After the first three console entries, Mario Kart and I have had a semi-bumpy ride. After hundreds, possibly thousands of hours spent playing Super Mario Kart, 64, and Double Dash, I didn't have the same fervor as I once did from the DS iteration on.
I barely played Mario Kart Wii due to a lack of interest, and I was let down in many ways by the underwhelming Mario Kart 7. But thanks to the magic of Mario Kart 8, I'm all in again just like the olden days. It helps that it's one of the most gorgeous and breathtaking games on the market right now.
Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 1
Release Date: May 30, 2014
Once again Mario and friends are suiting up and tearing up the track, with 16 all-new courses and 16 remakes. Although a number of Mario Kart games have featured track reworks in the past, this time around they're depicted in glorious HD, which makes a world of difference and utterly transforms them in a way that wasn't previously possible.
Mario Kart 8's main gimmick is the anti-grav mechanic, and it does a great job of making the eighth outing feel truly different from its predecessors. It's very F-Zero-like at times, and the new track pieces open up a completely different way of approaching shortcuts. In some instances, you can literally drive off the track and onto a sideways wall while everyone else races below, and in a few cases you'll be racing upside-down with half the cast on another inverted track above you.
Mario Kart 7 staples also return, including the power to glide when jumping off certain areas and underwater driving. You can fully control your kart while gliding as well as pull up and dive, which is particularly useful for sailing to shortcuts. Where Mario Kart 8 also shines is bringing back "tricks" -- the ability to press the hop/powerslide button right before a jump to get an extra boost.
It's a nuance that you may use roughly 50 times throughout each race, and though it's not a major advantage, doing it every time and recognizing proper jumps will help you get ahead ever so slightly. There's also the matter of coins, which increase your speed up to a maximum of 10. You'll drop coins after getting hit and falling off an edge, so it's in your best interest to pick them up as you race and avoid unnecessary damage. Item balancing is much better this time around, as I noticed that higher places don't tend to get as many powerful items as past games.
You also have the massive addition of the Sonic Horn item -- the first item in Mario Kart history designed specifically for stopping the blue shell. As you use the item, the horn will enact an area-of-effect circular explosion that's used for stopping items, and here's the kicker: you can get it in first place. It's for all these reasons and more that items feel just as fun as they ever were, but not so ridiculous that you stop having fun because of them. As a side note, the Sonic Horn (or something like it) should be in every game going forward, full stop.
This time around Mario Kart 8 features full GamePad support (which can double as tactile or motion controls, as well as Remote Play if you touch the screen and enable the option). Other players can also spring for a Wii U Pro controller, Wii Remote + Classic Controller Pro, Wii Remote, Wii Remote + Nunchuk, all with tactile and motion settings. Just like Mario Kart Wii, you can choose to ride in any number of karts, including old-fashioned buggies, motorcycles, and some more unique choices like crab karts.
So how about those tracks? I'm pleased to say that I heartily enjoyed all 16 new additions, as each of them has their own signature charm, gimmick, or kickin' tune to accompany them. Every track is memorable in its own way, especially the new Rainbow Road, which is a giant collective of space stations, and the soundtrack as a whole is so good that I'd be interested in buying it.
The new art direction and stunning visuals really go a long way to showing off every nuance of every level, and I'd go so far as to say that it's one of the best-looking games out there right now on any system. It sports insane details like particle effects, and the little things like headlights that turn on when you're in dark rooms. Sometimes I'll look in the rear view mirror just to get a glimpse of more track while going off jumps, which I've never done before in any Mario Kart.
The classic tracks often aren't as elaborate, but the team has done an amazing job adapting them for Mario Kart 8. A few of the courses are from older, more dated systems like the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 so they look better by comparison, but even the remakes of newer iterations like Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7 look incredible. You can also expect some changes that bring a little Mario Kart 8 spice, most notably the anti-grav walls installed in Toad's Turnpike.
You'll have plenty to do besides the 32 included tracks as time trials (with online ghost support) return, as well as a battle mode, online play for up to 12 players (and split-screen support that allows two players to go online together), 50, 100, and 150cc modes, and the ever-classic four-player local split-screen mode. You can also set your own rules on occasion outside of Gran Prix races, restricting item sets and the like.
But as much as I was sucked into Mario Kart 8's racing aspect, I did experience one massive disappointment: the lackluster battle mode. There are no arenas in sight in Mario Kart 8 -- instead, you'll have to make due with eight regular tracks from the core game. These tracks aren't even modified for battle mode, mind you. They're the entire course copy and pasted into battle.
Although there are some customization options available to morph battles into elimination competitions and such, I found myself loathing it so much that I have no desire to ever play again. The lowest moment was one particular battle on the remake of Yoshi Valley, a map so large that when it came down to just two karts left, we didn't even find each other until time ran out. Whoever thought this was a good idea must have been out of their mind that day, and it's an unwelcome blemish on an otherwise incredible package.
Thankfully you'll have the opportunity to unlock a boat load of content, like new characters (including the new Koopa Kids and Miis), and new vehicle customization options, ranging from the cart itself to wheels to gliders. Many unlocks are done by way of collecting coins during races, which gives you even more incentive to hunt for them. I've actually become attached to the Koopa Kids far more than I thought I would, as I've worked Roy into my new character rotation, and I love seeing the crazy antics of Ludwig and Iggy on a constant basis.
You'll also have Mario Kart TV, which is basically a built-in app that lets you record, edit, and save highlights from your races to either share online or upload to YouTube. They're mainly just reels of the most exciting moments, and the editing options are fairly basic, but it gets the job done for those of you out there who don't have professional capturing equipment. I don't see myself using it that often (out of the hundreds of races I ran I only really wanted to save one), but it's great to see Nintendo making a concerted effort for those who do enjoy the feature.
Mario Kart 8 is my favorite series entry since Double Dash, and if it gets arena battle tracks at some point by way of DLC, it will be a near-perfect package. Its vibrant visuals will hold up for years to come, ensuring that the game will withstand the test of time, and it will be a staple in my household for a long, long while.