Mario Kart 8 races onto the Wii U with a stunningly beautiful HD presentation and creative innovations on the series gameplay. As much as gamers harp on the cheapness of the dreaded Blue Shell, they can’t resist the call of Mario and company to burn rubber and toss banana peels willy-nilly. Despite inheriting some major shortcomings that have plagued the past couple entries, Mario Kart 8 is able to stand on its own as a fantastic party game and solo racer.
RacingIn this latest iteration of Mario Kart, the Mushroom Kingdom has apparently been hard at work inventing anti-gravity technology entirely for the sole purpose of racing. The result: Mario Kart now ushers in a dynamic new form of racing. Courses new and old seamlessly transit from ground-level driving to thrilling twenty-story loops, providing stunning views regardless of whether you’re racing up waterfalls or over department store walls.
Breathing new life into the series, this new mechanic helps supply one of the best course rosters in Mario Kart history. The starting Mario Kart Stadium wows off the bat with its gigantic loop, while Mount Wario throws karters into a three-part race down a gravity-defying snowy mountain. Meanwhile, fan favorites such as Toad’s Turnpike (Mario Kart 64) and Tick-Tock Clock (Mario Kart DS) undergo both mechanical and visual overhauls to blend in with Mario Kart 8’s gravity and flight (the former does so with flying colors, as the sleepy highway is now transformed into a flurry of aerial-based shortcuts).
GraphicsRunning at a buttery-smooth 60 FPS, Mario Kart has never looked better. Mario Kart 8 is undoubtedly the best-looking game on the Wii U, with every character, kart, course, and background detail of every sort polished to an unbelievable sheen. The character animation alone is bursting with personality, with fans (including yours truly) constantly combing through replays to capture moments of characters scowling or smirking sinisterly at each other (infamously leading to the“Death-Stare Luigi”).
However, the courses and background details are ultimately the true star of Mario Kart 8’s aesthetics. The raving Koopas and Shy Guys that populate the Electrodome provide a hilarious backdrop to the course, and we learn from the colorful ad banners that products like the “Burnin’ DK” sports drink are popular among racegoers. However, Mario Kart 8’s art direction truly shines best in how it revives retro courses into the age of HD; in particular, the way Mario Kart 64’s Rainbow Road bursts with fireworks, floating golden trains, and the bustling city nightlife below is a nostalgic feast for the eyes.
Karts & CharactersReturning from Mario Kart 7 is the deep kart customization system, where players will continue to experiment situating characters into which combination of karts, wheels and gliders suit them best. As these are obtained through the coins littered on racetracks, the player is enticed to keep playing again and again to collect all the parts (particularly since coins gradually increase top speed by themselves). The endless amount of experimentation will continue to be a huge replay factor for those fully engrossed into the core racing system.
If only the character roster wasn’t such a mixed bag. While the playable introduction of the dastardly Koopalings is quite welcome thanks to their fun personalities (Iggy fan, here!), the inclusion of all seven leaves little room for anyone else to join alongside the usual roster. This wouldn’t really be a problem if they put some actual thought into the last few spots, yet the inclusion of Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach not only come across as tepidly uninspired but render the roster as both somewhat homogenized and lazy in numerous ways (such as it being composed of 1/6 babies).
WeaponsJust like its course variety, Mario Kart 8 brings along a selection of deadly gadgets. Old favorites like the Red Shells, Lightning Bolts and Bob-ombs return alongside new weapons, none the least of which is the potted Piranha Plant. Equipped with its own set of anti-gravity wheels and an eagerness to snap up everyone and everything on the track (including the cows of Moo Moo Meadows), the feisty venus fly trap is a perfect example of Mario Kart 8’s degree of polish.
Alas, while the new Super Horn does a wonderful job of repelling Blue Shells, other items don’t contribute a good deal to proper balance. The wonky flight direction of the Boomerang makes it rather unreliable, and the defensive uselessness of the Coin leaves one to wonder if they should’ve stuck to the tracks.
