Mario Kart 8 raced onto the Wii U last friday with promises of great high definition resolution, ultra smooth frame rates, and a star studded cast including the infamous Koopa Kids. Also, the addition of seamless zero gravity portions of the track were promised. So, is Mario Kart 8 spiked blue shell or a banana peel? Luckily for us Wii U faithful, the game delivers on all cylinders.
Upon loading up the title, you’re given the standard options of 50cc, 100cc and 150cc circuits. All tracks can be played in all difficulties, so there’s no punishment for those who prefer it slow and easy as opposed to the frantic pace and aggressive artificial intelligence that the 150cc mode brings along. And, just like in previous Mario Kart games, many old tracks make new, revitalized appearances. There are some brand new tracks, including the latest edition of Rainbow Road, which includes a brief segment over a Mario space station! Also included is the Toad’s Airport, sure to impress with the stunning visuals of large jets flying around and through the racetrack.
This brings me to the latest addition of the game: the zero gravity portions of the track. In specific portions of each track, marked by blue lines, your kart wheels will automatically turn sideways (think of the Delorean in Back to the Future) and you will hover slightly over the ground. The track then changes directions wildly, sometimes driving you directly up the side of a building, or sideways across another portion of the track. Since the view of your kart never changes (to you, everything appears right-side-up), some of these modes may not seem that revolutionary. However, doing a quick glimpse around the world will reveal some of the most impressive visuals I’ve seen in a Wii U game to date. The thrill of going directly up towards the sky, only to make a sharp U-turn and begin a rapid descent towards the earth, is nothing short of thrilling. This is great when coupled by the smart design of each track, ensuring that maximum draw distance is achieved, no pop-ins are present, and no frame rate stutters are ever detected (for those technophiles, the game runs in a native 720P at 60 FPS, upscaled to 1080P).
As a side note, when playing with the Wii U gamepad, most of the HUD is instead transferred there and off your main television screen. While you have the ability to replicate gameplay on the pad (standard in most Wii U games), you can also open up a map on the second screen. It’s nice to have a relatively clutter-free HUD, something I hope to see more Wii U games do in the future.
I will admit that at times, some of the legacy Mario Kart tracks seem to shoehorn in the zero gravity sections where they might not really belong. It was almost as if the developers were required to utilize this technology in each track, sometimes breaking the flow of an otherwise enjoyable ride. This does not take away from the overall experience, but rather an observation regarding some of the design choices. Legacy tracks that were omitted in this version may have served better than some of the choices the Mario Kart 8 team chose. Regardless, the fresh tracks are a great addition to the title.
But this is such a minor setback, as you’ll instead be focusing on the great gameplay on the road. Some of the more traditional vehicles, such as the speed bike, are present. Of course, some of the more zany rides, such as the mechanical horse-drawn carriage, adds a sense of humor to the franchise. Traditional to the Mario Kart standards, each character handles slightly differently than each other (bruisers like Donkey Kong and Bowser suffer from slower acceleration over faster top speed, whereas characters like Mario and Shy Guy are overall average in each category). Karts and wheels do alter driving experiences slightly, but overall it comes down to weapon selection and driving skill as opposed to “tuning” in order to be successful. After seeing all of the stops Nintendo is pulling for the upcoming Smash Brothers title, it’s a bit disheartening that a lot of characters didn’t make the Mario Kart 8 cut (Dry Bones, Birdo, King Boo…).
When you’re not cruising in first place, you’ll find a great selection of weapons to be had. The traditional banana peels, red homing shells, and green shells all make their return, but some new weapons have been added to the selection as well. The most notable of these is the air horn that can actually neutralize the notorious blue spiky shell entirely, which is a much needed addition to the franchise. In my experience, those driving in first place are subject to the single coin and banana peel power up, which is disappointing. The game still continues to “punish” players in first with poor weapon selections. This actually opens up an entire meta-game of how to successfully win a race against your friends, as most players will gladly give up the top spot in favor of better power ups as the race progresses.
Speaking of multiplayer, the game offers great local co-op support as well as great online support. Up to twelve of your best Wii U friends can join in a race. The action works well, but is clearly peer-to-peer hosting (as opposed to logging in through Nintendo’s servers) because I unfortunately suffered many disconnects and unexpected lag. In Nintendo’s continued filter attempt at online gameplay, it’s hard to add current racers to your friend’s list, challenge their times, or even communicate via voice chat (as there is none). Nintendo has thrown a small bone to the online community in the form of Mario Kart TV, which allows you to directly upload small clips of your gameplay directly onto YouTube. This mode does not allow for any editing, rather the game will determine what is shown based on a standard list of filters (best turns, best use of weapons, best drifts, etc.). It’s nice to easily share your best moments, even behind the aforementioned Nintendo filter of internet play. I’d like to see more innovation in this department as future titles are released.
Mario Kart 8 delivers on what matters most: great gameplay. The weapons are polished, the attention to background design pays homage to some of Nintendo’s greatest locations and characters, and track design provides just enough drift corners and shortcuts to provide some memories. Racing opponents online is a real thrill, and even though severely limited, the YouTube upload application is sure to keep this game on the radar for a long time to come.