Platform: Wii U
Release Date: May 30, 2014
ESRB: E for Everyone
Mario Kart is one of the oldest, most lauded, and best-selling multiplayer experiences ever in gaming; you'd be hard-pressed to find a gamer who hasn't played at least title in the series and enjoyed it with friends at some point in their life. And yet it feels as if the series has been stuck in a rut with the same traditional gameplay for years, with nothing too major shaking it up.
Now, after the brilliance of SEGA's Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Mario Kart 8 has a lot to live up to as it attempts to bring something new through its anti-gravity mechanic. Is it enough to propel the series forward in a meaningful way, or this still the same old Mario Kart?
Let's not beat around the bush here—Mario Kart 8 is fantastic, and in many ways it is still classic Mario Kart, but that's a good thing. While not a radical departure, the game's biggest new hook, anti-gravity, does add enough new oomph to the gameplay to keep things interesting this time around. At certain points around the tracks, there are certain blue markers that will activate a kart's anti-gravity functionality, which will have wheels turning sidewise and the kart floating, Back to the Future 2-style. Essentially, this opens up radically different courses where tracks may twist and turn in ways that weren't possible in previous games, leading to some fantastic set pieces.
Mario Circuit, for example, showcases this right off the bat, with the whole track twisting up into the air, around, and ultimately going upside-down and every which way. Other courses showcase other crazy new uses for this new feature in unique ways like Shy Guy Falls, which has you literally racing up a waterfall on the side of a mountain and then back down another one that's adjacent to it. Water Park features giant loops combined with underwater sections, and Dolphin Shoals is another great level that acts as a mix of a beach and underwater level, complete with riding on the back of a giant eel at a certain point. It really must be said that Mario Kart 8 has some of the best new courses the series has ever seen, and while not all are top-notch, many are bound to be classics that fans will really grow to love.
Speaking of courses, there are two sets of four cups in each of the game's main modes (Grand Prix, Time Trials, VS Race). The first set represents Mario Kart 8's wholly original new courses, and the second set is made up of retro tracks from previous games in the series, culminating in some 32 tracks all together. Overall, there's a great selection of retro tracks, ranging from Toad's Turnpike (Mario 64), Donut Plains 3 (Super Mario Kart), and Wario Stadium (Mario Kart DS) among others that were great to see recreated in crisp HD graphics. What's a little disappointing is the lack of tracks from certain games, however; Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart: Super Circuit only get representation through one track each, while Mario Kart 64, Mario Kart DS, and Mario Kart 7 all get three each (with Mario Kart: Double Dash and Mario Kart Wii each getting two).
Battle mode is handled a little bit strangely this time around. Instead of mixing it up in arena-type areas, you'll duke it out on the standard courses from Grand Prix. This isn't necessarily terrible, but it is strange considering that it's easy to lose track of your opponents since the courses are so large, especially if you're only playing against 2-4 people. The standard racing tracks don't quite lend themselves to Battle Mode's furious and sometimes tactical gameplay, though playing on them still works. One can only hope that the traditional, smaller arena levels will be added in as DLC (that would be free, ideally) later on.
There are a number of new characters as well, with 30 to choose from overall (at least half need to be unlocked). All seven of the Koopalings make their first appearance in the series, and both Shy Guy and Lakitu make their console debut here. Slightly disappointing is the inclusion of at least five baby characters (five!), including the newly added Baby Rosalina; I can't help but feel that their slots could have been better served going to other unique characters that are missing this time around, like Dry Bones or even Birdo. Still, Mario Kart 8 offers the most number of playable characters to date, which is nice to see.
Other new additions include weapons like the Pirahna Plant, which gives you boosts while it also snaps at other players in the immediate vicinity; a Boomerang, a long-range projectile that, of course, returns to you for another use; Crazy 8, which gives you all items in a circle at once; and the Super Horn, which emits a shockwave, damaging other nearby karts. You'll also unlock stamps to use on Miiverse when playing with different characters. Also new are highlight reels that you can view, share, and even edit after each race, showing the best and most exciting moments from each race. And in a first for any Nintendo game, players with Google accounts can also upload these highlight reels directly to Youtube from the game, which is pretty nifty to see.
Of course, another huge new feature of the game is the ability to play online with up to 12 other people in one race. You'll have the option of choosing between playing with people through modes like Worldwide, Regional, and through Friends. And like in Mario Golf: World Tour, Mario Kart 8 allows players to create tournaments that they can dispense to friends and others by means of a specific code or by searching through active tournaments going on. I had the chance to test out the online with another friend, and suffice it to say that it works superbly; there was no lag to be had whatsoever the whole time we played.
When it comes to pure graphical power, this is hands-down the best looking game Nintendo has released to date; this is no exaggeration either. The character models and tracks all look superb, with the former looking—dare I say it—near-Pixar quality, and beautifully rendered. What you see in the trailers is actually what you get in the game, and the amount of detail in each environment compared to previous games is staggering. Mario Kart 8 could very well be one of the best looking games of this current new generation so far and that in and of itself is pretty exciting. Its soundtrack is also full of some great new tunes that will no doubt get stuck in your head after awhile, in addition to some great new arrangements of retro track themes as well.
Simply put, Mario Kart 8 is the most exciting game in the series to date, and perhaps the best Mario Kart game ever. The addition of anti-gravity and other new enhancements along with a bevy of great courses (new and old) and superb online play make this a must-own game for any Wii U owner, and a definite system-seller for those who don't own one yet. Not only does it set the bar for Wii U graphics, but its updated gameplay and flawless online multiplayer make it the kart racing game to beat right now. If you've been itching to get back into the series or have never played any of the Mario Kart games before, there's never been a better time to dive in.
+ Anti-gravity changes gameplay up in a new, meaningful way
+ New courses are well-designed and exciting to play through
+ Plenty of levels and unlockable content to keep you busy
+ Online multiplayer is superb
- Battle Mode using traditional racetracks just isn't the same
- Inclusion of too many baby characters; would have been nice to get different, unique characters in their place.
Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)
Mario Kart 8 is the most exciting kart-racing game in some time and easily the best in the Mario Kart series to date. This game is a must-own for all Wii U owners.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Wii U code provide by Nintendo.