It’s now 22 years since Super Mario Kart rolled onto the SNES, bringing with it the wacky, multiplayer kart racer genre and entertaining millions of radical Nineties kids. 22 Years later, Nintendo have released possibly the biggest instalment ever, and it’s better than it’s ever been.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what happens in Mario Kart 8. There are karts, you race them as a selection of Mario characters (plus the requisite Mii) and use the races as an opportunity to fling koopa shells at one another.
There are a total of 32 tracks in the Grand Prix mode, some of which are brand new and others returning from previous titles. While there’s certainly a great deal of variety among the tracks – the new Rainbow Road is brilliant and a San Francisco-esque city level is a joy to play – it’s the remade older tracks which perhaps deserve the most credit. While their layouts and content remain the same as always, they’ve been updated rather lovingly to the point where they feel new. They are not merely a nod to the past, but an embrace of it, and the amount of effort here reflects throughout the rest of the game.
The main mechanic being touted on the adverts is the ability to drive on walls and ceilings via magnetic roads, and although this is a big part of the game it’s kind of a gimmick. There’s not a single difference in handling between normal road and upside down sections, which means it comes across as fairly disappointing. However, the controls for the karts and bikes are tight and responsive. The old-fashioned method of getting mini-turbos has returned, improved from Mario Kart Wii when it was always hit and miss how effective they would be, and it’s as satisfying as ever to drift around the outside of a corner only to zoom away as you hit a straight.
The selection of items on offer has expanded quite a bit since last time, adding the Piranha Plant which eats all players and items in front of your kart, the boomerang flower which does what it says on the tin, and the Super Horn, a rather generic area of effect weapon useful for clearing groups. Coins also return, used to help unlock kart modifications for future use.
Kart modification is an established mechanic since Mario Kart 7 it seems, since it returns here with a great number of potential setups. Although the parachutes don’t seem to have too much difference, the weights and sizes of chassis and tyres do carry some tactical consideration. A bulky kart can shove others out of the way or even off the road, and probably build up to higher speeds, but a nimble small kart which can zip between competitors and accelerate quickly also has its advantages.
All these expansions feed into the overall impression the game forms – that while it doesn’t innovate in many ways, it takes what was already good about Mario Kart, tightens a few nuts and bolts and makes it great. The tracks have multiple routes but are easy to navigate, the AI is challenging but not unfair, and the number of blue shells has thankfully been toned down from some previous games.
Multiplayer is available both on and offline, although the full 12-player races can only be played on Nintendo Network. There seems to be very little lag (even playing through a phone being repurposed as a router) although newbies may find they’re up against incredibly experienced players already. A good number of custom settings are available which makes for a fun evening spent throwing controllers a little bit more varied than it might otherwise be.
There are some minor gripes. The Battle mode takes place on main-game racing tracks where once they had dedicated open stages (who can forget the giant GameCube from Double Dash?) and some of the characters added to the roster make very little sense (Pink Gold Peach is one quite bewildering example). Similarly, it feels a little cheap to add the seven Koopalings as driver instead of bolstering the playable range with more varied characters.
The graphical fidelity is some of the most impressive ever to grace the Wii U and even played on the small screen of the Gamepad looks mightily good. Running at a very smooth framerate in full HD, the lighting and texturing effects make the game look as realistic as a stylised kart game ever will. The music too is carried off with aplomb, with wildly different styles for each stage and an excellent guitar rendition of Double Dash’s Rainbow Road theme as the icing on the cake.
There has been talk recently of DLC for Mario Kart 8, specifically a Mercedes expansion pack for the Japanese version of the game. This throws up uneasy prospects, as a party game needs to be playable between multiple consoles with a decent amount of content available, although there are sufficient tracks straight out of the starting grid to ensure players won’t be left too bored at get togethers.
The Wii U has needed a major selling point game ever since its release and, great as they were, Little Inferno and Nintendoland weren’t about to cut it. Now, Nintendo has its “game to get” and will be hoping it brings them more luck in the sales charts. Let’s hope it does, since it means they’ll keep making Mario Kart.