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Mario Kart 8 Review

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What is the usual experience when playing a racing game -- I’m sorry, driving simulator? You start-up your brand new driving simulator, excited to drive around your favorite exotic car, only to quickly realize the driving simulator has started you with a mere pittance, forcing you to actually make the necessary money to purchase said fantasy car. You then spend the next three to six months racing the same tracks over and over until you’ve finely tuned your starting car, can win every race imaginable (and by that I mean the ones you’re eligible for because your starter car isn’t a RWD classic Italian luxury car built between 1972 and 1974), and finally purchase the gorgeous car you’ve revered for so long. Of course by that point you’re so used to your previous car that your first race in this fantasy car is a disaster. Unfortunately you sold your previous car, so now you’re limited to racing a new set of races over and over for the next three to six months till this car is finally at a passable standard. The Mario Kart franchise is none of this. Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U is the franchise’s first venture into HD, bringing the chaotic and fun gameplay into the current generation. Without a doubt, for all those gamers who can’t stand traditional driving simulators, Mario Kart 8 is the game for you.

Maybe it’s the years of memories I have from the franchise, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m terrible at more traditional racing games, but I love the Mario Kart franchise. Mario Kart games offer a balance between skillful racing and chaotic action that is rarely found in other games of the genre. Like its predecessors, Mario Kart 8 has a low learning curve, but rewards players who are willing to devote the time and energy to excel. Players race along in go-karts, motocycles, or ATVs, drifting through turns, taking jumps, using boosts, and trying to finish each race in the top position. While this aspect undoubtedly sounds similar to other games in the genre, one of Mario Kart’s most defining features is the familiar rainbow colored cubes that litter the tracks. Driving through one gives players access to a variety of weapons and abilities that can take a seemingly straight-forward race, and turn it on its head. Expected items such as Mushrooms, Stars, Red and Green shells, Banana Peels, and the nightmare-inducing Blue Shell all return. Mario Kart 8 also introduces a number of new items to mix up the gameplay, the most notable being the Super Horn and Crazy 8. The Crazy 8 offers players a selection of random items that can be used in rapid succession, quickly changing the course of a race, while the Super Horn is chiefly designed as a counter to disable the Blue Shell.

While these aspects all sound familiar, Mario Kart 8’s biggest innovation is the introduction of Zero Gravity Strips. Driving over these blue stretches causes the kart’s wheels to fold up, transforming from a simple racing vehicle into a racing vehicle that openly scoffs in Sir Isaac Newton’s face. Racers climb up walls, spiral through corkscrews, and even glide along the ceiling undeterred. However, what’s most remarkable about these anti-gravity segments is not the unique spin they offer on racing games, but how seamlessly they are woven into the tracks. While players know when they’ve entered an anti-gravity section, they often don’t realize just where they were racing. Nintendo went to great lengths to make sure that the racing experience would not be negatively affected by these segments, and for the most part, the anti-gravity blends in perfectly with the courses. Some segments are straight-forward. For instance, in both Toad Harbor and Toad’s Turnpike, players can enter segments that race along the walls, avoiding the traffic cruising down the road. But then there are courses like Shy Guy Falls which send players racing up and down waterfalls without any real indication that their course has gone from horizontal to completely vertical. Honestly, I didn't realize where I was racing until I was watching the course preview after I had already raced on that course several times. That said, the inspiration of the new courses really makes me wish Nintendo had done more to include anti-gravity segments in many of the old courses. While some of the classic courses have brief anti-gravity modifications, most only receive graphical updates.

Similar to its predecessors, Mario Kart 8 pits a diverse cast of characters from various entries in the Mario franchise in races against each other. Familiar characters like Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, Toad, Donkey Kong, and Rosalina (albeit minus her companion Luma this time) return. The biggest new addition is the inclusion of Bowser’s oft forgotten children, the Koopalings. While I can appreciate the return of these characters, there are so many of them, it really eats up character slots which could have been filled by more diverse characters. While players will undoubtedly have their favorites, characters can essentially be grouped into three weight categories, light, medium, and heavy, with various advantages and disadvantages for each. Players also get to choose from a variety of go-karts, bikes, and ATVs, each with different strengths and weaknesses. However, unlike most racing games, there isn’t a large amount of variation in the vehicles and many have the same stats. Players can also choose different tires and parachutes, both categories further modifying the kart’s stats. While Mario Kart 8 doesn’t have the same level of variety that many other racing games offer, there is enough that players can find a character, vehicle, wheels, and parachute that feel most comfortable. Another difference is that unlocking almost every customization option is far easier than most other racing games, taking a handful of hours at most. Need more information on the roster? Well look no further – they even get that Rosalina is the best character!

