Review by Cenedarprime

Reviewed: 06/10/14

In the land of kart games, is Mario still King?

It's no secret that Nintendo's Wii U has been struggling recently. While continuously underselling compared to Nintendo's own projections, the Big N mysteriously hasn't ramped up its release schedule nor gone on a more aggressive advertising campaign to get awareness of the system out. So the question that many have asked of Mario Kart 8 is "will this game save the Wii U?"

I don't think it's really fair to ask that question as any console in the Wii U's current predicament needs more than one good game to save it. It's not going to happen overnight. This being said, Mario Kart 8 is a fantastic next step and if it is at all telling of the quality we can expect in future titles, then the future of Nintendo's console is bright, like a super star.

GAME PLAY:

Anybody who has played any Mario Kart game before, especially MK7 on the 3DS, knows how this game works. You take control of Mario or one of his colorful cast-mates from the Mushroom Kingdom, drop them in a souped up go-kart and race for glory around several wacky and often dangerous tracks. At it's core, Mario Kart 8 only really requires four different inputs. One button for gas, hopping and sliding to the right trigger, items on the left trigger, and steering with the control stick. That's it, that's all there is to it. Mario Kart has always been easy to pick up and play, but the excellently refined driving mechanics still make it feel nuanced and deep. Mastering the art of power-sliding around corners is an absolute necessity in this game, even more so than in previous entries. If you can hold a slide for long enough you'll see sparks erupt from your wheels, first blue, then orange. These sparks signify a mini-boost that can help you fly out of a corner without losing any speed. Tricks can be performed using the same button when reaching the tops of ramps or similar environmental features (slaloms, logs, rocks, etc) and performing them is encouraged. You can't fail a trick once started, and doing so gives you another small boost upon landing.

The game isn't all about finding extra boosts, though. Far from it, as the other essential part of the Mario Kart formula is in the items. Easily one of Mario Kart's defining features, racers can break open item boxes by driving through them and find an assortment of bombs, turtle shells, banana peels and more to trip up, knock over or blow up the competition. It adds an element of chaos and luck to the game that is perfect for local multiplayer. The balance of what items appear, and how often they appear seems far more tempered in this game than in the past, especially compared to big brother Mario Kart Wii. When running Grand Prix mode in the Wii version, it was not uncommon to get hit by a leader seeking blue shell, then immediately get shoved by three racers and hit with another red shell. All in the span of three seconds. That sort of thing doesn't happen nearly as often in MK8, and if it does it is far more forgiving as your character finally has a couple seconds of invincibility after being struck with most items. You can no longer store an extra item by dragging one behind your kart either, so it forces players to be far more strategic with the ones they have.

Like in Mario Kart 7, players not only choose a character but actually build their own kart as well. Choosing from a pre-created selection of kart bodies, wheels and gliders, players can tailor a kart based on stats or simply on what they think looks cool. The more coins you collect during races, the more parts unlock. Like in MKWii, karts are rejoined by bikes and in a new addition we get access to ATV bodies as well. This last seems like an afterthought though, as once all is said and done there are only three ATV bodies. Karts and bikes, meanwhile, have ten at least. Bikes have also been rebalanced to level the playing field with karts, as they can no longer do wheelies and get two levels of mini-turbo through sliding, like karts. The gliders are used during the mid-air portions of races, which returns from Mario Kart 7 along with underwater racing as well. Joining these are Mario Kart's newest mechanic, antigravity racing. When entering certain sections of track, players can see their tires go horizontal and become magnets that allow racers to ride along walls, ceilings, and in all manner of gravity insulting directions.

This may seem purely aesthetic at first but antigravity mode brings with it an interesting new mechanic: spin boosting. Bumping into an opponent normally makes one of you stall momentarily, and lightweight characters often get shoved straight off the track. But in antigravity mode, bumping into an opponent causes your wheels to slide off of each other, spinning you both around amidst a flurry of pretty neon lights, giving you a surprise speed boost. This simple addition manages to change your strategy entirely during races as you now think of what angle to ram your opponents by to get the most beneficial spin boost possible. Overall, antigravity mode provides some impressive visual moments while also maintaining a fresh feeling in races, one that isn't overused at all.

PRESENTATION:

It is not a stretch to say that this is the prettiest Mario Kart to ever appear. Nintendo knows their hardware and how to bring incredible graphical capability out of it, despite it being underpowered compared to the PS4 or XB1. Characters and environments are crisp, colorful and vivid. And all races in single player or two player split screen run at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, even online. When going into 3-4 player split screen this drops to 30 frames per second, which is noticeable but hardly matters as the game still plays incredibly smoothly. Every time I race I always find new details in a course that I missed last time I was bombing down the track. Characters especially come to life when performing tricks; Bowser spits fire and Donkey Kong flexes his muscles, while the lightweight character like Shy Guy and Baby Mario often flip out of their seat entirely. Items explode with bright colors and flourish. And all of these visuals are supported by a stellar soundtrack that often utilizes full instrumentals. Hearing the classic tune from the N64 Rainbow Road, remixed with horns and brass and guitar, is thrilling on both a nostalgic and climactic level. This is a game that screams polish and Nintendo has spared no expense in making this game look and sound appealing to players.

REPLAY VALUE:

As in previous Mario Karts, this is a game that shines in multiplayer. Getting some buddies on the couch and tearing up Grand Prix mode is fantastic, and actually helps unlock parts much faster as every coin collected by every player goes towards your unlock total. Getting gold cups in Grand Prix mode unlocks characters, I had cleared 50 cc and was two away from clearing 100 cc when I unlocked my final character. The roster tops at 30 characters, which seems nice at first. But then you realize that five of them are literally baby versions of larger characters, and SEVEN of them are the Koopalings. Now don't get me wrong, I love me some Koopalings, but when they get in alongside five babies and two metal characters, while series favorites in Diddy Kong, King Boo and Dry Bones are left out in the cold, the roster still feels like it lacks in diversity. This will largely be up to your own opinion though. Online play in this game is buttery smooth, even with my cheap, bottom of the barrel wifi. Once you are in a race, I experienced no lag and only ever disconnected accidentally while in the lobby waiting for another race. And when racing in a private room with friends I never experienced any connection issues whatsoever. Unfortunately, the one big weak point in MK8's shiny armor is the battle mode, while I am glad that balloon battles have returned to form, they no longer take place on specially built arenas, but on actual tracks from Grand Prix mode. This seems neat at first, but at the end of a match it often dissolves into two places struggling to even FIND each other on a track, much less hit each other. We may grow used to this version of battles in the future, but for now it feels like a missed opportunity on Nintendo's part to bring antigravity racing into some inventive new arenas. As an aside, players can also use Mario Kart TV to edit and share replays of a particularly thrilling race, even posting to youtube if they have a google account. This is a fun distraction, but the real joy comes from hitting the slow-mo button and watching all the fantastic lighting effects and missed details on the course. It is a feature easily forgotten and not very much missed, but still fun when you remember it.

FINAL VERDICT: While not quite perfect, Mario Kart 8 refines it's driving to a new standard in smooth and delivers it in a stunningly beautiful package. This is more than enough reason to pick up a Wii U, or dust yours off if you already have one. Mario Kart 8 is not to be missed.

Final Score: 9/10

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Mario Kart 8 (US, 05/30/14)

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