Hold down the accelerate button at the right time to get a rocket boost at the start of a race. Use drift (a lot) to maximise your speed around turns. Avoid collisions with the environment or other racers. Be on constant alert when you’re in the lead, for the blue shell may appear to ruin your race at any minute. These tips have been the keys to racking up the wins in previous Mario Kart games, but the newest in the series--Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U--is about to upend one of these tried and tested strategies. In Mario Kart 8, collisions could be your key to victory.
It all has to do with the new anti-gravity sections being introduced for the first time in the series. When I first saw Mario Kart 8’s anti-grav mechanic being shown at E3 2013, it seemed to me, more than anything else, a visual novelty. Racing along walls and ceilings and upside down on mobius strip-style tracks certainly looks impressive, but what does it actually add to the gameplay? Meeting with series producer Hideki Konno and director Kosuke Yabuki after playing the game recently though, they explained that racers colliding in these sections would--instead of slowing down--actually receive a speed boost.
It seems counter-intuitive that crashing would ever be something you’d want to do in a racing game. After all, speed and precision is what gets you in front, right? But those rules won’t apply when you’re racing along one of Mario Kart 8’s new anti-gravity sections. When you collide in an anti-grav section, your kart (or bike) will spin, but it will also gain a slight boost. Bumping into your fellow racers has now suddenly become a positive instead of a negative.
“When you look traditionally at Mario Kart, colliding with other characters was not something you wanted to do,” Konno said. “The risks outweighed any benefits you might get from doing that. However, the boost that you get when colliding with a character in an anti-grav section of a course alters that whole paradigm. So you may see some new strategies come out of this that even we aren’t aware of. For example, you may see some folks that may be a little down in the pack actually run into each other on purpose to give them a little extra speed so they can close the gap with whoever is in first.”
“One thing that’s always happened with previous Mario Karts is that if you’re using a light character and you bump into a heavy character you were at a disadvantage. However, with the anti-grav section, even the lighter characters will be able to strategise using the anti-grav sections to stay level, or even gain the advantage in collisions, even if you are a lighter character.”
The tracks in Mario Kart 8 aren’t exclusively made up of anti-gravity sections, though, so the game won’t devolve into a hot mess of players deliberately trying to crash into each other. Anti-gravity will be a feature of most tracks (some of the updated classic tracks I played, such as Moo Moo Meadows, didn’t have any anti-grav sections), alongside the underwater and flying sections first introduced in Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS. And for many courses, it seems anti-gravity sections will be used as alternate routes as opposed to being the mandatory path through the track. The updated version of Toad’s Turnpike, for example, features anti-gravity sections along the highway walls. While racing along the walls does allow you to avoid the traffic on the road, the path will be longer.
“Some of the things you’ll see in courses is anti-gravity being given to players as an option,” Yabuki said. “You’re driving on a course and now the course branches off, and you can either continue driving on the ground or go on anti-grav route and go up on the wall. With the addition of the anti-grav feature, we’ve been able to create course designs that fundamentally alters the strategy and gives players more options when racing.”
Konno added that the addition of anti-gravity allowed the development team to add more depth to Mario Kart 8’s courses. “The courses are one of the most important--if not the most important element--in the series, so with Mario Kart 8 we really wanted to divide up the things we could do and make sure we’re really using them effectively. So we have underwater sections, we have flying sections, we have anti-grav sections, and we use all of these in a way to create really interesting and fun to drive on courses.”
You may see some folks that may be a little down in the pack actually run into each other on purpose to give them a little extra speed.Mario Kart 8 producer Hideki Konno
Anti-gravity isn’t the only new thing Mario Kart 8 is bringing to the decades-old franchise. The game will allow you to upload and share race highlights via its Mario Kart TV feature; use the Wii U gamepad as a map while using another controller to drive; feature two new items (a piranha plant and a boomerang); customise which items appear (or don’t) in races; and more. Of course, there are also the cosmetic changes. And what impressive changes they are, especially compared to the series' last home console appearance on the Wii almost six years ago. Mario Kart 8 looks gorgeous, showcasing impressive details in both the racers and the tracks. For Yabuki and Konno, these good looks are all thanks to the Wii U’s extra grunt.
“We were able to harness the power of the Wii U to get a huge polygon count, and we were able to make courses that involved a lot of undulating, moving surfaces,” Yabuki said. “We’ve also done a lot of work with the character animations. If you look at Mario and the Koopalings and all the characters, you’re seeing a level and range of animation that you’ve never seen before.”