Mario Kart 8
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Series: Mario Kart
Released: May 29 2014 (Japan) and May 30 2014 (UK/US)
Console: Wii U
The Nintendo Wii U has generally been categorised as a commercial failure, so much so that many gamers might not even be aware of the platform’s existence. And that’s a shame, because there are still some cracking titles available for the console. Few are more enjoyable than Mario Kart 8, which continues the long-running Mario Kart series and takes it to places never before seen, resulting in a truly awesome game.
For the unitiated, Mario Kart 8 is a racing game based around the colourful and wacky characters within the Mario universe. The very first release, Super Mario Kart on Super Nintendo, was a primitive yet fondly-remembered title with eight characters, 20 rather basic courses and simplified 2D graphics. The series has taken huge strides in the 22 years since then, and the eighth main release (since there have also been arcade versions) moves things forward more so than ever before. For starters, there are now 36 characters, easily the largest to date. This includes all the old favourites, with Yoshi and Shy Guy both having eight colour skins to choose from. New to the series are Baby Roslina, Tanooki Mario and Link of Zelda fame amongst others; yes, we now have crossovers between franchises, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. There are still 12 racers per competition, but now you could literally line up against anybody, and it will be very rare for you to face off against the exact same field of opponents more than once in single-player mode, at least prior to unlocking people.
This marks the first Mario Kart game with high-definition graphics. Mario Kart Wii was unable to deliver this as the Wii itself did not support HD televisions, and the more recent handheld title Mario Kart 7 was not HD-friendly for obvious reasons (though it was 3D). Therefore, the graphics in Mario Kart 8 are the most striking aspect of the game at first glance, and the colours are truly stunning. The game has never looked clearer and more dazzling, aided by the increased focus on emphasising weather effects (such as your screen becoming wet after driving through rivers), road terrains (the sun shines beautifully off the sandy beach surfaces) and lighting (many of the courses are visually incredible). So, if the graphics of a game define its success, Mario Kart 8 already manages to achieve its primary goal, and that’s before we get to the tracks.
The environments are generally the highlight of any Mario Kart game. After all, we know that Mario, Luigi and co will all be present, and the formula of four races per Cup with numerous difficulty levels, along with the Time Trials and Battle Modes, will remain a part of the experience. But it’s the tracks that truly make each MK game stand out, and MK 8 has more than ever. It has 16 standard tracks along with 16 retro courses, and if that wasn’t enough, this is also the first Mario Kart game to provide downloadable content, resulting in 16 further DLC courses, providing a mix of new and old, along with further integration of other popular Nintendo franchises.
Starting off, the Mushroom Cup has the Mario Kart Stadium (a very cool introduction to the game for newbies), Water Park, Sweet Sweet Canyon (which will get your mouth watering due to the likes of chocolate and wafers being used as props) and Thwomp Ruins. The Flower Cup boasts Mario Circuit, Toad Harbor (which has you dodging ongoing lifesized vehicles, a series tradition dating back to Mario Kart 64), Twisted Mansion and Shy Guy Falls. The Star Cup starts with a bang with Sunshine Airport, which sees you not only driving through the airport itself, but also across runways, through aeroplane doors and into the sky! This competition also has Dolphin Shoals, the awesome Electrodrome (possibly my favourite on the whole game) and Mount Wario, which actually breaks the race up into one long downward slide, as opposed to a traditional three-lap course. Rounding off the standard fare, the Special Cup provides Cloudtop Cruise, Bone-Dry Dunes, Bowser’s Castle (which ditches the “scary” feel for a fiery building accompanied by hard-rock music) and the most high-tech version of Rainbow Road to date.
The retro courses are implemented differently here to previous MK releases (Mario Kart DS was the first to offer a proper nostalgia line-up, though Mario Kart: Super Circuit did include all 20 areas from the very first game). Here, they have been “jazzed up”, meaning that they aren’t exactly what we remembered playing in the past, but in most cases are graphical and physical upgrades upon their predecessors, and they also have slightly remixed audio. The Shell Cup has Moo Moo Meadows (Wii), Mario Circuit (GBA i.e. Super Circuit), Cheep Cheep Beach (DS) and Toad’s Turnpike (N64). The Banana Cup has Dry Dry Desert (GameCube, meaning Mario Kart: Double Dash), Donut Plains 3 (SNES), Royal Raceway (N64) and DK Jungle (3DS i.e. MK 7). The Leaf Cup has Wario Stadium (DS), Sherbet Land (a great winter track from Double Dash), Music Park (one of the best 3DS tracks) and Yoshi Valley (an N64 course which sadly no longer provides the mystery of wondering where your ranking is during said race). Lastly, the Lightning Cup has Tick-Tock Clock (DS), Piranha Plant Slide (3DS), Grumble Volcano (Wii) and Rainbow Road (the N64 version, though it is sadly greatly truncated and, in reality, it feels nothing like the original in the only real flub amongst the plethora of courses available).
And so we have the DLC offerings, which also meant brand new Cups. The Egg Cup has Yoshi Circuit (Double Dash), Excitebike Arena (based on the old NES game Excitebike, with the course changing slightly between each turn that you have there), Dragon Driftway (a very cool track that exists within a huge dragon!) and Mute City, which is based on F-Zero. The Triforce Cup has Wario’s Gold Mine (Wii), Rainbow Road (yes, this Mario Kart game has three Rainbow Roads, with this one coming from SNES), Ice Ice Outpost (an arctic arena) and Hyrule Circuit, which is based on The Legend Of Zelda. The Crossing Cup has the ever-popular Baby Park (with more distractions than its original Double Dash version provided), Cheese Land (GBA), Wild Woods (a fun track with a real springtime vibe) and Animal Crossing, which represents the series of the same name and has four seasonal alternatives which are randomly chosen. Finally, the Bell Cup has Neo Bowser City (previously Koopa City on 3DS), Ribbon Road (with the original GBA track having been greatly enhanced for this game, making for a truly classic course), Super Bell Subway (set in a subway station) and Big Blue, which is also based on F-Zero.
