Video games in general have come long way since the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System and the original Super Mario Kart in 1992. Graphics are more visually stunning by orders of magnitude. The technology from the developer to the user end has evolved considerably, to put it mildly. Now, on May 30, 2014, Mario Kart 8 hits the Wii U console with flashy new graphics and an appropriately deeper dynamic of gameplay. Still, with advancements in high definition, controller technology, and off-the-wall (quite literally, here) design, Nintendo is remaining true to its faithful followers with a game that honors our nostalgic side.
Fans of the Super Mario Brothers and Mario Kart series will recognize quite a few of the playable characters, with a few newcomers. Mario Kart 8 sees the introduction of Pink Gold Peach (a metallic character similar to Metal Mario) and Baby Rosalina. Also unlockable are Bowser's Koopalings (remember them from Super Mario Brothers 3?), Iggy, Roy, Lemmy, Larry, Wendy, Ludwig, and Morton. Like Mario Kart Wii, you can also unlock the ability to play as your Mii. 16 drivers are available from the get-go, while the remaining 14 are unlocked by scoring gold trophies in the various Cup series.
As usual, the different characters have different characteristics. Smaller characters like Toadette and Baby Luigi are lighter and excel in handling and acceleration, while Bowser and Donkey Kong have a higher top speed and more weight to throw around. Speed, acceleration, weight, handling, and traction can each be altered further depending on your choice of vehicle, tire, and hang glider (the latter was introduced in Mario Kart 7 for Nintendo 3DS). Multiple players can use the same characters and equipment, so there's no need to fight, kids.
The other way to unlock goodies in Mario Kart 8 is with coins. Tracks are sprinkled with them, and you can collect up to ten per race. To begin, the game awards a new kart, tire or hang glider with every 50 coins you collect; after hitting 1000, these new features are unlocked every 100 coins.
Gather ye coins while ye may, though, the competition gets stiffer as the game advances.
The coin system is straightforward within the game. Getting hit with an item, running into certain obstacles and falling off the edge of the track costs three coins. Also, after hitting an item block, it's possible to end up with a coin in your inventory. Use it, and you'll add two coins to your total. Some of the unlockable features have identical stats to others, but they give players another goal to focus on while driving. Gather ye coins while ye may, though, because the stiffer the competition as the game advances, the less opportunity you'll have to adjust your line to pick them up.
One nice feature is that the Wii U gamepad doubles as a screen. At one point during my time, I was able to play on the gamepad while my wife watched something else on the television. The gamepad screen is large enough that I still felt immersed in the experience, and could enjoy the whimsical, fanciful graphics in about the same high level of detail as playing it on the TV. Yeah it's a bit easier on the eyes when focusing more than just a couple feet in front of you, but for shorter gaming stints, or for younger sets of eyes, it's a convenient feature.
Players have the option of steering with the standard controls, or by turning on the tilt controls. With the latter, the player turns the remote like a steering wheel. It's surprisingly, well, not bad. In fact, it was easier to make subtle corrections in steering than when using the joystick or directional pad. Some players might find it to be overly sensitive, but getting used to it doesn't take long. Either way, the controls are intuitive and easy to use, as they should be in a game intended for such a wide variety of ages.
Controls are intuitive and easy to use, as they should be in a game intended for such a wide variety of players.
Single Player mode offers Grand Prix, Time Trials, VS Race, and Battle play. As before, the Grand Prix features 12-driver races in 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc classes, getting faster and considerably more difficult as you go up. 50cc mode is where you cut your teeth on new tracks, get used to the various controls, and start to unlock the characters and customization options that will help you optimize your driving in the higher levels. Most 50cc driving consists of mashing the accelerator and working on finding the best line through the course.
Part of getting used to the new game is mastering anti-gravity mode, hang gliding and the little tricks that help you gain an edge over your competitors.
Mario Kart 8 touts anti-gravity racing as one of its special new features, to set it apart from the past iterations. It doesn't change gameplay beyond recognition by any means, but it does allow Nintendo to do some visually spectacular things with the tracks themselves. In the anti-gravity portions of many of the courses, the track itself twists, turns upside-down and goes vertical. The camera follows the driver's perspective in these Escher-like zones, but the slow rolling combined with the ups and downs of the track can be especially dizzying when first getting to know them. (For a complete rundown of full list of MK8 tracks, check out our guide.)
Mario Kart 8 touts anti-gravity racing as one of its special new features.
Also, within these anti-gravity zones, bumping into other players gives you a small boost, as does hitting the glowing blue bumpers that jut out of the track in certain places. Players can get mini-boosts by pressing the jump button or flicking the controller at the right moment when going off a ramp or even a small bump in the track. Also drifting through corners offers a boost at the end, and a longer drift brings a slightly larger boost. Use these features judiciously to capture and maintain the lead.
Hang gliding was introduced in Mario Kart 7, and makes an appearance a handful of times in Mario Kart 8. It happens automatically in certain sections of the track, when the kart's wing or parachute deploys after a jump. It can help you cross gaps or avoid obstacles. While gliding, you still steer your kart left and right, but also push forward to dive slightly, or pull back to slow your descent. Often, coins are available to pick up as you soar through the air, and sometimes you can glide onto separate parts of the track unavailable from the ground. The gliding is fun and sometimes challenging, but always fairly brief. The game could stand to include more of it, as you'll see in this round at Sunshine Airport.
