Thursday, April 27, 2017

Mario Kart 8

Look, let's be real here: the Wii U may have been a complete, utter sales bomb, but that did not stop it from possessing the highest concentration of quality Nintendo games since Super Nintendo. Pikmin 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rank among some of the greatest Nintendo games ever created, Splatoon and Super Mario Maker debuted to worldwide acclaim, and many would argue the likes of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Yoshi's Woolly World represent the pinnacle of their respective franchises.

Even Super Mario 3D World, my own reservations aside, isn't exempt from these accolades, what with the insane level of polish and love put into its design. However, this is the second instance in Nintendo history I can think of where a Mario spin-off surpassed mainline entries on a home console; just as how Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door eclipsed Super Mario Sunshine way back on GameCube, Mario Kart 8 speeds past 3D World, Super Mario Maker and New Super Mario Bros. U to become what I consider to be the finest Mario experience on Nintendo's ill-fated system.

On the contrary, this is not what my previous 8/10 review for the long-deceased Gaming Grunts would imply; there, I argued that as excellent as Mario Kart 8 was, it fell just short of being a racing masterpiece due to the obvious cut corners Nintendo took with the title. Let us make no mistake: said cut corners do limit Mario Kart 8's overall potential as a complete package, but a year's worth of DLC more than made up for it in the area that matters most: the actual racing.

I mean, forget Mario Kart; has there ever been such a wondrous relationship between course design and control? I'm not by any means a racing game connoisseur, yet I imagine many such fans would be hard-pressed to cite any viable contenders. Driving alone has never felt so smooth, and when combined with the awe-inspiring heights reached by the anti-gravity feature and the mechanics re/introduced from Mario Kart 7 (gliding and collectible coins), the game proves itself beyond the visual spectacle and continues to enthrall as a compelling racer. It's the perfect hook for those previously burnt-out on the franchise: come for the dazzling new concept, stay for just how great everything feels

"Feeling," of course, is just one element of gameplay; there's a lot going on in how the game operates: for example, the way tracks curve up the wall or into the skies is captivating, but it's just subtle enough to never distract the player and learns to fade from our concentration. Of course, the game is smart enough not to implement anti-gravity and the like in every track, lest we grow tired of visual gimmicks; after all, there's nothing wrong with a familiar, grounded test of racing skill (this is mainly the job of the Retro Cups, although as we'll discuss later, they're not afraid to reinvent the wheel).

Meanwhile, coins continue to layer a new form of strategy to preserve our top speed. Scattered across the tracks, these speed-boosting coins are enticingly placed so as to improve our racing game, be it curves instinctively requiring power-sliding or hanging just above an aerial shortcut. Mario Kart 8 not only trains us to follow the Super Mario Bros. rule in collecting coins, but builds upon it: we don't collect coins just because because they're shiny and gold, but in how they're vital to success. When losing coins upon getting smacked with a Red Shell or falling off Rainbow Road, we're driven to get them back. It turns Mario Kart's chaotic racing into a rhythmic process.

Combined with the  mix-and-match nature of kart customization (karts, wheels and gliders), and it goes without saying there's quite some depth in all the frenzy. Truth be told, while I do pay attention to kart statistics and the like, I'm more of a "get in there and race!" kinda guy, so the exact specifics between, say, Sponge Tires for Light and Heavy racers is lost on me; typically, I just fashion everything with Slick/Cyber Wheels thanks to their guaranteed sweet spot in speed/handling. I also confess that just like in Mario Kart Wii, I never quite got the hang of bikes; the inward drifting always felt off to me. Maybe when the Switch version rolls around this Friday...

But never mind that, as we still haven't discussed the courses themselves! Possibly the best Mario Kart tracks in series history, we're wowed from the get-go with how Mario Kart Stadium and Thwomp Ruins bookend the Mushroom Cup with their respective dizzying senses of height and flight. It's a thrill surpassed again and again by the likes of Toad Harbor and Cloudtop Cruise, and even well into the DLC tracks (namely Wild Woods and Dragon Driftway, although the latter focuses more on intense, close-knit loop-de-loops). As mentioned earlier, it's careful not to let anti-gravity be the only star; to my mind, this game's iteration of Bowser's Castle remains my favorite solely for the giant, lava-powered Bowser statue ready to crush anything invading its dual-track home. 

