Review by super_luigi16

Reviewed: 06/06/14

Just like the game's item distribution, Mario Kart 8 is a mix of utter disappointment and riveting success

Perhaps the Wii U’s most anticipated title in 2014, Mario Kart 8 has finally reached the starting line. Many of us have been waiting for years for this newest entry, watching as screenshot after screenshot trumped this entry in the series as the most gorgeous title on the Wii U to-date. Frankly, we expected Nintendo to release a completely awe-inspiring game based on the precedent set by the graphics; unfortunately, the gameplay itself seems to be lacking in certain areas. Sure, the game has a shiny, smooth, and easy-to-use menu system, balanced-ish gameplay, and decent core mechanics, but overall the game seems lacking on some levels. In order to make Mario Kart 8 as slick as the oil spills on GBA Mario Circuit, Nintendo appealed to the lowest common denominator in their market, cutting out many necessary and unnecessary features in the process. It is these cuts—along with some utterly unfathomable modifications—that hinder Mario Kart 8’s gameplay from living up to the graphics you’ve had shoved in your face for the past several months (or the past few clicks as you have been investigating this game).

This Game Looks Freaking Amazing!

So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move onto the rest of the review…

Well, not yet. Seriously, Mario Kart 8’s graphics are drop-dead gorgeous. For a kart racer, Mario Kart 8 just about takes the cake with an insane level of detail just about everywhere you look. Need convincing? Let me just list some of the details I’ve noticed while playing with Mario Kart 8: Cloudtop Cruise’s entire beanstalk section starts with a brick ?-block, Bowser’s Castle starting line sign has flaming letters for “Mario Kart,” Electrodrome’s music (and graphical effects) change ever-so-slightly depending on which portion of the track you are on, you can see an entire city underneath N64 Rainbow Road, your tires will change color based on the terrain you are driving on, Sunshine Airport’s departure/arrival monitors list the other tracks in the game, advertisements abound throughout the tracks and the vehicles themselves, spectators line many parts of the tracks, Rainbow Road has a blooper starship in the background, Twisted Mansion’s front doors swing open when you start the race, and you can actually see one of the statues in Toad Harbor on N64 Rainbow Road. Okay, I think I’m done with the details. But, yeah, they are certainly there if you look for them. The developers were very careful to add so many details, and if you actually take the time to look around during the races, you’ll start to notice a lot of them. It may even take you several races to notice some of the more obvious details. Each individual little detail adds a small but important boost to the game’s charisma and charm as you race through each of the tracks.

The graphics themselves are highly dynamic. They react to the racers and to what’s going on throughout the course. Thus, the game feels more real. Like, way more real. The racetracks are by no means static, and this is huge for a series where changes in the course were either very obvious (dynamic obstacles) or very inconspicuous (hidden between each lap). Mario Kart 8 makes everything so dynamic that it’s actually more startling to find something more permanent about a course than something that changes over time. The dynamic nature of the graphics is reflected in the course design and in the overall liveliness of the game, so it’s a huge plus in my book. However, sometimes the graphics can be slightly unimpressive. If you really look closely at the game, you will likely notice some jaggies on the character models—in that regard, the graphics are not all that impressive. However, in the grand scheme of a race, a few jaggies are not noticeable at all. The other problem with the graphics involves the slight amount of lag in multiplayer races when the game only runs at 30 frames per second; the lag on the screen is rather noticeable especially when switching from single-player gameplay, which runs at 59 frames per second. Lagging and stuttering in multiplayer modes can be a little jarring, but it’s not game-breaking.

NOW to the rest of the review!

Chaotic Gameplay for All of the Wrong Reasons…

I’m all for Mario Kart being a chaotic game. I consider Mario Kart 8 as a party racer game with many chaotic underpinnings in order to make the game consistently interesting; the experience is unparalleled. Certain races can just feel like, well, clusters! And there’s inherently nothing wrong with a chaotic party game. They can be insanely enjoyable with a good group of friends.

Let’s back up a bit. So Mario Kart is a kart racer game, as mentioned before, but Mario Kart 8 has a lot of moving parts. Firstly, the tracks are whimsical, filled with Mario-themed obstacles, and fraught out of bounds zones. Secondly, racers can collect items while on the course and use them to slow down other racers or pick up their own speed; items are usually Mario-themed, and they range in usefulness. Thirdly, most tracks are three laps long, and most races last approximately two laps. Fourthly, Mario Kart 8 has a lot of little features too, including starting boosts, coins to boost speed, drifting and miniturbos for said drifting, gliding, underwater, and anti-gravity track sections for variation. Of course, we’ll get into these aspects more later, but a basic overview should give you an idea of the game before I get any farther into the gameplay.

