Thu Jun 5 2014 at 3:17 PM
"Welcome to Mario Kart!" The iconic multiplayer racing game that both enhances and ruins friendships, featuring a wide variety of crazy and colourful Mario characters, items, and tracks. Ever since it came onto the scene with 1992's Super Mario Kart for the SNES, Mario Kart has been a driving factor in the massive success of the Mario series, providing simple but thrillingly fun gameplay that anyone can pick up and play, not to mention paving the way for a host of other copycat kart racers that provided their own spin on the formula.
Ever since the SNES, Nintendo have stuck to a policy of one Mario Kart for each one of their home consoles, with 2001's Mario Kart: Super Circuit expanding the pattern to handheld systems. When the Wii U was announced at E3 in June 2011 as Nintendo's entry into the eighth generation of home video game consoles, it was inevitable that Nintendo would bring this heavyhitting series to the forefront to ensure the presence of a title with mass appeal to experienced and casual gamers alike. After beginning development in June 2012, not long after the release of Mario Kart 7 for the 3DS, Mario Kart 8 was officially announced at E3 2013 and later set for a release date of May 30th, 2014. Of course, this leads to a number of questions.
Did the two-year development time pay off when it comes to content and polish?
Is Mario Kart 8 a title that alone is worth buying a Wii U for?
Is it the best Mario Kart to date?
I'll answer all those questions... in due time. First, let's talk about the game itself.
Mario Kart has long been considered one of the main pillars of pure Nintendo joy. MK8 is no exception. Whether you're playing single-player, locally with up to four players, or online with complete strangers, Mario Kart 8 is a guaranteed blast.
The fundamentals are the same as ever. Choose your vehicle and racer (with a twist imported from 7—you can customize your vehicle's body, wheels, and glider, which will allow you to fiddle with its statistics). You race around a racetrack in a lap format, with three laps being standard. The courses are littered with item boxes, and the randomly-given items can give you either a chance to catch up, or to do even better. Just like in SMK, Super Circuit, and 7, the tracks are littered with coins that boost your top speed when collected, as well as being used to unlock car parts. Before taking 8's improvements into account (more on that in a bit), it plays a lot like a combination of the best parts of the Wii and 3DS versions. Game modes include the Grand Prix format, VS Race, Time Trials, and Battle Mode.
A car analogy seems fitting at this point. While at first glance, MK8 may look the same as prior games, the way it operates and has been tweaked under the hood are totally different. The fine people at Nintendo have taken balance into account. The bikes from MKWii return with a significant nerf; wheelies can no longer be performed. This now means that karts and bikes are much more balanced, with karts being better on straightaways, while bikes excel at turning.
The item system is almost entirely renovated, creating a game that is based much more on skill than the pure luck that is famously endemic of previous games. In other Mario Kart games, when you get an item, you can deploy it behind you without releasing it, and then pick up another item to add to your stock, allowing you to wield two at once. For example, players could use a set of triple bananas as a shield, then pick up another item box that would let them have a Mushroom in reserve. Now, that is impossible. You can only wield one item at once. If you have the triple bananas as a shield, you cannot pick up another item until you've used up those bananas. This adds much more strategy to the game. You'll find yourself less willing to use an item while in first place, as that will leave you totally defenseless. Some players may find themselves getting rid of any items each time they come across a box, in the hopes that the new item found within is even better.
The famous blue shell, too, is no longer invincible. A new item called the Super Horn can be used to generate shockwaves that destroy all nearby items and cause nearby racers to spin out, allowing it to be used offensively and defensively. It is a great item beneficial to all players regardless of their position in the race. Other new items include the Boomerang Flower, which allows three throws. However, after each throw, it returns to the user and can theoretically hit other players on its way back, meaning that in the hands of a skilled user it can offer six deadly shots. The Piranha Plant lunges forward six times periodically, granting small speed boosts and automatically snapping at nearby players and coins. A coin item can be found, which gives you two coins automatically. It's a good strategy to keep this handy for emergency situations, as coins are lost upon being hit by obstacles or knocked off course. The Crazy Eight is a collection of eight items. Another welcome improvement is Lakitu. When you fall off course, Lakitu comes in immediately and drops you off either where you were before, or a decent way ahead of where you fell. This is much faster and more streamlined than previous games, which took ages in comparison. As well, you no longer lose your held item upon falling off course or being hit by the blue shell. However, lightning strikes will zap your item away, as always.
