background detail.

The graphics are simply gorgeous

Damien: Back to the question, I found the retro tracks were more to my liking, mainly because they lacked the distracting twists and turns of the anti-grav tracks. And also because I'm a boring old fart who clings to the past like a comfort blanket.

Thomas: Anti-grav is hit and miss early on, sometimes it's hard to realise you're actually upside down.

Anthony: I thought all the tracks were pretty great to be honest, there's a nice mixture for different style racers - personally the anti-gravity was great, but probably because it's the closest thing to F-Zero X I'm going to get on Wii U.

Thomas: It felt like the speed wasn't high enough for anti-grav to be cool, which might explain why you keep banging on about F-Zero.

Darren: Anti-grav is a nice addition, but it doesn't fundamentally change the gameplay. Personally I'm glad it's not as wild as F-Zero, because we are still gonna get an F-Zero on Wii U one day, right?!

Life's a beach

Damien: Ant sure hopes so! Every night before bedtime he prays to a miniature statue of Miyamoto that F-Zero will return.

Anthony: Actually, it's a statue of Jody Summer. Someone buy me a White Cat. Ahem. Moving on, some of those retro tracks are almost unrecognizable now with all the additional environmental detail; I remember playing a few SNES tracks and struggling to believe they were retro tracks!

Darren: There's so much detail in them now. I was enjoying watching others play so I could get a good look at what was going on in the background.

Anthony: The other thing that really stood out for me was the difference in AI compared to Mario Kart Wii — it's actually pretty fair now!

Damien: Yeah, I was more frustrated and annoyed at my fellow players than the AI, which makes a nice change.

Bullet your way through traffic

Darren: I only got one blue shell on 150cc per race in single player!

Anthony: 150cc is still a challenge, but you're not getting battered by lightning and blue shells constantly like on the Wii. Which is a great improvement; it's much more like Mario Kart 7 in that respect.

Darren: What did you think to the new weapons such as the Piranha Plant? I really loved how this was carried across from 3D World — a fair trade for the Tanooki tail.

Anthony: Piranha Plant is an instant classic, it works fantastically as a weapon AND a speed boost.

Thomas: The Piranha plant is awesome, though maybe overpowered. It just cleans everyone out. Controllers of opponents will be thrown.

Look at that track design

Anthony: I'm not sure about the frankly bizarre additional of a Coin as a power up! Not even coin(s), just a coin. Instant 10 would of been nice!

Thomas: The coin isn't exactly mint, is it. [delivered with a straight face]

Damien: I love the way your character is actually holding their current item, and driving one-handed.

Anthony: Yeah, that's new — you can actually see what weapons the other racers have. A vital tactical advantage!

Darren: That made it more tense when I could see someone behind me with a red shell!

Thomas: In that respect this game is full of character. A lot of effort has been made with the animation of each racer. It's super charming.

Darren: It's hard to convey how good this looks; it really does show the Wii U's graphical capabilities in a great light.

Rosalina returns!

Anthony: Talking of lights. There are headlights in certain areas of the tracks, which looks great. Fantastic lighting in the game in general.

Darren: That was a nice addition. Also it's nice to see the motorbikes return in Mario Kart 8... no wheelies this time though!

Damien: There were more than a few sad faces among the Nintendo Life team due to the lack of wheelie action, I can tell you.

Anthony: I know we've touched upon this briefly already, but it's likely to be a hot topic. How does Mario Kart 8 make use of the GamePad?

Darren: I know some people will like using the GamePad like a steering wheel, tilting to steer. And the screen makes a handy horn! But when all is said and done, it's basically a mirror of split screen in multiplayer. It isn't really used in any meaningful way.

Damien: It's a massive shame that the game doesn't make more use of the controller, given that the GamePad is the Wii U's big advantage over its rivals. I guess the turning on the GamePad could have been another reason not to use it as a second screen? It might be harder to keep track of what's going on if you're constantly twisting and turning the controller in all directions.

Anthony: So, we got to play four cups with a total of sixteen tracks. With another four cups to unlock, is that enough content for Mario Kart 8? Or do you expect a final extra cup?

Darren: I would be amazed if there weren't at least some surprises.

Anthony: I'm guessing there will be a mirror mode, right?

Thomas: Mirror mode is likely, I'd like to think it'll follow the lead of Super Mario 3D World and surprise us with something extra special, right at the end.

Anthony: We had a Mario Kart-themed course in 3D World, so a 3D World themed track in Mario Kart 8, perhaps?

Thomas: It must also be said that during the preview we couldn't try a lot of things, including Battle mode — surely one of the most popular multiplayer features.

Darren: Don't forget Mario Kart TV, too!

Damien: Mario Kart TV should be really interesting — as we suspected, it doesn't upload videos but rather the game data from your lap, which can then be viewed on someone else's Wii U console using the in-game engine. I can see that being incredibly popular with players.

Anthony: Makes sense really. It sounds like a good idea, we just need to see it in action. If they had servers that could render your clips to mobiles, tablets and desktop computers, that would be fantastic. You could even have a dedicated viewing app on the 3DS!

Darren: Did we all like the "Highlight Reel" which was offered after each race as the default option?

Anthony: No, "Next Race" should always be the default option! I selected "Highlight Reel" a few times by mistake...

Damien: To be fair, the highlights did look amazing — I'm not surprised that Nintendo wants that to be your first choice after finishing a race. They really showed off the graphics and the charm. Did we mention the charm yet?

Thomas: Yes, yes we did. Several times, actually.

Darren: It was as charming as Hugh Grant at a wedding reception.

Damien: Wow, that is charming.

Anthony: Mario Kart is a charm factory.

Damien: The Highlight Reel also hammered home the anti-grav element, which you usually missed during the race!

Anthony: I can see people using the Highlight Reel to bask in their glory.

Thomas: That's something to remember. This game is actually really entertaining for observers. Better than Eastenders, anyway.

Anthony: I would watch Eastenders if it was 30 minutes of Mario Kart highlights. That wouldn't stop Damien watching Coronation Street though.

Damien: Well, there goes our non-UK audience.

Darren: One more charming thing about Mario Kart 8 to add to the ever-growing list of charming things about Mario Kart 8 was all the brands made up for all of the characters on the tracks — Bowser's Oil being one that stood out for me. Such a cool touch.

Anthony: I'm actually really excited for the final game now, and more so to play in our community nights — it'll be great playing (losing) against the Nintendo Life community!

Thomas: Yeah, that should be fantastic, assuming the feature is there, of course.

Damien: Yeah, the 3DS Mario Kart nights we've been doing have gone down a storm, this could be a real system seller. Nintendo would be silly not to include communities in MK8.

So there you have it — the innermost thoughts from the Nintendo Life team about Mario Kart 8, and a little more pointless chatter besides. Let us know how excited you are for this forthcoming Wii U racer by leaving a comment below.