I've been playing a whole lot of Mario Kart 8 these past few weeks. I've been playing solo everyday, I've had friends over a few nights to extend multiplayer sessions and I've managed to unlock and clear just about everything that the title has to offer.
It's May 15th. We're still 15 days away from the retail release of Mario Kart 8, and Nintendo got us this copy roughly two weeks ago. I don't say this to wave it in your face (sorry, Jon Rettinger); instead, I share it because that sort of early delivery indicates confidence.
Nintendo is confident in this title. They are confident that they have created a fantastic Mario Kart game with 8, and I know that not only because I've played it so much, but because they sent it out so early.
They basically said, "Go ahead, put Mario Kart 8 through its paces as much as you can, we don't mind."
So, we did. Nintendo absolutely delivered a wonderful entry in this long-running series, one that feels miles better than Mario Kart Wii and stands tall amongst the likes of 64 and DS.
Mario Kart 8 is a great racer and a more than welcome addition to the Wii U's library.
Flipping the Familiar On Its Head
With series like Mario Kart, Nintendo finds itself in the odd predicament of staying true to fan standards while twisting the formula up enough to keep things fresh. If they sway too far in either direction, they wind up upsetting at least one major fanbase.
Mario Kart 8 feels completely familiar. The driving is extremely tight, the gameplay is very polished and the delivery of items and weapons is just as rewarding and frustrating (in a good way) as it's always been. The rubber-banding has, thank goodness, been toned down enough to almost wash the taste of Mario Kart Wii out of my mouth. It's still there, as it should be, but it's nowhere near as obnoxious.
Nintendo changed up the familiar by adding anti-gravity segments to the races. They don't seem all that different than driving on land at first blush, but these segments add a new layer of mechanics and strategy to a racing formula that's been nearly the same for decades.
When you cross a blue anti-grav strip in a race, your tires flip over and glow blue while you drive up and around walls. At that level, the changes are really only cosmetic, nothing to write home about. Then you notice that the traction is a little looser and you have the ability to bump other players and objects for a small boost.
Suddenly, anti-grav segments turn into opportunities to further your lead or regain one from a few tight opponents. Understanding how the karts, ATVs and bikes handle in these segments while being able to take advantage of multiple boost types creates a gap between good and great racers, and it makes learning this Mario Kart that much more exciting.
She's A Beaut
Say whatever you want about the Wii U being underpowered or weak as a console, but Nintendo absolutely knows how to get the most out of their hardware. They've proven that again and again for the last several generations, and it remains true with this one. Mario Kart 8 is gorgeous.
When you hit the Royal Raceway for the first time and you zoom past a grove of cherry blossoms raining petals on the track in 1080p at 60FPS, it looks amazing. It looks just as good with two players, though three-to-four seemed to cause a minor dip. Nothing that would make it unplayable, just a touch noticeable.
This is far and away the best looking Mario Kart game to-date, and Nintendo pulled that off with its typical sense of art design and style. Yes, it's in 1080p at 60FPS, but it hits those marks with fidelity and vibrancy in color. Each course is bright and swathed in its own color scheme, and that makes each run through a familiar cup that much more enjoyable.
A good friend of mine, and long time Mario Kart fan, hadn't seen the game outside of screenshots before he came over to my house to play. As he walked in, I was zooming around a course in single player. "Good grief, that looks good," is all he offered when he sat down. "I know."
Collecting, Unlocking, Sharing
As has become standard with this franchise, you will unlock characters and kart parts as you drive in this game. Characters are unlocked by winning cups (though not all cup wins earn characters), and kart parts are earned every time you hit 50 coins collected.
The characters range from wonderful to "why?," as one would expect. It's great seeing the Koopalings in action, for instance, but I'd much rather have King Boo than Pink Gold Peach. Dry Bones is skipped, which was a bummer, but Lakitu shows up and quickly became one of my favorites. It's a mixed bag. You'll love a few of the unlocks while you'll loathe the others. No matter what, you'll earn your last of the bunch and wish there were more.
As for the coins? I actually quite enjoy them. You can collect up to 10 in a race, though you lose them when you drive off the course or get hit by an object. Each coin slightly increases your maximum speed. So, you'll want to get up to 10 to go as fast as possible. You'll also want to collect them once you get past 10 in order to keep nearby racers from scooping them up and gaining speed. Staying in first doesn't get boring as you try to hit corners well and nab as many coins as possible.
The collected coins carry across all modes. So, if you're playing alone or with friends, you'll be able to work towards unlocking more kart parts. You get a new part every 50 coins, and that reward system extends well into the life of the game, meaning that you'll still be unlocking car parts a dozen hours into play.