Now, as for the series's famous multiplayer features. If you've played MK, you know what to expect, and what you're expecting is pure, unadulterated madness, mayhem, and fun. The only thing I think is a pity is that the developers didn't take a page from the books of a certain blue hedgehog's racing game and allow 5-player support (one on the Wii U GamePad screen, the remaining four players on the TV). If you can't play with players locally, then simply boot up the game's online mode and you can race against strangers from around the world, or join/create a lobby for your online friends. The online mode is impressively fleshed out, hosting a bevy of options. In an online match, the players (a maximum of 12) are given a selection of racetracks from which to vote on. When everyone has voted, one track is randomly chosen by the game. You can even host your own tournaments with customized rules, and race the “ghosts” of other players. The game's netcode is very high quality from my experience. As an Ontarian, I've played with players from countries like Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom with nary a hiccup. With that said, the one major issue affecting users of the online mode is that if a player disconnects before voting for a racetrack, all players will be disconnected. Hopefully, this will be addressed in a patch, as it's a pretty nasty glitch.
The last of the game's cool new features is a mode called “Mario Kart TV”. After every race, the game saves a replay. You can then view the replay either in full, or in short, 30-60 second long highlight reels. The highlight reels are pretty great to mess around with. You can speed them up, slow them down for that extra bit of dramatic punch, rewind to watch your favourite moments over and over, change which characters are spotlighted, and choose options telling the game which moments to display (such as action, drifting, or a bit of everything). And if you thought the social elements of the game ended in the last paragraph, there's more. You can share your highlight reels with all your friends on Miiverse, and even upload them directly to Youtube. In fact, the videos you see on this page were uploaded using Mario Kart TV. It's a really brilliant tool, and it's even got an official mobile phone app. MKTV is an extremely exciting feature and I can't help but cross my fingers that the next Smash Bros. gets something similar.
Now, after all those paragraphs of superlatives, I must cover the most controversial element of MK8: the Battle Mode. In previous games, Battle Mode was played on unique, dedicated arenas that made it a pure fight-to-the-death. However, in MK8, all of the available tracks are in fact standard race tracks. This is an interesting experiment on one hand--although I can't help but believe this was more of a time/resource issue, given that HD development isn't as easy to transition into as one may think (even with the two-year development time!). N64 Yoshi Valley with its labyrinth-like design and twisting paths is actually incredibly fun to drive around and hunt for enemy racers on. However, other tracks such as Mario Circuit or GCN Sherbet Land are too linear and thus simply not cut out for the format. Mercifully, there is a U-turn feature that is more befitting of the fast pace that such a mode requires, versus having to brake, stop, and turn the kart around slowly. At the end of the day, it is apparent that the developers thought of the battle mode as more of a diversion from the regular races than a full-fledged side game. Whether this is a big deal or not depends on the player. Those who mainly played regular kart races and didn't pay much attention to battle mode will be able to live without a problem. Longtime players who've devoted hours into the mode with their friends, however, are more likely to be disappointed.
In the end, however, I strongly reiterate that the main kart racing aspects of MK8 are so good, so polished, and so exhilarating that the new battle mode should absolutely not be a dealbreaker to anyone (after all, if you want battles, you could always pull out the tried and true N64 and Wii versions). The gameplay gets a pass with nothing less than flying colours.