Retro courses are also stunning; whereas previous entries either provided 1:1 replicas or stripped-down versions for handhelds, here they're revamped in accordance to their respective roles. For example, the familiar Super Mario World-inspired fields of Donut Plains 3 doesn't require any anti-gravity to still be interesting, as a grounded, rough-n'-tumble race retains Mario Kart's roots and provides a nice breather from all the flashy new mechanics. Meanwhile, the completely reinvented likes of Ribbon Road (Mario Kart: Super Circuit) or Toad's Turnpike (Mario Kart 64) awe in just how much new there is; Toad's Turnpike is a particular stunner thanks to flying off cars and driving on walls. Even setting the aesthetics aside, it's almost a completely different course from the sleepy Nintendo 64 highway.

Mario Kart 8 was easily the best looking game on Wii U at the time of its release, and I'd actually argue that may still be the case. There's none of the low-res leftovers from Pikmin 3 or Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, nor the intrusive slowdowns and the like from Zelda: Breath of the Wild; Mario Kart 8, however, is consistent with its own look and performance (the infamous 59 FPS glitch aside, and I'll be rather honest in saying I've never noticed it), and is always so vivid, clean and just plain delightful to look at.

Look no further than the game's visual stunner: N64 Rainbow Road. A literal explosion of colors, what was originally a nebulous, dreamy raceway decorated with neon-lights is now granted a definite setting that plays into Mario Kart 8's festive atmosphere with fireworks and soaring trains. It must, however, also channel the dreamy nostalgia of the original: the music and the firework callbacks contribute to this, but it's impossible not to be absorbed into the hypnotic nightlights of the city below.

Hailing from an era where 3D World's speck of context and Paper Mario: Sticker Star's homogenization didn't spark our imaginations, it's delightful how there's a real sense of world to everything. The aforementioned reimagination of retro tracks is great enough, but take a look at the signs hinting at world lore: did you know Yoshi Wild Sanctuaries are a thing? According to N64 Yoshi Valley, they do. I never thought of Morton Koopa as being the manager type, so I'd like to see how Morton Construction operates. Maybe he's just the mascot? Even the spectators delight: I've never entertained the thought of Gingerbread People dwelling in the world of Mario, but thanks to Sweet Sweet Canyon, I desire to see a mainline Mario game traverse through their realm. I sure hope they don't run into any, uh, "hunger" issues with what appear to be local Yoshis.

This isn't even going into the actual courses themselves; for example, did you ever stop to think about the familiar geography behind Cloudtop Cruise? And don't get distracted by the bonanza of references in Ribbon Road, as each segment follows a certain theme. Let us not forget the wondrous character animation, either; to tell the truth, I'm actually rather saddened the related memes came and went, because I engage with the highlight reels far more than I care to admit just to watch characters expressions (mainly how they slowwwwly turn their heads when they pass by each other). Angry Luigi is the oft-cited king, but I'm more fond of Donkey Kong's totem-pole expressions and Toad's gleefully murderous joy. (And let us not forget the game's greatest item: Piranha Plant, who comes equipped with its own anti-gravity wheels)

(This is, by the way, the first non-arcade Mario Kart to feature crossover content in the form of Zelda/Animal Crossing characters and courses, alongside familiar locations from F-Zero and Excitebike. Seeing Link interact with the world of Mario is certainly a delightful absurdity, although the elusive context behind Mute City/Big Blue still makes me wonder how it all works. It's certainly more cartoonish than F-Zero, but just out of reach of Mario. Truly, I am gripped in the throes of deepest lore.)

If pressed, however, I would argue Mario Kart 8's greatest asset lies not in how it plays, but in how sounds. The combination of synth and live big-band performances provides the greatest aural Mario Kart experience ever made; be it freestyle brass or track transition, it's the ultimate key to the festive, jubilant atmosphere that complements Mario Kart like never before. The live arrangements are what steal the show: Mario Kart has always lent itself to a fun score that, true to its goal, never grows old, and while Mario Kart 8 certainly represents the best of that, its the aforementioned track transitions that still awe me. Not that Mario Kart hadn't applied music dynamics for progression before, but absolutely none of the previous efforts match the stunning euphoria that is Dolphin Shoals. What starts as a subdued, synthesized underwater theme transforms into a full-blown jazz session when the racers emerge from the depths, instilling an exhilarating, climatic thrill unlike anything else. I could credit the live performers for this little slice of Nirvana, but as the composer was behind Pikmin 3, all that goes to her.

