All competitors are left barely visible on the rear-view mirror
Mario Kart games have grown to be the main staple of every new Nintendo console. Though other major franchises are a lock to appear whenever a new generation comes around, absolutely none of them are as consistent as the Mushroom Kingdom's go-kart competition. The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario series have unshakable qualities, but their shifts in progression and structure add a twist of unpredictability to every new installment.
With Mario Kart, on the other hand, fans know what they will get: three-lap races around incredible venues with calamity-inducing items lying at every corner, and that is precisely what Mario Kart 8 delivers. This is business as usual for the plumber and his crew, and that means expectations attached to the game are that it present, aside from a considerable evolution in relation to its direct predecessors, the pinnacle of this generation's kart racing. And, in that regard, the game is a resounding success.
The first thing players will notice when experiencing Mario Kart 8 is that, visually, it is an enormous leap in relation to the Wii game. Never has a title in the franchise squeezed so much out of its console's power, and it is awfully hard to find a Wii U game that looks this impressive. The colors are vivid, the environments ridiculously detailed, and – in the midst of explosions, lightning, and chaos – the game runs as smoothly as possible.
While on both the Gamecube and Wii outings of the series Nintendo cut corners by employing cell-shaded techniques in the scenarios and, especially, in the character models, Mario Kart 8 goes the other way. The visual elements that add flavor to the racing tracks are gorgeous and truly come alive. Meanwhile, the models are so utterly polished most of them would be right at home on a Pixar flick. Everything is mesmerizing.
But a great Mario Kart game is not just made of technological advances, it needs to provide something that tweaks the races themselves. Mario Kart 8 goes beyond tweaking: it adds an element that makes most of its races quite unique as far as the franchise goes. If Double Dash had racers working in pairs to achieve victory, Mario Kart 8 has them turning upside-down.
All of the courses, at least the sixteen new ones, feature anti-gravity segments where tracks often twist and turn like a coiled snake. That quirk is far from being a merely aesthetic trick; though it does manufacture some flooring visual effects, its impact is felt directly on the gameplay. While on anti-gravity mode, colliding against another racer awards both parts with an extra boost, paving the way for in-race cooperation between two competitors trying to reach another one that is further ahead.
However, the most fantastic consequence of that zero-gravity nature is not the occasional extra speed, but how it allows the track designers to be free of any earthly bounds. Racers will go up waterfalls, travel through a mansion of impossible engineering, ride a storm, slide on a dam, and go through many other absurd obstacles. If Mario Kart courses are already known as being irremediably wacky, then Mario Kart 8 takes the insanity to a whole new level, and the overall quality of the racing venues is so high it is hard to find a slightly bad apple in the bunch.
As tradition dictates, aside from the sixteen new courses, Mario Kart 8 features other four cups filled with tracks taken straight from previous installments. Thanks to the game's blatant graphical leap – not to mention the gravity-based segments, and underwater and gliding powers introduced to the karts on Mario Kart 7 – those retro maps will feel relatively new even to expert players. Some of them are downright unrecognizable given the amount of pleasant changes implemented.
The game also messes around with the item distribution system, and the results are quite positive. Instead of handing out items based on the player's current position, the quality of the weapon one receives is now determined by how far they are from the lead. Consequently, someone who is in 2nd place might get triple shells if the leader is distant, and if everybody is packed together it is possible – but not likely – everyone will receive bananas.
That clever implementation keeps the fun randomness that always surrounds races in a Mario Kart game. At the same time, it makes climbing up the leaderboard much harder given how the last-placed player might not get an item that is much better than that of the leader if everyone is close. It highlights the importance of skill without forgetting about giving everyone a chance to win, and that is a great thing.
That change, however, does not stop CPUs from being absurdly lucky when it comes to picking up and using items. Those who are willing to try to get three stars on every GP will face the same frustration encountered on previous installments, as losing races due to sheer bad luck is not a rare occurrence. Skill and, mainly, patience are a must.
When it comes to controller options, Mario Kart 8 sports quite a variety. It is possible to use the Wiimote, the Wiimote and Nunchuck, the classic controller, or the Gamepad. The Wiimote, especially when paired up with the Wii Wheel, works perfectly, precisely mapping the motion that is done with what happens on the screen. It is an amazingly immerssive setup that is fun, features a lengthy learning curve, and is very competitive even on the online modes. The other options are very good as well.
Regardless of the option chosen, the Gamepad will be used to display the current race ranking, the items all competitors are holding, and the track's map. While that is a smart decision, considering how it clears the screen of any cluttered graphics, it is completely baffling that it is impossible to choose to have some of that information shown on the TV. Therefore, if one wants some of that info, they have to go through the huddle of glancing at the Gamepad, an annoyance that becomes bigger if the player is not using it as their control scheme.
Even if that is a considerable – yet basic – flaw, the biggest slip-up committed by Mario Kart 8 involves its battle mode. There are no battle arenas here. Instead, the item-centered clashes take place on the racing tracks themselves. The matches are definitely fun; they are highly configurable and mix survival with a point-based system on which the winner is the one that is able to track down and hit the biggest amount of people. However, the courses were obviously not made with battles in mind, and – naturally – the affairs end up not being as fun as they could have been.
Before getting into the racing or battling action, one must wisely choose the character and kart setup that will pave the way to victory, and Mario Kart 8 has a great array of choices. In total, there is a excellent cast of 30 characters to choose from, and although there are some pleasant surprises – such as the introduction of the 7 Koopalings – it is slightly disappointing to see some popular racers such as Birdo, Dry Bones, Funky Kong, among others, be left behind when the unexplainable Pink Gold Peach, Baby Daisy, and Baby Rosalina make it.
In addition, as it happened on Mario Kart 7, players must assemble their karts by choosing one chassis, one set of wheels, and a glider. The different parts are unlocked as coins are accumulated, and the high number of components – there are over fifty parts to be picked from – means that rarely will two players climb aboard the same vehicle and use the same stats to try to achieve victory.
To top it all off, the final glorious touch is brought by the game's stellar online mode. It is possible to take part in races with random groups of up to twelve players in order to win or lose VR (the game's instrument to measure how good a player is and with whom he should be matched up), play frantic battles, and either create or partake in tournaments (both public and private) on which players must accumulate points to climb up the ranks.
Like the local versus races, those tournaments can have options such as vehicles allowed, items, team play, control methods, and CPU presence configured supporting the setup of a good range of different kinds of competitions
All in all, Mario Kart 8 is one fantastic game. Its anti-gravity mechanics are a clever way to add new gameplay elements to the series while giving developers the chance to express all of their creativity in the crafting of various flooring tracks and in the reinvention of old courses. It is with these little steps into new directions that the franchise is able to keep itself fresh after so many years, growing strong instead of stale, and taking an ever firmer grip on the kart-racing genre. As far as it concerns Mario Kart 8, the table is set for the plumber to remain king of party racing for quite a while. All competitors are barely visible on the rear-view mirror.