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Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) artwork

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) review

"Mario Kart 8 is fun. It creates a racing experience that is fast-paced and full of adrenaline, while still retaining that classic Mario Kart zaniness. And that’s important, because somewhere in the last few years, the series felt like it was losing its sense of identity. "

The seven Koopa Kids are back. So are Yoshi’s Canyon, Toad’s Turnpike, and hang-gliders that take you soaring over mammoth canyons and endless cloudscapes. Thirty-two new tracks (sixteen of them retro tracks, completely redesigned but still recognizable) meet a bevy of characters and kart customization options in Mario Kart 8. The key words here are ingenuity and variety. Ingenuity, such as is seen in Wario’s Mountain, which is a single lap race that takes you down snowy slopes and through a series of Olympic-inspired challenges. Variety, that is helped by the addition of “gravity free” sections, where your kart transforms into a hovercraft to propel you along walls, underneath the ocean, up a waterfall, or upside down on roller-coaster like tracks.

Put simply: Mario Kart 8 is fun. It creates a racing experience that is fast-paced and full of adrenaline, while still retaining that classic Mario Kart zaniness. And that’s important, because somewhere in the last few years, the series felt like it was losing its sense of identity.

Originally, Mario Kart’s big innovation was that it added a battle-royale feel to racing, with its emphasis on player interaction through item use and knocking other racers around physically (especially on sharp turns). In that way, Mario Kart was the bumper cars of racing games: it encouraged precision in a chaotic environment without taking itself too seriously. That chaos and sense of unbridled glee was missing in the last few entries in the series, as tracks became more technically challenging, or gimmicky to the point that racers had to be paying more attention to the track than each other.

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) image

In Mario Kart 8, for the first time in years I don’t feel like I’m racing the courses, I feel like I’m racing the other racers. For the broader racing crowd, this may come as a disappointment, as Mario Kart 8 doesn’t always award victory to the fastest or most experienced racer. There will be times when your two laps spent in first place will be utterly erased by a leader-seeking spiky shell, or a caroming green shell will halt you right before the finish line, leaving you stunned, to watch three or four racers zoom by. I have personally been dropped from first place to seventh place by a single hit at the end of the race—happened three times in last night’s gaming session alone. But I’ve also been on the other side of that coin, using a mushroom or shell to pass second and third place in the final seconds of a track and claim the kind of victory that leaves you fist pumping in your living room. Mario Kart may not always be fair, but it is equally unfair to all players.

Which isn’t to say that the races are randomly decided. Item use is a skill all of its own, and while there is the occasional lucky shot, much more often a direct hit is the result of careful but fast-paced planning, helped along by tightened design choices. Indeed, the very speed of the game is a testament to its tight design. You couldn’t make a game play this fast this well without every detail being right. Mario Kart 8 is a smart game. It is designed taking into account all the lessons of seven previous games, and the focus is on keeping players engaged. For instance…

… Taking a page from Double Dash, you can once again see what items racers have, because they hold them in their hands, or have them circle around their karts. This allows for more careful maneuvering around opponents wielding good items.

… The coin system is back from Mario Kart 7—where it let you unlock new karts after collecting enough—but now also pulls from the Super Nintendo days, providing a little boost to your speed whenever you get a coin, making them a new priority on the track.

… The now staple-of-the-series “drifting” has been adjusted in ways that are difficult to explain on paper but impossible to miss while playing. Control for the drift is more responsive, and more attuned to each different weight class, allowing for tight spins around tight corners and (occasionally) an inspired dodge of a red shell.

There are newer innovations, too. The most obvious is the change made to falling off track. In previous titles, falling off course was both debilitating and humiliating, taking off a ridiculous amount of time while you were slowly lowered back into place (usually watching Mario, Luigi, and their extended cousins zoom by, screaming in Italian glee). In this one, Lakitu (that eternal cloud-fisherman) will swoop down and grab a player mid-fall, chucking them immediately back into the race with a mighty swing, generally only costing them a second or two. The message is clear: this is a game that wants you to stay in the race. Again, something that might bother a crowd more interested in a purer form of racing, but perfect for the gamer that, like me, wants Mario Kart to be about player interaction.

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) image

Speaking of which, Mario Kart 8 may also mark a special moment in video game history: the moment when Nintendo finally implemented decent online compatibility. Multiplayer pairs up twelve racers, two of whom can be playing on the same console. Since purchasing the game, my roommate and I have played over twenty hours of multiplayer and have only been booted from a connection once. We’ve also never had to wait more than thirty seconds to get in a match, and usually the wait is much quicker. This is a vast improvement over most of Nintendo’s last generation offerings (there’s a Brawl match I’m still waiting to get into). Player interaction is still stymied; I won’t begrudge the lack of headset support (I don’t really need to hear some gamer munching chips, or yelling at his kid to shut up), but I would like to be able to do a bit more in between matches. As it stands, you can only spout a limited menu of politically correct statements, such as “Good luck!”, “Not fair!”, or “This is my last match!” With the WiiU Gamepad’s easy access to a stylus, I wouldn’t have minded being able to quickly draw out some unique sentences… even if most people would use it just to draw penises, it would at least let me chat about “that great hit so-and-so got off” or how pissed I am that someone passed me in the final lap. Similarly, the fact that I can’t add friends from amongst the people I’m racing sucks—I’ve run into some good racers I wouldn’t mind inviting to a match.

Regardless, multiplayer is good enough that I’ve actually taken advantage of the new replay function to rewatch several of our match ups in cinematic camera mode. Through this, I’ve captured in slow motion the moment when Morton chucked a bomb in Bowser’s face and outrode the solar flare explosion while keening victory. I’ve saved the time that I slammed my roommate off track in my Formula D racer, my Mii watching with a bemused smirk as she fell to her doom. My favorite is the time I recovered from a lightning bolt just a little bit sooner then some onliner playing Peach… and crushed her under my wheels as I passed the finish line of Wario’s Mountain. I stole first. She ended up in fourth. She also rage quit.

The point? When I can revisit the memories of a race and get excited, I call that a good gaming experience. I’m more interested in action and chaos than pure racing challenge, and Mario Kart delivers that well enough to reestablish itself as relevant in the modern gaming age.

zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (June 15, 2014)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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zigfried posted June 15, 2014:

As a relative newcomer to Mario Kart, this one is definitely more fun than the Wii game. And visually beautiful too! Really glad you're digging the game, and I like this review. Should have scored it an 11 or 12 though.
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honestgamer posted June 15, 2014:

I haven't commented because I didn't read the review because I plan to write one of my own sometime soon and I'd rather keep my mind fresh. As for Zig's point about enjoying this more than the Wii version, though, I'd have to agree. This is a much better representation of the Mario Kart I love than the Wii version was. Of course, the Wii version will likely retain its place as the best-selling Mario Kart of all time for... all time.
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zippdementia posted June 17, 2014:

I agree with both of you: the Wii version felt like (and this is a big piece of my review, Jason, when you do read it) me racing the races without much care for the other racers. This is the opposite, with tons of player interaction, and that's what I think Mario Kart excels at.

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