Would you believe me if I told you that the MARIO KART franchise is 22 years old!? If you have memories of whirling around the 16-bit tracks of the Super Nintendo original, you may be feeling a bit old right now. Sigh. That said, we have reached the eighth iteration in the form of MARIO KART 8 on the Nintendo Wii U and it’s glorious. What we have here is arguably the most refined Mario Kart experience yet, and possibly the most balanced and refined Kart-racer to date. The gameplay is fast and fluid, the wondrous HD visuals and sounds are mesmerizing, and the overall enjoyment through the game’s various single and multiplayer options round out the experience into something truly special. Especially for all of us fans that have been there since the beginning 22 years ago.
The first thing anyone with a pair of eyeballs is going to notice is just how beautiful this game is. I mean REALLY beautiful, pop your eyes out of your socket gorgeous. Finally we have a Nintendo home console in full HD to more fully realize all our favorite video game characters and MARIO KART 8 is no slouch. The tracks and overall environments in MARIO KART 8 are truly creative and beautiful. Weather you are starting your race underwater surrounded by wildlife, burning around the corner on a road made of rainbow, or even scaling a waterfall at max speed, this game delivers on the visuals and then some. It wasn’t until I watched someone else play, or tooled around in the game’s various replay modes that I fully appreciated the amount of detail put into this game. An amount of detail that of course cannot be fully appreciated when you are in the heat of a race. And the cherry on top is that it’s all complimented by an amazing score and unbeatably nostalgic sound effects that have been assaulting our ears for years now (some their entire life!).
Which brings me to the gameplay. If there is one major aspect to note about MARIO KART 8’s gameplay, it’s that it is a lot faster than what fans may be use to. The karts and cycles blaze at faster than usual paces, your recovery from weapons is sped up a bit, and even getting back in action after flying off an edge is quicker creating an overall more fluid experience that never really has you yelling at the screen to “hurry things up already!”. And while MARIO KART 8 isn’t breaking any norms like MARIO KART DOUBLE DASH!! did, it does introduce a cool new anti-gravity element to the tracks that not only adds additional visual flair, but contributes to a more dynamic racing experience. Tracks now twist and turn upside-down and on the side really helping shape the identity of this iteration. Seemingly small things such as boosting off a competitor or honking away a blue shell adds a layer of depth to an otherwise safe and traditional experience. And some items, I’m looking at you Star, just don’t pack the pouch you would expect and are a bit tamer than remembered. Overall, it just feels classic and refined rather that revolutionary or different which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just remember not to trash talk your buddy when you get an Invincibility Star in this version because it really won’t help you go much faster.
With a roster leveling off at 30 racers (with more to come via DLC!), there is enough variety in character choice to please the masses. However, the diehard fan in me has a few gripes about this. Sure 30 racers is cool, but when 7 of them are Koopalings, and 6 others are baby versions of your favorite mascots, things get a little disappointing. And on top of all that, no Diddy Kong!? What the what!? That little Nintendo-hat-wearing ape is my favorite. I miss the little guy and his absence is baffling. My only thought is that he will be unlockable via his Nintendo Amiibo toy in December. Fingers crossed.
Good news for all you solo players out there. The game runs at a blistering 60fps when playing alone (only dipping to 30fps in multiplayer), and there is a wide variety of single player options to explore when no one else is around. The best of all being the robust tournaments that will have you racing for that coveted gold trophy well into the night. But alas, multiplayer is where this game really shines. The online component is good fun and can even be enjoyed with a second player sitting on the couch next to you. I must admit, besides the addictive and fun racing, my favorite aspect of playing online was seeing everyone’s Miis from across the globe and creating rivalries in my head to make the races more engrossing. And playing 12 live players is completely nuts, yet often more rewarding that beating the computer. A big complaint for online however is a complete lack of any way to properly communicate with other racers. No voice chat and crappy friend list interactivity forces players to find ways to set up matches with friends outside of the game menus. Gross. Come on Nintendo, quit being so afraid to add easy and quality communication to your gaming experiences. So I cuss at a few 10 year olds playing with their Dad for nailing me with a red shell. Big deal. But seriously, come on Nintendo, get with the times. It is of note that 4 player split screen is by far the BEST way to experience this game, and the reimagined battle mode that replaces arenas with modified tracks absolutely blows. It’s just not fun and no one I played with wanted to play Battle Mode for more than 5 minutes. Those who experienced the epic battles in MARIO KART 64 feel my pain.
At the end of the day, when you finally give your thumbs a rest, MARIO KART 8 is a stunningly fun and beautiful experience on the Nintendo Wii U. Never before has a MARIO KART game looked this good, sounded this good, or played as fast and fluid thanks to the 60fps speed, HD visuals, and balanced weapons and courses. While nothing here is revolutionary, what it does offer is the most refined and fast version of this game in franchise history. With more than enough racers (but no Diddy!), a heap of vehicle choices, and a wide variety of tracks, players will have a lot play around with. Fun solo and multiplayer options round out the experience, but the lackluster Battle Mode puts a bit of a frown on my MARIO KART 64 loving face. While it can’t really compete with the nostalgia of the SNES or N64 iterations, I can safely say I will be playing this one for years to come. Especially with all the planned DLC just around the corner.
Final Score: 9 out of 10