Many of Nintendo's best-known franchises have been running for nearly thirty years, a fact that not only cements such series into gaming history, but also raises a growing level of anxiety with each new iteration. After all, how long can you keep on going with the same game, and keep things fresh and exciting for everyone? A question that is currently being asked squarely of the Mario Kart franchise thanks to the game's titular 8th iteration being released on Wii U.
How well Nintendo has done in this challenging balancing act is what matters to fans and newcomers alike, so without further ado, let's delve under the bonnet of the latest instalment of crazy racing with everyone's favourite portly plumber and his chums to see what the Big N has pulled off.
The first obvious point to note, is that gameplay-wise very little has been changed to the formula that has worked so well for over 20 years. Frankly, this familiarity is what piques our interest about all new Mario Karts in the first instance. We know what we like, and it's the good quality fun that a Mario Kart game provides, and Mario Kart 8 most definitely delivers here thanks to this familiarity. However, it's the new additions, improvements and longevity that are going to convert the naysayers of the game and the Wii U (I'm looking at you Matt). So what does Mario Kart 8 bring that's new and shiny to the party?
Well, the game's USP is its anti-gravity mechanic which means that certain sections of courses mean that racers will be on the walls and ceilings and everything in between as well as the normal sections of tracks. The camera follows the perspective of the driver in the main, to avoid the disorientation you'd think you might suffer whilst driving through these sections. What this means is Mario Kart 8 essentially becomes a pseudo-F-Zero clone at times. But rather than that being a derogatory comparison, it's actually a compliment when you witness it in action. And that's because the fluid camera works well in tandem with the well designed sections of anti gravity, which means as a driver you don't really have to deal with crazy track orientation, and instead you can focus on the racing at hand, which for a game like Mario Kart, is of utmost importance.
This anti-gravity mechanic, is deployed in two separate ways. The first is that different sections of the main racetrack become anti-gravity sections, allowing for vertical hairpins, or corkscrew-style lengths of track. This gives the track designers a larger amount of creativity on what a circuit can look like to drive. And this means that circuits in this version of Mario Kart really do feel different to previous iterations in more than just landscape and aesthetics, which just adds to the enjoyment of play. The second way in which anti-gravity is implemented is to offer up alternative routes for drivers to choose to take. This could be for example, up an outside wall of a corner to grab booster pads on the wall, providing a neat alternative to the normal choice of cutting the apex of a corner as sweetly as possible. And this means that in addition to the new look and feel tracks, there are also multiple routes to traverse, providing not only choice for drivers, but also all the tactics and planning that go with such options.
The tracks are split into 8 cups of 4 tracks, with 4 cups of brand spanking new tracks, and 4 cups of remakes of tracks from previous instalments in the series. But more so than in any other Mario Kart game that has adopted this "retro remake" track approach, Mario Kart 8 excels in breathing new life into the tracks thanks in no small part to the anti-gravity sections, which as well as various ramps add an additional twist to old favourites, and will cause even those who have perfected their craft on these course down the years, to reconsider their style with these new additions.
The Grand Prix modes remain unchanged from it's predecessors, with you collecting points based on your finishes in races, culminating in an overall victor over 4 tracks. There are again 50cc, 100cc, 150cc and Mirror Mode to contend with, providing the usual level of challenge you have come to expect from the single player experience. As you progress and win these cups, you unlock new characters, with a total roster of 30 characters to choose from, once all are unlocked. Winning a cup with a new character also rewards you with a Miiverse stamp to use online much like NES Remix or Super Mario 3D Land.
But during said Grand Prix you'll definitely notice the new additions to the item list that will mix up the way you play. Firstly there's the Super Horn, an item than can be picked up by anyone (even the front runner) and when sounded can shock nearby racers, and also destroy nearby items, including the item that splits most Mario Kart enthusiasts - the Blue Shell. It means that the front runner will occasionally have a chance when hearing that "whoosh" sound that previously meant a guaranteed spin out. The other new addition is the Lucky 8, which sees you rewarded with a staggering 8 items at once, that rotate around your car, and depending on which one is at the front of your car when you press the item button will see it used. The other addition to console Mario Karts is the Coin, which can be picked up from various points on the racetrack (and they respawn over time in Grand Prix mode) to improve your overall top speed upto a maximum of 10 coins. Being hit by items or needing help from Lakitu if you exit the track, costs you coins if you have them, lowering your top speed until a time as you collect more. The coins again provide a layer of strategy - because you'll want to max out as often as possible, but taking coins from the track also prevents other racers from getting them - and their bonus in top speed - too. It's another simple mechanic, that when you scratch the surface prods you to make tactical decisions that could give you the edge in a race.
Collecting coins also has a separate and more interesting feature, in that for every 50 coins you collect you will unlock a new vehicle customisation. As with all frequent Mario Kart iterations, there is much more emphasis on choice of vehicle - and their resulting performance - than ever before. Performance is split into 5 areas, top speed, acceleration, handling, off-road grip and weight (to bash people with). By selecting different combinations of characters, vehicles (this time split into karts, bikes and ATVs), tyres and gliding device (again present after it's success in Mario Kart 7 for 3DS) you can customise your driver to suit your style and needs. The wealth of meaningful different combinations really does make this somewhere to really invest some time once you've unlocked a good portion of the game, as it will allow you to find the balance that's right for you. You can easily see by swapping in different tyres or vehicle what the result is to the 5 key stats, making comparison really easy. However for some strange reason Nintendo neglected to do this from the character select screen (presumably because you need to select a vehicle before you can see your stats). What this means is if you want to see what the difference is between Mario driving in your current setup versus (say) Yoshi, you have to back up out of the vehicle selection screen (after memorising the stats you had) and then select your new character, go back in and see what has changed. It just feels laborious and unnecessary given how fluid everything else in the customisation screen is.