Although Mario Kart 8 is chaotic, it’s chaotic for all of the wrong reasons. Other games in the series made items overpowered or even smashed more racers onto smaller tracks in order to make the game more consistently interesting. Instead of taking this approach, Mario Kart 8 screws the item balance to hell and back. Position, distance, and online ratings literally mean nothing online. There are slight correlations between distance to first place and your item roulette, but the correlation is so weak that it is hardly relevant. It is quite normal for a player in the front of the pack to get an item that is significantly better than a back-of-the-pack player’s item. The item distribution is utterly random. It is completely unacceptable for the guy in tenth place (third-to-last) to get a single green shell while the guy in third gets a star. Mario Kart 8 increases chaotic-ness by killing any semblance of logic and reasoning when it comes to item distributions.

It’s so blatantly obvious that the game has decided to screw someone over now that one can simply walk away from a race knowing that they have no shot because the arbiter of fate—Mario Kart 8’s random number generator—decided to give the five people in front of him or her significantly better items. First place is not as sheltered as before (background: first place has the best item situation because no one is in front of first to hit him or her), but it’s ridiculous for tenth place to fare worse than fourth place on the item roulette. I admit, perhaps tenth should not always get better items than fourth, but tenth should generally get better items than fourth; in Mario Kart 8 this is not the case. It’s basically a craps shoot as to what your item will be if you’re below second place.

This kind of item distribution breeds a false sense of chaos. The race is still chaotic, but that’s because the entire race is basically fireworks with a random mix of players with crap items and players with amazing items. Those with good items overrun everyone else and storm the lead in a dramatic and, well, chaotic usurpation, but the entire process is so damn artificial that it doesn’t even feel like it can be attributed to any sort of skill.

Nintendo played to casual gamers in making the item distribution more random; the game is more random, and placing higher is more reliant upon luck than skill. This makes casual gamers happier; they don’t consistently place sixth, seventh, or eighth. Rather, they jump from tenth to third to eleventh to sixth to first. Nintendo basically screwed over anyone who even bothers to try and learn how to get better with regards to his or her management of items rather than relying upon pure luck. Everyone is better off bribing Lady Luck than actually trying to game the system.

The Course Design Is Superb!

Luckily, the game isn’t entirely luck-based. Ba-dum-tish. Although you may not be able to rely on items to leverage your way into first place, you are able to focus on your lines (i.e., how you drive the course) to outspeed everyone. You actually get results from knowing the courses! The items aren’t so overpowered that practically everything about the gameplay is irrelevant.

Seriously, cynicism aside, these courses are freaking awesome. Nintendo did an amazing job of creating new courses with fresh theming and dynamic course designs. As mentioned in my discussion of the graphics earlier, the stages feel alive. For instance, Electrodrome, which is the nightclub racetrack, is designed so that the track splits while in anti-gravity so that one track is on top while the other track is on bottom. Rainbow Road, which is the final new course, has the track split in two and weave among the two paths. Sunshine Airport—the name should make the theme obvious—uses luggage as an actual moving obstacle. Bowser’s Castle, which is the second-to-last track, is just insane with its use of obstacles and other elements to make the course utterly crazy. The retro tracks (which are pulled from previous Mario Kart games) have been updated so well that I didn’t recognize some of the courses when I first saw footage of them. Many courses are recognizable only because of their theming and general course layout. Specifically, N64 Yoshi Valley, DS Tick-Tock Clock, and N64 Rainbow Road have been masterfully updated in Mario Kart 8.

Anyway, so these courses are so great because they integrate so many aspects into their course design. Gliding and underwater portions, which were in Mario Kart 7, have been expanded upon by anti-gravity, which allows racers to race along tracks that go up walls or even upside-down. By combining all three elements, the developers had unprecedented opportunity and potential in their course design, and it seems like they truly used the elements to their fullest. The tracks feel natural, even though they often have zany and whacky course contortions. Anti-gravity fits so well with gliding and underwater sections that gliding and underwater driving feel even more alive in this entry than in their debut title, Mario Kart 7. Furthermore, the theming is rather fresh for a series that used to so heavily rely upon the same basic environments and backgrounds. Instead, Mario Kart 8 reinvents recycled themes (for example, Dry Bone Dunes) and introduces new ones as well (Cloudtop Cruise).

All in all, Mario Kart 8 has superb course design. The tracks are not too easy, but they also aren’t too hard. Practice actually makes a big difference, but the courses don’t require so much practice that you’ll be spending the next few weeks just trying not to fall off. The course obstacles and themes are fresh and new for a series that had already made 116 courses before Mario Kart 8’s release. The developers’ ingenuity is truly remarkable.

Sleek Menus for All of the Wrong Reasons…

By contrast, though, Mario Kart 8’s sleek menu design and user interface are by-products of Nintendo’s larger effort of impressing casual gamers and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Menus and interfaces are accessible, sleek, and slim because the game offers so few options and customization that Nintendo has few options to present. It’s easy to make a game feel straightforward and slick when the game itself is light on content. Nintendo, of course, retained traditional modes like Grand Prix, versus, battle, Time Trials, and online, but the developers opted against including any other modes. The entire game is a ploy to the lowest common denominator, and it completely disregards any acknowledgement of the large competitive aspect of the game. The biggest evidence of this ignorance is Mario Kart 8’s lack of an options or records menu; it simply does not exist. Instead, Nintendo focused on compiling highlights that can be easily posted to YouTube that, while it works well and is pretty easy-to-use, is limited in scope by the sixty-second upload limit. Users aren’t able to upload their entire races (which is especially shoddy for Time Trials), so the MKTV YouTube upload feature loses a bit of its luster.

