Mario Kart 8 is a game nearly three years in the making. The last Mario Kart title we saw from Nintendo was Mario Kart 7 on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s been nearly six years since Mario Kart to the home console and with this release, it does so with a bang. Nearly everything you love about Mario Kart is still there, but it’s been given a fresh coat of paint in the form of HD graphics and some neat physics effects. New tracks to race, new weapons to throw and new characters to drive are all included for what’s turning out to be Nintendo’s biggest title yet for 2014.
On Your Mark, Get Set
Mario Kart 8 makes it easy to get started racing with several options, but you’ll probably want to start with Grand Prix mode if you want to get some of the better unlockable characters. Placing in the various cup races of the game is how you unlock characters and you’ll need to be pretty darned good, as the 150cc cup challenges are pretty beastly. With cups divided between 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc with four tracks per cup in each of these categories, you’ve got a long career of racing ahead of you to get everyone unlocked, including the koopalings from Super Mario 3.
As you collect coins racing around the track, you’ll also unlock new parts for your karts. Sometimes you’ll get new tires or a new glider, but other times you’ll get a brand new kart entirely. It really makes making sure you finish a race with all ten coins in tact a priority, since certain wheels affect how your karts handle and accelerate on the tracks. If one of your favorite combinations is under lock and key, you’ll be racing extra hard to make sure you snag all those coins.
If you’re a veteran of the Mario Kart series you’ve got 16 familiar tracks with new twists ahead of you, while 16 other tracks are brand spanking new. They’re all a blast to play, with Nintendo carefully balancing the feel of a particular track with the gravity defying twists and turns, as well as scenery that will take your breath away. My favorite new track for the game is Thwomp Ruins, which takes you through a twisting jungle with plenty of tight turns for drifting and massive stone Thwomps ready to smash you should you be careless.
Battle Mode also makes its return in Mario Kart 8, though it doesn’t feature the massive arenas of old that you’re probably familiar with. Instead, it takes place on standard tracks that have been retooled to give everyone a different starting position around the track, instead of lining up in pole positions. You can enter battle mode as a free-for-all or assign teams and from there, you have to pop your opponents three balloons to knock them out of the running. There’s no way to regain balloons and if you lose all three of yours, you’ll be a Ghost on the track while everyone else finishes. Don’t let that stop you, though! While you can’t rack up any more points as a Ghost you can still help your teammates by attacking the other team.
Hey who threw that shell?!
What would the Mario Kart series be without weapons and the introduction of new weapons? Nintendo took it light this time around, only introducing four new things with one of them being a rehash of some previously available weapons. Despite that, it’s probably the most versatile utility in the game and one you’ll hate to see your opponents get. Dubbed the Crazy 8, it’s the titular 8 from the Mario Kart 8 logo and it takes the place of the Lucky 7 from Mario Kart DS. It gives you the power to use 8 random weapons selected from the standard weapons, including the Banana, Green Shell, Red Shell, and others. You’ll want to strategize how you use it, but it can definitely take a middle ground player to 1st place.
Other new additions include the Boomerang Flower, which is my personal favorite. It can be thrown up to three times and if you manage a perfect throw, you’ll be able to take out one driver on its initial throw and another on the way back. The Super Horn is also useful in tight turns on the track where you’ll likely be in close quarters with other drivers. Give it a quick blast and you’ll knock everyone away, giving you free reign to drift yourself into a boost.
The Piranha Plant is the final new addition to the game and it’s one you’ll want to avoid if you don’t have it, as any chomps on drivers it achieves will give a speed boost for the driver.
The online multiplayer aspect of Mario Kart 8 has massively improved over the Mario Kart Wii version. Many players were disappointed with the lobby system and how laggy matches could be on the Wii, I’m happy to report I never experienced a single problem in terms of connection while playing the game online. You are thrown into random lobbies with players from whatever area you select, including worldwide or regional. Currently there’s no way to invite friends into this lobby, so having an online race with friends and strangers just isn’t possible.
This is likely a limitation of the Wii U itself, since it doesn’t feature a party system like the Xbox or PlayStation in order to keep your gaming brethern together. Still, it’s an oversight and a big one, since Nintendo has started offering online play for their games. While couch co-op is still very much alive for Mario Kart 8, the fact that you’re unable to play online with friends you’ve invited is a strike. Perhaps Nintendo can do something about this in the future.
Graphics & Audio
Aside from the addition of new tracks, I think the overall design of the game is perhaps the biggest change. Even for those who have never played a Mario Kart game, the tracks are absolutely stunning in detail and the new physics effects Nintendo was able to add to the characters makes playing them even more fun. Mario’s mustache flaps in the breeze, while Larry’s massive mohawk flattens against his head almost entirely as he picks up speed. Each character has some small bit of their character animated as you accelerate which may seem like a trifling addition, but it really serves to make the characters feel alive.
The tracks feel more alive than ever as well, with plenty of foliage and props that just weren’t possible on lower power systems like the Nintendo 3DS or the Wii. Thwomp Ruins has tons of jungle leaves and the underwater sections might actually make you hold your breath. While Grumble Volcano isn’t exactly lucious, the textures as you run through several caves make you feel as though you’re actually exploring a deep cavern instead of a carved hole.
It’s the little things that bring everything together with Mario Kart 8 and the fully orchestrated soundtrack is the cherry on top. You’ll hear familiar tunes from classic Mario games on tracks like Donut Plains, while Mount Wario features a fast-paced and frantic track designed to help you feel like you’re really barreling down the side of a mountain. The final lap also features a sped-up audio cue that lets you know you’re almost at the end.
Wii U Features
Of course Mario Kart 8 is a Wii U exclusive game, but it deserves mention here that not every experience is created equal. The game does work with the GamePad, though if you decide to play on the TV you’ll be using the GamePad as a glorified horn and roster update. The giant horn and roster is the least creative thing Nintendo could do in terms of incorporating the GamePad into the experience and it’s a worrying trend, as this isn’t the first game we’ve seen from Nintendo that barely has GamePad functionality baked in.
It’s somewhat understandable since several different control methods can be used, including the Wii U Pro Controller or the Wii remote. Still, we would have liked to see Nintendo able to do something else with the GamePad aside from offer a giant horn and Off-TV gameplay. After all, if you can’t sell the gaming public on why the GamePad is necessary as a first party, how can Nintendo expect third parties to do the same?
This is the best entry into the Mario Kart series yet. If you weren’t happy with Mario Kart Wii and you skipped Mario Kart 7 because you don’t own a Nintendo 3DS, you should definitely consider picking this up to sate your kart needs. It manages to blend together old tracks with the new and provides new playable characters never before seen in the Mario Kart series. Playing as the koopalings is one of the highlights of the game and it’ll be no surprise to me if everyone has a favorite once they’ve gotten their hands on the game.
+ New tracks are varied and feature great challenges
+ Koopalings are a great addition to the game
+ Online play works really well
+ Gorgeous aesthetics capable of 60fps
- No way to invite friends to random lobbies online
- No special GamePad utilization aside from Off-TV
Bottom Line: You’ll want to buy Mario Kart 8. Not a Wii U owner? Nintendo has a Mario Kart 8 bundle just for you.