Replays & Mario Kart TVAs mentioned before, replays can be analyzed, configured and saved after every race. While not unique to Mario Kart 8, the game’s attention to detail is what makes it special. Witnessing the snubby gleefulness of Toad’s smile as he speeds ahead of his opponents or Donkey Kong’s terrifying totem pole-esque expressions never gets old regardless of whether it’s on fast-forward or emphasized through slow-mo. While more options regarding camera angles and the like would be appreciated, what’s available here provides enough tools to craft hilarious replays.
And through the Mario Kart TV feature, these replays can not only be uploaded to Youtube but streamed through the online-enabled broadcast system for everyone to watch and comment (the latter via the spontaneous messages of Miiverse, which are guaranteed to add to the hilarity).
MusicMario Kart 8 is backed by an incredible big-band soundtrack, much of which was recorded live like last fall’s Super Mario 3D World. It’s all very infectious and is host to a wide range of instruments, such as the electric piano for Donut Plains 3 and the leading saxophone in N64 Rainbow Road. Almost every live piece is just as bouncy and fun as the last and you can tell the music team had a great time with the recording sessions.
In fact, the composers had so much fun with it, they even made the soundtrack coincide with the progress of certain courses! The watery Dolphins Shoals stands out as starting out with a simple synthesized track until racers pop out of the ocean and it explodes into a jazzy saxophone session. Even if I’m losing, it never fails to relieve any and all tension.
ModesSo the racing plays and controls wonderfully, the visuals are sharp, and we’re graced with probably the best Mario Kart soundtrack yet. While these are great tools to craft the best Mario Kart yet, it’s lacking in one vital area: a sufficient amount of modes and options to keep players coming. Nintendo placed a huge emphasis on developing the core racing as opposed to broadening the game with various modes, and it shows.
Take the game’s version of the Battle Mode, where instead of duking it out in specially-made arenas, players are restricted to battling on the regular racing courses. I actually find this a rather neat novelty, yet I still ask “why not both?” Retaining both versions and expanding them in ways beyond Balloon Battle (such as Coin Runners) would have provided a meatier experience, and with many fans scorning the new mode and sticking to racing, it can leave a bare-bones impression of Mario Kart 8. Single-player modes like Mission Mode would also have been welcome, but as Mario Kart’s appeal primarily lies in multiplayer, Battle Mode is a bigger cause for concern.
Thankfully, the online mode picks up some of battle mode’s slack. While it’s not perfect—connection issues are a constant annoyance and voice chat is restricted to friend lobbies only—there’s a multitude of options to enjoy such as private user tournaments and select item matches alongside friends. Frantic Mode’s emphasis on Lightning Bolts and Blue Shells is aggravatingly crazy, just as it should be.
SummaryDo not misunderstand me: by itself, Mario Kart 8 is a great racer with some fantastic production values and exciting spins on a twenty year old formula. While it’s a shame to see Nintendo’s inexperience with HD forces them to continue cutting corners, the game provides enough excitement as it is and seeing the company embrace online play is much appreciated. Mario Kart 8 falls just short of being a racing masterpiece, but that shouldn’t stop you from picking it up.
- Excellent sense of handling and speed
- Course design is unmatched
- The best HD Nintendo job yet
- Wonderful, jazzy soundtrack
- Replay feature
- Polish, polish everywhere
- Robust online features
- Online features have connection issues
- Battle mode isn’t fleshed out well enough
- More modes would’ve been appreciated
- Some wonky items
- Questionable character roster decisions
Reflection: Behold my first game journalism review! How does it hold up?
I think an eight was a fair score upon the game's arrival, but the DLC content would definitely bump it up to a nine. Yes, I still think how they handled Battle Mode was a shame, but the core racing's so strong that I've grown not to mind. Maybe one day we'll see an HD Mario Kart with a level of quality content matching that of Mario Kart DS; for now, I just need to play this one more!
As for a Leave Luck to Heaven review...while I've been planning to dive into the Mario Kart series, there are other series in the works that take priority. At the very least, I imagine 8 would show up first.