MK8 features all of the staple Mario characters you've come to expect. The main man himself is there, so are Peach, Yoshi, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Bowser, Wario, etc. You can also race as your Mii, just like in the Wii and 3DS versions. A few enemies such as Koopa Troopa, Lakitu, Shy Guy, and Metal Mario add a bit of flair to the roster. Just like in previous games, each character has their own weight class, from small, to medium, to large. This will determine the statistics of the kart—heavy racers have high speed at the cost of poor acceleration and off-road handling. Light racers have high acceleration and off-road handling at the cost of a poor top speed. Medium racers are middle-of-the-road (not necessarily literally). Pretty standard fare so far.
What makes MK8 interesting, however, is its choice of supporting roles. For the first time in the series, the Koopalings from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World are available to play as—all seven of them! The Koopalings are a welcome addition, with each of them having their own personality that make them memorable.
The other additions are more underwhelming. Baby Rosalina is exactly what she sounds like. At this point, there are enough baby versions of Mario characters to justify their own spinoff TV show. She's certain to appeal to younger players, however. The second is Pink Gold Peach, a metallic heavyweight version of Peach.
The main thing that's disappointing about the roster is its glaring absences. DK's buddies Diddy and Funky, who appeared in MKWii, are completely missing in action—odd considering their popularity, the former's already-established go-kart history, and the recent success of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Also missing from the Wii game are the likes of Dry Bones, King Boo, Birdo, and even Bowser Jr., who's had a solid attendance rate even in the mainline Mario games (maybe the Koopalings got sick of his years of taking their limelight). Honey Queen from 7 is MIA, but I don't think too many are horribly upset about that. The character roster isn't a dealbreaker for me since unlike something like Smash Bros., the difference between them is largely aesthetic (with the karts themselves being more important for statistics). That said, I can't deny that I'd love to race as my main monkey Funky in glorious HD.
It's Mario; the series has never been too intensive on voice acting (with the "odd" exception). Obviously, if you come into Mario Kart 8 expecting Shakespearean soliloquies and fast-paced interperson banter, you're playing the wrong game. That said, all characters do have memorable and unique voices that accentuate just how skilled the Mario series' voice actors are.
Just like always, Charles Martinet's work as Mario, Luigi, Wario, Waluigi, and the baby forms of the former two, accentuate just how much range he has as an actor, making all six of them sound totally distinct. He also voices Metal Mario, which is pretty much just Mario with a metallic filter. Samantha Kelly's work as her new character, Pink Gold Peach, is in a similar boat.
Laura Faye Smith, who voiced Rosalina in Super Mario 3D World, seems to be the character's permanent voice as of this game, voicing Rosalina and her baby counterpart. She's more than an adequate replacement for Mercedes Rose, providing a breathy sense of mysteriousness but also an energetic, upbeat delivery that's needed for the short quips of a kart racer.
Many of the non-human characters do not speak English and instead are voiced by odd vocalizations, such as Yoshi, Shy Guy, and Koopa Troopa. These vocalizations add a lot of personality and quirkiness and make these characters lovable. And speaking of which, Kenny James and Takashi Nagasako are once again menacing and humourously wild, respectively, in the animal noises they provide for Bowser and DK. Kazumi Totaka seems to have recorded new Yoshi voice bytes for the first time in ages, which is pretty notable for long-time fans who notice that he's been been voiced by the exact same clips for practically every game since Yoshi's Story.
Putting a long story short, the voice acting's not going to win awards since there's not a massive amount of it (and there doesn't need to be), but it's more than serviceable and will definitely stick in the heads of long-term players.
Whenever possible, all characters are voiced by their current voice actors in the series. The only new face in the cast is David Goldfarb as Ludwig, filling in for Mike Vaughn from the New Super Mario Bros. series. Obviously the amount of work he gets is limited, but all things considered he does a pretty good job. Technically Laura Faye Smith and Samantha Kelly also have been cast as new characters (Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach), but those are variants of their already-established roles as Rosalina and Peach.
No real complaints here. It is what it needs to be.
If you have any doubt that the Wii U is a true next-generation console like any other, Mario Kart 8 will take that myth and bust it.