I’ll delve more into the courses as a whole shortly, but I have to mention the main selling point of Mario Kart 8, that being that this was the first game to provide anti-gravity courses. This means that the roads have no limits and, oftentimes, you will be driving along a surface while being able to see an upside-down version of the road you had just driven along. These designs are also incorporated in many cases to resemble an “8” as per the name of this release. This is also the first home console edition to allow for hang gliders that attach to the many vehicles available, which allows characters to fly from one side of the course to another in a breathtaking manner. Elsewhere, there are more statistics and vehicle feature options than ever before; there are lots of unlockables triggered by the return of coins, for which a sturdy collection opens the door towards extra items; there is now a VS mode which allows for multiplayer races to have specific settings in terms of vehicles, the number of courses and the items allowed; the game is compatible with Amiibo, which allows for extra attires for characters; and the online mode has been greatly expanded, with a Mario Kart TV theatre-type option to watch gameplay clips.
The control scheme is far better to manage on this game than on Mario Kart Wii. Here, thanks to the chance to use the Wii U gamepad (which incidentally provides a second screen in addition to your TV), you can twist and turn with greater accuracy than ever, making for the best racing experience of the series to date. The Wii U itself is advantageous because you can play from one end of the room while your TV stands on the other and, so long as you are within the same room, you could theoretically play the game on your gamepad while watching something else on your TV, so long as the game disc is still actively spinning within the console. Indeed, the Wii U itself is not exactly a must-own, but it really does make for one of the most enjoyable Mario Kart treks yet, and that’s before we delve into the racing itself.
On that note, the game as a whole is bags of fun. My biggest issue with Mario Kart Wii was how the CPU players could bombard you with items, meaning that you could be totally taken out just yards from the finish line and end up going from 1st to around 8th as a result. It was too frantic and unpredictable, as well as being quite ruthless. Here, though, the CPU tactics have been relaxed somewhat, so while you might still be fired at with a shell or a bolt of lightning, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it once did, meaning that even in a race of 12 competitors, you never feel like it is overwhelming to the point of outright annoyance. What’s more, the coin system used in MK Wii returns but with you simply having to finish 1st to achieve the maximum of three stars, unlike the Wii game where you practically had to drive flawlessly while somehow avoiding every possible CPU item to even potentially make it to three stars. And best of all, amongst the new items included are the Super Horn, which can protect you from an incoming blue shell; finally, we have a cure for the blue shell dilemma! That alone makes this an awesome entry in the series.
Amongst the courses, there are many real highlights. My personal favourites amongst the original 16 available are Sweet Sweet Canyon, Toad Harbor, Sunshine Airport, Electrodrome and the reimagined Bowser’s Castle, while between the retro tracks, I loved getting to relive anything from the N64 and GameCube despite the alterations, though Music Park and Tick-Tock Clock are immensely enjoyable. And as for the DLC, this also has its gems, with the new and improved Ribbon Road and Super Bell Subway being my top picks. To be honest, with 48 tracks available covering a wide variety of backgrounds and layouts, it’s the true one-offs and those with some unorthodox props (such as the aforementioned ice cream wafers being used as windmills within the Canyon) that stand out the most, but you honestly can’t go wrong with the selection. I’m not sure if it’s the best line-up of tracks in series history, but I have very few complaints with what we’ve got to play with in this game, and completing all of the courses will take around 3 hours in total, so it’s hard to get bored.
Speaking of time, the slightly questionable decision was made to remove the amount of time from the screen during Grand Prix, which is a slight let-down. The bigger worry for fans, though, was that Battle Mode does not have any of its own courses, instead bringing the multiplayer mayhem to the main tracks, which theoretically provides a greater amount of choice, but it also removes a unique element from what is a popular mode amongst die-hards. On a brighter note, though, the game also debuts a 200CC mode, which makes the racing faster than it has ever been before, as well as retaining the Mirror mode of reversed versions of the existing tracks. The gamepad also allows for motion controls to still play a hand in you winding your way around the bends, some of which are very challenging indeed! Finally, I appreciated the small details, such as the sand off a beach sticking to the tyres of your kart or bike after heading just a couple of yards into a race, and touches like this emphasised the incredible amount of work that went into this game.
The biggest flaw with Mario Kart 8 is the scaled-down Battle Mode, but I never play this option much anyway, preferring instead to use Grand Prix or VS mode to tackle friends and family. Therefore, if we put Battle Mode aside, Mario Kart 8 is as good an edition of the game as any in the series, and given the very high quality standards set by its predecessors, that is a very good thing. Almost everything is better than what we have seen in past MK titles, and it runs circles around Mario Kart Wii by focusing on fun and excitement rather than chaos and confusion. Mario Kart 8 is worth buying a Nintendo Wii U console for, because it’s an all-time great release from a series which has been around for more than two decades, but when it comes to innovation, one where it seems that the team are only just getting started.
Target Audience: Children Aged 3+
Content: No Content Likely To Offend
Overall Rating: 9.5/10 – Classic