Wii U review: Mario Kart 8

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All revved up

I’ve played way, way too much Mario Kart this month. It’s easily my favorite videogame series of all time, and I was so amped about Mario Kart 8 that I played every single Mario Kart game multiple times over. I made myself a tiny bit sick of the series, honestly.

But Mario Kart 8’s here, and I really want to talk with you about it. Nintendo’s changed a lot with this most recent entry — there are larger, immediate changes, like the addition of antigravity, but there are also a lot of smaller systems changes and tweaking going on.

Because there’s so much going on, I’d like to make this review of Mario Kart 8 a little more in-depth than usual. Let’s-a get going.

Pro or anti gravity?

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Nintendo’s big addition to Mario Kart 8 is the ability for karts to race up walls and onto ceilings. Their wheels turn sideways and glow blue once they pass a gravstrip panel, and the world turns upside down. It’s actually a really understated effect, one that’s a little bit hard to notice the first time you play. You’re just too focused on your player.

But once you play more, you begin to widen your tunnel vision and notice the scenery around you turn upside down. And you notice that things play a little differently, too. Bumpers appear on the track, and nudging these with your kart provides a small boost. Players can boost off of each other too, which can help racers in the crowded middle of the pack catch up with the person in first.

Antigravity isn’t a huge addition to the core mechanics, but it’s allowed Nintendo to get really creative with their track designs. And it really does make the game far more enjoyable to watch in-between turns and in replays, as you notice all the environmental effects you were too busy to notice during the race. More than that, though, it really acts as the glue that ties together the glider and underwater sections. They don’t feel like static setpieces anymore — the tracks are so varied and have so many alternate paths that each route feels like an actual choice, instead of a “bad path versus good path” decision.

Drifting and handling

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One thing that really bummed me out about Mario Kart 7 is how prescribed the turns felt. Once you entered a powerslide, your character could basically take the turn as sharp or as wide as they wanted, and the result was a handling system that was a little bland and lifeless.

Mario Kart 8’s racing feels more influenced by your character’s weight class and kart. There’s a little bit more nuance to each kart, making them feel more varied and unique. It’s ever so slightly more skill-based as well, karts pushing out a bit on powerslides before they curve into their turns. It may be tougher for new players to get into, but I think in the long run it’ll provide for a richer experience.

Plus, all of the control schemes work really well. The gamepad is my favorite, because it’s just so comfortable. The wiimote and nunchuck controls are also great, freeing you up to move your hands as you play. I’d say the Pro U controls fare slightly worse than either in terms of comfort, while the motion controls are fun if you’re willing to sacrifice some small amount of control over your kart. If you’ve got classic controllers, those are supported too and play fine.

Twisting, turning new tracks

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These tracks. These bold, beautiful, wonderful tracks. Mario Kart 8 has some of the best track design in series history, hands down. Even the first level impresses: a moonlit racetrack with thousands of fans cheering, multiple jumbotrons highlighting the action, and helicopters casting down searchlights as fireworks shoot off above. Players race around and up its curves, entering antigravity before jumping off one section of track and gliding to the next. Ramps and small shortcuts abound.

That’s nothing compared to the likes of Thwomp Ruins, Mount Wario, or Cloudtop Cruise. Dolphin Shoals might be the immediate highlight: Dolphins breach the water as players trick off ramps, winding their way through underwater reefs and gliding over multicolored pipes venting air. They then land on the squirming back of an eel before breaking the water’s surface and flying over a raging rapids.

These tracks are setpiece design at its best. They’re eye-opening and crowd-pleasing, but they never lose the fundamental feel of kart racing. And I can’t point to any of the cups as being significantly worse than the others, something I can easily do in most Mario Kart games.

Returning retro favorites

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Nintendo’s also done a great job remixing the retro tracks. Some benefit from a lighter touch: In Moo Moo Meadows, they’ve simply added a hilltop glider section to bypass the difficult rolling mounds at the end of the stage. Other stages feel remarkably different. Toad’s Turnpike has changed radically, with antigrav strips along the sides of the tracks and traffic sporting boost and glider ramps.

Piranha Plant Slide has received a particularly great makeover. All of its core elements are here with minor revision, yet they feel remarkably fresh. The waterslides are more raucous, the underwater segment feels expansive instead of closed in, and the glider section sees players swoop upward towards land instead of flying straight through. Piranha Plant Slide feels like a rollercoaster.

There’s no more than one track in any given retro cup that fails to impress. And with the exception of Music Park, which hasn’t really been tweaked, every track is better here than in its original game. Donut Plains 3, Yoshi Valley, and Cheep Cheep Beach in particular are sure to make any long-time Mario Kart fan smile.

If I have one gripe with Mario Kart 8’s retro cups, it’s that they leaned so heavily on Mario Kart 64 while leaving other games underrepresented. Super Mario Kart and Super Circuit only got one reworked track each, while Mario Kart 64 received four. And it especially stings that Gamecube received two returning tracks, when both are easy lowlights of the retro lineup.

