Best in series? Gets my vote. 9/10

User Rating: 9 | Mario Kart 8 WIIU

INTRODUCTION

I’ve been playing the Mario Kart series since the original Super title on the SNES was released way back in 1992, when I was still just a kid. Difficult? Certainly. But in my experience of gaming, few things have been as satisfying as getting the gold trophy on the 150cc Special Cup, and surprisingly many of the titles in series since have come close to that feeling.

But on the opposite side of the coin, there have been some notable missteps along the way. To demonstrate as much objectivity and as little bias as possible I’m going to include a few mini-reviews of each title that has preceded Mario Kart 8, listing the good and the bad, and then do a full review of the same for that game.

PREVIOUS GAME SYNOPSIS

  • [SNES] Super Mario Kart. The title that started it all still holds up remarkably well. Yes, by modern standards it is simplistic, but carries a surprising amount of strategy. It was groundbreaking at the time (3D visuals on a SNES, really? Clever Mode 7 trickery indeed.) Only eight racers but enough differences between the four classes to keep it interesting and decent course design using variations on a few distinct themes from Super Mario World. The controls are slippery but responsive, the item selection is like nothing we’d see in a racer before and rather than just coming across as Wacky Racers with Mario characters it set the standard and tropes which many other franchises have incorporated or have been inspired by – Burnout springs to mind. A true classic, and still the best Battle Mode in the series for my money.
  • [N64] Mario Kart 64. The highly anticipated sequel that in my opinion can’t hold a candle to the original. I’ll go easy on it because I know this is many peoples favourite entry, but it doesn’t feel like a Mario Kart game to me, it feels like a fan made sequel. The driving physics are just… off somehow, the graphical presentation includes overly cartoony gestures like the BOING! effect when hopping, a reverse number 3 to demonstrate wheelspin etc. Overall it’s just not a pretty game to look at, with bland design/textures and levels that often feel big and empty. It definitely falls foul of the low polygon ceiling issues common to the underpowered hardware of the time. For me the weakest of the series.
  • [GBA] Mario Kart: Super Circuit. An underrated gem that still shines. That the developers were able to take the best bits of the previous two games and make one that is a spiritual successor to the SNES version, even including basic versions of all the SNES tracks as unlockables, on the tiny handheld was remarkable. With the odd exception the track design is excellent, the drift physics though a little over-sensitive at first very responsive and overall gameplay balance is above average, and the coin collecting mechanic was simple and beautiful – it didn’t cap out so it became a mini-challenge to beat your best scores at the end of a cup.
  • [GCN] Mario Kart: Double Dash!! If I were to level one criticism at this, I would have to describe it as a bit too basic. No retro cups and just not enough courses bring down what is a solid, well-balanced and fun addition with great visuals and the hilarious giant spiny shell that wreaks havoc whenever it appears, plus other character specific specials like Yoshi’s homing eggs. For me the Battle Mode is second only to the SNES version – in some ways superior since you can have four players. Although it’s a bit skinny on content, what’s here is excellent including a couple of personal favourite tracks like Daisy Cruiser and Yoshi Circuit which have turned up in latter day retro cups. The two person to a kart approach is a bit of a gimmick though, and something I generally ignored – maybe they should have given each character more specific driving styles to make it part of a winning strategy.
  • [DS] Mario Kart DS. I will admit I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the years playing this version. It has some amazing original tracks, the fully-fledged use of retro course cups is inspired and something that’s been a staple of the series ever since, the missions were a great idea, the selection of unlockable characters brilliant and sometimes insane (R.O.B. anyone?), use of more extensive kart stats and so on. There are a lot of franchise innovations here, but the main criticisms I now have – bear in mind this is after 80 hours or so play, and that’s me being conservative – are that the blocky graphics have not aged well and it’s just too damn hard to get a good rank on any of the cups, even the easy/low CC ones you may struggle to get three stars. The weird physic of tapping left and right alternately to get a boost was an original idea but was tiring and I wore out at least one DS D-pad out doing this. Keeping a good line and getting maximum boost out of a corner were often incompatible ideas. Still, the good easily outweighs the bad and there’s a few DS only tracks I wish Nintendo had remade in later editions.
  • [WII] Mario Kart Wii. Not a game I played much at launch time – it was another where it felt not quite right, as if it should have had a lot more tuning before release. It is a fairly well-known fact among gamers that the gameplay balance is VERY severely skewed on this one, with the rubberbanding cranked up to such a ridiculous level it can easily induce bouts of extreme rage. Take a perfect race where you’ve led flawlessly for the first two laps/sections. Now start the third lap/section and be prepared to get barraged. Think a blue shell followed by another blue shell followed by getting rammed into a pit followed by being hit with a red shell, having other characters drop bananas so close you can’t dodge at 150cc speeds and you can see that 1st change to 12th in a manner of about twenty seconds – I’ve had some where it’s been so bad I could set the controller down and watch poor Toad or whoever I was racing with get hit with shells, lightning and so on for ten to twenty seconds with almost no pause. This frustration multiplies if it’s the last lap of the last course of the cup. This diminishes the tight driving physics, the four extra characters per race, the clever and well-implemented use of bikes, the huge character roster, the great track selections, improved online mode and so on. I still enjoyed it, but it could have been a lot less aggressive to the player, and the “teams only” battle mode started the ruining of battle mode in general. A friend of mine described this version as “a war crime”, and although I wouldn’t be that extreme I can see his point. Even a handful of Gold Mushrooms and the other hand full of skill and experience can’t save you on some races.
  • [3DS] Mario Kart 7. Let me just be clear – I LOVE this version. It was as if Nintendo combined the best aspects of the DS and Wii versions, trimming away the poor choices of each game and making something that is not only a great portable version but one of the best overall, as was the case with Super Circuit. There’s still a little over-emphasis on items and random chance, yet within that there is more strategy and once you’ve mastered the boost physics and know the tracks it is a supremely satisfying game. They’ve balanced the difficulty just right, too – it’s a huge challenge to get three stars in all eight cups of all four classes but just like winning the 150cc Special Cup on the SNES it’s a memorable gaming moment, not an impossible struggle as it might have been with the DS and Wii versions. Online mode is very well balanced as of version 1.1 (some of the cheaty shortcuts people were using were blocked/removed). I still play it day to day because it’s such a complete package.