In general – and this extends to the higher classes – gameplay feels more meritocratic than in recent Mario Kart titles. If you're doing well, you tend to hold your place toward the head of the pack a little more easily. Sure, you can get severely screwed just before the finish line by another player with some heavy artillery, but it seems like a much rarer occurrence than before. Recovery is quicker after falling off the track or spinning out from a weapon or obstacle, too. When another player does nail you, you keep whatever item you're holding onto (unless you're getting shrunk by the dreaded lightning bolt). This will probably save at least a few televisions around the world from being embedded with a thrown controller.
100cc and 150cc classes amp up speed, difficulty, and the overall level of chaos on the track. The computer characters make fewer mistakes and feel more ruthless with their weaponry. In addition, cornering is a much more difficult feat. My first instinct was to select a character and kart with a higher level of handling (at the sacrifice of top speed). While this was a sufficient technique to win the gold in each track in the 100cc class, it simply failed to get the job done in 150cc, where I was still hitting walls in the corners and getting passed by larger characters in the straighter parts of the tracks. To compete at this highest level, I needed not only to focus on managing players, weapons and mini-boosts, I also had to master drifting.
To compete at the highest level I also had to master drifting.
To drift, one simply hits the jump button, holding it as you slide through the corner. It requires a bit of forethought for each turn, and knowing the courses is essential. Once I was able to point my nose at the apex while drifting sideways, I was in a much better position to tackle the road in front of me rather than understeering into a wall or off the edge of the track. I could also maintain speed and hold the accelerator button almost the entire time (depending on what else was going on around me). Even so, 150cc still proved to be quite a challenge during the time I had to play it.
Players are likely to blurt expletives beginning with "Holy..." when they nab the most impressive ammunition.
The power-up and weapon items in Mario Kart 8 include the classic shells, mushrooms and stars from the games of old, with a few new additions to the arsenal. The Piranha Plant attaches to the front of your kart or bike, chomping away at players and items to give you a speed boost. The Boomerang can be thrown three times to take out other drivers. The Super Horn sends out a shockwave from your kart that blasts opponents, obstacles, and disrupts incoming weapons – including the otherwise unstoppable Blue Shell that targets the driver in first place. The Fire Flower was introduced in Mario Kart 7, and lets the player chuck fireballs at other opponents for a short amount of time. The jackpot item, though, is the Crazy 8, which surrounds your kart with eight items (Green Shell, Red Shell, Banana, Blooper, Bob-omb, Star, Mushroom, and Coin) that are used individually. Players in the rear of the pack are more likely to get the Crazy 8, as well as some of the other, more powerful items. They're also the most likely to blurt expletives beginning with "Holy..." when they nab this impressive ammunition.
If you just want to focus on driving technique without the distraction of other characters constantly trying to take you out, the Single Player menu offers Time Trials, where you can set a record, then race your ghost later. Ghosts save to the Nintendo network, so you can play against other players' best times (even those of some of the Nintendo staff are available to race against).
Battle mode is a fun diversion, but taking out opponents in an actual race proved much more dynamic and entertaining.
VS Race is a customizable version of the same courses, where parameters can be customized for number of drivers, time limit, types of vehicles (bikes and/or karts), and specific weapons sets. The Frantic items setting makes things especially exciting by giving drivers high-power items more often. You don't earn trophies here, but can play single races without having to complete a whole Cup series.
Battle mode has changed for Mario Kart 8, with versions of the regular tracks replacing the more wide-open arenas of titles past. Drivers start facing opposite directions on the track. Each kart starts with three balloons attached to it, which you try to keep from getting popped by other drivers' items, while you try to pop theirs. Like VS Race, you make your own rules, and the Frantic setting is especially appropriate here. This type of play is a fun diversion, but taking out opponents in an actual race proved much more dynamic and entertaining for me.
The most fun to be had is when you've got a friend or three to play the game with you. Mario Kart 8 works great as a social game, even in mixed company. Families can play together, new and experienced players will get along just fine, and most people will be eager to play round after round. In four-player mode, the limited amount of screen space each player has to work with can make it feel a little more chaotic – well, harder to see what's going on, especially on smaller screens – but no less fun. "Mario Kart is just as amazing as it's always been," gushed one friend after several rounds of mostly losing to the rest of our foursome. I was thinking the same thing.
Perhaps the best thing about MK8 is that other people will actually play it with you.
Online modes are available, where you can play with distant friends, other players from your region, or worldwide. Many Mario Kart fans will be thrilled with the inclusion of online tournaments, which is something players have been asking for. I didn't have a chance to take part due to the limited online community during my test period, but you can bet this feature will become quite popular after the game officially launches on May 30.
Perhaps the best thing about Mario Kart 8 is that other people will actually play it with you. That includes your significant other, nieces and nephews, even someone whose idea of gaming is a round of Candy Crush in the dentist's waiting room. It's simple enough for the most casual of players, and it still offers a level of depth that makes it more rewarding the longer you play. It's suitable for an office party or a child's birthday, but the lone wolf can focus on unlocking all the customization options, mastering each track on its hardest difficulty and racing people from all over the world in online tournaments. That's reason enough to add Mario Kart 8 to your collection.
Just a reminder: if you'd like to read our guide to the tracks of Mario Kart 8, check it out here.