Anyway, Mario Kart 8 feels slightly unfinished. It seems like the game developers rushed to include the bare minimum instead of positing new (or retro) modes to flesh out the game. But, in other aspects, the game developers didn’t seem rushed in that they deliberately made the game simpler—remember the item distribution? Altogether, the game seems casual friendly at the expense of catering in the least bit to those who actually want to get better at the game. The game feels light because it excluded the very features that would’ve pleased a more competitive audience. Why did Nintendo neglect the players that will compose the most resilient and dedicated fanbase for the game? It’s utterly bewildering for a game that revolutionizes the series’ looks and course design to fail to revolutionize other aspects that would have a more immediate and important impact on the gameplay. Why doesn’t item distribution make sense? Why can’t I send ghosts to my friends? Why can’t I upload entire races? Why can’t I manually change the item distribution? Why isn’t there a mission mode? Why is there only one battle mode? Why can’t we even change basic options about the game? Why does this game include so little for five gigabytes of data?

Now, that’s not to say that games that appeal to casuals are inherently flawed. I love good casual games. I play games on my phone. I play Mario Party and enjoy it (sometimes). But Mario Kart 8 suffers from the same kind of cheapness that has plagued the Mario Party franchise—previous Mario Kart titles relied on luck for some chaos, but Mario Kart 8 only relies on luck to make the game interesting. It feels cheap. When anyone can do well, what’s the point of actually trying? I might as well spin a slot machine. The one redeeming factor is the skill required to learn the courses, but what happens once everyone learns the courses? The skill curve seems nonexistent. This sort of casualness is not good for Mario Kart. Furthermore, it may seem like I’m ripping on new features—like Mario Kart 8’s online item customization—but they don’t feel like new, compelling features when they’re unusable. MKTV is nice for highlights, but why not go all the way and allow entire races to be uploaded? Online item customization is even more unbalanced (barring the wild item mode, which is ironically more balanced) than the normal item distribution, heavily favoring the person in first place, so what’s the point of using these item modes? Why can’t we have the ability to change the frequency of the item appearance?

Mario Kart 8 is a lot of fun, yes, but it could be so much better if it didn’t feel like we were shafted by poor additions, unnecessary simplifications, and an overall appeal to the lowest common denominator: luck. Mario Kart 8 feels light for all of the wrong reasons; it’s a ploy to simplicity for simplicity’s sake, not because it works.

It Was Almost to the Finish Line

Overall, Mario Kart 8 is a good game. It’s fun, it has great course design, and it streamlined online modes to be quick and easy-to-use. To deny the effort that went into Mario Kart 8’s graphics would be a disservice to game developers everywhere. But, to overlook the glaring faults and flaws of this game would give a green light to other developers to make games that once were competitive into a glorified slot machine. There are games that appeal to casual players and still have deep competitive spheres--the entire Smash Bros. series is a testament to the success of this dichotomy. A few simple changes and additions would have made Mario Kart 8 so much more. Perhaps the game will be patched or receive DLC. Regardless, this review may seem overwhelmingly negative, but the game is still good at its core; it’s still fun at its core. Mario Kart 8 just feels like it rounded the last turn on the last lap and then decided to putter out just before the finish line--imagine what we could’ve had if Mario Kart 8 had crossed the line!

FINAL SCORE: 8/10 | Great

+ Solid course design.
+ Amazing integration of anti-gravity, underwater sections, and gliding sections.
+ Great vehicle customization.
+ Exhilarating pacing.
+ Battle mode is tons of fun with the return of free-for-all and ghost battlers.
+ Compelling, fun gameplay.
- There are still hidden stats. Stop hiding things from us!
- Cheap, chaotic, and confusing item distribution.
- Limited mode customization.

+ Online mode is more extensive.
+ Versus mode returns with decent customization.
- Lack of other battle modes.
- No options menu.
- Added features (MKTV, online item customization) are outweighed by removed features.
- Game feels lacking.

+ Absolutely superb graphics.
+ Dynamic courses make the game come alive.
- A few jaggies.

+ Good soundtrack.
+ Sound effects are solid.

+ Adds tons of replayability.
+ Ability to host separate rooms, addition of tournament modes.
+ Separation of versus rating and battle rating.
- Forced to leave private rooms in order to change vehicles.

+ Online adds tons of replayability. (deja vu)
- Lack of other modes once Grand Prix is finished.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Mario Kart 8 (JP, 05/29/14)

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