Nintendo's also introduced Mario Kart TV, a way to upload and experience other people's races. The game sort of automatically highlights the race to your preference after you complete it. You can dictate the length, drivers featured and type of action honed in on, but that's where your control stops. Once you've selected those options, you can upload your clip to Mario Kart TV.
You can also get your clip on YouTube, but that still wasn't working as of this morning. I'll be trying it out once it's live in order to give you the skinny, so stay tuned.
I'll See You On the (Online) Streets!
Then there's online play. Holy mackerel, Nintendo seems to have finally understood this component of gaming. Whether you want to race randoms or friends, Mario Kart 8 operates simply in its online mode. It's not as fleshed out as it should be, but it works.
Fire up a lobby and everyone in your friend list will see that you're racing and can join you. You can open the lobby or close it, and you can join other lobbies randomly or through the friends list. It seems simple, but seeing this work in a Mario Kart game without lag and with Network IDs was wonderful.
Each player picks a course before the race (or they pick random), and the game randomly chooses one of them. You race, you see points added to your base score of 1,000 based on what place you come in and your rank adjusts accordingly. It's visual, simple and instantly understandable.
The lobby maker can create Battle Modes, VS Races and Custom offerings. The custom menu lets you change the mode (100cc, 150cc), item types, vehicle types and control methods. Yep, you can dictate how others play if you want.
Voice chat works in lobby with friends through the GamePad's mic, but it turns off during races. The other potential snag is that you can only pick your kart before you enter a proper lobby. Once you're in, you can't pick a new racer, kart or kart parts until you drop out and enter another lobby. Sort of annoying.
Battle Mode and Other Gripes
My disappointment for Mario Kart 8 really only comes in a few small forms. One of them is more major than others, which I'm about to hit on, but the rest quickly turn into nitpicks and small gripes.
The biggest of the bunch? Battle Mode. Mario Kart 8 still boasts Balloon Battle, a series staple. That's the only Battle Mode it offers. Personally, I miss the crap out of Bob-omb Blast from Double Dash. What mayhem that was, right?
The trouble with 8's Balloon Battle comes from the courses. There are no battle-specific arenas, no maps specifically designed for gamers to combat within. No Double Deck, no Big Doughnut, no Block Fort and no stage shaped like the Wii U's GamePad. All of the battles go down on 8 of the courses from the main game. The reverse warning was removed and players are placed all over the track when the timer starts.
And that's it. This was a mode that defined my nights during college with Double Dash and Mario Kart DS. Battle Mode consumed our free time. Here? I played it to review it, asking friends to go a few more rounds than they wanted to simply because I needed to cover it properly. That's a bummer, and if Battle Mode is a huge part of why you buy every Mario Kart game, brace yourself for a little disappointment.
The other gripes are things that, and man I hope that Nintendo does this, could potentially be patched away. If it were any other company, I'd think we might see some fixes, but Nintendo's rarely keen on that sort of thing.
There's no way to set default control schemes, for instance. When I'm playing alone, this isn't an issue. I prefer the GamePad or Pro Controller, so I never switch into motion control. When I had a bunch of friends over who rotated in, no one wanted to play with motion control. Even with just Wii Remotes, they wanted to stick to buttons only. Too bad that they had to stop the race and change their controls from the pause menu every time we fired up a new round.
There isn't a settings menu at all in this game, in fact. No way to tell the game which way to split the screen, to remap controls or to turn off motion stuff altogether. You have the volume toggles and that's it. Introduce a way to change these things permanently (or at all) in the main menu, and I'm satisfied.
Again, it's not necessarily something I see Nintendo as willing to fix, but I hope they do.
Nintendo's created a heck of a Mario Kart game that's great for fans and newcomers alike. It's what this series should be.
Like I said, my gripes and complaints are rather minor. I realize that Battle Mode's gimping is a deal breaker for a select few, but most Mario Kart fans rightfully place most weight in the racing. The racing here is very good. The karts drive differently than the bikes, and the ATVs add yet another layer to that formula.
Then we have the new anti-grav racing to consider, something that adds a little spice to an aging formula of driving in the Mushroom Kingdom. Nintendo also introduced new items, which I didn't really touch on in the hopes that some content would be fresh for you, but there are counters to once devastating attacks now, and that's great.
The last console-based Mario Kart game we had was Mario Kart Wii. It's the worst in the series in my book. Others may not agree, but that's where I stand. Its biggest selling point was that it welcomed all control schemes. It went downhill from there. Mario Kart 8 welcomes all control schemes (even the classic controller from the Wii), but it doesn't nosedive in gameplay, rubber-banding or rewards.
This is the best Mario Kart title we've had in a very long time. No single game will "save" the Wii U, but Mario Kart 8 gives a lot of gamers a darn good excuse to buy the console.
Current Wii U owners? Just buy it.
We received a digital copy of Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U from Nintendo for this review. We played in all modes, speeds and courses multiple times before starting this review.