Mario Kart 8 | Review

Posted on May 30, 2014 - 9:35pm

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If it’s a Nintendo console released after the SNES, you can bet that Mario Kart will be pulling in at some point during the console’s lifespan. Mario Kart 8 takes the series off the ground and onto the very walls, but not without stumbling in some areas before achieving lift.

If you’ve played Mario Kart 7, you’ll have no trouble playing Mario Kart 8. Kart customization returns with different parts affecting speed, acceleration, weight, handling, and traction. Tracks will take you underwater and through the air. Bikes return from Mario Kart Wii, but in the interest of balance, their only difference this time around is that bikes are better at taking on corners while karts do better on straightaways. In a game with “kart” so prominently in the title, I’m happy to see bikes not steal the show like they have before.

Veteran racers will pick up on some smaller, yet noticeable changes. As a whole, it feels faster. Lakitu is ridiculously efficient at returning you to the race, however it’s no longer possible to get a small speed boost when your tires make contact with the ground. You’ll also notice that only one item may be held at a time. Even if you’re dragging that green shell behind you, you’ll have to throw it if you want another weapon. I don’t hate the change, but I miss being able to stockpile like I could in the past.

Obviously, the big new feature in this game is the anti-gravity segments, allowing races to be taken to the walls and even the ceiling. There’s more to it than just that, though; within these portions of the courses, the rules of Mario Kart change. Collisions with certain objects and other racers are now rewarded with small speed boosts, slightly changing your strategy for as long as you’re within that stretch of track. I like the effort to turn the franchise on its head, but feel like it’s still not a “big” enough feature on its own.

As mentioned, the new tracks still incorporate gliding and diving features as introduced in Mario Kart 7, but of course, the new tracks are built with anti-gravity more in mind. As a result, the new tracks are overall pretty good, but the previous game’s tracks focused on a cooler gimmick, making them more fun overall. That said, the classic tracks are some of the best revamps the series has seen yet. All I’m going to say is the N64’s Toad’s Turnpike is possibly my favorite track in the game.

If anything steals the show in Mario Kart 8, it’s probably the items. There’s a three-use boomerang that can even hit opponents on the return trip, a Piranha Plant that automatically bites any racer or hazard that gets too close, and a horn that sends out a shockwave powerful enough to stop any opponent… including the dreaded blue shell. Only one complaint: how many more Mario Karts are we going to go through before the item-stealing Boo returns, Nintendo?

It wouldn’t be Mario Kart without the alternative Battle Mode to coincide with the racing. Quick story time: when demoing this game at E3 2013, a representative was jotting down notes of people’s likes, dislikes, and suggestions to improve the game. I basically grabbed him by the shoulders, looked him straight in the eye, and told him I wanted a last-man-standing-type Battle Mode to return. The good news: wish granted. Instead of endlessly respawning after losing all three balloons, you become a ghost; technically “out,” but still able to participate by using items on those still remaining.

The bad news: in spite of this, Battle Mode is ruined. There are no battle arenas, so you can only play Battle Mode on tracks obviously meant for racing, not killing each other. Not versions of those tracks modified to suit a different play style. The actual racetracks themselves. This means that Battle Mode is now about driving in circles and throwing items when you occasionally see someone else until there are so few people left in the game that you just wait for the timer to run out. Using race tracks as battle maps would have been alright as an option, but with it being the only way to play, the beloved Battle Mode is rendered worthless. If anyone wants to understand the importance of having good level design, give this mode a whirl and see how much fun it could have been.

Race or Battle, you can take your favorite game mode online, with a friend if you want, with karters from your region or anywhere in the world. Lobbies include the option to choose from a selection of preset messages, like seen in Mario Kart Wii, but when you get to the track selection screen, that’s when you discover Mario Kart 8’s bonehead design choice number two. Every past game in the series with online functionality has allowed you to vote for any track you’ve unlocked or just go with a random choice. With the power of the Wii U, you may now vote for one of the game’s randomly-chosen assortment of three potential tracks or for a random track for a one in thirty-two chance of the one you actually wanted being chosen. That said, from what I’ve been able to gather from playing online a few weeks early with only handfuls of other players, the netcode seems to be very strong, with no erratic movements or teleporting kart racers to be seen anywhere.

Those wanting to test their pure skill against the world once again have the option of uploading ghosts of their best races online and downloading others as well. After every race, you have the option of editing and uploading a replay to the MKTV feature Nintendo has been hyping up. It’s an in-game replay manager that saves your most recent races and up to six that you want to keep forever. You can fast forward, rewind, or play them in slow motion and even edit them to feature only certain racers or events with ease. Accessing MKTV from the main menu lets you see what hijinks other karters have been up to and even upload your own to YouTube. To be perfectly honest, however, it’s Mario Kart. The craziest things that happen in one race are probably going to happen in the next. Still, for those very rare occurrences when something happens that you wouldn’t be able to replicate again if you tried, it’s nice to know that you’ll be able to save it.

While online, the Tournaments feature replaces the 3DS game’s Communities. More or less, they behave mostly the same, but instead of acting like mass lobbies for different game settings, they can be scheduled for certain times on certain days and even for certain ranks.

Even more impressive is how Mario Kart 8 looks and sounds. At a smooth 60 frames per second on a high-definition console, it’s no surprise that hitting the turbo to go off a ramp has never looked better. Performance noticeably dips down to a still-comfortable 30-ish frames per second in four player split screen. It’s a personal preference, but for me, the best part of Mario Kart 8’s presentation is its jazz-flavored music.

I couldn’t help but appreciate how no matter what surface I was driving on, I never found myself disoriented. The camera keeps your character oriented at the bottom of the screen at all times, at most having them tilted to one side or the other. It’s a small gesture, but without it, this game would have been disastrous to control.

The general race screen does bring up bonehead design decision number three, however; the only way to see the map or where each player is ranked is to look at the GamePad. Of course, in local multiplayer scenarios, only one person will have access to it and even then, Mario Kart is too fast-paced to want to look at the secondary screen even for a moment. This is only a real problem because Mario Kart 8 includes no possible way to have any of that information display on the TV screen.

Mario Kart 8 employs the same replayability factors as the last few installments. Beginning with only two Grand Prix cups, you’ll unlock the remaining eight one by one after completion of the ones you already have. Each cup can be played in 50cc, 100cc, and 150cc for different rankings and doing exceptionally well will earn you a one, two, or three star rank for bragging rights. Coins picked up in races from any game mode count toward an overall total. As that total reaches certain tiers, new characters and kart customizations become unlocked at a steady and addictive pace.

Almost everything new to Mario Kart 8 leaves me baffled. The new anti-gravity mechanic is more mildly interesting than game-changing, the fan-favorite Battle Mode is left sullied, and there are a some clearly stupid choices made here and there. But even in the face of all that, the actual racing is still as solid as ever with fun new items and good tracks to boot. Those who value Battle Mode should wait for it to be marked down before paying full price for what will only be half of a game to you, but those just wanting to race will find an experience, in my opinion, even better than Mario Kart Wii’s.

7/10 - Good

7s are very fun games that have solid appeal. They have obvious issues that stick out, but can still be enjoyed by anyone.

Nick Cramer is the producer man of the Clip of the Week, frequent voice guy on Top 10s and Video Game Vaults, and all-around master of the video arts. A Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, and an "old-school gamer who missed out," he has an affinity for the classics, but is still discovering some he never played as a young'un.

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