While the Legend of Zelda, Pokémon and core Mario Bros. titles have long been Nintendo’s classic haymakers, even its sometimes struggling contemporary consoles have found both critical and commercial success with two pitch-perfect spinoff series. The first is frantic fighter/epic crossover event Super Smash Bros. The second is infectious arcade racer Mario Kart, the newest iteration of which lands on the Wii U later this month.
HD Mario Kart, huh? How does it look? Good. Like, really good. I reckon most of us got in our digs about “epic next-gen mustache animations” after the recent video trailer premiered, but this new higher level of visual fidelity really lends itself to the cartoony chaos of your favorite first-party racer. The courses are even more hyperbolically twisty and astoundingly dynamic than you’ve ever experienced in past titles, and subtle persistent elements like tire tracks left after particularly hard-fought laps further supplement the robust visual appeal.
How about the controls? Mario Kart‘s myriad of terrain types are all present, from sand and grass to mud and sweet, sweet blacktop, and the ease with which you learn to navigate your kart across each surface is a testament to this game’s rock-solid controls. Add to this the flying and underwater elements that debuted on the 3DS in Mario Kart 7, not to mention the new gravity-defying track designs, and you find yourself in an almost Hot Wheels-style driving experience. With a focus on tight drifting and beneficial near-misses – scraping by fellow competitors and the pylons that often show up on vertical surfaces result in helpful speed-boosts – this is a game that could easily live or die by its control scheme. With this in mind I urge you to ignore the secondary motion controls. In its natural state the Gamepad functions flawlessly, with its responsive analog sticks and intuitive trigger controls (used for drifting and firing), and multiple second screen viewing options allow you to stay on top of current points, check your opponent’s track positions or even play sans television.
Mario Kart loves to recycle previous tracks. How much new content are we getting here? With 16 classic and 16 new tracks, it’s a solid selection of old favorites and new HD hotness, but Mario Kart 8 thrives by adding twists to old locales. And, just as important as the graphical and design overhauls, the excellent sound breathes new life to these well-worn tracks. This is especially true in musical levels like MK7‘s Music Park and its new companion the Electrodome. The game also features a retooled Battle Mode that takes advantage of these same aural and visual tweaks.
What’s the multiplayer situation? Mario Kart has always been about jockeying for position and making hairpin turns to access time-saving shortcuts, and adding others to the mix only increases the on-screen madness. Local multiplayer can take advantage of additional controller options, including Wii Classic and Wii U Pro controllers alongside the more pedestrian Wiimotes, and support for things like custom race types and up to 12-person online multiplayer give MK8 even more life after you’ve made your mark on the core single-player experience.
Nintendo isn’t exactly known for its robust online support. How does Mario Kart 8 perform? With worldwide, region-specific and friends-only online options, you should be able to play with who you want how you want. Since my play-time was conducted during an early access period, however, I was generally relegated to worldwide matches, but I never encountered the slightest amount of lag – even while getting my butt stomped by our European brethren.
So it’s still family-friendly? The bane of online multiplayer is surely the foul-mouthed musings of angry trolls, which is likely why Nintendo limits voice-chat to the lobby of friends-only mode matches. Otherwise players are restricted to canned text options to communicate during pre-race breaks. This limited interaction makes for a safer overall environment, but any GeekParent worth his/her salt already keeps an eye on the kids during their regular forays into interactive entertainment. This is important because of MK8‘s big focus on the uploading of gameplay captures. Images can be shared directly through the Miiverse community and videos through YouTube – though sadly this option was inoperable during my time with the game. So my suggestion is simply to familiarize yourself with the title and remind your brood of the risks and benefits of exchanges in the digital world. And, of course, while the kiddos won’t likely hear any staggering swears during online multiplayer that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily tune you out when you blow your top next to them on the sofa.
So you’re saying it’s frustrating? Of course! Frustration is as much a part of the Mario Kart experience as the elation inherent in a perfectly executed drift-boost. The crazy tracks and outlandish power-ups of Mario Kart 8 mean that race position can change at the drop of a hat, and the difference between a commanding lead and a crushing defeat is only a millisecond away. Bad racing generally equals better power-ups, and while the game’s diabolical Red Shells seem far more fallible this time around, new armaments like the Boomerang Flower, Potted Piranha Plant and area-effect Super Horn just give you more way to screw/be screwed by other racers. The new Crazy 8 option, a renumbered take on MK7‘s Lucky 7, has also been added, and only seems to pop up in moments of not-so-quiet desperation.
Will I enjoy it? Yes you will. With better graphics, more varied tracks and a sharper focus on even the most mundane aspects of racing – collecting coins to unlock parts/pay off rescuer Lakitu for a quicker tow has never been more important – MK8 is a bigger, better racer all around. The game’s newfound focus on highlight reels that can be (sort of) edited, saved and shared also makes bragging rights a more concrete concept.
What about the geeklings? Sure! Mario Kart 8 is beautiful and whimsical, and its 50cc mode is perfect for first-timers. Plus, the added bonus of a Mii driver unlock helps to motivate mediocre racers to step their game up and master this most forgiving of play modes.
Does my family finally have a reason to buy a Wii U? The idea of “system-sellers” has always struck me as a little reductive, but I guess Mario Kart 8 qualifies as such. Despite its lagging sales, the Wii U has lots to offer both in the form of throwback titles – the eShop is full of ‘em – and new experiences like Super Mario 3D World, not to mention the unholy marriage of the two that is the NES Remix series. MK8 is simply a fresher and thereby more relevant example of everything Nintendo’s newest console has going for it.
Review material provided by: Nintendo of America