What can we take from this lengthy synopsis? I believe we see a franchise that minor missteps aside has produced hours of quality gaming in the classic Disney/Pixar family-friendly style that Nintendo have made their trademark when it comes to the Mario franchise.

ACTUAL MARIO KART 8 REVIEW, FINALLY

It gives me great pleasure to report that after spending 40+ hours with Mario Kart 8, it is the finest one to date. It takes almost EVERYTHING I liked about the previous games and amalgamates them into a HD near-masterpiece of arcade style racing.

Let’s start with what isn’t great though, get the bad stuff out of the way.

Battle Mode sucks. There are no dedicated courses, it’s just the regular race tracks which are NOT suited to battling at all. Shame on Nintendo for going with this because Battle Mode courses are usually just big squares and don’t require as much detail as race tracks – in Double Dash!! one was just a GameCube floating in space, for example. Several updates later and there still aren’t any real arenas here. A remake of the Battle Courses 1-4 from the SNES version for 2-4 players locally would have been fine, for example, or better yet Battle Course 4 from Super, Piranha Plant Pipeway from Dash!! and Delfino Pier from Wii.

There’s no race times on this either, same problem as 7. Seems that ever since the Wii version we’re not going to have this feature any more, which makes it a shame if you like to see how big your lead was or compare/contrast previous best times. An option to turn this on or off would have been nice, perhaps an extra list at the end of each race before the rankings.

This is a minor one but it’s worth mentioning due to how rock solid the frame rate on 1 player modes has been since the beginning, this version does suffer from frame drops or more accurately repeated frames. Sometimes one frame repeats twice and it causes a stuttering effect. A lot of people can’t see it, but trust me, it’s there. Oh and it’s also worth mentioning things get a bit glitchy sometimes when you go four player, but I’d rather suffer a few glitches and have the option than not at all – after all, on other titles when running four players there would be scaling down of track detail or frame drops too; you’re likely going to be having too much fun to notice or care really.

