Mario Kart is the king of the kart racer. My problem is, it’s held that throne for a long, long time, and kings can get lazy.
Between generations, the series does little to distinguish one entry from another. The gimmicks may change, but you’re still hugging the turns and avoiding the nefarious, homing blue shells and dozens of banana peels littering the Bowser’s Castles and Rainbow Roads as Mario, Luigi, and the gang. The pressure is never on to innovate because when other kart-racing games do emerge, they usually try to mimic Mario Kart and fail (with one modern exception: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed—trust me).
My boyfriend is one of the biggest Mario nerds on the planet, so I was pretty de-hyped on Mario Kart 8 by the time I got my hands on it. Starting it up, it plays a lot like Mario Kart Wii, which I loved. The controls are simple enough for anyone to pick up and learn. On the GamePad you press A to accelerate, power-slide, and hop with the right trigger, and you use items with the left trigger. You only need three buttons with the secondary controllers, too. In Wii, I loved pulling back the Wiimote to perform wheelies on bikes and flicking it to trick off jumps. You can’t wheelie in Mario Kart 8, and the Wiimote doesn’t always respond well to the wrist motion, but the two games are fundamentally similar.
Only this is so much more. For one, the action is finally in high-definition, which is just about the best thing ever. If you’ve played these games with friends, then you know how tough it can be to make out where the hell you’re going in split-screen. The HD also enables Mario Kart 8 to be more colorful, clear, and detailed than ever before. Peach’s castle is surrounded by hot air balloons transporting Toads, you can see fluffy clouds for miles in Cloudtop Cruise, and the ice tracks in Mount Wario (a crazy, one-lap ski slope) are a glittering wonder. Switch to four-player, and the performance pitfalls from 60 frames per second to 30. It’s a huge difference, but you grow accustomed to it, and the world doesn’t stop being beautiful.
Most of the courses are fantastic, combining land, underwater, and air racing via hang-gliding, but there are a few losers. The desert tracks (Bone-Dry Dunes and Dry Dry Desert) are kind of bland, and Music Park is a little too literal (beware the bouncing music notes). Others, like Dolphin Shoals and Thwomp Ruins, are so creative they’re flat-out amazing. You’ll even get to drive through what has to be a tribute to Wreck-It Ralph (remember the Nintendo characters in that movie?) in Sweet Sweet Canyon.
Maybe Nintendo got a little carried away, but that’s fine by me. Out of the eight Grand Prix cups, four are comprised of retro tracks—like Moo Moo Meadows (Wii version) and Yoshi Valley (N64). Nintendo gave them more than a new coat of paint by enhancing their best features: The puddles in Donut Plains 3 (SNES) shine, drying in the sun. It’s one tiny detail like that completely changes the experience for the better. And although I usually hate beach levels, Cheep Cheep Beach (DS) is one of my favorites. Why? Because going in deep water is actually OK. It won’t kill you. And there’s a whole world of creatures and discoveries under the waves. Mind. Blown.
Remember when you’d fall off the track, and Lakitu would take forever to save you? He’s a speed demon here. You don’t lose your item, either. Nintendo made a lot of small, clever tweaks. Sometimes veering off course isn’t a death sentence as there might be a shortcut, ramp, or boost pad that you didn’t see before.
But that’s not even the best part. The anti-gravity segments flip the entire Mushroom Kingdom and beyond upside down as the track spirals and loops in crazy directions. You don’t notice it so much when you’re driving and focused on the road ahead as when you’re watching other people play, which is disappointing and amazing at the same time. Your wheels turn on their sides, and tire marks glimmer like shining blue gel. When you bump into another racer, both of you spin and boost forward. It’s exhilarating and fun and slightly scary, especially if you’re sliding around a bend.
Mario Kart 8 has customization and options galore. Out of the entire lineup, nine (or 10, if you count your Mii) of the 30 are female characters. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s more than any previous Mario Kart. Granted, three of them are baby versions of the adult Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina, and one is a gold version of Peach, but Wendy of the Koopalings is a cool newcomer, and Toadette is one of my go-to favorites.
Vehicles have three parts: the actual kart, bike, or ATV, and then the wheels and gliders. Nintendo did an excellent job making these making these appeal to both sexes. The color scheme and decals tend to change depending on which character you choose. Karts like the pink Cat Cruiser and Teddy Buggy are adorable, and there’s actually one called the Sneeker, which looks like a giant shoe. Maybe that sounds a bit over the top, but male characters like Donkey Kong or Wario can ride in it as well. I usually plop Pink Gold Peach in the bad-ass Flame Rider with the Crimson Slims wheels and the Waddle Wing glider (it looks like a flying squirrel), and I’m ready to roll—girly pink cars be damned.
It’s unfortunate that Nintendo removed great racers like King Boo and Funky Kong in favor of so many baby and metal versions, but it’s great to see all seven Koopa Kids in action. Though, for as many kart options as there are, I thought a number of them were duds when it came to handling. That’s the biggest learning curve in this game—figuring out the right way to steer around a turn without mucking it up—and this is coming from someone who’s played a ton of Mario Kart… with her Mario Kart crazy boyfriend.
The new items are hit-or-miss. The Piranha Plant, which chomps at nearby racers and obstacles like banana peels, is a fantastic addition, as is the Boomerang Flower. The Super Horn’s disruptive sound wave is useless most of the time, but it can counter and crush the dreaded blue shell that targets whoever’s in first or gets caught in its path. And the Crazy Eight, or eight items that circle around you temporarily, is… well, insane, but it doesn’t feel as all-powerful as it could.
Coins are now scattered across the track, and while they’re not a detriment, I found trying to collect them a pointless distraction. If you’re in first, chances are they’re all you’ll get from item blocks. And while you can trail items like a shield as usual, you can no longer do so and pick up a second item for a strategic bonus. If you don’t like the item you have, you’d better use it before you pass that next item block or you’ll be stuck without anything good.
Nintendo also blundered with Battle Mode, where everyone gets three balloons and tries to pop the other players’ by shooting shells and other items at them. Only instead of playing in one big arena, you drive forward on a track like you’re racing, so you only pass people once in a while. It’s boring. A mini-map would have at least helped curb this problem.
Online-multiplayer races, on the other hand, work really well, and you can play together with the person sitting next to you. This mode supports up to 12 real players for a full race, and I didn’t notice any lag issues.
After a race, you can watch and edit a replay via Mario Kart TV—slowing the action to a crawl or speeding it up at your leisure, which can be pretty funny. You can set it so the clip focuses on certain characters or moments. It’s not the most robust editor, but it’s an enjoyable feature for sure. My only gripe is that if you want to upload your replay to the Miiverse, you have to do it through YouTube. The instructions made it sound like that was optional, so my favorite replay was uploaded as a lame screenshot instead.
Most of these complaints are minor. Honestly, I can’t imagine going back to any other Mario Kart now, and HD is only one of the many reasons why. I’ll be racing in the skies, through the jungle, and over the jingly piano keys of the Electrodome for a long time to come.
Mario Kart 8 is available for Wii U.
Stephanie Carmichael writes about video games, comics, and books when she’s not helping teachers and students have fun together with Classcraft, an educational RPG. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.