Nintendo’s formula isn’t a surprise to anyone. When you pick up one of their consoles or handhelds, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: Some crazy new feature (some would say gimmick), a few surprise third-party games, and a whole host of good-to-killer first-party titles.
The games themselves kind of follow that same path, taking a classic (or old) franchise and adding a new element or two to the gameplay. More often than not, they do a pretty good job of it.
With that sort of formula, you’d think Nintendo’s pretty much out of surprises, at least until they release a new console with virtual reality support or some such craziness. But Mario Kart 8 is a surprise – I had supremely high expectations for the title, and it bested every one of them.
It’s the best game the Wii U has to offer, the best game in the Mario Kart series, and hopefully a sign of things to come for the whole host of Big N-owned franchises.
Why? If they release games in other series with this level of fun and polish, the Wii U will finish a hell of a lot healthier than it started.
Rebirth of a classic franchise
I’m not a Nintendo nut by any means. I don’t get into Zelda titles, play Mario games only because my wife and kids love them, and keep my own personal selection of favourites down to a minimum: Super Metroid, Paper Mario 2, Mario RPG, and so on.
Mario Kart for SNES and N64 are definitely on that list. Then the franchise progressed and… I don’t know. The fun just came out of it, at least for me.
Look at Mario Kart: Double Dash. The game could be fun at times, but it was also the progenitor of a lot of weird stuff: Two-character cars. Special abilities. A strange level of complexity that would have been okay – if they tried to explain half the mechanics they introduced.
And let’s not forget the computer’s rage-inducing propensity to absolutely hammer you with items any time you were in first place. Those saints who managed to get all golds on 150cc Grand Prix undoubtedly have a massive case of PTSD (and an even bigger prescription for Xanax) now.
Between that and other design flaws like uninspired level design, it could have been the beginning of the series’ decline, at least on consoles.
Now we have Mario Kart 8. And it’s mind-blowingly good.
The graphics are excellent. So is the character/level selection. So is the design of those levels. I certainly have my favourites and least-favourites, but I can’t say that any one track is bad. With the number of environments this game boasts (over 30), that’s seriously saying something.
The racing itself is a blast, as are the rules behind it. Nintendo has clearly rebalanced the game, from the point system to the way the same characters would always win the top two or three spots in Grand Prix mode, making it impossible to win most encounters without getting almost all golds. I’ve still been unfairly hammered with items from time to time, but it feels like part of the game – not an artificial limitation designed to give the computer a chance against me.
If you read that last sentence and felt relief wash over you… wait until you try it. It’s got the fun of a casual Nintendo title, the depth of a more “adult” game, and the kind of polish you only see when lots of talented people come together to work on something they very clearly care a lot about.
It’s glorious, in other words, and I don’t mind looking like a dork to tell the world about it.
The big additions
In my mind, this game brings two major “new” elements to the table, at least as far as the console versions are concerned: Online matches and so-called “zero-G” gameplay.
Zero-G is pretty much what the label says. Most tracks feature a little blue bar; once you drive over it, your tires turn into magnetic hover-things, and the track itself does all kinds of crazy stuff. You might have to drive straight up a waterfall, on a wall alongside a busy freeway, or over a twisty, bumpy course that moves up and down like a shockwave.
This mostly works to great effect. Emphasis on mostly. Be it because of the camera or the way my character’s centered on the screen, I sometimes felt like I was still on a regular plane even when I was going sideways or straight up or straight down. The level design is still excellent – not to mention incredibly inventive – but that particular aspect doesn’t always come through as strongly as it should. But when it works, it really works: Your jaw will drop the first time you rush up the waterfall in Shy Guy Falls, for instance.
The other big guy is online play, a feature that’s technically been around since the days of the GCN network adapter and widely used since the OG Wii instalment.
I’m proud to report that it works flawlessly, at least thus far. I am not exaggerating or being hyperbolic or any of that when I say I have yet to experience a bug, problem, or even a bit of lag. While some reports say that there are some hacking issues, I have yet to experience it at all… and believe me when I say I’ve sunk some serious time into the online play since I’ve had it.
Here’s how it works: You’re put in a lobby with up to 11 strangers (you can also have friends along or play them exclusively if you so desire). Everyone votes on the map they want, and then you race. There’s a points system there that’s mostly an epeen-measurer, but the real fun’s in the gameplay, not any point grind.
The fun isn’t always in getting the unlockables, it’s in enjoying them once you’ve attained them. It’s a lesson Watch_Dogs could have taken to heart, for sure.
I do have one problem with the mode – as of now, you have to drop your lobby to switch your racer and car around. It could be that I’ve missed some sort of hidden option. As it sits, I’m stuck dropping match if I want to switch from Bowser to Mario, or even just change the car I’m driving.
On the topic of changing cars – wow. The game features a ton of different body styles (Karts, motorcycles, ATVs, and a car shaped like a kitty are just a few), plus tires for the the vehicles (ex: monster truck, wooden, thin, standard), plus floating devices like parachutes, gliders, and parasols for the big ramps hidden throughout the tracks. An article I read said there are something like 156,000 permutations between all the characters and build-a-vehicle options; while I haven’t checked the math, that sounds about right.
The game is gorgeous. Flat-out, straight-up gorgeous. It’s the best-looking game on the console by a wide margin, and maybe the best of this current generation in terms of its art design and attention to detail. Every map has a ton of little things going on: The Shy Guy map, for instance, has who knows how many Shy Guys running around performing their little Shy Guy tasks.
Those things often equate to gameplay, too. Several maps change with each subsequent lap, dropping sections of tracks or otherwise morphing, and at least one doesn’t have laps at all – instead, you run through three checkpoints in a beautiful snowy wonderland.
Character-wise, things are pretty great. Notable newcomers to the track include a broad variety of Bowser’s spawn (Lemmy, Ludwig, etc.), the above-mentioned Shy Guy, and Rosalina from the Super Mario Galaxy series. There are some odd omissions – Kamek and Dry Bones, specifically – but those who did make the cut are satisfying enough. There’s a broad selection of Nintendo’s past, not to mention their current roster, here to enjoy.
While we’re on the topic of throwback references, something Nintendo clearly does very well, I was also quite pleased to see the sheer number of tracks that come from other games in the series.
They’re not full-on copies, however: from Toad’s Turnpike to the remake of Star Road (N64), every environment has several little touches that improve the experience and make it work within this new title’s gameplay scheme.
For instance, Toad’s Turnpike has several zero-G sections that let you drive along the walls instead of sticking to the road.
An instant classic
I could keep going on, but I think I’m getting my point across here: Mario Kart 8 is a system-seller, the kind of game a lot of us were hoping would grace the Wii U when it launched instead of years later.
The only other title that comes close to the level of sheen, care, and overall fun Nintendo has given us is the new(ish) Super Mario 3D World – and I would venture to say that Mario Kart’s quite a bit better than even that awesome entry into Mario canon.
I’ll leave you all with one last thought. As a game reviewer, it’s my job to get through games fairly quickly after launch (assuming we can’t get an early review copy) and find the good and bad things. That means keeping my eye for faults and things I don’t like sharp. After ten or so hours of gameplay, however (online and off), I’m having trouble finding anything wrong with this particular title.
That’s not me speaking as a Nintendo nerd or Mario fanboy – because, again, I’m neither – but as a lifelong gaming enthusiast and trained critic.
If you have a Wii U, Mario Kart 8 deserves to be in your collection right now. If you don’t have a Wii U, consider getting one, if only for this game. It’s a rare combination of technical excellence and crazy fun, and (again) easily the best game the Wii U has to offer.