Kartwork

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Mario Kart 8 is beautiful. More than just about any other developer, Nintendo knows the importance of vibrant color, the joy in small environmental flourishes amidst the rush of pure play. Koopa troopas fly the stormy skies of a cloud top pass; Toad and Yoshi-shaped fireworks erupt above Rainbow Road as a golden train whizzes by. This is the videogame equivalent of a Pixar movie — there’s life and heart in every moment.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Nintendo’s only ace is charming visual design, mind. Mario Kart 8 races along at a stable 60 frames per second, and it honestly makes other games feel lacking after playing it. I’ve heard that 30 frames per second is really all a game needs, but after playing Mario Kart 8, I really have to disagree. This game looks and feels really, really nice, and that’s in no small part because of its consistently high frame rate.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to 4 player local multiplayer. Here things are locked to a stable 30 frames per second, and it’s jarring after playing the game solo or two player. You get used to it after a few matches, but you’ll always wish it were smoother.

Now with item balance!

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Mario Kart has had problems with item balance for a long time. With each new entry Nintendo needs to add whacky new items, and that generally results in a bunch of overpowered items flooding the track. With Mario Kart 8, I get the sense that Nintendo heard players’ concerns and set down to address them.

There’s no mistaking it: Nintendo definitely reduced the frequency of power items deciding the race. There are less bullet bills, blue shells, and bolts, and they removed the annoying POW blocks and super shrooms entirely. A new super horn item can destroy blue shells, or any other offensive item headed your way. These are all really good things.

In addition, there’s a Piranha Plant item that chomps enemy racers while boosting you along. It’s somewhat overpowered, able to take out multiple opponents as it boosts the player along, but it can’t defend from attacks. The new boomerang item lets you attack three times in succession, but it’s difficult to hit with.

I’m not sure I like that players can only hold one item at a time. In other Mario Kart games, you can trail an item in order to pick up another item box. That way you have an offensive and a defensive item. Here, when you trail an item it still clogs up your inventory, so you have to use it before taking another.

It leads to more considered item usage and makes each item count more, but it’s somewhat restrictive. Maybe you won’t capitalize on a really good opening because you’re too worried about what might happen if you use up your only means of defense. It makes being in first place kinda boring, honestly — players in first really have no incentive to use any offensive item, since they’re better off trailing items to protect themselves.

The return of the coin

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And there’s a dark side to Mario Kart 8’s item balancing: the coin. The coin is my least favorite Mario Kart item of all time. First appearing in Super Mario Kart, the coin was basically the game’s way of saying “Sorry! Guess you didn’t get a good item. Better luck next time.” To my knowledge it hasn’t appeared in any other Mario Kart game, at least not as an item collected from an item box. That was a wise decision on Nintendo’s part.

But it’s back! The coin is back, and it sucks. If you haven’t played Super Mario Kart or Mario Kart 8, this probably sounds like massive nitpicking. But it’s not. The coin is the most boring item in Mario Kart history.

In Mario Kart 8, if you’re in first place you stand probably a ⅓ chance of getting the coin instead of any other item. Coins give you a teeny tiny itty bitty boost when you use them, and the more coins you have (up to a max of 10), the higher your max speed, or acceleration, or something is. So it’s nice to have coins, I guess. But there are already coins on the track, and if you’re in first place, you probably have 10 coins anyhow. So the game has a ⅓ chance of giving you an item you just don’t want at all, one that can’t be used to protect against attacks.

This wouldn’t sting so much if Nintendo hadn’t removed the fake item block. I know, I know, the fake item block is kind of worthless. But unlike the coin, it’s fun worthlessness. You can’t use it to protect against attacks, but you can place it amidst a group of real item blocks and hope some dumb fool hits it. I would much, much rather get a fake item block than a coin. Compared to the coin, fake item blocks look totally rad.

On the other hand, I really can’t overstate what a big advantage the person in first place has in Mario Kart. They don’t have to worry about most items or being bumped off, and they have first dibs on any coins littering the track. So anything that Nintendo does to reduce that massive advantage (without resorting to the dreaded blue shell) is a definite plus in my book. Maybe I can be alright with the coin. Maybe.

Crazy cool karts, bikes, and ATVs

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The good thing about coins is that they unlock new vehicles and parts. Mario Kart 8 is really good about constantly giving players something new to experiment with. Every 50 coins unlocks a new vehicle, wheel, or glider. This means that if you’re playing two player, you’ll usually unlock a new part every cup you play. If you’re playing by yourself, it’s more like every other cup.

When you’re starting out the game, that’s a really good incentive to try out all sorts of different character and kart combinations. After a while the unlocks start to slow down a bit, but that’s only after you have a whole bunch of karts and parts to work with. And even then they just keep coming — I’ve gotten three stars in every cup and beaten all the time trial ghosts, and I still have at least one more glider type to unlock before I have everything.

And some of these karts (and bikes and ATVs) are awesome. I mean hella cool and also kind of hilarious. There’s the teddy kart that growls as it starts up, its eyes white headlights that gleam in the dark. One ATV looks like a Wiggler, one bike like a Yoshi with arms outstretched. There’s even a pink cat kart with a white-tipped tail dear god it’s adorbs.