This is probably the most visually stunning game Nintendo has ever made (sorry, Wind Waker HD). The game runs at a crisp 60 frames per second. Mario's mustache flutters in the wind. Although it does not use antialiasing (i.e. there are a few visible jagged polygon edges), the game goes so fast that most of the time, you'll never notice. The character models are stylized and cartoony with high polygon counts. Mario and friends have never looked better. Despite the Wii U not being on par with the PS4 or Xbox One, the stylized graphics that place less emphasis on realism mean that the game easily holds its own to the likes of inFamous: Second Son. The characters also have excellent animations. When Mario zooms past Luigi for instance, the two racers exchange looks, with Luigi gazing on as his brother speeds off in first place. When Peach throws a blue shell at Wario, Wario notices its shadow on the ground, with Peach celebrating in her kart when the hit lands. It's incredible how the designers put so much effort into little details like this, adding a whole new layer of life to the game.
The stages are vibrantly colourful and immensely detailed, with sponsorship banners pasted all over their walls. The variety in the courses is unparalleled. Toad Harbour is inspired by the streets of sunny San Francisco, California, with its steep, bustling roads, and trams that must be dodged in order to avoid getting bowled over. Shy Guy Falls has you use the antigravity mechanic to drive up and back down a mountain waterfall at a steep 90 degree angle before flying through a coal mine. Electrodrome is the place to be for the Mushroom Kingdom's nightlife with its massive disco ball, techno beats, flashing lights, and antigrav tracks that run parallel to each other after a split in the road, allowing players to see the upside-down racers who took the other road. MK8's version of the iconic Rainbow Road course takes place on and around a massive satellite in outer space, maintained by a number of Toads in space suits.
And as if the 16 new courses are great enough, the Retro courses are perhaps even more impressive. While the SNES, N64 and GBA courses always received pretty good upgrades, the graphic jump between Double Dash, Wii, and 7 was not particularly huge, so past courses in the latter two games felt like they had simply been imported from their prior-generation counterparts. MK8's status as the first truly HD installment in the series means that every single retro course has been rebuilt from the ground up, and their transitions to the Wii U hardware have left them utterly breathtaking. Many of them feel like entirely new courses.
SNES Doughnut Plains is the perfect blend of old and new. It retains the original game's bright colours, but I'd dare say its sheer crispness leaves me clamouring for a full 3D version of the original SNES game. N64 Royal Raceway is adorned with birds walking on the track that fly away when you get close, Toad spectators cheering from the sidelines, and cherry blossom petals blowing in the wind. GCN Dry Dry Desert manages to take what was formerly a pretty standard “desert level” and make it pop with its lighting effects and detailed backgrounds. Out of sheer habit, you'll feel an odd need to rubbing sand out of your eyes, and the change from a hilly pit toward the end to a watery oasis adds a real sense of life to the course. DS Tick-Tock Clock doesn't even look like the same course whatsoever. It's actually unfunny just how primitive the DS version looks in comparison. Wii Moo Moo Meadows is now set at sunset and features other aesthetic touches such as detailed grass and puddles, and a barn and tractor on the side of the road, really creating a sense of rural, homey farm life. 3DS Piranha Plant Slide looks like it would fit right at home in Super Mario 3D World.
In prior Mario Kart games, still images did not do the games justice, failing to capture how incredibly fluid and dynamic a game it is. However, with MK8, I am incredibly proud to say that the game is beautiful both when seen in screenshots, and when seen in full-motion. In fact, even the videos placed liberally throughout this review don't do it justice, being capped at 30 fps rather than the full 60. MK8 is one of those games that looks great enough when viewed on the Internet, but is even more gorgeous on a big-screen TV. I don't really know if I can talk about its visuals much longer. Just looking at them is justice enough. Simply gorgeous.