Races occur over thirty-two tracks from locales inspired by the game’s diverse cast. These include sixteen new tracks that prominently feature the game’s unique gravity dimension and sixteen classic tracks that have been updated with refreshed graphics. Some of these courses are exactly what you’d expect. Mario Circuit is a basic course intended to serve as an introduction for players; Bowser’s Castle is filled with winding tunnels and fiery traps; and the obligatory Rainbow Road is an orbital race with precarious turns and a colorful track. Others are far more creative – like the aforementioned Shy Guy Falls and the undersea caves of Dolphin Shoals. Like most racing games, courses feature an abundance of tight turns and twists, perfectly designed for players to drift around corners, pulling off Mario Kart’s trademark mini-turbos, but there’s no denying that these tracks are far more creative than you’re likely to find in more traditional games in the genre. Unfortunately, the majority of the races cover three laps over the same course. My personal favorite, Mount Wario, is one of two tracks that break this formula and consist of a single long course, broken into three segments. While I can understand that it’s easier to just create a course that players race along three times, the extent to which Mount Wario shines makes me wish there had been a few more courses that took such an approach.

While Mario Kart 8 doesn’t demonstrate the same level of graphical prowess often found in traditional racing games, it is still a beautiful game. Arguably, this is currently the best looking game available on the Wii U. Nintendo made sure the HD renditions of their characters looked phenomenal. As you drift around a corner, your character’s hair flies in the wind, and the characters’ facial expressions as they attack and pass other players are great – some admittedly more so than others. Nintendo’s attention to detail also extended to the courses. Each track is especially colorful and filled with reminders for long-time Mario fans. Like the anti-gravity aspect, much of this is missed as you play through, but when you catch sight of something, say Piantas or Toads in the crowd, or advertisements for Bullet Bill Speed Trials, it’s a nice shout out to fans. The music is also well done. For the most part, the tracks capture the theme of each course with a cheerful spin, highlighting the light-heartedness of the game.

The crux of Mario Kart 8 are the Grand Prix races. Players compete against computer opponents in four races, three laps each, with the full arsenal of items available. The game follows the franchise’s familiar three difficulties, 50cc (easy), 100cc (medium), and 150cc (hard), with an unlockable Mirror Mode. The game also features multiplayer in the form of two player local and online races. Ever since Mario Kart Wii, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by Mario Kart’s online races. Races are easy to join and follow the same structure as the Grand Prix. For more serious players, the game also offers item free races as a chance to remove the chaotic elements. For players wishing to reach the pinnacle of Mario Kart 8 racing, the game also features time trials where players can race against ghosts with no obstacles, perfecting their skills. While Mario Kart 8 has few disappointments, one of the biggest is the new Battle Mode. In the past, players were placed in large arenas, had three balloons, and were tasked with using items to pop their opponents’ balloons. This mode has been eliminated and replaced with a far less enjoyable variant. Occurring on normal race tracks, players are split into two groups, one going in the correct direction, the other going backwards. The goal is to pop the most balloons before time runs out, but unfortunately, encounters with opponents are far too rare and brief.

The Mario Kart franchise has undoubtedly created a niche for itself that other games have strived to emulate. Is Mario Kart 8 the best game in the franchise? Personally, I still consider Double Dash for the Gamecube to be the best entry, but Mario Kart 8 is a strong contender to remove it from its perch. Mario Kart 8 is a game that can be both light-hearted and skillful, something that seems hard to find from many developers outside of Nintendo. Of course, Mario Kart 8 has another burden that challenges few other games. For the last few years, players have asked, “why should I buy a Wii U?” Mario Kart 8 is the start of a stretch of, in my opinion, must have games. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend picking up a Wii U and Mario Kart 8. It is a game that is both genuinely fun, and at the same time aggressively competitive. I can almost guarantee it will be something you will love spending hours playing. Unless you’re a fan of driving simulators -- in which case you might want to stay away.

All images owned by Nintendo.