Mario Kart 8
And so it goes, like clockwork. Another Nintendo device, another Mario Kart title. Since the venerable racing series has appeared on almost every single console and handheld the Big N has put out in the last 22 years, I trust I can more or less dispense with the introductory info and get right into the details. When a series has been going on for this long, people tend to inquire about where a new entry ranks among its predecessors, as a way of judging its quality based on titles they’re already familiar with. So then, is Mario Kart 8 the best MK game ever? Well…maybe.
The potential for this to be the pinnacle of the franchise is certainly present. The very core of the Mario Kart experience is stronger than ever. The game plays flawlessly, and the fact that it runs at sixty frames per second lends the racing a sense of speed and fluidity that tops all previous entries. It’s a testament to the strength of the MK formula that even after all these years, the gameplay is still really fun. Everyone knows that Nintendo likes to play it pretty safe with this series, and as such, there aren’t any radical changes to the formula in Mario Kart 8. There are however a handful of gameplay tweaks that I enjoyed because they improve the karting experience.
The one that’s probably getting the most press is the addition of anti-gravity segments. Parts of the tracks now allow players to go sideways and upside down, allowing the course designs to get wilder and more inventive than ever. Tracks can now twist in every direction and some offer the option of using walls and the ceiling as alternate paths. It’s a pretty cool addition that lends the tracks more depth in terms of shortcuts and alternate routes, and well as generally improving the design and overall “wow factor” of the courses. Indeed these are some of the best new tracks the series has ever seen, aided in no small part by removing the constraints of gravity. It also helps that the game is absolutely gorgeous. Running on the most powerful system Nintendo has ever made, and in HD, is unsurprisingly a boon for Mario Kart 8 visually. The tracks are littered with cool little details, and overall the game a joy just to look at.
Speaking of looking at the game, MK8 also introduces Mario Kart TV. This is a cool little addition that allows players to watch a race after it’s over. You can play with the camera so that it only follows one racer or several, and you can choose to watch the whole race or just highlights. Whilst watching, you can rewind and fast-forward, and also trigger slow motion. It’s pretty neat, and the clips can be edited and shared with your friends online, in up to 60 second snippets. It’s not something that everyone will spend a ton of time with, but it’s definitely a fun and welcome addition. As more people buy the game and the community grows, Mario Kart TV will be more and more fun to use. There’s even a dedicated website for the feature.
On the subject of online play, well, it’s here. The series has been online since 2005’s Mario Kart DS, but since this is Nintendo, the embrace of online play has been slow. Here though, it is the best it’s been. You can jump on alone or with one other person in split screen. Once on, you can create or join tournaments, or simply look for players worldwide or in your region to play with. It’s all basic and familiar fare for anyone with even a little online gaming experience, but it gets the job done and should provide a very long shelf life for those interested.
Finally you can customize, to a degree, what types of items will be used in a race. This can be done online and off, and is a feature I’ve been begging for since the original Smash Bros. introduced the concept. It’s still not as robust as I’d like, as it’s not a full “item switch” style feature like the one seen in the Smash games. Instead you can select from various presets, such as bananas only, shells only, no items, etc. It’s way overdue and still somewhat limited, but those who’d prefer a more pure – read: blue shell free – experience, can now make that happen, and it’s pretty great. Also nice is the inclusion of tons of different control options. Players can use the GamePad traditionally or with the gyroscope, the Wii remote and nunchuk, the Wii Wheel, the Wii U Pro Controller, and the Wii Classic Controller. That’s sure to keep everyone happy, and I really appreciated all the options. I played mostly with the GamePad, though I tried some of the other schemes and they worked well. The GamePad defaults to showing the current standings, with tabs to bring up the course map, switch the action from the TV to the pad itself, and switch between regular and gyroscope control on the fly. When playing on the TV, I usually kept the map up on the pad. While it was nice to have a large view of the map, glancing down at the controller to see it was kind of annoying.