But once you've got a good set up, and an understanding of the impact of each of the stats you'll probably want to take a stab at Time Trials. As before, the main premise of these hasn't changed - you are only looking to get the best time over 3 laps after all. But like with Mario Kart Wii, there are track ghosts on each course from Nintendo, and beating them nets you another unique stamp per course for your collection. You can also upload your ghosts online for others to download and race against if you're particularly proud of your performance. The stamps obviously provide additional purpose to beating the ghosts and improving your times in addition to the satisfaction of a job well done, although for the completionists amongst you there is something really ostentatious for beating them all!
But the unsung hero addition to single player (and indeed multiplayer, which I will get to shortly) is the introduction of MKTV. After every race you are treated to a highlight reel of events, which you can rewatch (and indeed rewind, pause, play etc), and save down and even upload online for others at your leisure. It serves as a great way of capturing those moments which make Mario Kart so special and will be one of those features which will undoubtedly become a mainstay of future games in the series. It serves as reminders of thrilling single player achievements, and indeed those laugh out loud moments that occur in multiplayer, be it local or online.
And so we get to online, the area which will arguably be where the majority of your time will be spent once you've perfected your craft in the single player campaign. As with Mario Kart Wii, you can choose either to indulge in racing or battle mode, and are given a score starting at 1000. Doing well in an event (compared to the scores of your opposition) will see your points increase, whereas will poor performances will see it reduce. From this it's easy to see even at this early stage in Mario Kart 8's life, who are the better / more dedicated online players and who is newer.
In Mario Kart 8 you can either elect to start a competition with random players either globally or regionally, or you can elect to search for your friends or recently raced-against rivals if they are online. You can also set up tournaments and private rooms just for your friends to personalise your online experience. You can customise your experience further by selecting further criteria such as which items will be used in the competition to mix things up from the normal fare.
Lobbies themselves are smooth, and the pacing of races is fast and furious, so no complaints there. My only real gripe is one of voice chat. I resent the fact that you can't speak during online races at all, as this banter is why local multiplayer is so enjoyable, and being able to transfer that to online multiplayer feels like a missed opportunity, seeing as though it's been around on so many other games, even Wii U games (Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate anyone?) for a long time now. Voice chat is limited not only to lobbies, but private lobbies at that. Which on the one hand reduces the chance of screaming teenagers swearing down the microphone, but also limits the fun and fluidity of the experience. The mute button is there in Call of Duty for a reason Nintendo, give me choice on who I speak and listen to, and I will be forever thankful. Not letting me have such choice in this day and age feels again like Nintendo is too scared of truly embracing the online experience for fear that someone somewhere may hear a swear word for the first time, and go on to be evil overlord of the world. Or something. Sorry, rant over.
But all in all, chat aside, there is little to fault the online experience on offer here. Races seem fair, fun and frantic and their short timespan means it's great for pick up and play value as well as longer sessions. The customisation options in private rooms mean for the first time you can really tailor your private online experience, meaning that the same old Mario Kart doesn't really get old.
I can't end this review without also mentioning the stunning visuals on display here. Now that Nintendo have an HD machine to power their games, they really are showing their skill, because games like Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World really are stunning to behold. On more than one occasion I've hit a wall or fallen off the track because I've not been paying attention in the race, and instead looking at the scenery, or the stunning water effects or just how nice the textures look. It's obviously a minor point in a game like Mario Kart, where it's all about the action, but visually this game is top notch which is an excellent bonus.
Also there's a nice amount of Wii U gamepad functionality on display here. You can use the gamepad to humurously sound your horn, or more practical uses include using it to display the map, with you and all the other drivers' positions on it. The gamepad's motion controls can also be used to steer the vehicle similarly to the wheel in Mario Kart Wii, and you can even swap between regular controls and motion controls mid race, if the mood takes you. Admittedly not something I've toyed alot with (I'm a purist when it comes to controls - analogue sticks all the way) but it's a great feature, and again gives the player choice, which we love here at Dealspwn.
So all in all Nintendo have done a great job with Mario Kart 8. They've managed to capture the familiarity of the Mario Kart franchise but throw in plenty of new tricks to keep things fresh. The anti-gravity mechanic, multiple routes and tactics, plentiful unlockable customisations, new items, MKTV, online customisation and tournaments and additional gamepad functionality build on an already solid base. What results is a game that is fun and familiar on one hand, but so new and deep on the other, that you'd be crazy if you didn't grab it with both.
- That familiar Mario Kart fun
- Strong customisation of vehicles
- Excellent track design
- Online options will provide longevity
- Gorgeous visuals
- Mario Kart TV is inspired, and a perfect match to the game
- Character-specific customisation can be frustrating
- Lack of voice chat choice online marginally spoils experience
The Short Version: Mario Kart 8 is a great example of how to keep a 20-odd year old franchise relevant. It isn't shy to give you what you've already had before with it's predictable racing fun. But conversely it also offers up so much more with this latest installment thanks to brilliant track design, item tweaking, customisation and a strong online offering to keep you coming back for more for months to come.