It’s not every day that I can say I raced up the face of a waterfall. Well, until I picked up Mario Kart 8, that is. The latest entry in Nintendo’s storied racing franchise will be keeping me busy scaling cascading waters for the foreseeable future, as it’s crammed with that and many more memorable moments besides. While Mario Kart games have never been known for resting on their laurels, MK8 has managed to take the stellar foundation built by Mario Kart 7 and multiply it by a factor of ten. The raw horsepower of Wii U has allowed Nintendo’s developers to let loose with a cavalcade of innovation and creativity that sets MK8 firmly in the upper echelon of the series. Not only that, but Nintendo has also produced one of the marquee experiences of this latest generation of consoles.
Graphics aren’t the most important aspect of any video game, but there’s no denying when something extra pretty has graced a television screen. MK8 stuns with brilliant lighting, rich detail, and some of the most ingenious art design the series has yet seen. Moo Moo Meadows blew me away with its dawn sky, a florid pink pocked with clouds and a low hanging sun, complimented by effervescent puffs of morning mist hovering over the racetrack. Titles like Super Mario 3D World and Pikmin 3 have been landmarks for what Wii U can accomplish graphically, but during my time with MK8, I couldn’t help but feel that it might be the most beautiful game on the system. There is so much to soak in from the environments alone that a person could spend hours racing and see something new almost every time. The tracks are so fully-realized and unique that they warrant having a Mario platformer built around them. I’d also like to point out the wonderful, fully-orchestrated soundtrack. MK8 sounds as great as it looks.
All this beauty would be wasted if the track design didn’t hold up, and luckily it does, with ease. Following the train of thought that inspired Nintendo to release the series into the sky and sea in MK7, Mario Kart is now also devoid of the limitations of gravity. Anti-grav features prominently in MK8, and entire tracks are designed around the new mechanic. Courses like Mount Wario have a bevy of vertical inclines and corkscrews that simply wouldn’t have been plausible within past series installments. Unshackling the developers as Nintendo did breathed fresh air into the designers, who have in turn rewarded players with some of the smartest and most engaging race tracks in years. Anti-grav adds to the wow-factor of the game, certainly, but it also serves to spice up some of the racing stratagems that fans have come to know like the backs of their hands.
Taking a cue from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, MK8 offers numerous control options. Motion controls, GamePads, Pro Controllers, Wii Classic Controllers, and Wii Remote and Nunchuks are all viable options to play MK8, and they all work great. Even Motion Controls, which I personally am not partial to, have been made more precise for MK8. Powersliding is much as it has been since Mario Kart Wii, but the re-introduction of coins on home consoles is a surprising and fun addition. Much like MK7, each coin collected provides a minute boost of momentum, while also increasing a racer’s baseline speed (which maxes at ten coins). The new items are also notable, with the Boomerang (which can be launched and returned three times!) and Super Horn (which obliterates Blue Shells!) being particular standouts.
Oddly, there’s a major change to item pickups that left me scratching my head. Where previous Mario Karts allowed for many items to be held in perpetuity behind a kart, which then freed the racer to snag another item to use afterwards, players are now limited to a single item at a time. Gone are the days of dangling a Banana behind a racer and keeping a Green Shell in wait! What this contributes to game balance is questionable, as it’s been a series mainstay for years with little to no complaint. The omission isn’t horrible, but it felt extremely limiting and unnecessary. Also somewhat odd is MK8‘s roster; though there are 30 racers to choose from, there is an overwhelming number of baby racers, not to mention all of the Koopalings. I was thrilled to see characters like the Shy Guys and Rosalina, but the variety of past Mario Karts has been somewhat diminished. It’s a joy to see the Koopalings, no doubt, but combined with the other members of the roster, that’s a lot of turtles and tiny characters!
Nitpicks aside, Nintendo has hit another home run with MK8‘s online multiplayer. Matchmaking is a synch, and I experienced smooth and solid races. I do find it grating that Nintendo continues to pessimistically limit online connectivity via headsets and private matchmaking, but MK8‘s multiplayer is fun whether offline or on. Mario Kart TV is surprisingly entertaining, by the way. Whether by phone or console, it’s easy to run through the highlights of a previous race and post them online. I made an especially wicked turnaround at the end of one race, and was thrilled to be able to share it with fellow Mario Kart fans. I can only hope that a similar feature makes its way into Super Smash Bros. There is one aspect of multiplayer that has been butchered, though, and it’s Battle Mode. Custom arenas have been replaced by a small selection of stock tracks, where players are tasked with zooming around aimlessly trying to pop one another’s three balloons. Whatever the reason for the mode’s diminished capacities, it’s a major letdown.
MK8 is easily a top three contender for best Wii U game. Outside of a few niggling oddities and small blemishes, the pure bliss of soaring across MK8‘s wonderful courses is as close to gaming perfection as it gets. I was enveloped by the sheer spectacle of it all, and have found playing has become almost compulsory, at this point. MK8‘s online multiplayer will inevitably prove to be as addictive as Call of Duty’s for most fans, and Mario Kart TV is a nice addition that suits the series well. Wii U’s library continues to grow, and with a bloom like MK8, it’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to join the fun.
+ Superb graphics; tight controls; multiple controller options; great soundtrack; clever course design; smooth online; Mario Kart TV
– Odd item limitations; roster isn’t particularly varied; online connectivity remains rocky for folks wanting to play with friends; Battle Mode neutered