Another Nintendo console means another installment of the definitive Kart Racing franchise. Mario, Bowser, Donkey Kong and their friends return to the Rainbow Road in Mario Kart 8. Like every home console version that’s come before it, Mario Kart 8 tries to keep its style while adding new gameplay elements, tracks, characters and functionality.
Since I was disappointed in the Gamecube release Mario Kart Double Dash I ended up skipping the Wii release, and having never owned any flavour of DS handheld, it’s been a while since I really spun my wheels in a Mario Kart game at all. With that said, for me, Mario Kart 8 is a return to form.
This being the 8th game in the series, I don’t feel like I can review it without giving my general impressions and history with the series itself. If you don’t agree, too bad. Scroll down past the image of Wario eating your soul and continue on.
Honestly, I was never much of a Mario Kart guy to begin with. I despised the original SNES release. While most kids found the implementation of Mode 7 Graphics™ amazing, I thought it annoying at best. I found it very hard to navigate each course… like driving an RC Car around on a track drawn on bristol board. I know my opinion was in the minority on this point, though, because on the rare occasion I got to play SNES with friends or cousins, Super Mario Kart was generally the game they wanted to play. After a few rounds of Battle Mode I’d casually suggest we switch to Contra III: The Alien Wars and attack aggressively.
That all changed in the next console generation, though. When Mario Kart 64 released I was skeptical, but tried it out anyway. 4 player split screen racing in 3D environments was absolutely amazing. The drifting controls were tightened up, and the addition of the analogue joystick into the mix changed the feel of the game entirely. Later installments would add sketchy new features, or take away ones that were key, and made the game harder to control, and generally more annoying. Mario Kart 64 would stay the peak of the franchise for years.
Enter Mario Kart 8. I really don’t know how Double Dash or Kart Wii were received by other people, but the general complaints I had must have been shared by the majority of folks. In Kart 8, most of the annoying elements have been removed, replaced, or made optional. The controls have reverted back to the Kart 64 days, but with new analogue stick designs, they feel even tighter than they did “back in the day”. The new gameplay element involves your cart transforming into a sci-fi magnetic hover craft thing. The game has you sticking to walls, sending you upside down, inside out, round and round, and whatever other directions Diana Ross might’ve enjoyed.
The game features a ton of unlockable karts, wheels and chutes, which each have their own performance values on different stats like acceleration, traction, weight, etc. These values combine with the values of each driver’s weight class to create a very customizable experience.
Unfortunately, the general community seems to prefer lightweight vehicles and characters, so the balance between characters and vehicles might still need some work. I personally prefer the heavier characters. Their slower acceleration times and harder handling add a nice challenge for someone like me that doesn’t want to split his controller in two every time he loses.
Like pretty much everything Nintendo puts out, the game is absolutely gorgeous. The first Mario Kart to be released in HD, the courses are stunning. So many little details are put in everywhere you can look. The courses themselves are a mixture of all new tracks and updated old favourites. There’s at least one from every console iteration of the franchise, and they’re all fun. I haven’t come across any random tracks that make me scoff or sigh like a lot of tracks on older versions of the game do.
In addition to unlockable karts and kart-parts, there are several unlockable characters as well. However, the number doesn’t feel as large as it actually is, since the vast majority of unlockable characters are Koopalings or Baby versions of other characters. Between unlocking characters and kart-stuff, though, there’s plenty of reasons to keep playing. Of course, if you’re the type that wants to keep besting your time on each track, Time Trial mode will keep you racing through the courses long after you’ve “caught ’em all.”
Other fun features take advantage of the Wii U’s general functionality. You can post screenshots of the game to Miiverse. You can use unlockable Mario Kart “stamps” to create nifty “hand-drawn” posts to MiiVerse–Nintendo’s Mini-Facebook Clone. Another fun feature is Mario Kart TV, which allows you to save replays of entire races, and choose specific types of highlights to be featured in the replays. You can then take screenshots from within the replay and post your own comments, hand-drawn or typed, to Miiverse.
In a rare move for the company, Nintendo will also be trying its hand at DLC with this edition of Mario Kart. Launching sometime this month, I believe, is an 8 course, 3 character pack, which features a Mario and Peach variant and Legend of Zelda star, Link. One of the tracks is also based around Hyrule locations. There is also an Excitebike track, which is one of my favourite tracks in the game. Goddamn I love that music. Sometime in 2015, another DLC pack will be released, which looks much less appealing to me. It seems to be Animal Crossing focused, which isn’t remotely as intriguing an addition to a racing game, in my opinion.
Also, Nintendo is taking a page from the Spyro spinoff Skylanders and Disney’s Infinity series, adding Amiibo functionality to the game. Or as I call it… Real World DLC™. Launching alongside the new Smash Bros. entry, 12 Amiibo minatures are being released, and
all most of them are compatible with Mario Kart 8. I’m not sure exactly how they work, but I know it involves leveling up your Amiibo in game, also adding new characters to the game like Samus and Kirby.
UPDATE: The Amiibo do not add any characters to the game, and not all of them are compatible. What they do add are new skins based on the character to your Mii Racers. The skins are fun, but definitely not worth the $14 price tag on the Amiibo. Unless you’ve already picked them up to add to your Super Smash Bros. for Wii U experience, I definitely don’t recommend at this point picking them up to add anything to your Mario Kart 8 enjoyment.
All in all, despite Nintendo clearly jumping on the other big publishers’ bandwagon of soaking customers by releasing arguably incomplete products in an effort to charge more, Mario Kart 8 as it was released is an incredibly fun game, and the best in the series so far.