I didn’t really care for kart customization in Mario Kart 7, but here it’s come into its own because all the parts are just so fun to play around with. Give baby Rosalina some giant monster truck wheels — sure, why not? And maybe you want your Lakitu to have twin cloud parachutes, so go for it. Put Bowser in that tiny beetle buggy. He looks stupid, you say? That’s kinda the point.

Plus, there are a lot of viable vehicles. In Mario Kart Wii there was pretty much one “best” kart (well, bike) for each weight class. Here, I can see there being any number of favorites. The Cat Cruiser, Circuit Special, Wild Wiggler, Sports Coupe, Flame Rider… and on and on. There’s a really versatile selection of strong, cool-looking karts. What’s even better is that every vehicle is available to every character, so there’s no need to compromise if you want to drive a certain one.

Hitting the character limit

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There are a lot of new and returning faces here, as Mario Kart 8 has more racers than any other game in the series. There’s a total count of 30, featuring stalwarts such as Mario, Luigi, Toad, Koopa Troopa, Wario, etc. New racers include all seven Koopa kids (Lemmy, Iggy, Roy, Wendy, Larry, Morton, and Ludwig), as well as Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach.

Even so, the roster feels a little thin. A lot of the characters are too similar when you consider that half of them are babies, metal characters, or Koopa kids. Many players are bound to be disappointed that fan favorites Dry Bones, Diddy Kong, and King Boo haven’t made the cut.

But let’s be real here: Mario Kart 8 is all about Roy. He’s easily the coolest among a group of six really awesome Koopa kids (plus Iggy). He boasts, he poses, he crushes fools on the track. And there are a lot of other great characters besides. If you can’t find a favorite amongst Mario Kart 8’s roster, you’re not looking hard enough.

Mario Kart TV needs better programming

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Mario Kart TV lets you admire Biddybuggy Bowser’s stupidity from all angles, but I can’t help but feel let down by how Nintendo’s implemented the service. After every race, Mario Kart TV lets you view a highlight reel, selecting from different parameters and following different characters, etc. Then, once you get a good clip, you can easily share it to Miiverse and Youtube.

There’s only one problem: it doesn’t let you share everything you want to show off. You can’t really edit your clips; you just view 30, 45, or 60 second highlights arranged by the game. There’s an option to view the whole race, but players can’t share those because they’re too long.

Mario Kart TV would be absolutely killer if you could edit your clips the way you want and share full races. Right now, it’s just a fun diversion.

It’s trial time

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Neglecting Time Trial mode would be a real mistake here. Nintendo’s staff ghosts return, and this time they’re hell-bent on showing you all the tricks and shortcuts on each course. They take alternating paths with each lap, in case players aren’t sure how to tackle each one.

Because they readily experiment with their routes, these ghosts aren’t quite as difficult as previous games’ staff ghosts. Fortunately, players can upload and download ghost data, meaning there’s always somebody faster to beat. I wish Mario Kart 7’s drip-feed approach to ghost data had returned, but it’s hard to fault Mario Kart 8 when what’s here works so well. Time Trials are an incredibly effective way to learn these tracks.

Embattled mode

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Mario Kart 8’s Battle Mode isn’t bad, but it is really disappointing. Nintendo have made some really smart tweaks to the formula, and this could honestly be one of the best Battle Modes in the series… except that there aren’t any dedicated battle arenas.

Instead, players face off on a select handful of tracks from the game. It just doesn’t work right, ruining the pacing and making battles more sporadic than they need to be. I suspect it’ll be fun once the online lobbies are populated with players, but that still leaves out the local multiplayer experience. It’s been ten years since we had a solid Battle Mode. I wish Nintendo would put in their full effort.

A match made in heaven

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Mario Kart 8’s online matchmaking works great, though. It’s really no surprise: the series has always been Nintendo’s flagship for online multiplayer, and nothing much needs to be changed from the single player Grand Prix. Plus, the game’s revised item balance shines through, making online multiplayer slightly less frustrating.

And Mario Kart 8 is slightly tweaked in a way that really makes matchmaking shine. In previous Mario Kart games, each player would simply pick from any of the courses, or choose random if they didn’t care. Here, the game limits the choice pool to three courses, and players select which they like best. If they don’t like any of the three, they can still pick random.

Players are forced to mix up which tracks they select. This is something I don’t think you can truly appreciate unless you played Mario Kart Wii online, wherein it seemed like every single person voted for Coconut Mall every time. I don’t know who these people are or why they have such bad opinions, but I’m glad their tyranny is no more.

But is it kart?

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I obviously have a lot of praise for Mario Kart 8, with a few reservations — I’m bummed out about Battle Mode and certain tweaks to the item system, and I think Mario Kart TV could be a lot better. Even so, this may be the single best Mario Kart since the original on the Super Nintendo. Mario Kart 8 has beautiful track design, stunning visuals, sweet customizable go-karts, and nicely tuned online racing.

As with any new entry, there’s some amount of glitz and glamour. But Mario Kart 8 just feels right; there’s a solidity and nuance and spectacle to the races that’s immediately exciting. Nintendo’s really outdone themselves here — Mario Kart 8 is destined to be a single and multiplayer staple for years to come.

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