Surprisingly, my main gripes with Mario Kart 8 are not related to the multiplayer content. I’m more a touch disappointed with the singe player options. In a nutshell, they’re about the same as they’ve always been, and it’s starting to feel more and more lacking with each passing entry. Mario Kart DS is still pointed to by many as being the best game in the series, partly because it was such a robust package. This was mainly thanks to the inclusion of Mission mode, an excellent aspect of the single player offerings that tasked the player with completing specific objectives. There were a lot of missions in the game, and the game even rated your performance in every one, so there were high scores to chase in addition to just beating each one. It was a seriously fun mode that represented perhaps the biggest addition – at least in terms of actual content – that the franchise had ever seen. I just assumed it was going to be part of the series going forward, but alas, Mario Kart 8 marks the third game released since then, all sans mission mode. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Nintendo won’t bring back such a fun bit of content that really adds a ton of value to the MK package.
That leaves those who race alone with pretty much the same content that’s been there since the beginning – completing grand prixs on the various difficulty levels, racing ghosts in time trials, and playing with bots in battle mode. It’s still fun, and there are a ton of vehicles and characters to unlock, but it left me wanting more. I started off cutting my teeth on 100cc until I had three gold stars on every cup, then I did the same for 150cc, and then the inevitable mirror mode. Doing all that actually took me nearly twenty-five hours, which is nice, but I can’t say that it was all a blast. A decent chunk of that was grinding away on the harder cups until I finally earned the highest score possible. This means doing the same tracks over and over again. The unlocks were fine and there are plenty, but I wish the journey was more rewarding. Getting three stars on every cup demands a lot of patience and luck on the higher levels, and can be terribly frustrating. I found myself wishing for other offline pursuits.
Hardcore completionists who tackle the grand prixs, in addition to beating every staff ghost and earning 10,000 coins – the coins you collect in-game are actually what unlock things, which really just turns unlocking into a battle of attrition rather than beating cups and such – in order to unlock all three golden kart parts could honestly see their play time extend to perhaps double my own, depending on skill level. However I again question just how fun these pursuits are, especially after so many entries in the series featuring very similar single player options. Again, I can’t stress this enough: mission mode would have done absolute wonders for this game. The core of MK8 is so excellent, it’s just begging for more content to be built around it.
Elsewhere my complaints are less consequential. The new Battle Mode is fine, but instead of using the tried and true arenas, the battles take place on the same courses as the other modes. They’re still fun, and I don’t mind having tracks in there, but I really did miss having specific arenas just for battle mode. I especially missed the inclusion of some classic retro levels, like Block Fort or Double Deck. I’m not sure why Nintendo decided to eliminate arenas, but I hope they decide to bring some back – new and old – via DLC. Also missing and worthy of DLC are the battle modes that have been introduced more recently, like Shine Thief and Bob-omb Blast from Double Dash!!. And speaking of that game, why not bring back the dual racers concept? That was a ton of fun and I have no idea why it hasn’t resurfaced in any of the games since.
I’m aware that this is starting to sound like a negative review, but that’s not the case. Mario Kart 8 is a great game. It’s beautiful to look at and lots of fun to play. Remember what I said at the beginning: this might be the best Mario Kart game ever made. The disappointing part is that it had the right stuff to be hands down, without a doubt the best game in the series. It just doesn’t quite seal the deal content-wise. That combined with my other minor complaints keeps this one from being truly amazing, but it’s still a very strong title. If they so wish, Nintendo could easily bolster MK8 with some choice DLC and turn it into a true must have, but until then, my recommendation comes with some caveats. If you’re primarily going to be playing alone – that is offline, mostly chasing grand prix glory and time trials scores – be warned, this will be a fun but very familiar and sometimes frustrating experience. I might hold off on buying it at full price unless you’re a real Mario Kart junkie. Now if you’ve got friends – both online and off – to race with, then this is a no brainer. The infrastructure is in place for you and your pals to have a blast whether you’re together or not. As with every title in the series, the game truly shines as a multiplayer experience. Just keep all these factors in mind when deciding on a purchase, and I think you’ll be satisfied.