Exclusive to Nintendo Wii U
In some languages there’s probably a word for the feeling you get when rounding the final bend of the final lap of the final race, only to get hit by a turtle shell, spin off the edge of the track, and watch as two or three of you rival racers slip past to cross the line.
It’s not a good feeling, and it’s one you’ll experience again and again while playing Mario Kart 8. The odd thing is that it won’t stop you smiling, nor will it stop you coming back for more.
Mario Kart 8 still doesn't play fair though, like other Mario Kart games. There might be less rubber-banding than in the past - though I wouldn’t swear that it’s been eliminated - but this is still a game where you can slip from first place to sixth through just a tiny lapse of concentration, or through just being in the wrong place at the wrong time when that absolute [expletive deleted] Toad, comes speeding through with the star power-up active.
At times the sheer unfairness of it all might drive you up the wall, yet there’s always the sense that as you learn the tracks, work out your power-up strategies and get to grips with the different characters’ handling styles, you’re becoming better equipped to cope. However hard it seems, you can and will win through.
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At this point, Mario Kart seems beyond reinvention. Nintendo clearly feels that Mario Kart is a formula to be augmented, not reformulated, and there’s a clear sense of ‘if it ain’t broke..’ around the latest incarnation.
All the same, it’s a little bolder in its additions than Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS, which managed to be a return to form while disappointingly disinclined to try anything new.
Mario Kart 8 continues with Mario Kart Wii’s bikes and Mario Kart 7’s customizable vehicles, not to mention the latter’s mix of new courses with established tracks. Diving and gliding sections also put in a return appearance, with your kart sprouting wings, clouds, propellers, fins or parachutes as required.
However, the new game raises the bar through its anti-gravity sections, which automatically transform karts and bikes into thruster-packing hover racers, capable of speeding along designated surfaces in defiance of every law of physics.
These stomach-flipping, spiralling, vertiginous sections aren’t just spectacular and thrilling, they also add to the choice of routes you can take through each course, and subtly adjust the core mechanics. You have to think about the way you enter and exit, and on some tracks how to maintain momentum over gaps as well.
What’s more, while you’re on an anti-grav track, bumping into another racer means both parties boost rather than slow, giving you one more cheeky tactic to deploy.
Otherwise, this is still the Mario Kart you know and love, and the game has done away with some of the gimmicks of recent years,. What's quite interesting is that Nintendo hasn't attempted to cram in features for the Wii U Pad. Motion controls, for example, are still supported but no longer emphasized, perhaps because they simply don’t feel as tight or responsive as the default, conventional controls.
The handling is more responsive than in previous games, but still nowhere near vaguely realistic. But there’s a depth in how you learn to deal with the characteristics of different racers, different Karts and different wheels that rival Kart racers still can’t match.
Oddly enough, Mario Kart 8 is the first racing game we’ve played in ages where you’re better served by a digital D pad than an analogue stick; it’s so much easier to slide and boost around tight corners, and you’ll have a much easier time in the later stages.
When Mario Kart 8 trumps its predecessors on the following four fundamental issues, it begs the question whether it really matters that so much is the same?
The first - obviously - is graphics. Once again Nintendo has pulled off something that looks like a CGI cartoon, but with a level of lustre and crisp detail that goes beyond what it managed in the lovely Super Mario 3D World.
The big high-points - Bowser’s Castle’s undulating roadways, the Electrodome’s futuristic disco imagery, Cloudtop Cruise’s airships, beanstalks and clouds - look simply stunning, while the animation of each character is full of little touches that will make you smile in the new replay highlight reels.
Technically speaking, this is the Wii U’s finest hour.
The second is the character selection. You start off with a set of 16, covering all the usual favourites and all the usual classes, and there are another four to be unlocked on top of that.
Nintendo remains unbeaten at producing heroes you can like and villains that you love to hate, and even with a few more obscure figures thrown in the mix, there’s always something that makes each member of the cast worth a spin.
Where other Kart racers leave you pondering whether a racer will be quick and vulnerable or slow to accelerate but fast and powerful, with Mario Kart 8 you can always tell. Admittedly, working out the effects of the different custom Kart parts can be a bit confusing, though it’s not hard to work out the basic principles.
The track selection, meanwhile, is arguably the best in Mario Kart history. 16 retro tracks have been revamped to take in anti-grav and/or flying and diving sections, with some stretching all the way back to the SNES days, while others - like the much loved Music Park and DK Jungle - were introduced in Mario Kart 7.
On top of this we get 16 all-new tracks, including what must be the definitive versions of Bowser’s Castle and the Boo’s Haunted Mansion, plus several others that will dazzle you with their sheer brilliance and invention. Some, like Mount Wario, even ditch the normal three-lap structure to give you one, long, continuous downhill run.
Most importantly, this is the first console Mario Kart where Nintendo has really nailed online play. 12 players can compete at once, it’s easy to track down friends or recent rivals, and the action is so silky smooth that you could be playing in the same room.
We do have a few questions about matchmaking. At the time of writing there are only a few players and standards seem generally high, which might frighten off less experienced kart racers, and players using certain characters and kart setups seem to have a definite speed advantage.
This makes it all the more annoying that you can’t change your character or kart setup without leaving your current session. Don’t get us wrong, though – these are grumbles rather than outright moans, which only slightly mar the most addictive online experience we’ve had since Titanfall.
This is unquestionably a good thing. Previously we’ve always said that the best way to experience Mario Kart is with three other players sitting on the same sofa - and to a point that still holds true.
While there have been so many pretenders to the Mario Kart crown, nothing else delivers the same mix of fierce competition, evil takedowns, smug chuckles and pride-comes-before-a-fall humiliation.
Yet for many of us a big four-player session isn’t an option, and Mario Kart 8 is the first console Mario Kart to deliver a similar vibe online.
This also ties in nearly with the new features to capture highlight reels and upload them to YouTube - we haven’t been able to test this pre-launch, but it’s not hard to imagine the bragging potential.
The only reason for sad faces is that so few of us will have any Wii U owning friends to enjoy all this good stuff with, though the upcoming tie-in smartphone app should at least help you share the shame and glory.
If you’re expecting an overhaul you may come away disappointed, but wheel for wheel and mile for mile this is the best console Mario Kart since Mario Kart 64, and an improvement on the already great Mario Kart 7. It’s not just the most beautiful cartoon racer around, but still the best-crafted and most addictive, where the courses, new and old, don’t stint on thrills and spectacle, and where improved online features make the classic Mario Kart multiplayer experience a global thing.
There are some minor balancing issues and a few minor niggles, but this is a storming Mario Kart, with the pedal to the metal and the rev counter up beyond the redline.
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