Platform: Wii U
Release Date: May 30, 2014
Hours Played: 15 – 20 hours
Best Part: Multiplayer, and winning any race against a ghost.
Many years ago, one of my best friends and I would spend hours in his basement playing Super Mario Kart on the SNES. A few years later, Mario Kart 64 came out, and so we played that instead.
Then a whole lot of time passed, and I really didn’t play much Mario Kart at all, despite another five games releasing in North America between then and the launch of Mario Kart 8.
It seems to me that Nintendo really wants Mario Kart 8 to be successful. It was heavily hyped, heavily marketed, and even comes with a free game if you register your copy on Club Nintendo by July 31st.
So is Mario Kart 8 really everything we want it to be? Almost – it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty gosh darn close.
If you’ve played any kart-racing video game, you’re probably aware that it was influenced in some way by Super Mario Kart (1992). I also think it’s safe to assume most of you have played at least one of the other games in the franchise, so I won’t dig too deep into the core mechanics of the series.
In Mario Kart 8, the controls are simple and easy to learn, much like all Nintendo games on the Wii U, and are among the tightest I’ve experienced in any racing game. Each character plays differently from another, so handling, acceleration, and top speed all depend on who you’re playing as, along with your vehicle type and accessories (kart type, tires, and parachute).
While there’s no Bowser Jr. or Donkey Kong Jr. in Mario Kart 8 (yet – DLC may prove me wrong), the overall cast is solid. I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but I was very pleased with the selection of 30 playable racers, including your own Mii character. The Koopa Kids fit right in with the rest of the cast, and Roy is a straight-up pimp.
Even though it has some of the sharpest gameplay I’ve seen in a racing game, Mario Kart 8 does miss a few marks. There’s no options menu, so you get what you get. Likewise, the HUD lacks an on-screen position map. If you play using the Pro Controller or a Wii Remote, you don’t get one at all, and have to press a button to look behind you in order to see who’s on your tail – something you won’t have time to do, considering how twisty some of the tracks are.
If you are playing with the Wii U GamePad, you have the option for a position map, but it displays on the touch screen, meaning you again have to look away from the action to see everyone’s position. I wound up having to come up with my own solution, and it worked surprisingly well. I have no idea why Nintendo wouldn’t include this in the HUD. It’s common to 99% of all racing games, including past Mario Kart titles, and could have easily been toggled using a button or menu option.
It’s unfortunate that gameplay customization isn’t as deep as the kart customization, and a lot of the time, you’re left in the dark regarding your progress. For instance, collecting coins during races boosts your top speed. Likewise, coins are also used to unlock more add-ons for your kart, though the unlocks are seemingly random, and it’s never made clear whether the coins collected during races are the same ones that unlock items (a point of much contention here at @CripplerJones). There’s no way to check your coin total or see how many more items you have to unlock, so it’s really just a matter of playing until the notifications stop.
While it’s possible (and smart) to check how each kart upgrade affects its stats, you do have to push the “+” button to display the chart. There’s also no way to tell the base stats of each racer. It’s a matter of trial and error. Sure, you can assume which characters are heavier than others, but how do you know for sure which of two larger racers have better acceleration or a higher top speed without any sort of breakdown?
Technical gripes aside, the rest of the game is phenomenal. The level designs are brilliant, making callbacks to the best courses from prior entries in the series, changing just enough to keep them fresh and make them work with the new gameplay elements, like racing on walls and ceilings.
Some of the best levels do away with the “three laps” routine, instead pulling you through a linear course marked by checkpoints. Many of these races were my favorite, including Mount Wario and a spectacular re-imagining of Rainbow Road from Mario Kart 64.
While fun, I found little interest in the multiplayer battles, which no longer take place in a battle arena, but on slightly modified versions of the racetracks. This makes it difficult to find other players at times, and I miss the chaos of the more confined stages in Mario Kart 64.
Better than ever are the Mario Kart 8 Ghost Races. Not only can you compete against your own ghost, but the best ghosts from around the world. There’s a certain thrill to the Ghost Races that you won’t find while racing the computer, and watching the best runs of the best players can really help improve your own game.
The online play is equally great – once you get into a race. Otherwise, things tend to feel a bit dated. When you’re dropped into a room, you’ll generally have to watch an entire race from beginning to end before you can join. After you’re in, it’s impossible to change your character or kart configuration without backing all the way out, starting the whole process again. Level selection is random, but you can cast your vote and increase the odds of the level you want being selected. All in all, it’s quite tedious, but once you’re in a race, everything is smooth as butter.
Graphically, this may be one of the prettiest Nintendo games ever made, and I think Nintendo knows it. It really puts the Wii U on the level with most current-gen platforms, at least in this instance. Nintendo’s unique charm has never been so beautifully represented, and Nintendo never hesitates to rub it in your face. All of the levels are highly detailed, and the dev team took no shortcuts when it came to making Mario Kart 8 look its best.
Mario Kart 8‘s eclectic soundtrack is fun, frantic, and the absolute best in the series. I especially love the tracks from Moo Moo Meadows and Shy Guy Falls. Once you play the game, you will get these songs stuck in your head.
The Best Kart-Racing Game to Date – Buy It!
If you already own a Wii U, there’s absolutely no reason for you not to pick up Mario Kart 8. It’s one of the best games on a console that could really use more titles like this. I also don’t remember the last time I cursed so much at a bunch of Nintendo characters. The 150cc races are incredibly challenging, and local multiplayer is the best I’ve played since the last Mario game for the Wii U.
Whether this is the game that makes you decide to buy a Wii U is really up to you. If you’ve ever obsessed over Mario Kart, then yes, buy it and buy it now. If Mario Kart really isn’t for you, but you’ve read this far, at least find a friend who has it so you can give it a play – it’s stupid how fun this game is.
While Nintendo misses a few beats, between the Ghost Races and the outstanding local multiplayer, Mario Kart 8 has a ton of replay value, despite several oversights that could have made the game perfect (and could probably be patched in later).