It’s also worth mentioning briefly that the Gamepad is a bit underused here. It would have been nice to have 1P on the Gamepad and 2P on the TV, for example, so there’s no split screen. Best guess is this is a technical limitation of the Wii U – I doubt it’s got the power to manage it, and a cut down 30fps mode on one or both screens to make it possible would ruin the rush of the game. It’s not a case of just having separate perspectives like Pokken Tournament so I understand why.

I suppose you could level criticisms at the character roster. Granted there are lots of characters but it’s a bit of a bland selection, loads of Koopalings and multi-coloured Yoshis. It doesn’t signal the return of Funky Kong or R.O.B., that’s for certain. But there’s enough selection that everyone can find a racer with the right stats for their play style.

Anyway this is all minor compared to the core of the game, which is outstanding. First of all it’s gorgeous. The track design is incredibly detailed and varied, the characters have better animation than ever before, the menus are slick and easily to navigate. Everything about it screams “triple A game”, which considering it’s Nintendo isn’t surprising, but this tops every other title in the series easily.

The control method is just perfect. Tight, precise, intuitive – like so many games (not just racers) it’s easy to pick up yet difficult to master, especially in the faster cups. They’ve really improved the physics to have a great balance between realism and fun like never before. Inward drifting and outward drifting feel very natural and intuitive and with practice you can really run rings around your opponents with over and undertaking. The karts are good but the bikes are even better, although your thumbs are really going to get a workout to nail the tougher tracks like Koopa City and Big Blue at 150cc and above speeds.

Which moves us neatly onto the DLC. There’s a few token characters thrown into the mix but you do get Link, which was a nice touch. Bit confused about why the Blue Falcon is in the game when Dredd-like fan favourite Captain Falcon himself doesn’t make an appearance (I’d like to hear him shouting “Falcon PUNCH!” when he knocks other racers out of the way, Smash Bros. style) but never mind. The additional tracks are worth the cost alone though, for example the Hyrule Circuit which features an orchestral score of the main theme from Zelda which has to be heard to be appreciated – it is film quality and makes the race sound as epic as it looks, helped along by the changing of regular Mario Kart coins to green gems for authenticity, or Mute City which has an equally impressive presentation and is just pure fun for speed freaks – the “damage repair” bars on the side of the track actually dispense coins which makes a lot of sense. One of the few times I’ve bought DLC, and one of the few times I feel I got my money’s worth.

The online mode is great, too, and to my surprise you can go online with two players in the same room which is a feature I’ve wanted for a long time.

Now let’s talk about control methods. Within reason and with the right set of peripherals you can control it with just about anything. Sadly it doesn’t support the Super Smash Bros. Brawl USB GameCube adapter (how perfect would that have been? Nintendo have not made good use of this thing in their first party titles), but with the Mayflash to Wiimote adapter you can, and yes, the WaveBird is supported though it does mean you have two beige boxes hanging out the end of the Wiimote. In addition to that you can use the Wiimote on it’s own, the Wiimote with Classic or Classic Pro controller hooked up, the Wii U Pro Pad (which other than the WaveBird would be my preferred choice) or the regular touchscreen Gamepad. Basically with the right combination of adapters and controllers you and/or your friends can play it how you want. Beats the PS4 where you have to use a DualShock 4 no matter what, at £50 a pop. Stuff like this is what I love about Nintendo.

SUMMARY A.K.A. *** TL;DR ***

Anyway this review is incredibly long and detailed, which is pretty much the only kind I like to write, so it must be brought to a close. Suffices to say I bought a Wii U with a Pro Pad specifically to play this title, and have not regretted the expense. That there’s other good titles worth playing on the Wii U is a bonus but for me in a lot of respects gaming starts and ends with Mario Kart. So I’m obviously incredibly happy to write that this is arguably the best in the series, finally dethroning Super Mario Kart as my go to game. It’s not perfect, but what it gets right it nails in ways far superior to every game in the franchise that preceded it, and this is coming from someone who has been playing it for 20+ years so I didn’t make this choice lightly.

Best in series? Gets my vote. 9/10