Other songs like Mario Kart Stadium and Mount Wario play well within the Mario Kart-esque archetypes, yet I'm most blown away by the orchestral tracks; Thwomp Ruins and Wild Woods are unlike anything we've heard before in Mario Kart, introducing the likes of Celtic instruments and chorus to the series. They're a touch more active than the dreamier songs we've previously in Mario Kart, and it's a perfect fit for their respective enchanted environments and the "world" they create.

Of course, the retro remixes must be up to par. Rainbow Road 64 is once again the star, the familiar flute seguing us into a new festive jazz version (alongside the aforementioned aesthetic, this is why I consider it to be the game's *real* Rainbow Road). GBA Mario Circuit and Royal Raceway (Mario Kart 64) are great fun callbacks, and I actually happen to prefer the former and its new intro to the somewhat forgettable intro. Meanwhile, SNES Donut Plains 3 and its electric piano emulates its non-amibitous nature, choosing to instead kick back with acoustic and bass guitars.

That this is the first time Zelda and Animal Crossing have been treated to big band music--in the context of video games, anyway -- is a delightful bonus; just listen to how the Animal Crossing track alternates between all four seasonal versions! Can you say, GameCube theme? And as for the F-Zero themes...well, their godly arrangements speak for themselves.

To round things off quality-wise, Mario Kart 8 is perhaps Nintendo's one of Nintendo's finer online experiences, although we must remember that Nintendo being what they are, Mario Kart 8 isn't without it's "Nintenisms" regarding online activity. The lack of friend invites is often cited as one, alongside having to exit games to switch characters and vehicles. Otherwise, the presence of friend rooms and tourneys are, like Mario Kart 7 before it, a great step above Nintendo's normally-passive online efforts; in particular, the flexibility offered in custom rules makes for even more intense races than playing solo, and I found myself turning to NeoGAF rooms rather than improving my VR score.  I do imagine, however, online traffic will decrease upon Mario Kart 8 Deluxe's release.

All this would be enough to dethrone Mario Kart DS as the series masterpiece, but alas, those dang cut corners are what get in the way. Case in point: the battle mode. Whereas previous iterations offered specialized arenas for duking it out, Mario Kart 8 simply opts for reusing the racing courses. While there can still be fun mined from it, having to brake and turn around in such confined spaces quickly grows repetitive, and the alternative option (simply lapping around the courses and attacking whoever passes by) makes one feel like on autopilot. They're simply not designed at all for balloon battles, and it makes for the weakest Battle Mode since 2003's Double Dash!!.

The common defense for this is "well, Battle Mode was never good, anyway." Yes, perhaps...for you, which does not represent the Mario Kart population that disagrees. Furthermore, it's simply a shocking detriment when considering just how polished rest of the game is. Even when considering the DLC, it's what contributed to the unfortunate "bare-bones" label, as there's not much else for the game to fall back upon. It's thoroughly a rushed afterthought, and it shows.

Said rushed quality is noticeable in other areas: while the addition of the dastardly Koopalings is fantastic (Iggy fan, here!), they don't leave a lot of room for other newcomers, and Nintendo didn't exactly tap into their imaginations when it came to rounding out rest of the roster (Pink Gold Peach? Seriously?). Meanwhile, the lack of Expert Time Trials means we're stuck with the default time trials, and outside of a couple DLC outliers, hardly any put up a decent challenge.

There are other missteps it makes on its own: the Coin item continues to be a mistake, as it punishes the winning player by leaving them defenseless, especially if they've already filled their coin meter.  200cc is a  delightful experiment courtesy of DLC, yet I can't help but feel certain tracks weren't designed with it in mind (*cough* Dragon Driftway *cough*). Also, obligatory "derp the gamepad only has a horn feature" complaint here, but I suppose it's best GamePad wackiness didn't end up interfering with the core game.

And despite all that, what a core game it is. Like Pikmin 3 before it, Mario Kart 8 is a delicious rush of feel-good magic akin to guzzling the finest of fruit juice. Even with my own preferences of Pikmin and Smash aside, this is perhaps the best-playing out of all of Nintendo's Wii U offerings: it's an insanely-polished feast that backs up its ambitions not only by being a pure joy to play, but what's possibly the funnest sense of atmosphere and flavor the company has ever produced.

And now, with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Switch ready to fix all of its flaws, we'll finally see its full potential ready to be unleashed upon the world. It's been a long three years; go take the crown, buddy.

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