Music / Sound
As opposed to the synthesized tunes of prior games, Mario Kart 8 boasts a fully orchestrated soundtrack performed by live instruments, composed by Shiho Fujii, Atsuko Asahi, Ryo Nagamatsu, and Yasuaki Iwata. It's incredible, with both this and 3D World, the Mario series has truly stepped its game up when it comes to soundtracks. The above video (taken from the April 30th Nintendo Direct presentation) showcases the so-called Mario Kart 8 Band, as they demonstrate the themes for the Mario Kart Stadium, the unbelievably jazzy Dolphin Shoals, and a brand new arrangement of MKWii's Moo Moo Meadows.
Of all the remixed retro pieces, Moo Moo Meadows is definitely my favourite. Its theme in MKWii was serviceable and got the job done, but it never really got stuck in my head. This remix, however, is beautifully infectious. Its acoustic guitars and outstanding violin work give it a relaxingly nostalgic, Celtic theme that is positively irresistible and breathes an astonishingly amount of life into the course, refreshing it completely.
- Electrodrome – This techno-inspired track wouldn't be out of place at a nightclub! It stands out from the other course themes due to its entirely-electronic nature, only accentuating the diversity of MK8's soundtrack. Just try not to nod your head to the beat.
Shy Guy Falls – A thrilling, fast-paced theme heavy on the woodwinds. Wouldn't sound out of place in a swashbuckling adventure movie—fitting for the high stakes inherently present in driving directly up a waterfall at mach speed.
Cloudtop Cruise – An epic, fully-orchestrated piece that starts off with a pounding drumbeat and authoritative brass before swelling into a dramatic rendition of none other than the iconic Gusty Garden Galaxy theme from Super Mario Galaxy. If the course itself doesn't take your breath away, this theme definitely will.
Bowser's Castle – A metal-inspired theme fit for the Koopa king. It creates a feeling of danger with its low riffs juxtaposed with a healthy sprinkling of brass.
Toad Harbour – The usage of soothing guitars and steel drums make this the perfect theme for a sunny city on the edge of the wide open ocean.
8 has without a doubt the best soundtrack in the MK series. After years of not paying much attention to the games' soundtracks barring a few one-offs like Waluigi Pinball/Wario Stadium (which incidentally has a remix in this game, due to the latter's presence in a retro course), I find myself listening to the soundtrack for hours on end. It is unbelievably catchy and brilliantly performed. Absolutely outstanding.
I think I've gone on long enough to give a good idea of everything Mario Kart 8 has to offer. Which means now is the moment you've all been waiting for--the answers to the questions in the introduction! Drumroll, please.
1. Did the two-year development time pay off when it comes to content and polish?
Apart from the radically-changed battle mode and some questionable character choices, yes.
2. Is Mario Kart 8 a title that alone is worth buying a Wii U for?
With very few, gaming paradigm-shifting exceptions, one game is rarely enough to buy a console for. But considering the broad appeal of MK8, its incredible quality, and the unbelievable offer that is the Club Nintendo free game deal that comes with every purchase (UK Link/Australia Link) Mario Kart 8 is the single closest thing to the Wii U's killer app.
3. Is it the best Mario Kart to date?
8 essentially combines the best parts of Wii and 7, so they're out. It's a very close call between this, 64, and Double Dash, but as far as the thrilling sense of speed, innovative track design, and fantastic social elements go, MK8 is all but unparalleled.
Mario Kart 8 is one of those rare games that I really feel should be appreciated by anyone who enjoys video games. It is not afraid to indulge in the new age of gaming that places an increasing emphasis on online, mobile, and social media-related content, while providing a fresh dose of fertilizer to the vanishing landscape of good old-fashioned buddy-on-a-couch multiplayer, sure to invoke nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the glory days of the SNES and the N64. It's a game that will appeal to everybody under the sun--young, old, casual, hardcore, female, or male. Its character roster may not be the best, and the battle mode has been done better, but when you get right down to it, MK8 represents the pure joy of gamers and the love of its developers distilled in the form of a game disc. And in this day and age, that's just the breath of fresh air that video games need.