As one of the most consistent franchises in Nintendo’s history, the release of a new Mario Kart is always cause for excitement. The last entry, Mario Kart 7, is widely regarded as one of the best in the series, introducing air gliders, underwater racing and customizable karts. All the innovations from the 3DS title have returned in Mario Kart 8, along with the most impressive graphical overhaul the series has ever seen. With dozens of characters to unlock, 32 new and classic courses, a variety of multiplayer modes and a few unbelievably bouncy mustaches, Mario Kart 8 is the party game that the Wii U so desperately needed.
If you’re at all familiar with the series, you’ll be right at home with the newest entry. Every classic single player mode has returned: Grand Prix, Time Trials, VS Race and Battle. Each of those appear in multiplayer as well, other than Time Trials. Grand Prix features eight cups in which you can participate, four of which consist of 16 brand new courses and four of which are made up of classic courses from other games in the series.
VS Race lets you pick a track without racing through an entire cup, Battle eschews racing in favor of popping rival racers’ balloons and Time Trials are exactly what they sound like. Beyond single player and local multiplayer is the online mode, which you can play cooperatively with another player on the same console if you prefer. I haven’t had the chance to try the online component of the game, as the servers are empty, but check back soon for an update.
The hook this time around is anti-gravity — on nearly every course, your kart will be flipped sideways, upside-down and every way in between. Not only does this add a new dimension to the levels, it also transform the vehicles into hovering, futuristic machines which function differently than the standard karts. When passing through any of the anti-gravity segments of a course, you can get a jump on your opponents by running into them, giving you both a slight boost.
Although much of Mario Kart 8 remains faithful to the franchise, Nintendo has subtly adjusted a few other gameplay elements to better balance the races. The most significant change comes in the form of item storage. Once you’ve picked up an item in Mario Kart 8, you’re stuck with that item until it’s used up, whereas past titles have allowed you to carry a second item after activating the first. In my experience, this was the cause of frustration more often than celebration, but I’ve always been of the opinion that holding more items equals more fun.
Speaking of items, there are a few new ones in Mario Kart 8. The Piranha Plant was easily my favorite, chomping any racer or obstacle that dared approach my kart. The Super Horn is another new item, emitting a shockwave which disrupts anyone in the blast radius. The Boomerang Flower is less flashy than the other two, but when used correctly, it can be a great way to clear out a group of racers who have overtaken you. The Boomerang Flower is basically a shell comes back around for a second pass at racers.
Those who were looking forward to new items should have fun experimenting with the expanded arsenal, but suckers for unlockables will truly be in paradise — there are so many characters and vehicle parts to collect, you’ll feel like you’re adding to your collection after every single race you complete. Characters unlock arbitrarily as you win races, but vehicle part unlocks are dependent on your dedication to collecting coins. You can gather up to 10 coins on every track, and every 50 coins you gather unlocks a new kart, new wheels or a new glider.
It’s worth noting that the same issues that have always plagued the otherwise gleeful racing game are back in full force. The moment you think you’ve got first place locked down in a tense Grand Prix finale, the dreaded blue shell will inevitably seek you out, throwing you haphazardly through the air. Rubberband AI is necessary to the game’s structure, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating in the most dire of circumstances.
Also, it’s not so much a complaint as a point of confusion, but the Wii U GamePad is completely underutilized. The requisite features are available, including the ability to play the entire game from the GamePad, a view of the map and, most importantly, a horn to honk, but after spending my first several hours playing the game with the bulky controller, I had to switch over to the Wiimote.
Almost all of my (relatively minor) complaints were alleviated by the dazzling visuals of Mario Kart 8. Nintendo didn’t skimp at all on the production of the long-awaited title — every track, every character model, every last detail has been given enough attention to nearly distract from the races themselves. There were times when I had to restart just because I couldn’t help but drive off the track to get a closer look at the level design. The game is blissfully gorgeous.
One of the most surprisingly engrossing additions to Mario Kart 8 is Mario Kart TV, a feature which allows players to edit clips of their best races and upload them for everyone to see. You don’t even have to keep track either — the game will automatically preserve footage from your 12 most recent races. You can also see popular clips from around the globe and as well as the most recent clips uploaded to the server from the MKTV menu.
Mario Kart 8 is by no means perfect, but it’s the perfect answer to the terrifying dearth of first-party titles on the Wii U. When Nintendo revealed it was finally making the jump to full HD with its new console, this is what they were taking about. Beautiful, fun and packed with content, Mario Kart 8 is a killer app for the Wii U and one that any Wii U owner would be crazy not to pick up.
Mario Kart 8 will be available for the Wii U on May 30th.
Nintendo provided BGR with a digital copy of Mario Kart 8 for this review.