What's your favorite Mario Kart item? It's a personality test that has revealed a person's inner thoughts ever since Super Mario Kart gave Koopa Troopa a license to drive. If, for instance, you're fond of the lightning bolt, my handy reference sheet says that you have "schadenfreude" tattooed on your lower back. Or maybe across your knuckles. Either way, you're a connoisseur of chaos. For anyone who adores banana peels, I know that you're a guarded individual, more concerned with protecting your backside than rocking the boat. Shocked at my uncanny insight? My love is poured upon the infinite mushroom. I would much rather take a shortcut than fight for success the old-fashioned way.
I made such hypotheses naturally in recent Mario Kart games. Items were so important, and so ubiquitous, that it was hard to think of anything but the red turtle shells streaming toward you. What else can you do after being struck for the umpteenth time other than contemplate your very existence? In Mario Kart 8, the circumstances that encouraged such philosophizing have changed. Success comes from your racing prowess now, so though you will still curse at the occasional usurper making your life hell on wheels, victory is in your hands. There are no excuses anymore; Mario Kart 8 focuses on its excellent racing, and the experience is stronger for it.
You feel the weight of your driver as you try to hang a tight left while centrifugal forces push you away. Slam into another racer, and you feel the impact; the heavier body cruises onward while the lighter competitor, battered and bruised, tries to regain his or her composure. Speed bursts are everywhere in Mario Kart 8. Turns beckon you to powerslide, ramps urge you to boost, and you're continually seeking new ways to keep your kart speeding along. Unlike in Mario Kart Wii, where you were compelled to drive up out-of-the-way ramps to get speed bursts, opportunities for a rush exist organically within the racing path. So you're continually gunning ahead, desperately motoring toward every ramp while exacting every drop of energy from turns to stave off the fierce competitors nipping at your tailpipe.
There are no excuses anymore; Mario Kart 8 focuses on its excellent racing, and the experience is stronger for it.
All of your hard work is rewarded in Mario Kart 8. Once you leave your competitors in the dust, you can stay in first place. It's a strange feeling driving all alone, without anyone else nearby. In most other Mario Kart games, staying in front of the pack would have been impossible. The computer was never far behind, often passing you even when you were performing flawlessly. Or else you would be pelted by so many items that you wouldn't even know in which direction you were supposed to travel. That constant fight was maddening for me, so I welcome the loneliness of Mario Kart 8. If I stay in top form, I don't have to worry that four blue shells are going to end my fun in a hurry, or that Donkey Kong is going to breeze past me even though he should have been half a lap behind. My skill is all that matters. And I was more than happy to stay in first while everyone else battled for second place.
That's not to say that items aren't a part of the action. There are still blue shells--although they appeared so seldom that they rarely affected my positioning--and there were times when I was hit by three items in rapid succession and invented a curse that would have brought tears to my mother's eyes. But those are the exceptions rather than the rule. Items are just a complement to your racing now. Use a piranha plant to clear out hazards in your path, or fling a boomerang to bring your competitor to a stop. It's all in good fun. If you're a skilled-enough driver, being slammed by a shell is no more than a slight speed bump. So think up some horrific obscenity for when your shining moment is ripped away from you at the last second, and don't forget it; it may be a while before you can use it.
I was more than happy to stay in first while everyone else battled for second place.
Racing skill determines who wins and who loses. That's true if you're competing with a group of friends (local splitscreen supports up to four players, and you can play against 11 people in the game's smooth online races) or striving for gold medals against the computer (50cc, 100cc, 150cc, and Mirror Mode are all here). And by having the importance of weapons significantly reduced, it's now much harder to make up ground once you're stuck in the middle of the pack. There's no instant-win item to come in and save you, so you have to climb back slowly and surely by maximizing your speed and finding the best racing lines while hoping those in the lead make a mistake. Defense has become more important than in previous games. With the introduction of the super horn, you can repel any item flung at you, and simply keeping a shell or banana trailing behind your kart blocks almost any attack mounted against you. Even the star has been toned down. It still grants you invulnerability, but you're no longer infused with super speedy gasoline, which lessens the impact it has. It's fascinating just how different Mario Kart 8 is from, say, its Wii counterpart. It's so much less chaotic and so much more focused that their similarities are largely cosmetic.
It's easy to rave about Mario Kart 8 because its core racing is so well executed. But there are a few head-scratching features that stand out like thumbs on a goomba. Why, for instance, isn't there a clock in Grand Prix? I love knowing exactly how much I won (or lost) by, so I cannot understand what is gained by stripping that away. Also, you earn parts to modify your vehicles by collecting coins, though all that tinkering just distracts from the action. Just give me a smart balance of weight, acceleration, and handling, and cut out the unnecessary collectibles. Then there's the default option after a race. For some reason, your cursor starts on View Highlight Reel instead of Next Race, which is just silly. Oh, how many times I mistakenly viewed highlight because I was anxious to race again. Trust me, this will annoy you, too. Plus, the character roster is quite lame. Yeah, there are 30 drivers, but two of them are palette swaps, five are babies, and seven are koopa kids. That's a boring selection.
One last complaint before I move on: Battle mode was intense in Super Mario Kart, was ridiculous in Mario Kart 64, and has slowly lost relevance ever since those high-water marks. Instead of reinventing Battle mode for the better in Mario Kart 8, Nintendo has reduced it to a lifeless husk of what it once was. There are no arenas built specifically for battling. Rather, you choose one of eight tracks and drive around aimlessly looking for people (either friends, the computer, or a mix) to toss shells at. That is the exact opposite of fun, no matter how many people you're playing against or how you've tweaked the item assortment. Because the tracks were designed for racing, there's no choke points to force people to fight, so you spend more time searching than attacking. Nintendo needed to go back to the drawing board for Battle mode and this tweak only made things worse.
Even though Mario Kart 8 does have a few problems, they're small enough that they don't detract much from the racing excellence. The greatest achievement of Mario Kart 8 is that it's as warm and welcoming as we expect, but doesn't cater to those who demand a helping hand. Instead, it strikes a balance, offering accessibility while demanding skill. It's easy enough for anyone to take a spin around Moo Moo Meadows, but the most determined drivers should come out on top. And, as someone who was annoyed by previous attempts to even the playing field, I really appreciate this change.
There's also a great assortment of tracks to hone your abilities on. The 16 new ones are as preposterous and demanding as you would expect, with a race down the snowy Mount Wario being the highlight, and the 16 retro tracks have been smartly remade to fit within this world. The gophers from Donut Planes 3 (originally in Super Mario Kart) create dirt tunnels that you can boost off, and there's an underwater portion when a bridge fails to reach the other shore. Certain courses let you race along the wall, giving you a new perspective on the beautiful worlds. Such a shift doesn't change the feel of racing, but it does add another layer of strategy. Should you ride on the wall in Toad's Turnpike? Or take the shorter route on the ground? And if you're particularly happy with your run, you can cut up a highlight reel of your efforts and upload it for everyone to see.
Nintendo has done an admirable job of keeping Mario Kart relevant. How many franchises can you think of that have remained in top form for more than two decades? Not too many. I do admit that my first impression of Mario Kart 8 was pretty close to a yawn. Mario Kart is one of my favorite franchises, but it's hard to get excited for the same old thing. But the more I played, the more I appreciated the many small changes, and grew to love my time in the Mushroom Kingdom. And now that yawn has changed to a shout of joy. It's more Mario Kart! I'm happy Nintendo still understands what makes this series so darn fun.