Mario Kart 8 is the latest, and possibly best, installment in the Mario kart franchise - a franchise that has always thrived, since its introduction on the Super NES. This time around, Nintendo has given us an experience that is not only a visual spectacle, but also an absolute joy to play. With expansive tournament and online features, new driving mechanics, brilliantly designed tracks, and new characters, Mario Kart 8 has had me grinning from ear to ear for many hours - and many more to come.
Boy, are these races fast. The karts and bikes move at blazing speeds, and even the dependable Lakitu eagerly helps you recover quicker than in previous MKs. Where some past Mario Karts have focused more on collecting items to deal damage to your opponents, Mario Kart 8 requires players to hone their driving skills and master those drifting techniques. The days of competitors hanging back in 8th place and waiting for a powerful item to propel them to the front of the pack is a thing of the past. If you want to be in 1st place, you’ve got to fight for it. Victory is never achieved easily in this game. For casual gamers, this might be a pretty overwhelming issue, but for seasoned veterans of this series, this is a welcome change.
One of the best new features in this game is the use of anti-gravity. Anti-gravity is always tricky because when a player goes upside down it can feel a bit disorienting - especially when you are driving at high speeds. But it is quite evident that Nintendo put a great deal of thought and time into fine-tuning the use of anti-gravity, in the courses of Mario kart 8. Most of the time, I never knew that I was driving upside down. Nintendo has chosen to keep the same wheels-pointing-downward perspective that we have always had in the Mario Kart series. Also, there are portions on some of the tracks that allow you to take an optional anti-gravity route, such as the classic Mario Kart 64 track, Toad’s Turnpike, where you are racing through oncoming traffic. Some portions of the track allow the player to drive up on the wall to avoid those oncoming cars, entirely. Plus, it simply looks cool to drive on walls. Still, I never felt like this mechanic was overused. Some courses, such as the classic course, Donut Plains, don’t feature anti-gravity, at all.
As I alluded to earlier, Mario Kart 8 continues the tradition of incorporating a balanced mixture of new tracks, as well as, retro tracks from previous Mario Kart games in the series. This game features 32 tracks in all -16 new and 16 classic courses. It’s impressive that each course feels unique and intricately designed. I was racing through airports, descending into the volcanic depths of Bowers Castle, and later, I was riding along the walls of a mountain made of candy. In my early moments of playing the game, I found myself bumping into the walls, because I was distracted by the beauty and detail of the courses I was driving through. As I mentioned before, having more than one path to race on is, at times, a lifesaver. When some of the biggest dangers are presented in being in the middle of the pack, it helps to isolate oneself, if only for a moment. A racer can take a different path, regroup, and hopefully emerge further ahead of the pack.
The total cast of racers in Mario kart totals up to 30 - 16 available from the start and 14 unlockable characters. I liked the incorporation of various Koopalings but there are way too many smaller sized characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love the cute baby versions of Mario and Luigi as much as anyone, but it seems unnecessary to have 5 baby characters. However, I’m glad that a character like Lakitu has come down from his cloud and stepped into the driver’s seat. These drivers have personality, as well. The looks that these racers give you when they get passed up is hilarious. Or when Luigi hurls a turtle shell your way and it connects, you wouldn’t believe the sinister look he gives you, when he passes by. No, incorporating this isn’t a monumental feature, but it helped bring a smile to my face. (Which is what a game like this should do, right?) Once you pick your character, you select the model of kart/bike, wheels, and a glider. Each model and part has different attributes and compliments the characters in unique ways.
I was especially impressed with how smooth this game ran, online. In the 10-20 hours of playing online, I was only dropped twice – never in the middle of a race. Up to 12 players can compete at once in race or battle mode. Friends can share in the fun, in that; players can bring one additional person online. Players can even customize their own races and battles, which can make for a hectic experience if “red turtles only” is picked. Fans of battle mode will be disappointed with the lack of unique maps to wreak havoc within. Although, MK8 is primarily focused on racing, battle mode feels uninspired - a quality that doesn’t rear its head in many of Nintendo’s 1st party titles. Even though I was never a huge fan of battle mode, it seems like a disservice to those who love to pour hours into this mode.
The cherry-on-top for the online mode has to be Mario Kart TV. MKTV is a service that allows players to upload their favorite moments and races, as well as, view rankings and others’ videos. If you want to prove to your friends that Bowser really WAS gunning for you the whole time, you have proof. Furthermore, these videos can be posted to YouTube and shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Miiverse.
Mario Kart 8 is as beautiful as it fun; as charming as it is challenging. So strap in and say goodbyeto the series’ days of being a casual gamer playground. Race through new and innovative courses, persevere in your conquest of world’s best drivers, and share with the world, your grandest moments. The new age of Mario Kart has begun.