From the first moment, Mario Kart 8 is all about the racing. Basic (yet streamlined) menus make sure you have no choice but to get racing immediately… there isn’t really much in the way of settings to mull over first. It’s refreshing, really, in a time when games are increasingly focused on complex storytelling and intrinsic graphical fidelity. To put it simply, Mario Kart 8 lets the pure qualities of its gameplay represent it – and this works both for and against it.
The barebones menus certainly have some blatant omissions, with the staple stat tracking page noticeably nowhere to be found. The Battle mode has been given less emphasis, with no dedicated arenas (the racing tracks are used), almost becoming a mini-game in how it is positioned. In fact, despite great customisation options for Battle Mode, the tracks just do not work as arenas due to their inherently linear designs. You can definitely tell that key areas have been highlighted for focus in development, namely the feeling of driving (or riding, should you choose a bike) and the overall presentation of the game.
It is good, then, that Nintendo have got these aspects down to a tee. Karts and bikes handle dreamily, turning in just as you direct them. Moreso than in other Mario Kart games, you can really nail the apexes of corners now, and this adds an extra feeling of skill to the game. Drifting works similar to how it did in the Wii and 3DS Mario Kart games, with your boost dependent on how long and sharply you turn into a corner; this compliments the slick new handling, rewarding you for finding the optimum line into a corner. The returning customisation options let you build your ideal machine as well, whether that involves good straight-line speed or precise cornering. The increased emphasis on the actual racing is pleasing to see, as it results in a more satisfying and skill-based gamhttp://tanukibridge.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=9839&action=edite.
Indeed, Mario Kart 8 is a feast for the senses. While it feels superb to play, it matches that in how good it looks and sounds. The orchestral soundtrack – a first for the series – breathes life into the music and therefore the racing; it isn’t quite up to the level of Super Mario 3D World’s jazzy tunes, but compositions for courses like the funky Electrodome work together with the visuals to pop out at you. In fact, while the audio is very competent the real standout factor is the graphical presentation.
The tracks are bristling with life, as Toads cheer you on and environments stretch into the distance. A super-smooth near-as-is-irrelevant-to-60fps (don’t get angry about the 1 frame, people) fits the silky gameplay, noticeably stepping up the look of the game. Speaking of the customary graphics numbers, the game runs at a native 720p, which looks fantastic on screen. The large environments I just mentioned give the tracks a much larger sense of scale, and make it feel as though you are racing in the Mushroom Kingdom rather than on a single, isolated track (in fact, it makes me want a major open-world 3D Mario game even more). One of the best examples is N64 Rainbow Road, where a massive city is below you as you race, but it isn’t isolated to a single incident; Sunshine Airport has seas and islands on the horizon, as well as, y’know, planes (flying SOMEWHERE…).
Speaking of track design, Nintendo have outdone themselves this time, and a big part of this is the big new anti-grav feature that is the centre of Mario Kart 8‘s advertising. While it isn’t quite as revolutionary as you might expect, the subtle yet dynamic effect, when used right, distinguishes the racing from similar kart games (and therefore other Mario Kart games). Once again, I pull up the example of N64 Rainbow Road, where long, sweeping corners loop and undulate – this results in the camera being unsettled, and slightly off-key. This little tilt lets you know you aren’t racing on a normal plane anymore. Similarly, when anti-grav is used more simply, it can go unnoticed apart from the visual change of your vehicle. Anti-grav slightly changes the way you drive at times; in anti-grav, hitting another racer (or a special obstacle) gets you a boost, forcing you to adapt your driving style slightly. It adds a bit of flavour to the new racing, transforming it into bumper cars for a little while (in a good, fun way, not the bad, overpriced fairground ride way).
Anti-grav is not the only source of exciting track layouts; oh, most certainly not. Many of the new tracks are triumphs, with soaring cloud-based tracks like Cloudtop Cruise; and Mount Wario, which has you racing down a massive snow mountain course to the show-stopping finish. As usual, there are 32 tracks included with the game – 16 new, 16 remastered classics – and while the new ones are all superb new additions, the retro courses are more of a mixed bag. They are all decent tracks in their own right, but feel much more flat. Tracks like N64 Yoshi Valley and N64 Rainbow Road (you may have noticed that I like that track) match the grand scale of the new introductions, but some fall flat and seem quite dull in comparison; GCN Sherbet Land, for example, is very linear and grounded when experienced next to the revamped DS Wario Stadium (one of the retro courses to receive the anti-grav treatment).
What about HOW you are racing on these tracks, though? As with previous Mario Kart games, the main single-player mode is Grand Prix. You work through the ranks, from the slow and easy 50cc all the way to 150cc, which I will admit scared me with its ease of progress initially. If you are an experienced Mario Kart player, you will ease through 50cc and 100cc in an almost boring fashion… luckily, at 150cc the AI steps up and it becomes a much bigger challenge. Even so, the lack of major single-player modes other than Grand Prix is hurtful to the experience I had. Especially if you do not have many friends with which to play online or locally, you soon have to rely on the brilliant track design and gameplay to give you longevity to your game.
As well as that, unlockables are a step down from secret-laden games like Mario Kart Wii (remember that moment you unlocked Funky Kong?). EVERY Grand Prix you complete gives you a character, which results in you completing the 30-character roster extraordinarily quickly. Admittedly, the kart and bike part unlocks are varied and last longer, but the characters present are also a disappointment. New additions like Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach feel like odd choices when Dry Bones, Boo and, yes, Funky Kong are not returning; it seems to be a sign of development time pressures, as obviously Nintendo already had a basic character model for those particular characters.
So, with few substantial offline modes and an unlock system that fails to be very challenging, where does Mario Kart 8‘s longevity come from? One word: multiplayer. Extensive local and online options provide the incentive that will keep you playing this game. One of the best options is the returning (last seen in Mario Kart DS) up-to-32-race VS mode. The long-running points tracking can give some spectacular moments that just aren’t possible with only a 4-race Grand Prix. The signature thrill of playing Mario Kart with up to three friends around the TV screen (all shouting at each other) is not lost, with every single mode available for 4 players and 2 player online an option as well (conveniently giving VR to another account if it is selected for player two, which is nice).
Online steps up its game this time, that’s for sure. Mario Kart Wii and 7 both advanced online in great ways for Nintendo, but on Wii U everything slots into place delightfully. The racing retains its glorious smoothness, with connection issues practically freaks of nature. The VR ranking system returns, giving you an incentive to keep playing (points are added and subtracted from your VR for how well you do in a race), and most importantly Tournaments make a debut appearance. Following on from where Mario Kart 7‘s Communities left off, you can create a custom Tournament where the running time(s), rules, and basically anything you can think of are all up to you. The biggest omission, however, is a form of friend invites. Sure, you can create a room for playing with friends, but you cannot manually invite them to the game – no, they have to join themselves. When such big steps forward are taken in the online space – you can now even create highlight reels of your races and upload them to YouTube – simple things like this are disappointing to miss.
If I sound overly down on Mario Kart 8, this is not to say it isn’t glorious to look at and fabulous fun to play. The issue is the lack of major substance in game modes and options; behind Grand Prix mode, which didn’t take me too long to clear, you have what are essentially side modes and multiplayer keeping you going. The gameplay and presentation is second to none in the Mario Kart franchise, but it relies too heavily on these things to keep it going. Eventually, you go looking for something new to freshen up the racing, and it just isn’t there. I still love Mario Kart 8, and it is a game every Wii U owner should look to obtain, but like another racing series, it burns out on you (I’ll leave now). DLC please, Nintendo!