- Format: Wii U
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Developer: Nintendo
- Players: 1-4 local, 2-12 online
- Site: mariokart8.nintendo.com
The Mario Kart series is a known quantity at this point, its success spanning a little more than two decades across eight pieces of Nintendo hardware. New elements have been added and subtracted over these years, but the core of the game has been essentially untouched. This remains true of Mario Kart 8.
The mechanics embody this the most, with vehicles controlling as you’d expect across the three speeds of 50, 100, and 150cc, and drifting remaining an essential tool thanks to the speed boosts gained from it. Item blocks also return to grant weapons to players as they battle for first place, though these have undergone a few changes.
Item balance is at its worst, for a start. Players in first position will notice that all they get are coins – even when they’re already at their limit of ten – while everyone else picks up shells, squids, and speed boosts. This creates a frustrating cycle wherein players can easily attack the lead driver who remains woefully unequipped to defend themselves. It’s hardly a test of skill when three consecutive red shells effectively stun block the perpetually vulnerable lead player and throw them to the back of the pack. Items can also no longer be stored – you have to use you current one if you want to pick up something new.
The aforementioned coins accrue over the course of playing the game, unlocking new vehicle parts on intervals of fifty including new karts, bikes, wheels, and gliders. These offer a huge amount of customisation both aesthetically and mechanically, each component changing the player’s speed, acceleration, weight, handling, and grip. Tinkering with these, finding what gives you optimal performance, is a pretty rewarding process.
All of these stats are built upon the foundation of your selected character from a choice of thirty, if you include the Mii option. Many favourites return, the only glaring omission being Bowser Jr., and there’s a host of new faces including all of the Koopa Kids. Weight classes (medium, light, heavy) determine how they control, though this isn’t made obvious on character selection.
The sixteen new tracks and sixteen old tracks are all great, an eclectic grab-bag in terms of everything from aesthetics to track layout to soundtrack. The tracks cut their way through a diverse range of locales, all of which are rendered in beautiful and colourful visuals. Cloudtop Cruise has you racing over a Super Mario Galaxy-inspired sky vista, Bowser’s Castle through a fortress within a fiery inferno, and the Electrodome through a marvellous Tron-like disco. Rainbow Road of course makes a return with an inspired interpretation.
Quite a few of these feature some great dynamic elements, such as a huge statue of Bowser punching the course to render it unstable, or the aircraft of Sunshine Airport forcing players to duck out of the way lest they be turned to colourful sawdust by wind turbines.
The big surprise of Mario Kart 8 is its wonderful soundtrack, a suitably energetic and whimsical companion to these tracks. Cloudtop Cruise in particular features a shifting, adventurous symphony that adds spades of grin-inducing delight to the course.
The big new feature of these tracks is anti-gravity, which works well if a little too safely. Blue pads will turn your wheels into anti-gravity hoverpads, sticking your chosen racer to the track as it twists and turns its way through the gorgeous scenery. The addition comes off as a little unrealised or only half implemented; you could usually just remove the blue anti-gravity pads and not notice any difference.
A staple of the franchise, Grand Prix mode returns to sort these tracks into groups of four for players to challenge their skills on, each group offering a gold, silver, or bronze cup based on your ultimate ranking. It’s a good way to learn the courses and unlock new vehicle options, but it’s about time that Mario Kart added even just a tiny amount of narrative to this for the sake of replayability. As it stands, there’s little to keep you coming back to the mode after getting gold in all cups and moving on to multiplayer. Time Trials also return, forcing you to compete with your ghost data, as well as that of others, on an optimal, opponent-less rendition of the tracks.
VS Race and Battle are the game’s competitive modes. VS Race allows for a ton of customisation in terms of teams, items, and CPU opponents. Battle mode on the other hand is a disappointing variant of the same mode from previous games, the arenas upon which players previously tried to pop each other’s three balloons replaced by the courses from the other modes. Apart from Time Trials, these can all be played by up to four players on local multiplayer. Nintendo have made a gross omission here: The gamepad can not be used as a standalone screen, thus removing the potential for doing away with split-screen or including five-player races.
Mario Kart 8 has robust online functionality, allowing players to group up in lobbies for VS Races or Battles on courses determined by a randomised choice from a pool determined by player selection. We didn’t notice any lag during our time online, and it was an overall pleasant experience. In a very unexpected move from Nintendo, players can even upload highlight reels from any single race to YouTube, a feature which even comes with some limited editing tools.
While Mario Kart 8 is essentially just another Mario Kart, it is also the most fun you’ll have with a racing game – despite the poor implementation of a few features – thanks to wonderful courses, the breadcrumb progression of vehicle unlocks, and the integration of online.